Under My Skin

UnderMySkinIt took me a few weeks to get through this book, the first volume of Doris Lessing’s autobiography, published in 1994. This wasn’t because the book is particularly long or difficult, nor is it because I didn’t like reading it. It’s because Lessing’s writing here is the type that I needed to spend time with to appreciate it. I couldn’t read it in a hurry.

Doris Lessing was born in 1919 to a former World War I soldier and the nurse who took care of him during his hospitalization after losing a leg. The couple was living in Persia when Doris was born, but in 1925 they moved to Rhodesia, where Doris lived until 1949, when she moved to London and this autobiography ends.

Early in the book, Lessing acknowledges the difficultly inherent in autobiography:

Telling the truth or not telling it, and how much, is a lesser problem than the one of shifting perspectives, for you see your life differently at different stages, like climbing a mountain while the landscape changes with every turn in the path. Had I written the when I was thirty, it would have been a pretty combative document. In my forties, a wail of despair and guilt: oh my God, how could I have done this or that? Now I look back at that child, that girl, that young woman, with a more and more detached curiosity. Old people may be observed peering into their pasts, Why?—they are asking themselves. How did that happen? I try to see my past selves as someone else might, and then put myself back inside one of them, and am at once submerged in a hot struggle of emotion, justified by thoughts and ideas I now judge wrong.

Besides, the landscape itself is a tricky thing. As you start to write at once the question begins to insist: Why do you remember this and not that? Why do you remember every detail a whole week, month, more, of a long ago year, but then complete dark, a blank? How do you know that what you remember is more important than what you don’t?

Good questions all, though Lessing does not answer them in this book. She just gets on with the work of telling her own story as she remembers it.

Much of the book involves her early hunger to break free from her parents. From an early age, she harbors a lot of anger toward them, especially her mother, although she never quite identifies a clear reason for her anger. Some of it has to do with her mother’s desire to live an upper-class English life in Africa, where such a life is neither feasible nor desirable. There are also her parents’ physical and mental health problems. Not long after the family finished their farmhouse, Doris’s mother took to her bed with what she called a bad heart. Doris was enraged at the time, but looking back, she’s more sympathetic:

Now I understand why she went to bed. In that year she underwent that inner reconstruction which most of us have to do at least once in a life. You relinquish what you had believed you must have to live at all.

Some of Doris’s feelings toward her parents probably arose from fear, from seeing herself in them. Here, she considers her attitude at age 14:

Oh my God, the unforgiving clarity of the adolescent, sharpened by fear that this might be your fate too. “I will not, I will not,” I kept repeating to myself, like a mantra.

Eventually, her desire to be free led her to leave school and live with other families as often as she could, getting work as a nursemaid.

Getting free from her family, however, did not mean getting the freedom she craved. By 1939, she was married. She adored her babies, but she didn’t adore being part of the circle of young mothers. Something else to break free from.

Her next move took her into the world of left-wing politics, where she met Gottfried Lessing. The chapters describing her work with the Communist groups of Rhodesia are among the most interesting in the book, not because of the politics but because of the group dynamics that could apply to almost any group of impassioned people. She writes about the power struggles within the group, the shifting allegiances and priorities, and the tendency to become insular and suspicious of everyone not on the inside.

One particularly insightful section discusses the language she and her cohorts used, phrases like “capitalist hyenas, social democratic treachery, running dogs of Fascism, lackeys of the ruling class, and so on.” When she and her friends were first introduced to this kind of language, they couldn’t take it seriously:

We could not use it without laughing … We put the phrases between inverted commas, or exchanged glances while demurely mouthing them. Dorothy Schwartz was particularly good at this, pronouncing that such and such a public figure was a lickspittle of the ruling class with infantile left-wing disorders, while her eyes rolled gently, and her voice fell like an Anglican bishop’s reaching the peroration of his sermon. Slowly, but within months, the abusive rhetoric was set aside.

Lessing remarks that when she wrote The Good Terrorist, which used events from this period, she received many letters from readers who were also part of left-wing groups that did not give up on this rhetoric. In fact, they said, ” ‘The language took them over’ and they became ruthless and efficient killing groups.” Lessing reflects on this with thoughts that seem relevant now:

We should be careful of the company we keep—and the language we use. Regimes, whole countries, have been taken over by language spreading like a virus from minds whose substance is hate and envy. When armies are teaching soldiers to kill, the instructors are careful to put hateful epithets into their mouths: easy to kill a degenerate gook or or black monkey. When torturers teach apprentices their trade, they learn from an ugly lexicon. When revolutionary groups plan coups, their opponents are moral defectives. When they burned witches, it was to the accompaniment of a litany of calumny.

