The childhood illness that left her bedridden for a year, which she was not expected to survive. A teenage yearning to escape that nearly ended in disaster. An encounter with a disturbed man on a remote path. And, most terrifying of all, an ongoing, daily struggle to protect her daughter from a condition that leaves her unimaginably vulnerable to life’s myriad dangers.
Here, O’Farrell stiches together these discrete encounters to tell the story of her entire life. In taut prose that vibrates with electricity and restrained emotion, she captures the perils running just beneath the surface, and illuminates the preciousness, beauty, and mysteries of life itself.
Don’t miss Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel, The Marriage Portrait!
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|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.60(d)|
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I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
On the path ahead, stepping out from behind a boulder, a man appears. We are, he and I, on the far side of a dark tarn that lies hidden in the bowl-curved summit of this mountain. The sky is a milky blue above us; no vegetation grows this far up so it is just me and him, the stones and the still black water. He straddles the narrow track with both booted feet and he smiles.
I realise several things. That I passed him earlier, farther down the glen. We greeted each other, in the amiable yet brief manner of those on a country walk. That, on this remote stretch of path, there is no one near enough to hear me call. That he has been waiting for me: he has planned this whole thing, carefully, meticulously, and I have walked into his trap.
I see all this, in an instant.
This day—a day on which I nearly die—began early for me, just after dawn, my alarm clock leaping into a rattling dance beside the bed. I had to pull on my uniform, leave the caravan and tiptoe down some stone steps into a deserted kitchen, where I flicked on the ovens, the coffee machines, the toasters, where I sliced five large loaves of bread, filled the kettles, folded forty paper napkins into open-petalled orchids.
I have just turned eighteen, and I have pulled off an escape. From everything: home, school, parents, exams, the waiting for results. I have found a job, far away from everyone I know, in what is advertised as a “holistic, alternative retreat” at the base of a mountain.
I serve breakfast, I clear away breakfast, I wipe tables, I remind guests to leave their keys. I go into the rooms, I make the beds, I change the sheets, I tidy. I pick up clothes and towels and books and shoes and essential oils and meditation mats from the floor. I learn, from the narratives inherent in possessions left strewn around the bedrooms, that people are not always what they seem. The rather sententious, exacting man who insists on a specific table, certain soap, an entirely fat-free milk has a penchant for cloud-soft cashmere socks and exuberantly patterned silk underwear. The woman who sits at dinner with her precisely buttoned blouse and lowered eyelids and growing-out perm has a nocturnal avatar who will don S&M outfits of an equestrian bent: human bridles, tiny leather saddles, a slender but vicious silver whip. The couple from London, who seem wonderingly, enviably perfect—they hold manicured hands over dinner, they take laughing walks at dusk, they show me photos of their wedding—have a room steeped in sadness, in hope, in grief. Ovulation kits clutter their bathroom shelves. Fertility drugs are stacked on their nightstands. These I don’t touch, as if to impart the message, I didn’t see this, I am not aware, I know nothing.
All morning, I sift and organise and ease the lives of others. I clear away human traces, erasing all evidence that they have eaten, slept, made love, argued, washed, worn clothes, read newspapers, shed hair and skin and bristle and blood and toenails. I dust, I walk the corridors, trailing the vacuum cleaner behind me on a long leash. Then, around lunchtime, if I’m lucky, I have four hours before the evening shift to do whatever I want.
So I have walked up to the lake, as I often do during my time off, and today, for some reason, I have decided to take the path right around to the other side. Why? I forget. Maybe I finished my tasks earlier that day, maybe the guests had been less untidy than usual and I’d got out of the guesthouse before time. Maybe the clear, sun-bright weather has lured me from my usual path.
I have also had no reason, at this point in my life, to distrust the countryside. I have been to self-defence lessons, held at the community centre in the small Scottish seaside town where I spent my teens. The teacher, a barrel-shaped man in a judo suit, would put scenarios to us with startling Gothic relish. Late at night and you’re coming out of a pub, he would say, eyeing us one by one from beneath his excessively sprouting eyebrows, and a huge bloke lunges out from an alleyway and grabs you. Or: you’re in a narrow corridor in a nightclub and some drunk shoves you up against a wall. Or: it’s dark, it’s foggy, you’re waiting at the traffic lights and someone seizes your bag strap and pushes you to the ground. These narratives of peril always ended with the same question, put to us with slightly gloating rhetoric: so, what do you do?
