James Samuel Houston, Oil on board. Artist: Margaret Orr
PASSING IT ON
Thank goodness it is Leap Year and there are 29 days in the month this February and not 28! I am not interested in proposing to anyone, simply grateful that I have one day longer to write this newsletter and send it off in February. No-one would care if I didn’t or if it were a day or two late in spite of it being titled ‘February newsletter’, but my childhood beliefs that deadlines can be beaten but not exceeded, modeled constantly for me by my father, remains firmly entrenched—and I have now exceeded him (just) in years alive on the planet. Goes to show that one does not have to believe in an afterlife or reincarnation to believe that something of our essence is left on earth when we toddle off it, to ensure that our children can carry on the good work of annoying their children as our parents annoyed us.
My father was an interesting man, in spite of appearing ultra-conservative on the outside in his perfect three-piece suit and white shirt with separate collar attached by studs and presumably changed daily, leaving the shirt to the weekly wash. In the pocket of his subtly striped waistcoat rested a large gold watch, attached by a thick gold chain, which was in turn attached to a buttonhole on his waistcoat. I suppose this was in case some wicked person tried to snatch it and run away, an unlikely scenario in the sleepy town of Ashburton where I grew up. If they had tried to snatch it my father could have reeled them in with the gold chain, and they may have been surprised by the strength in this besuited and hatted small compact man. The bulging muscles in his arms still apparent in his late years were a fascination to me and a left-over from his youth as a NZ gymnast champion for the YMCA where he lived throughout his student years, studying civil engineering. It was the Christchurch YMCA, one of the oldest and biggest in the country, and Dad had an enormous love for it. I am not surprised looking at the photos of his grim-looking Victorian farmer parents; it is difficult to imagine he had much fun as a child. The photos of the jolly goings-on at the YMCA parties suggest that nothing much has changed in the student world. Strangely, our daughter and his granddaughter is the CEO of that very same YMCA and I hope is proud of the fact that her granddad, who sadly died 3 months before she was born, is honoured in her beloved institution’s archives as a medalist in archery, shooting, swimming and gymnastics, as well as a member of the top rugby and cricket teams. He had YMCA shields, cups and medals galore. The tall red brick building he called home for six years was still in use when our daughter became the CEO, but as shelter for men who had fallen on hard times and had nowhere else to live, rather than as a safe-haven of debauchery for young engineering students. It was damaged so badly in the Christchurch earthquakes that it was pulled down (that earthquake had some uses, the daughter muttered rather gleefully as that historic and ugly building bit the dust) and she busied herself raising the funds required to replace it with an Olympic-size swimming pool and squash courts. A fitting tribute perhaps to her granddad, although I am sure this has not occurred to her (it will now though!) Life has a strange way of remembering the past.
Back to the watch. Every morning before my sister and I left for school, and Dad for work (leaving Mum at home to wash the shirt collars and prepare our mid-day dinner), at 8am the radio would be on the National programme, and everyone would hold their words while the time pips for 8am were played before the news. Pip, pip, pip… eight pips. Dad would have extracted his watch, flipped open the gold cover and be checking it with the pips so that the second hand hit the 12 exactly as the final pip sounded. After he flipped the lid closed and put the watch back into his waistcoat pocket, we were permitted to speak again. This process occurred again in the evening at six o’clock, when the watch was also wound, ready for the next 24 hours. For all I know he checked its perfect timing all day at work as well, every hour on the hour. So he never had to actually tell us deadlines were important!
I inherited his watch, and it was a day for grieving when a nice young man from the US showed up on our doorstep with a story that his aunt was the counselor at the school our children attended in Boston. Please could he stay with us for a few days? He repaid our hospitality by stealing a carefully packed envelope containing Dad’s watch, as well as my mother’s and my grandparents’ watches and jewelry. I had just retrieved them from the bank vault on our return from Boston. The young man flew back to the US three days after arriving (and we worked out later, on the day he stole my precious watches), sending us a beautiful bouquet of flowers from the airport. We never did find him or the watches. But I can still visualise Dad checking it as those pips rang out, as clearly as if he were standing right here.
He had thousands of books organized in the numerous bookshelves by topic and height, and all exactly even with the edge of the shelf they were on—one on every topic it seemed, plus many of the classic novels. Although my sister and I were encouraged to consult these when we needed to find something out—indeed we were expected to check them, Dad would never simply tell us the answer to a homework question even if he knew it. We must go to the source and discover it for ourselves. He would read it with us, and discuss it, so it always took much longer to finish our homework if we were desperate enough to request Dad’s help. Another trait he has given me—the pleasure of finding stuff out. He was also a skillful magician, and would never tell us how he performed his magic. After he died I checked some of his magician equipment stored in my sister’s shed, sure that I would find that those large silver rings that he would join together and separate again with lightning speed would have a break in one of them. You guessed it, they were all solid; not a single break. Another of his talents was after-dinner speaking, and he was in hot demand as the toastmaster at all family occasions as well as at charity occasions in our town. He wrote out his speeches in his minute and perfect handwriting, always in pencil and always on tiny notebook pages no bigger than five inches by three. His delivery was droll, and funny, and very clever, and I well remember people literally under the tables from laughing so hard. In the cases and boxes where his possessions were carefully and neatly packed we found many of his speeches, and reading them today, especially the farewell speeches when he retired from his job and the various charities and clubs he belonged to, can easily bring me to tears. Tears of laughter and sadness all mixed up.
