The Missing List: A Memoir by Clare Best, Linen Press, 2018
I am one of the lucky ones. I made it through. There are too many who do not – our prisons, hospitals and cemeteries are full of them. And so I give you my story, hoping it may help to break down myths and misunderstandings around abuse and its aftermath.
Clare Best finely weaves together a tapestry of memories, delicately stitching the fragments of a life both lived and lost through the experiences of childhood sexual abuse. Best pieces together a collage of “offcuts”, tackling the struggles of a split self who has fought to navigate the rocky terrain of taboo, shame, guilt, anger, anxiety, fear, love and resilience whilst acknowledging and attempting to accept, process and survive the abuse and “fallout” of her early childhood years. She experiments with written form, refreshingly negating the “conventions” of memoirs that often attempt to “fit” the author’s biography into the narrative arc of a novel. She interchanges between film scripts, transcripts, lists, and medical diagnoses, whilst merging or interlinking past and present events, which arguably creates a greater authenticity to the narrative by truly emphasising the experiences of memory in the throes of dealing with trauma.
Best approaches her experiences with both bravery and sensitivity. She is careful to keep control of her narrative, making sure that it remains her story. There is always a fine line between saying what is comfortable to voice and saying too much, where the story no longer remains the author’s to tell, yet Best treads this line carefully, never detailing the abuse too explicitly and ensuring that what she tells the reader is what she has chosen to share. It is hers, and she is finally the one who can own it after all these years. The result is a carefully written piece, and whilst it may act as a trigger for some readers, it may also give comfort to others in realising that they are not alone in what they are feeling or experiencing.
The narrative intertwines childhood memories with those of her present moments of being a carer to her ailing father. By interweaving the past and present, Best highlights the ongoing effects of her abuse and how difficult it is to overcome, particularly when the parent/abuser is still ever present in her life. Whilst the physical effects of abuse can often be grasped in more concrete terms and perhaps, in some ways, overcome more quickly, the psychological trauma of abuse can be far more long-lasting as remnants remain as internal scars for an individual. It is far harder to truly articulate and understand the psychological impact such manipulation and control can have on a person, in which love is conditional and based on what a child will do, as the child learns early on how to play particular roles. Yet, Best deftly brings this to the forefront of the narrative and effectively communicates this manipulative dynamic and fraught relationship to the reader.
His love, such love as he can show, has always been conditional. Do this and I will love you. Be like this and I will love you. Be my mother, sister, wife, daughter – and perfect at each – and I may love you in every way and none. When I see you in this role you become the role. When I’m finished with you in this role, you will revert to another role. This is how it’s been.
Best brings to light the psychological impact of abuse in a brave and eye-opening way to the reader, not only detailing memories of events, but equally articulating her thoughts and feelings as an important part of her narrative. She tackles the difference between the lived experiences and the medical diagnosis of symptoms by expressing the way in which abuse splits identity and how one may embody themselves as multiple, rather than whole.
One, the home-child, is emotionally volatile, swinging between fury and contrition; she adores and needs to be adored by her mother. The other, the school-child, is careful, measured, self-sufficient, almost obsessively tidy; she works harder and harder at her lessons, with better and better results, despite the unexplained school absences. And then there’s a third presence, discernible as a space that both separates and holds together the two girls. This space is like the central image of Rubin’s Vase – the black-and-white optical illusion where you can see either a vase or two heads in silhouette, but you can’t hold both at once.
Although it is a common symptom of child sexual abuse to dissociate from oneself, it is often difficult to grasp what this entails. Best explores this with great self-awareness of how her sense of embodiment was altered into three aspects of herself, the “home-child”, the “school-child” and a third presence, a haunting of a self that flitted between the other two that she beautiful portrays as the Rubin’s Vase. This splitting can often be a way of coping with the psychological trauma inflicted; therefore, Best assists in bringing to light what is so often the hardest to explain or articulate to others. It is one thing to understand what dissociating means as a term and diagnosis, but it is another thing to be able to eloquently and coherently communicate the lived experiences of such states.
Yes, I’m resilient. Resilience is the other side of shame. I’ve come through loss and pain, and made many adjustments. I must continue, will continue.
Best questions what it means to survive, and although she is not the biggest fan of this word, it is one of the few that places hope into the narrative, rather than labelling someone forever a victim. Her narrative gives hope through highlighting how one can be resilient. She shows strength and perseverance, and whilst the outcome may not have been the one she wished for or felt she needed, she eventually found her ending. Rather than her father having the last word, waiting for his apology, his acknowledgement or his time to talk about it, she took control of her narrative and chose to be the one to end it. This act seems far braver in many respects, as it takes courage to step away and be the one to break the cycle, to finally say “no”.
About the publisher:
Linen Press is the only independent women’s press in the UK.
About the reviewer:
Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster, where her research predominantly considers inscriptions of the female body within women’s experimental writing.