We practised reversing our elbows into the throats of our imaginary assailants, rolling our eyes as we did so because we were, after all, teenage girls. We took it in turns to rehearse the loudest shout we could. We repeated, dutifully, dully, the weak points in a male body: eye, nose, throat, groin, knee. We believed we had it covered, that we could take on the lurking stranger, the drunk assailant, the bag-snatching mugger. We were sure we’d be able to break their grip, bring up our knee, scratch at their eyes with our nails; we reckoned we could find an exit out of these alarming yet oddly thrilling synopses. We were taught to make noise, to attract attention, to yell, POLICE. We also, I think, imbibed a clear message. Alleyway, nightclub, pub, bus-stop, traffic lights: the danger was urban. In the country, or in rural towns like ours—where there were no nightclubs, no alleyways and no traffic lights, even—things like this did not happen. We were free to do as we pleased.
And yet here is this man, high up a mountain, blocking my way, waiting for me.
It seems important not to show my fear, to play along. So I keep walking, keep putting one foot in front of the other. If I turn and run, he could catch up with me in seconds and there would be something so exposing, so final about running. It would uncover to us both what this situation is; it would bring things to a head. The only option seems to be to carry on, to pretend that this is perfectly normal.
“Hello again,” he says to me, and his gaze slides over my face, my body, my bare, muddy legs. It is a glance more assessing than lascivious, more calculating than lustful: it is the look of a man working something out, planning the logistics of a deed.
I cannot meet his gaze, I cannot look at him directly, not quite, but I am aware of narrow-set eyes, a considerable height, ivory-coloured incisors, fists gripping his rucksack straps. I have to clear my throat to say, “Hi.” I think I nod. I turn myself sideways so as to step past him: a sharp mix of fresh sweat, leather from his rucksack, some kind of chemical-heavy shaving oil that seems distantly familiar.
I am past him, I am walking away, the path is open before me. He has, I note, chosen for his ambush the apex of the hike: I have climbed and climbed, and it is at this point that I will start to descend the mountain, to my guesthouse, to my evening shift, to work, to life. It’s all downhill from here.
I am careful to use strides that are confident, purposeful, but not frightened. I am not frightened: I say this to myself, over the oceanic roar of my pulse. Perhaps, I think, I am free, perhaps I have misread the situation. Perhaps it’s perfectly normal to lie in wait for young girls on remote paths and then let them go.
I am eighteen. Just. I know almost nothing.
I do know, though, that he is right behind me. I can hear the tread of his boots, the swishing movement of his trouser fabric—some kind of breathable, all-weather affair.
And here he is again, falling into step beside me. He walks closely, intimately, his arm at my shoulder, the way a friend might, the way I walked home from school with classmates.
“Lovely day,” he says, looking into my face. I keep my head bowed. “Yes,” I say, “it is.” “Very hot. I might go for a swim.” There is something peculiar about his diction, I realise,
as we tread the path together with rapid, synchronised steps. His words halt mid-syllable; his rs are soft, his ts over-enunciated, his tone flat, almost expressionless. Maybe he’s slightly “touched,” as the expression goes, like the man who used to live down the road from us. He hadn’t thrown anything out since the war and his front garden was overrun, like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, with ivy. We used to try to guess what some of the leaf-draped objects were: a car, a fence, a motorbike? He wore knitted hats and patterned tank tops and too-small once-smart suits that were coated with cat-hair. If it was raining, he slung a bin liner over his shoulders. Sometimes he would come to our door with a zipped bag full of kittens for us to play with; other times he would be drunk, livid, wild- eyed and ranting about lost postcards, and my mother would have to take him by the arm and lead him home. “Stay there,” she would say to us, “I’ll be back in a tick,” and she’d be off down the pavement with him.
Maybe, I think, with a flood of relief, that’s all this means. This man might be like our old neighbour: eccentric, different, now long dead, his house cleared and sanitised, the ivy hacked down and burnt. Perhaps I should be kind, as my mother was. I should be compassionate.