One other wonderful memory we have of Dad comes not from his diaries (he wrote a diary every night at 9pm all his adult life) but from his father’s farm diary. His stern-appearing Victorian father wrote in an enormous book with thick marbled pages, about thirteen inches by eight, the tasks he needed to do on the farm every day. Much of it was about the weather. On the 13th June 1906, the day my father, his firstborn, was born, his diary entry went on down the page about the weather, the crops and so on until at the very bottom of the page he wrote “The sow begat twelve piglets and Maggie begat a son.”
My only sibling, Margaret, who has turned into an amazing artist since she retired from her long years of being an incredible teacher (I bet the kids always had to look stuff up for themselves) painted our father’s portrait for me recently. It, along with our mother’s portrait she gave me on one of those ‘notable’ birthdays, will hang side-by-side in my study, after they have been in Margaret’s portrait exhibition to be held soon. I think she must have spent a lot of time as a child with Dad’s collection of books on ‘how to draw and paint’!
Prolific and much awarded American author, Joyce Carol Oates, has written over 40 novels in the past fifty-two years. Her latest draws upon the life of amnesiac HM, the most studied medical case in history. Her interest in this topic probably arises out of discussions with her husband, Charles Gross, a professor in the Psychology Department and Neuroscience Institute at Princeton University. It is interesting to read the reviews of readers on Goodreads and Amazon: many reviewers are shocked by JCO’s portrayal of the exploitative and unethical neuroscience milieu where her fictional amnesiac, EH, is studied. These readers seem to believe that her story is an accurate reflection of all aspects of HM’s existence, which I can thankfully assure you, it is not! If you are interested in neuropsychology or scientific and medical ethics, or pine for a book that will make you think about what it must be like to be harnessed forever to the present moment in time, this is a book worth reading,
The Man Without a Shadow
by Joyce Carol Oates
The book description —“In 1965, neuroscientist Margot Sharpe meets Elihu Hoopes: the “man without a shadow,” who will be known, in time, as the most-studied and most famous amnesiac in history. A vicious infection has clouded anything beyond the last seventy seconds just beyond the fog of memory.”— gives us a clue that this novel is based on the case of HM, the real patient who became the most famous amnesiac in history. JCO acknowledges Suzanne Corkin’s wonderful book on HM as her primary research source, and JCO’s fictional amnesiac, EH, is indeed spookily like HM in many of his responses to the world he lives in following the loss of his ability to make new conscious memories. Likewise, the laboratory environment and the memory tests EH is given (again and again, and every time new to EH) are well researched and accurate. However, EH is in no way like HM in his background, or his personality, and the neuropsychologists likewise are, thankfully, very fictional (I know this as I worked with the real HM when I was a young neuropsychologist!).
The moral and ethical issues that JCO delves into are thought-provoking, especially those related to research participant exploitation. The exploitation of junior researchers by senior researchers, especially in the 1960s and earlier, is by no means a new topic (although again, thankfully, part of EH’s story and not HM’s). JCO’s ability to get inside EH and view the world from his time capsule of 70 seconds is masterful and believable. However, the twist in this story, the manipulative relationship that Margot Sharpe—the neuropsychologist and ultimate leader of the EH research project—develops with EH is not believable (or too horrific to believe). But this is fiction after all, and as fiction it is a fascinating tale of two lives, one blighted by physical damage to his brain, and the other blighted by her own obsession and loneliness.
Article of Possible Interest
My most recent Psychology Today post Are You In Need of Bibliotherapy? ( https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/trouble-in-mind/201602/are-you-in-need-bibliotherapy ) is about a model of therapy I wish I had known about years ago! Perhaps I would have become a bibliotherapist instead of a neuropsychologist (but then I would never have met HM.)
So goodbye for another month with thanks for your support, and carry on conning some more mates or enemies into subscribing to my e-newsletter! http://www.jenniogden.com/newsletter.htm
If you are feeling especially generous, pop on over to Amazon or your favourite online or bricks and mortar store and pre-order A Drop in the Ocean .Apparently Amazon posts out new pre-ordered books weeks before they are published so it is one way to get an early copy. The e-books will be up soon for pre-order.