I was recently at a national Bahá’í meeting. Within two hours of getting there, three people at least had asked me had I done my story for the Histories Project website yet. My first response was that the story of my becoming a Bahá’í – well, it was more of a declaration of intent, meaning that I intended to work at treading the Bahá’í path as effectively as I could – was basically fairly boring.
That didn’t seem to convince anyone so I stopped trying to explain that as a bookworm I didn’t have a dramatic encounter with a charismatic speaker, a life-changing mystical experience or participate in a totally mind-blowing meeting. I just read a book, then bought some more books and read them double quick, met a few warm and accepting people to ask questions of, then decided it made sense and joined the Bahá’í community. Something like that. It’s why I’ve never blogged about it in detail really. Anyway when I got back from the meeting I set about writing my story (eventually, if I pass it on, you’ll find it on the UK Baha’i histories site).
In doing so, I had to go back through my journals of that time and check out some dates. Shades of Becket’s Krapp’s Last Tape again (see earlier post). Becket’s monologue situation is that ‘It is Krapp’s 69th birthday and he hauls out his old tape recorder, reviews one of the earlier years – the recording he made when he was 39 – and makes a new recording commenting on the last 12 months.’ I’m just a year late this time.
As I read, I was amazed that I had got one key date wrong – I was still doing clinical placements until the end of September 1982 – I thought the course was all over by July, but that was only the academic bit.
The journal is full to the brim of desultory ruminations on the work I was doing on placement:
“2nd September 1982: It has been a wonderful day – ploughed brown earth under the warmth of a mellow sun against a background of subdued green. However, not even such a day can remove the oppressive feel of the mental hospital to me. It is not an oppression that resides in any obvious way in the buildings or the layout even, unprepossessing as those are. Ugliness is not necessarily oppressive. Somehow the spirit exuded by the place as a whole is one of immutable and dehumanising tradition.
Today’s ward round, which I attended as a guest, was an emblem of that. Dr X., who is lugubrious and yet admirably meticulous, was on leave. In his stead was Dr Y, short, greying, shrewd and abrupt, with a slightly disarming affectation of bumbledom to mask the steel of his prompt authority. With him in the driving seat, and Dr W., the Registrar, and Mr Z., a nurse, in attendance, the ward round was steered into oppressive backwaters of psychiatric practice.
Dr W: We can’t give her medication on a 25. It’s illegal.
Mr Z: Since when is it illegal, doctor, to give a patient medication?
Dr W: We can’t on a 25.
Mr Z: If we did only what ’twas legal there’d be few people helped, to my way of thinking.
Dr Y: Should it be a 26 she’s on, d’you think doctor?
Dr W: Yes, I do. She needs medication.
25 and 26 refer to parts of the Mental Health Act at the time. Section 26 allowed you to force someone to take medication, but only if a certain level of risk was reached: Section 25 did not. The patient in question had just been ushered out of conference after delivering a loud long uninterruptible and paranoid harangue. She was clearly not going to agree to take medication voluntarily. What was disturbing was that there was no evidence to indicate that she was a danger to herself and/or others.
I think my somewhat self-righteous anti-psychiatry stance at the time, which had been rooted in my former socialist perspective and shaped by my experience of People Not Psychiatry, may have blinded me to the possible teasing irony of the nurse’s comments in the face of a doctor’s somewhat abrupt and prissy manner. The final point probably still stands though and raises the question of whether I should have brought it up myself at the time – the pros and cons of which it doesn’t appeared to have occurred to me to mention in my account.
This slight distortion of dates was bad enough, but even more surprising was the fact that the journal contained no mention whatsoever of the earlier moment I remember so well.
The Winter of my Discontent
Much of the second year of my Clinical MSc, from late 1981 onwards, was a very testing time. I was undergoing significant upheavals in my personal life and, perhaps as a result of the distress I was feeling, had also made at least one very poor decision, which impacted adversely on others as well as on myself. I was extremely distressed by all this, particularly because I had brought most of this on myself and could also see how others were suffering too. By Christmas, I knew I needed help to sort the situation out and rectify what I could in terms of damage done, but I couldn’t see where to turn.
To my astonishment, in early January 1982, I found myself alone in a snow-bound cottage in the middle of Sussex, a complete unbeliever as I thought, on my knees in tears saying, ‘God, if you exist, please help me now.’ It was a short prayer, if prayer it really was, but it was undoubtedly intensely felt. I was on my knees a lot longer than it took to say those improbable words. Interestingly, I was writing lots and lots of poems at the same time – some of them the best I’ve ever written. The poems don’t mention the prayer either but they were undoubtedly influenced by the weather.
My poetry lacks bravery.
Sunlight on snow
Says everything I need,
But when I go
None will know how,
Under my frost,
Songs were silenced.