I turn to him then, as we walk together, in rapid step, beside the lake. I even smile.
“A swim,” I say. “That sounds nice.”
He answers by putting his binocular strap around my neck.
A day or so later, I walk into the police station in the nearby town. I wait in line with people reporting lost wallets, stray dogs, scraped cars.
The policeman at the desk listens, head cocked to the side. “Did he hurt you?” is his first question. “This man, did he touch you, hit you, proposition you? Did he do or say anything improper?”
“No,” I say, “not exactly, but—” “But what?” “He would have done,” I say. “He was going to.” The man looks me up and down. I’m wearing patched
cut-offs, numerous silver hoops through the cartilage of my ears, tattered sneakers, a T-shirt with a picture of a dodo and the words “Have you seen this bird?” on it. I have a mane—there isn’t really any other word to describe it—of wild hair into which a guest, a serene-faced Dutch woman, who had travelled to the guesthouse with her harp and a felting kit, has woven beads and feathers. I look like what I am: a teenager who has been living alone for the first time, in a caravan, in a forest, in the middle of nowhere.
“So,” the policeman says, leaning heavily on his papers, “you went for a walk, you met a man, you walked with him, he was a bit peculiar, but then you got home okay. Is that what you’re telling me?”
“He put,” I say, “the strap of his binoculars around my neck.”
“And then what?”
“He . . .” I stop. I hate this man with his thick eyebrows, his beery paunch, his impatient stubby fingers. I hate him more, perhaps, than the man beside the tarn. “He showed me some ducks on the lake.”
The policeman doesn’t even try to hide his smile. “Right,” he says, and shuts his book with a snap. “Sounds terrifying.”
How should I have articulated to this policeman that I could sense the urge for violence radiating off the man, like heat off a stone? I have been over and over that moment at the desk in the police station, asking myself, was there anything I could have done differently, anything I might have said that would have changed what happened next?
I could have said: I want to see your supervisor, I want to see the person in charge. I would do this now, age forty-three, but then? It didn’t occur to me it was possible.
I could have said: Listen to me, that man didn’t hurt me but he will hurt someone else. Please find him before he does.
I could have said that I have an instinct for the onset of violence. That, for a long time, I seemed to incite it in others for reasons I never quite understood. If, as a child, you are struck or hit, you will never forget that sense of your own powerlessness and vulnerability, of how a situation can turn from benign to brutal in the blink of an eye, in the space of a breath. That sensibility will run in your veins, like an antibody. You learn fairly quickly to recognise the approach of these sudden acts against you: that particular pitch or vibration in the atmosphere. You develop antennae for violence and, in turn, you devise a repertoire of means to divert it.
The school I went to seemed steeped in it. The threat, like smoke, filled the corridors, the halls, the classrooms, the aisles between desks. Heads were smacked, ears were gripped, chalk dusters were thrown, with smarting accuracy; one teacher had the habit of picking up kids he didn’t like by the waistbands of their trousers and launching them at the walls. I can still recall the sound of child cranium hitting Victorian tile.
For the worst offences, boys were sent to the headmistress, where they were given the cane. Girls got the dap. I used to look at my daps—those black canvas shoes with a horseshoe of elastic across the front that we were made to wear when climbing over gym horses—and in particular their greyish rippled soles and imagine the impact: rubber on exposed flesh.
The headmistress was an object of awed fear. Her sinewy neck and bird-claw hands. Her scarves skewered to sweaters with a silver pin. Her office with its dark walls and wine-coloured rug. If called there to demonstrate skills with coded reading books, I would look down at this rug and picture having to stand there, my skirt pulled up, awaiting my fate, bracing myself for the blow.
