"I sat in the middle of a catastrophe."
February 22, 2015 1:58 AM   Subscribe

In 1963 novelist Doris Lessing took in a fifteen year old former schoolmate of her son she had never met who couldn't live at home anymore. This teenage girl later grew up to be a writer herself, Jenny Diski (formerly of this parish), and has written a couple of essays in the London Review of Books about her relationship with Lessing. The first, What to Call Her?, was an obituary published shortly after Lessing's death. The second, Doris and Me, is a part of Diski's longer reckoning with her own life following her diagnosis with terminal cancer. [The last essay has been linked previously as part of a megapost.]
posted by Kattullus (19 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, that essay "what to call her" is really fantastic. So many posts on metafilter are on topics I simply know nothing off. This is one of those. I'm not familiar with either writer, but that essay is plenty enough to kick me into gear and start catching up on both of them. Thanks.
posted by chasles at 3:37 AM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

What powerful writing, and what a fascinating story. Thanks for posting these. I'm a fan of Lessing's work but didn't know anything much about her life, and this really opens up a lot. I've not yet read anything by Diski but I can see that I'll have to.
posted by daisyk at 5:52 AM on February 22, 2015

I love this line:
It was a famously cold winter. I’d come from a snowbound Hove, where I’d spent hours sitting and brooding, wrapped up but shivering on the frozen pebbled beach staring out at an icy sea, writing poetry about seagulls and loneliness (no longer extant, thank heavens, though that’s not to say that I wouldn’t write about seagulls and loneliness like a lightning strike if I once let my guard down).
posted by daisyk at 5:54 AM on February 22, 2015 [4 favorites]

What an absolutely extraordinary woman. I read some Lessing, years ago, but had never heard of Jenny Diski. Her essays are wonderful. I wonder if it is true that Lessing never read any of her work - from the Guardian peice:

I wonder what Lessing made of Diski becoming a writer. “She never said anything about it,” she says. “And she never read anything I wrote, I don’t think. It was like she was always going on about how interested she was in education, but then when I became a teacher she always changed the subject. My writing could never be mentioned.”
posted by Cuke at 6:29 AM on February 22, 2015

What an interesting story. I haven't read any of Diski's books, but I have read some of Lessing's, and she always struck me as a brilliant person who would have been difficult, maybe even terrible, to be close to.

(Also, I think Diski's amazing and powerful essay about Polanski and rape was linked in a previous discussion of that subject.)
posted by Dip Flash at 6:33 AM on February 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

I don't think we should be shy of linking jennydiski's profile. She was only here for a few months but she contributed and only left after a rather rough meta.
In this case I think it was Metafilters loss and not the contrary as she is a very able writer.
posted by adamvasco at 6:46 AM on February 22, 2015 [27 favorites]

Yeah, she's a wonderful writer. Thanks for the post!
posted by languagehat at 7:38 AM on February 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

I will look for Jenny Diski's books now - I had no idea that she even existed, although I've read most of Doris Lessing's work and some of the work of people associated with her.

Doris Lessing was, I think, not a nice person. That "Doris and Me" essay is a bit of a shock.

I mean, I'd never really thought that Doris Lessing was a nice person - her books are, substantially, about spite, and sometimes it's conscious spite that Lessing is writing and sometimes it's Lessing's spite that emerges. (The Good Terrorist, for example, is a really, really spiteful book. Diaries of a Good Neighbor, the portmanteau of two of my favorite Lessing novels, is about spite.).

The sixties were obviously another country, though - while it's certainly true that young women in movement (and other) circles are at risk from predatory men, that is no longer taken as the inevitable and basically natural/harmless state of the world. And of course, the idea that a serious intellectual grown-up in left and psychologically adroit circles would accuse an abandoned, depressed 16-year-old of trying "emotional blackmail" - I can believe that someone would do it, but I find it hard to believe that such a person could just go around to friends, talk about the whole thing and get sent home to write a nasty letter to the kid. Also, I feel like RD Laing and AS O'Neill and all of those sixties guys, while on the one hand it was good that they introduced new ideas about young people and their complexity and capacity, seem to have tripped a lot of intellectual types over into treating teens as just smaller versions of themselves - not even small adults, but pint-sized well-established left intellectuals.

I mean, that's just so hideously cruel - so cruel! In a way, it is an emotionally blackmailing question, because there can be only one verbal answer. But that's only about 1% of what the question is about, and to treat it as though that's the core is stupid and intellectually maladroit as well as being just....bizarrely undercutting of the kid's sense of reality. I grew up with someone who - though a very loving person in general - sometimes accused me of psychological tricks well beyond my understanding or control, and that...it just caused me to question and distrust and hate myself for years and to remember each of those incidents with huge guilt.

Honestly, as much as I'm sure Diski owes a lot to Lessing, and as much as it was a generous gesture to take the kid in so that she could continue her schooling rather than going straight to work, it really does put me off Lessing far more than some of the other anecdotes I've read about her, where even if she was cruel to others, they were at least grown-ups and had many resources for hitting back.

I actually appear as a child and teen character in some minor published fiction and although the portraits are positive (and in places misleadingly idealized) it has kind of fucked with me. I cannot imagine knowing that Memoirs of A Survivor was kind of about you. I've read that one, but I can't imagine I'll pick it up again now.
posted by Frowner at 7:42 AM on February 22, 2015 [7 favorites]

Also, would it have killed her to say "If it turns out that I really don't like you and can't live with you, I'm not sure what we'll do but you won't be homeless"?