Not a word about the prayer anywhere at all! Very strange! I don’t doubt that it happened but it seemed as though I had devoted acres of paper to recording far less important facts about my life and neglected some really critical moments.
Perhaps most surprisingly of all, though I have a huge number of memories about the period of this life-changing decision, most of which I have included in my draft of my story, none of them are in my journal. There is a short two paragraph entry there on 20 December 1982. It reads:
On 25 November 1982 I borrowed Scrutton’s book on the Bahá’í Faith from the library. On Friday 26 November I went down to the Bahá’í centre because, so closely did what was described correspond to my ideal, that I could not believe it. I bought half a dozen books, talked to several people, and soaked up an atmosphere of love more intoxicating than any wine I have ever tasted before.
On 2 December, I declared as a Bahá’í and I’m still utterly convinced I did the right thing. . . . . . [People] feel it could be another one of my transient and embarrassing enthusiasms and can’t understand my need for a religion in the first place. I feel that I will still be a Baha’i in 20 years time. Time will tell.
And, it seems, I am still working at it – after more than 30 years.
Summoning up Remembrance
The absence of evidence in the journal, when considered in the light of how treacherous I have found my memory to be, may indicate that the whole process has been heavily embroidered in my mind. Its treachery came home to me as a result of a conflict between my journal and my memory which I have blogged about before and which I will be republishing shortly.
When anyone has asked me tell them about situations where my declaration as a Bahá’í brought me into conflict with the assumptions of my profession as a psychologist I was prone to boasting of the time I went for an informal interview for a clinical post soon after I qualified. I was walking with the neuropsychologist, I said, down towards her office. She was dressed in a white coat so she looked like a doctor from the back. The only thing missing was a stethoscope.
As we walked she cast a sideways glance at me and said: ‘Thank goodness Blackmore has finally put paid to the idea of God, don’t you agree?’
‘Not really,’ I distinctly remember saying,’I have an idea about God that I believe in.’
She glared at me and we walked the rest of the short way to her office in silence.
I come out of that version of events reasonably well and believed, until late last month, that this was exactly what happened. Until, that is, I read my journal of that period looking for the page reference. Imagine my feelings when I discovered, in my own hand-writing, an almost completely different version of events. First of all it happened in September. I didn’t hear about the Baha’i Faith until November. First hole below the waterline. I wrote:
She wore a white coat [at least I got that right] with her name written on a badge. My revulsion against psychologists who wish to masquerade as doctors was barely containable. And when I heard her mouthing with obvious contempt such things as ‘. . . .people who don’t realise that the mind is separate from the brain’ I did not know what to say. . . . .
All I could say was ‘I haven’t thought about it a lot.’
‘I’m very sorry to hear that . . . very sorry . . . I’m very sorry to hear that indeed.’
Quite why I couldn’t fight back I don’t know. Perhaps my feelings were running too high – they were certainly strong by this time. I just wanted to get out, I think.
According to my journal I mumbled some jargon strewn with impressive names but basically ducked the point. I believed the mind was not reducible to the brain but couldn’t say so.
The accounts, though they have a kernel of common truth, couldn’t be more different. When I had become a Baha’i I did speak out but definitely not then and not in the way I convinced myself it had happened. I clearly didn’t want to remember my craven evasion so I backdated my eventual moral courage and believed my own propaganda.
This might have been another reason why I have been so reluctant to go public with the story of my joining the Bahá’í community. How much of what I thought I remembered was, in fact, accurate?
To my relief, my memory of the basic details I quoted above was correct, which is encouraging.
Less Surprising than I thought?
What was still surprising, and which I had also forgotten, was how preoccupied with spiritual issues I had been in the months between my conditional prayer and my decision to join the Bahá’í community. I wrote copiously on the topic and it would be tedious in the extreme to quote everything but it’s worth sharing a taster, I think. At the end of August that year I wrote (emphasis in the original):
I have a burning desire to wipe the slate of my life and mind completely clean – and begin again differently – to polish my mind until it shines smooth and clear, revealing the true grain of its essential nature to the world and reflecting the world in the clarity of its shine.
The closeness which which this resembles quotations from Bahá’í Scripture feels slightly uncanny:
O My Brother! A pure heart is as a mirror; cleanse it with the burnish of love and severance from all save God, that the true sun may shine within it and the eternal morning dawn. Then wilt thou clearly see the meaning of “Neither doth My earth nor My heaven contain Me, but the heart of My faithful servant containeth Me.
(The Seven Valleys: page 21)
Not exactly the same, obviously, but strangely parallel. Revisiting journals is an oddly unsettling but also somewhat reassuring experience. I think on the whole the surprises it triggers make it worthwhile – at least now and again. I’m not sure I would want to do it too often!