It filtered down to the pupils, of course. Chinese burns were particularly popular, when the skin of your forearm could be wrung like a damp cloth into vivid ellipses. Hairpulling, toe-crushing, head-locking, finger-twisting: there was a large and ever-expanding range at the bullies’ disposal. I had the misfortune of not speaking with a local accent, of being able to read before I got there, of having an appearance that, I was informed, was abnormal, offensive, unacceptable in some way, of wearing skirts that had been taken up and let down too many times, of being sickly and missing large chunks of school, of stammering whenever called on to speak, of having shoes that weren’t patent leather and so on. I remember a boy in my class trapping me behind the brick shelter and wordlessly yanking me up by the straps of my sundress until they cut into my underarms. He and I never referred to this incident again. I remember an older girl with a glossy dark fringe materialising from the playtime crowd to grind my face into the bark of a tree. In my first term at comprehensive school, in the middle of a chemistry lesson, I was punched in the face by a twelve-year-old skinhead. If I probe my upper lip with the tip of my tongue, I can still feel the scar.
So, when the man put the binocular strap around my neck, even though he was saying something about wanting to show me a flock of eider ducks, I knew what came next. I could smell it, I could almost see it there, thickening and glittering in the air between us. This man was just another in a long line of bullies who had taken exception to my accent or my shoes or godknowswhat—I had long since stopped caring—and he was going to hurt me. He meant to inflict harm, rain it down on my head, and there was nothing I could do about it.
I decided I must play along with the birdwatching game. I knew that this was my only hope. You can’t confront a bully; you can’t call them out; you can’t let them know that you know, that you see them for what they are.
I glanced through the binoculars for the length of a single heartbeat. Oh, I said, eider ducks, goodness, and I ducked down and away, out of the circle of that strap. He came after me, of course he did, with that length of black leather, intending to lasso me again, but by this time I was facing him, I was smiling at him, gabbling about eider ducks and how interesting they were, did eiderdowns used to be made of them, is that where the name came from, were they filled with eider-duck feathers? They were? How fascinating. Tell me more, tell me everything you know about ducks, about birds, about birdwatching, goodness, how knowledgeable you are, you must go birdwatching a lot. You do? Tell me some more about it, about the most unusual bird you’ve ever seen, tell me while we walk because is that the time, I really must be going now, down the hill, because I have to start my shift, yes, I work just there—you see those chimneys? That’s the place. It’s quite close, isn’t it? There will be people waiting for me. Sometimes if I’m late they’ll come out to look for me, yes, my boss, he’ll be waiting. He walks up here all the time too, all the staff do, he knows I’m out here, he certainly does, he knows exactly where, I told him myself, he’ll be out looking for me any minute now, he’ll be just around that corner. Sure, we can walk this way, and while we do, why don’t you tell me some more about birdwatching, yes, please, I’d like that but I really must rush because they are waiting.
Two weeks later, a police car drives up the winding track to the guesthouse and two people get out. I see them from an upper window, where I’m wrestling pillows into their cases. I know straight away what they are doing here, why they have come, so even before I hear someone calling my name, I am walking down the stairs to meet them.
These two are nothing like the policeman at the station. They are in suits, their demeanours serious, focused. They proffer badges and documents to my boss, Vincent, with faces that are still with practised, skilled neutrality.
They want to talk to me in private so Vincent shows them into an unoccupied room. He comes in with us because he is a good man and I am only a few years older than his own children, whose cries and shouts can be heard from the back lawn.
I sit on a bed I made that morning, and the policeman sits at an ornamental wicker table where some guests like to take their morning tea; the policewoman seats herself next to me on the bed.
Vincent hovers in the background, muttering mistrustfully, pretending to adjust a crystal hanging at the window, to wipe non-existent dust off the mantelpiece, to rattle the fire-irons in the grate. He is a former flower child, a Haight-Ashbury survivor, and has a low opinion of what he calls “the fuzz.”
The police ignore him, in a polite but preoccupied way. They are interested, the woman tells me, in a man I encountered recently on a walk. Would I be able to tell them exactly what happened?
So I do. I start at the beginning, describing how I passed him early on the hike, how he headed off in the opposite direction, then somehow appeared ahead of me. “I don’t know how he did that,” I say, “because there isn’t a short-cut, or not one that I know of.” They nod and nod, listening with a measured intensity, encouraging me to go on. Their eyes never leave my face: I have their absolute attention. When I get to the part about the binoculars strap, they stop nodding. They stare at me, both of them, their eyes unblinking. It is a strange, congested moment. I don’t think any of us breathes.