I mean, for fuck's sake, characters in The Four Gated City are capable of that much.
posted by Frowner at 7:45 AM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Diski describes clearly a sexually abusive mother, who complains about mistreatment, as all bullies do. I am glad she escaped her mother's narcissism, and came under the miraculous protection of Doris Lessing, who besides being a writer, hosted an angelic streak. In her new home Diski gets to develop her own eloquent voice, lovely, the process of making family by choice.
posted by Oyéah at 9:40 AM on February 22, 2015

I am glad she escaped her mother's narcissism, and came under the miraculous protection of Doris Lessing, who besides being a writer, hosted an angelic streak. In her new home Diski gets to develop her own eloquent voice, lovely, the process of making family by choice.

That seems like an extremely selective interpretation of Diski's experience, and the incident with the letter makes Lessing seem anything but "angelic".
posted by Lexica at 10:13 AM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Frowner: The Good Terrorist, for example, is a really, really spiteful book.

It really is, despite being also a very accomplished book. When I finished it, I dearly wanted to pass it on to someone -- because it was so well-written -- but couldn't because the people I knew who might have appreciated it the most were also the ones who would certainly have been the most upset by it. (I count myself among them, actually.)
posted by daisyk at 10:14 AM on February 22, 2015

Lessing's anger over the silent treatment is understandable, and her evacuation of the premises is wise, so she can't damage her charge with her anger. It is like my Dad's old joke,
"How do porcupines make love?" (here think, love)
"Very, very, carefully."

I hear Diski's teenaged abuse victim's discomfort in her writing, but, I don't hear Diski whining about this event. Her acting out, because of extreme familial abuse, bought her freedom, and the extraordiary luck of a medium soft landing in Lessing's household.
posted by Oyéah at 10:36 AM on February 22, 2015

I've only read "What to Call Her" but what a totally crazy and confusing adolescence that must have been. I am looking forward to reading the other links.

I remember Jenny Diski's past participation in the site and wish people had been kinder. I am sorry for her diagnosis and wish her all the best.
posted by onlyconnect at 11:47 AM on February 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

Really, Frowner? The essay seem to me to describe a very human, awkward relationship, and made me think well of Lessing. Not angelic, certainly, but she offered shelter to a child she didn't know and made sure she was able to continue her education. And while clearly not really a warm person, she was kind enough to think of things like a kitten to make her feel more at home. She obviously had some difficulty dealing with her, true, but she also didn't abandon her or kick her out despite clashes.
posted by tavella at 1:06 PM on February 22, 2015

It's hard not to read the encounter with the typewritten letter (in "Doris and Me") as anything but a bit cruel, isn't it, tavella?
posted by koeselitz at 2:22 PM on February 22, 2015

Did you have a chance to read all of Diski's memoir stuff? There's part where Diski gets all freaked out and anxious and depressed and finally gets it together to ask Lessing, basically, "you've taken me in and my parents don't want me back and what if you don't like me now that you're stuck with me?" And Doris Lessing gets so angry that she can't speak, storms out, goes round to friends, is absolutely furious - comes back and writes the girl a letter about how she has to grow up, her question was emotional blackmail, Diski made her hugely angry, etc etc. This from a grown woman well on in her career to a depressed sixteen year old with abusive parents whose crime in Lessing's house had been to become increasingly quiet and non-responsive. Picture yourself at sixteen - wouldn't that be an entirely reasonable thing to wonder if you were staying with the parent of a classmate after having exhausted all the other housing resources with which you were familiar? Would it be fair or right for an adult to accuse you of "emotional blackmail"?

And then there's the whole business of Lessing refusing to discuss or read any of Diski's work, or to talk about Diski's teaching. I know how stressful it can be to have a friend want you to read their novels, but I think it's only the least bare courtesy to do so a little bit.

And then Lessing's apparent repeated narrative to Diski that if Diski had just....gone on and been a shopgirl or something...Diski would have ended up pregnant and then dead, or drug-addicted and pregnant, etc.

And Lessing telling everyone that various characters (who do not come off well! who exist as emotional props for the narrator, who is blatantly a stand-in for Lessing!) in her novels of the period are portraits of Diski! From my own experience, I know that you should not tell a young person that you have written them into your fiction (unless maybe it's very light fiction indeed) - even a flattering portrait intended kindly and not trumpeted to the world can be very disconcerting.

No, those are not acceptable things.

I'm a big fan of Lessing's work (of which I have read the vast majority multiple times), I've read her memoirs and some critical stuff about her, and I'm pretty accepting that she was a brilliant and difficult woman - I am not made especially uncomfortable by her difficult and sometimes rather unpleasant relations with her contemporaries, and I don't feel that they undercut her work. Her books influenced me a lot. I was very sad when she died. It is from this standpoint - I mean, I literally started reading Doris Lessing almost twenty years ago and have thought about her work a lot - that I find what Diski says really shocking, dismaying and painful to read.
posted by Frowner at 4:57 PM on February 22, 2015 [7 favorites]

I learned of Diski by someone putting her novel "The Visitation" on a staff-recommended table at the local bookstore and I hereby recommend it to all of you.
posted by thelonius at 2:59 AM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

We have not yet reached peak Diski: Why didn’t you just do what you were told?

posted by Joe in Australia at 4:25 AM on March 4, 2015

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