Sunday, 27 March 2011

Review of The Woman who Thought too Much, A Memoir by Joanne Limburg

This memoir deserves much more space, which it will get in a future feature in the magazine on a group of new books about the mind. One of my bugbears about the prevailing culture in Wales is that it is dominated by politics and history. When it comes to writers’ biographies, we too often seem to be celebrating undigested, extrovert male grandiosity, especially as expressed in alcoholism. A notable exception is Richard Gwyn’s forthcoming memoir The Vagabond’s Breakfast, published on 15 April by Alcemi, for which I must declare an interest as its editor. While painting a portrait of nine colourful, ‘lost’ years to addiction and vagrancy, Gwyn remains reflective and engagingly embarrassed about his experiences. I am on the hunt for writers, reviewers and critics who can talk intelligently about the mental cul-de-sacs and acts of sabotage – whether colourful or cringe-inducingly introverted – that can besiege us. What more important subject, after all, could face a writer?

Joanne Limburg, having grown from a lonely, hair-chewing, skin-picking London Jewish overachiever into a poet and mother who cannot take her toddler to the shops for fear of pushing him under a bus, works out that she has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. She loosely groups anorexics, bulimics, people with Tourette’s and hoarders (Hoarders Disorder?) into the OCD spectrum but is aware that a tendency to tighten loose ends is a symptom of her obsessive nature. She has a lovely wit that leavens the occasionally repetitive material (goes with the territory, and anyway it was only the New Mother phase that started to bore me briefly, probably because we all go a bit mad then). Limburg is especially witty on how her reading and the internet fed into a hyper-expertise which so alienated her psychiatrist, she was refused treatment. Self-disparagement is par for the course for someone whose head is jammed with warnings of woe. But Limburg knows this, makes a joke, and harnesses it. She shows how, despite having wasted half her youth in psychoanalysis when she could have been having sex, her cure was simple and rather boring: a to-do list of scary challenges. She recognises the bathos of her eventual treatment, “If I look at [this] cognitive behavioural model of OCD with a poet’s eyes, the picture that emerges is of a person who is suffering from hyperbole, and perhaps and over-excitation of the metaphorical… it’s not an impulse but the DEVIL’S PROMPTING… it’s not a mistake but a FATAL FLAW.”

Refreshingly too, despite all those years heading for the couch, Limburg lays no blame at her parents’ door, preferring to discuss, very lucidly, the neurological differences in individuals’ brains. In her case, however, school seriously failed her: neither teachers nor bullying peers made any allowance for such discrepancies to the ‘norm’. Feeling out of kilter, acting ditto, feeling rejected, avoiding those feelings, wondering why: wondering far too often. Many a coming-of-age novelist would benefit from studying Limburg’s account of how one teenage emotion snowballs into the next. The Woman who Thought too Much is highly recommended to readers and authors alike, and not only for its insights into pathological perfectionism, procrastination and writer’s block.

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