“A binoculars strap?” the man asks.
“Yes,” I say. “And he put it around your neck?” I nod. They look away, look down; the woman makes a note of something in her book. Would I be willing, she asks, as she hands me a folder, to take a look at some photographs and let them know if I see him there?
At this point, my boss interrupts. He can’t not. “You don’t have to say anything, you know, you don’t. She doesn’t have to say anything.”
The policewoman is putting up her hand to silence him, just as I am placing my index finger on a photograph.
“That’s him,” I say.
The detectives look. The woman notes something again in her book. The man thanks me; he takes the folder.
“He killed someone,” I say to them, “didn’t he?” They exchange an unreadable glance but say nothing. “He strangled someone. With his binoculars strap.” I look from one to the other and we know, we all know. “Didn’t he?”
From across the room, Vincent swears softly. Then he walks over and gives me his handkerchief.
The girl who died was twenty-two. She was from New Zealand and was backpacking around Europe with her boyfriend. He was unwell that day so had stayed behind at their hostel while she went off on a hike, alone. She was raped, strangled, then buried in a shallow pit. Her body was discovered three days later, not far from the path where I had been walking.
I only know all this because I read about it in the local newspaper the following week: the police wouldn’t tell me. I saw a headline in a newsagent’s window, went in to buy a paper, and there was her face, looking out at me from the front page. She had light-coloured hair, held back in a band, a freckled face, a wide, guileless smile.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I think about her, if not every day then most days. I am aware of her life, which was cut off, curtailed, snipped short, whereas mine, for whatever reason, was allowed to run on.
I never knew if they caught him, if he was convicted, sentenced, imprisoned. I had the distinct feeling, during the interview, that those detectives were on to him, that they had him, that they just needed my corroboration. Maybe the DNA samples were incontrovertible. Maybe he confessed. Maybe there were other witnesses, other victims, other near-misses, who gave evidence in court: I was never asked and was too green or, I suspect, too shocked to pursue the matter, to call the police and say, what happened, did you catch him, has he been put away? I left the area not long afterwards so can never be certain. All this happened long before a time of ubiquitous and instantly available news. I can find no sign, no trace of this crime on the internet, despite numerous searches.
I don’t know why he spared me but not her. Did she panic? Did she try to run? Did she scream? Did she make the mistake of alerting him to the monster he was?
For a long time, I dreamt about the man on the path. He would appear in a variety of disguises, but always with his rucksack and binoculars. Sometimes, in the murk and confusion of a dream, I would recognise him only by these accoutrements and I would think, oh, it’s you again, is it? You’ve come back?
It is a story difficult to put into words, this. I never tell it, in fact, or never have before. I told no one at the time, not my friends, not my family: there seemed no way to translate what had happened into grammar and syntax. I have, now I think about it, only ever told one person, and that was the man I would eventually marry, and it only came out years after we first met. I told him one evening in Chile, as we sat together in the refectory of a travellers’ hostel. The expression on his face was one of such deep, visceral shock that I knew I would probably never tell it again, verbally, in my lifetime.
What happened to that girl, and what so nearly happened to me, is not something to be lightly articulated, moulded into anecdote, formed into a familiar spoken groove to be told and retold over a dinner table or on the telephone, passed from teller to teller. It is instead a tale of horror, of evil, of our worst imaginings. It is a story to be kept battened down in some wordless, unvisited dark place. Death brushed past me on that path, so close that I could feel its touch, but it seized that other girl and thrust her under.
I still cannot bear anyone to touch my neck: not my husband, not my children, not a kindly doctor, who once wanted to check my tonsils. I flinch away before I even register why. I can’t wear anything around it. Scarves, polo necks, choker necklaces, any top or blouse that applies pressure there: none of these will ever be for me.
My daughter recently pointed to the top of a hill, seen on our walk to school.
“Can we go up there?” “Sure,” I said, glancing up at the green summit. “Just you and me?” I was silent for a moment. “We can all go,” I said. “The whole family.” Alert as ever to the moods of others, she immediately caught the sense that I was holding something back. “Why not just you and me?”
“Because . . . everyone else would like to come too.” “But why not you and me?” Because, I was thinking, because I cannot begin to say.
