"We are survivors of each other. We have been shark to on another, but also lifeboat. That counts for something." The power of abusive friendships and relationships is the theme of this book, though not all the relationships are tainted, so it's not depressing and at times it's quite amusing (e.g. discerning the mysteries of puberty). There is also a fair bit about art and artists, with a dash of early feminism.
Elaine is an artist in her late fifties/early sixties revisiting Toronto for the opening of a retrospective of her work. This brings back vivid memories of her childhood, teens and twenties. The sections set in the past are told chronologically, and interspersed by the contemporary story of a few days in Toronto. Gradually all the threads tie up, particularly near then end when contrasting a curator’s descriptions of Elaine’s works with her own explanations, many of which arise from incidents described earlier in the book. However, “I can no longer control these paintings, or tell them what to mean. Whatever energy they have came out of me. I’m what’s left over.”
Her early years were peripatetic but not unhappy: the family travel with her entomologist father. When she is seven, he takes a university post and they settle in the Toronto suburbs, but her family is rather eccentric, and she doesn't quite fit in, exacerbated by her being a tomboy and the fact she’s never really had the opportunity to make friends before, so doesn’t know the unspoken rules.
Perhaps inevitably, Elaine becomes the victim of bullying, and the first overt instance is very cruel, although it involves no physical pain or nasty words. There is nothing to tell. “I have no black eyes, no bloody noses to report: C does nothing physical.”
I’ve never really been bullied, but the thoughts and self-analysis sound plausible.
Like so many victims, Elaine feels drawn to the bully: she “is my friend. She likes me. She wants to help me, they all do. They are my friends… I have never had any before and I’m terrified of losing them. I want to please. Hatred would have been easier… I would have known what to do. Hatred is clear, metallic, one-handed, unwavering; unlike love.” She reasons, “I will have to do better. But better at what?... I think they [bully’s older sisters] would be my allies if only they knew. Knew what? Even to myself I am mute.” She even gives things to her tormentors because “in the moment just before giving, I am loved” even though she has no doubt about the love of her own family.
Elaine develops various coping strategies. She self-harms in a minor way (“the pain gave me something definite to think about”), adopts a talisman (the eponymous cat’s eye marble and the luck of a royal visit to the city) and in some ways, victimhood builds strength and also empathy. “I can sniff out hidden misery in others now.” She also escapes through art, especially of foreign places and discovers that “Fainting is like stepping sideways, out of your own body, out of your own time or into another time. When you wake up it’s later. Time has gone on without you.”
The most important question is only occasionally made explicit: how should parents handle things? When Elaine’s mother realises something of what’s going on, she tells her daughter to toughen up, in part because she doesn’t know what else to suggest. The church-going mother of the main bully has a far more alarming attitude, based on the fact that Elaine is a heathen.
Eventually Elaine finds the inner strength to walk away, “I can hear the hatred but also the need. They need me for this and I no longer need them.” Nevertheless, although they sometimes go for years without contact, the connection continues, though balance of their relationship alters at different times.
I don’t know if all victims have the potential to become bullies, but Elaine occasionally has flashes of it in adulthood, “It disturbs me to learn I have hurt someone unintentionally. I want all my hurts to be intentional.” She is always more relaxed around boys (she has an older brother), “boys are my secret allies”. Conversely, “I enjoy pestering the girls in this minor, trivial way: it shows I am not like them” and in a bar with boys from the university art class, “I expect nothing from them. In truth I expect a lot. I expect to be accepted.”
As an adult, Elaine is moderately happy and successful, yet her past taints all her relationships to some extent. She also fears passing on her anxieties to her own daughters, “I felt I had to protect them from certain things about myself… But they didn’t seem to need that protection.” As a teenager, she didn’t want to know too much family history, even about apparently trivial things, “All this is known, but unimaginable. I also wish I did not know it. I want my father to be just my father, the way he has always been, not a separate person with an earlier, mythological life of his own. Knowing too much about other people puts you in their power, they have a claim on you, you are forced to understand their reasons for doing things and then you are weakened.”
Lines I liked:
* ”Clothes lines are strung with… a display of soiled intimacy, which they [mothers] have washed and rinsed, plunging their hands into the grey curdled water."
* About knowing about her brother’s secret girlfriend, “Knowing this secret… makes me feel important in a way. But it’s a negative importance. I can know because I don’t count.”
* “What they call a shopping complex, as if shopping were a psychic disease.”
* In a department store, “the air is saturated with the stink of perfumes at war”.
* “All fathers except mine are invisible in day time; day time is ruled by mothers. But fathers come out at night. Darkness brings home the fathers, with their real, unspeakable power. There is more to them than meets the eye.”
* On the difference between faith and knowledge: Elaine thought she had a vision, but next morning was less certain, “I’m not sure now, that it really was the Virgin Mary. I believe it but I no longer know it.”
* “Art is what you can get away with said somebody or other, which makes it sound like shop-lifting… A hijacking of the visual.”
* “My name has solidified around me, with time. I think of it as tough but pliable now, like a well-worn glove.”
* “Somehow the war never ended after all, it just broke up into pieces and got scattered, it gets in everywhere, you can’t shut it out.”
* On giving money to a beggar, “It’s obscene to have such power; also to feel so powerless.”
* “Craziness was considered funny, like all other things that were in reality frightening and profoundly shameful.”
* An antique shop has “one-time throwouts, recycled as money”.
* The angry sex of a disintegrating relationship: “We make love, if that is any longer the term for it. It’s not shaped like love, not coloured like it, but harsh, war-coloured, metallic. Things are being proved. Or repudiated.”