We've recently been gifted with some absolutely fascinating looking memoirs: I Am Not My Father's Son, H is For Hawk, Bettyville, Ordinary Light, Hammer Head, What Comes Next and How to Like It. Although my coveted copy of H is For Hawk taunts me from my desktop every morning, Girl in the Dark is the first up on the roster.
I've always been fascinated with unfortunate conditions of extreme photosensitivity. Those with the condition vary in their level of reactions and to different wavelengths of light, but some cannot even venture outside during the day and must blackout-curtain and tinfoil themselves in blackened rooms. I'd always thought that these unfortunate souls were typically born with their symptoms, but Lyndsey teaches us that hers came on nine years ago, as an adult working in an office.
At first, it was just on her face, and only with the light from her computer screen. Lyndsey tried to get by for some time but eventually had to take what she expected to be a short hiatus from work. She never returned. The treatment prescribed to her resolved the burning on her face for a while... only to seemingly transfer it to the skin on the rest of her body, and to include all sources of light, from electronics to florescent lights to the sun.
This narrative feels somewhat like a cobbled together narrative of Lyndsey's experience. There is a chronological flow, but it is interrupted by her sharing the things she does to pass her hours in the dark, including audiobooks and mental games. There's some level of disjointedness but not so much that I lost the thread, and there's a hell of a lot of emotion here.
And therein lies some of my hesitation. Absolutely, she's dealing with a medical condition that I have been fortunate not to. These things must be noted and discounted against me when one considers my criticisms. But, unfortunately, I do have a few.
Though up until this point, the stories I've read about victims of this condition, they've always shared that their sensitivity to light results in burns and blisters to the skin. Lyndsey repeatedly shares in her narrative that she does not have a physical reaction of her skin. It is all pain in the form of a burning sensation but this never seems to manifest in physical damage to her skin. I am sorely prejudiced against people who cry, "psychological problem!"when encountering a medical condition they don't understand, particularly when it comes to women. I've had it happen to me. Lyndsey has had this happen to her, and she articulates her frustration with this very well. But given the other evidence I've seen about this condition, by the end of the book I was sort of slightly suspicious myself. I dislike my response to this but I couldn't help it. Two things here: if Lyndsey IS actually experiencing some psychological disorder involvement in her illness, despite her protests, that doesn't make her illness any less serious, and it doesn't invalidate her symptoms. I can't help but wonder if such a consideration could actually be helpful in diagnosis and resolution. But I also understand that when a person experiences an illness in a painful physical form, it's very easy to feel disregarded when there's even the slightest hint that a psychological condition may at be at least partially in play. Second, I easily acknowledge that there may very well be wholly physical photosensitivity disorders not causing outward physical manifestations that we have yet to understand. Also, I clearly haven't exhausted all scientific or medical literature to know the potential possibility of cases such as Lyndsey describes.
My other hesitation throughout this memoir, and potentially connected to the one above, is some of Lyndsey's descriptions of her illness and response to it. Much if it seems quite... hyperbolic to me. YES, she has a painful response to light. YES, she is forced to remain in a darkened room when the sun is out (and sometimes, during the lowest times, even in the evenings). But... here:
In response to realizing that her life will not be the same: "I crumple over the table, my face pressed into my hands, and cry harder than I have ever cried, the spasms so intense that I twist from my chair and tumble to the floor, shrieking and writhing among the envelopes, streaking them with tears. It is as if I am being torn in two down my centre line; I have never experienced such an intense bifurcation of soul." Throwing oneself to the ground and choosing such extreme words as "shrieking and writhing" suggests to me an extreme psychological break, what used to be called a nervous breakdown. And yet Lyndsey then says that she gets herself back together and sits back down and finishes putting together her wedding invitations.
In response to having to seal out all light from her bedroom: "When I have finished, I lie exhausted on the bed. I feel as though I have completed a long and arduous operation involving the amputation of one of my own limbs." Goodness. Yes, I imagine that accepting this defeat against the light and understanding that the way one reacts to the world has changed and that she's doing her best to relate how all of this must have felt... but "I feel as though I have completed a long and arduous operation involving the amputation of one of my own limbs"? I sense that throughout the editing process, the editor may very well have had to explain, "No, no, we need to cut out all these literallys because I'm not sure you understand precisely what that means."
Lyndsey fortunately seems to have a relatively significant amount of money at her disposal that allows her to be able to separate herself from the world with little attempt at some kind of work (early on in her process she met a man with the same sort of responses to light who quickly rigged up a projection system for himself so he could continue working from home) and a fiercely supportive husband who does all he can to help her and make her happy. Lyndsey does venture into becoming piano teacher at home but never explains how she expects to teach in the dark. She frequently writes how, if there was a hitch in their wedding plans, or she wanted someone to accommodate her in some way, she threw money at the situation and was shocked when this didn't always resolve the concern. There is a point in the narrative where her boyfriend must go away for two trips close to one another, one for work and one to take a break from the caregiving. While Lyndsey acknowledges that he must have some difficulties and yes, sure, he should get away and take a break, she freaks out over this news and starts calling her family members who have already rearranged their schedules to come to her home while her (then) boyfriend is away on a holiday, asking them to also come while he's gone for work. When they can't fall in line immediately, she acknowledges, "I do not need a carer. What I need is something more abstract and intangible: a human presence about the place, occasional company when I have to go into the black, company that understands my situation and cares enough to observe the protocols, waiting till I'm out of the room and closing the door prior to turning on overhead lights." First of all: not occasionally. Her boyfriend seems to be there at all times when he's not working, but she requires that someone take his place when he needs to be away, despite her admittance that she doesn't literally need a caregiver, just someone to be sympathetic to her situation and turn on lights when she's not in the room? This, this is when I was reading and started edging over to the side of those who question the psychological involvement of this situation. This feels needy and narcissistic and manipulative and destructive to her relationships. And then! Then, her brother ends up coming to stay while her boyfriend is gone (despite already needing to do so just a short while later); he finds little in the house to make dinner with and substitutes an onion with a head of garlic. After making her dinner and then sitting in her room to entertain Lyndsey by talking to her for hours, she bitches about the smell of garlic in her room. This, despite that Lyndsey repeatedly says in earlier situations that she CAN make dinner, so long as it's after dark.
She also compares her situation to that of Jean-Dominique Bauby, author of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. She actually wonders whether, if faced with the choice, Bauby would have traded places with her. Sure, his situation was difficult, she reasons, but given her life, surely he would hesitate? Again, yes, I acknowledge that Lyndsey's condition must be very difficult to contend with but... REALLY? You're wondering whether a man who suffered such a debilitating stroke that he was locked into his own brain (for a long time, no one even knew he was mentally functioning in there) with the rest of his body paralyzed so that he could literally only blink out his entire memoir with one eyelid would want to change places with you? Let me answer that question for you... no, no, despite how long I've already rambled on here, I'm not going to waste the energy pressing the keys on this laptop to answer that question for you.
Okay, so. I guess I didn't realize the strength of my prejudices against this memoir until detailing them all just now. Perhaps I am not walking away feeling as sympathetic as I initially believed. The story is interesting, I'll grant that, and the writing is often insightful and beautiful (when she's not providing metaphors that are too much of a stretch for me to accept).
*Advance copy provided by Random House.