Because I cannot articulate what dangers lie around corners for you, around twisting paths, around boulders, in the tangles of forests. Because you are six years old. Because there are people out there who want to hurt you and you will never know why. Because I haven’t yet worked out how to explain these things to you. But I will.
Table of Contents
Neck (1990) 1
Lungs (1988) 23
Spine, Legs, Pelvis, Abdomen, Head (1977) 37
Whole Body (1993) 47
Neck (2002) 63
Abdomen (2003) 75
Baby and Bloodstream (2005) 93
Lungs (2000) 117
Circulatory System (1991) 129
Head (1975) 139
Cranium (1998) 149
Intestines (1994) 157
Bloodstream (1997) 171
Cause Unknown (2003) 185
Lungs (2010) 197
Cerebellum (1980) 209
Daughter (The present day) 249
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of I Am, I Am, I Am, the astonishing memoir via near-death experiences by Maggie O’Farrell.
1. The title of the book comes from a passage in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, in which a character seems to be reminding herself she’s still alive. Why is this an apt title for this memoir?
2. O’Farrell skips around in time rather than telling her stories chronologically. Why do you think she does this? What effect does it have on the reader?
3. Why has O’Farrell had so many near-death experiences—is she merely unlucky, or does something else explain it?
4. In “Neck,” O’Farrell describes her job at a retreat: “I clear away human traces, erasing all evidence that they have eaten, slept, made love, argued, washed, worn clothes, read newspapers, shed hair and skin and bristle and blood and toenails.” (page 5) Why does she view her work this way? What does it tell us about her?
5. We learn about O’Farrell’s neurological condition in “Lungs” (2000), when she seems to be on her way to drowning. What drives her to risk her life like this, when she knows her own limitations?
6. The chapter in which O’Farrell narrowly avoids being hit by a car is called “Spine, Legs, Pelvis, Abdomen, Head.” What does this refer to?
7. When she fails to secure postgraduate funding, O’Farrell abandons her fascination with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: “I must shut the door on it—and her. I liked my connection with her, through the words of the story. I relied on it. I felt as though I had reached back through time, down through the pages of the book, and taken hold of her hand. But I must give her up. I won’t read the book again for many years.” (page 53) Why does she feel this way?
8. In various places throughout the book, O’Farrell paints herself in a negative light—for instance, says, “I am too volatile, too skittish, too impatient.” (page 54) What do you, the reader, think of her self-portrait?
9. How does the incident on the plane propel O’Farrell into writing?
10. Several of O’Farrell’s near-death experiences relate to the fact that she’s female. What role does gender play here?
11. At O’Farrell’s near-catastrophic childbirth, a mysterious man in beige steps in with an unexpected kindness. She writes, “When he took my hand he taught me something about the value of touch, the communicative power of the human hand.” (page 92) Why does this have such an impact on her?
12. After her “missed miscarriage,” what makes O’Farrell so reluctant to have the operation?
13. In the chapter entitled “Lungs” (2010), O’Farrell discusses her childhood fascination with the myth of the selkie. (page 120) Why does she think of this when she’s caught in a riptide? How does the memory help her?
14. What do we learn about O’Farrell from the story about the knife thrower?
15. In “Cranium” and again in “Bloodstream,” two chapters dealing with infidelity, O’Farrell switches to third-person narration. Why? How does this change your reading experience?
16. On page 206, O’Farrell recalls her father’s admonition, “Stay in your depth!” Aside from the drowning connotations, where else could this apply in her life?
17. In “Cerebellum,” we learn that many of O’Farrell’s behaviors may be a result of her childhood bout with encephalitis. How does this change your opinion of her?
18. O’Farrell describes the period during which she was sick as one of the key points in her life: “The hinge on which my childhood swung. Until that morning I woke up with a headache, I was one person, and after it, I was quite another.” (page 226) Looking beyond the physical and neurological effects of encephalitis, what does she mean?
19. Several times in “Daughter,” O’Farrell wonders what she did to cause her daughter’s condition. Why does she seek to blame herself?
20. O’Farrell ends her memoir with an echo to the title: “She is, she is, she is.” Why does this phrase resonate with her?