Hateful, dehumanizing language can come from people who are otherwise in the right, and once that kind of language takes over, right becomes wrong. It’s something to be careful of in a time when quippy but mean-spirited terms for people who are different from us can go viral and spread far beyond our immediate circles.

Before reading this, I’d only read Lessing’s final novel, Alfred and Emily, which I didn’t like very much. I did, however, like the writing, and the novel’s use of Lessing’s parents’ histories made me curious about Lessing’s life, which is one reason I decided to read this. I wondered if my lack of familiarity with Lessing’s other work would be a problem, and it wasn’t. When the book ends, she’s still in the process of getting her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, published, so she doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing the writing of a bunch of books I don’t know anything about. She mentions her other books when describing people and places that inspired those books, but she doesn’t let the allusion to those works stand in for a full description of those people and places. For me, this book could stand entirely alone as a well-written book by a woman who lived in interesting times. But after reading this, I am interested in reading more of Lessing’s work. If you’ve read Lessing, what would you recommend?

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14 Responses to Under My Skin

  1. realthog says:

    But after reading this, I am interested in reading more of Lessing’s work. If you’ve read Lessing, what would you recommend?

    Alas, Lessing is one of those writers where I love the author but have difficulty loving the work.

    • Teresa says:

      It’ll be interesting to see what I make of her fiction when I try it again. My feelings for this book could be as much about liking her as about liking her work, but I think the writing itself had a lot to do with my feelings.

  2. banff1972 says:

    I guess I liked Alfred & Emily more than you did: http://eigermonchjungfrau.wordpress.com/2014/08/19/alfred-emily-doris-lessing-2008/
    The Grass is Singing is really terrific. But I suppose my two favourites are The Good Terrorist and The Summer Before the Dark.
    Despite the Nobel, Lessing remains underrated.

    • Teresa says:

      I think I would have appreciated Alfred and Emily more if I had read Under My Skin first. Not knowing much about their true history robbed the alternate history of some of its power.

      From what she said in the memoir about The Good Terrorist, I think I’d like it. Lessing seems to be a writer a lot of people know about but don’t read.

  3. Edith says:

    Begin with The Grass is Singing….a haunting story of the disintegration of a farm and marriage.

  4. Eva says:

    This sounds fascinating! I adore every passage you’ve excerpted, so I suppose I should give the whole memoir a go. Especially since it doesn’t mention her books, so I won’t need to do a lot of pre-reading first!

    I’ve only read one Lessing: The Fifth Child which was SO creepy, if you’re in the mood for a confronting, gothic-y kind of book.

    • Alex says:

      ‘The Fifth Child’ was the first of Lessing’s books that I read. It scared me so much I very nearly refused to read another word by her!

    • Teresa says:

      I underlined so many passages. Her writing is tremendous!

      She does mention her other books, but usually just to say that these events or this character shows up in this book. That was actually helpful for getting me thinking about what else of hers I’d like to read.

      I had a copy of The Fifth Child once upon a time, but I think I gave it away unread. It sounds really good, though.

  5. Alex says:

    I really enjoyed ‘The Good Terrorist’ but you might find it interesting to read ‘Martha Quest’ which is very autobiographical and really reflects the early part of the book you’ve just read.

  6. litlove says:

    I really loved this memoir, and read the sequel, Walking in the Shade, too. My memory of it is that Lessing’s mother clearly favoured her younger brother and was highly critical of Doris as a child, forever telling people in her hearing how difficult and unlovable she was. Then, when she was older and growing up, the mother became seriously intrusive and manipulative. I remember reading the scene where Doris is wearing a bra she’s made herself, her mother refusing to buy her one, and when she leaves her room, she’s set upon by her mother who calls Doris’s father over and then whips Doris’s dress up to show him what she’s done. I think I’d be pretty mad about that, too. As for novels, I enjoyed Love, Again as it was about the theatre and that was a good way into her work. But I also recommend The Grass is Singing and Martha Quest.

    • Teresa says:

      I remember the incident involving the bra, and her feelings about her brother. Both of these were upsetting, but I wasn’t sure they added up to the level of bad feeling Lessing had toward her mother. Some of what she described seemed like typical generational tension to me, because she tended to speak about it generally, with only a handful of specific incidents described in detail. Probably any child could come up with a handful of clueless parental moments–and perceptions of favoritism are sometimes skewed, with both children believing the other is the favorite. Family dynamics are so complicated, though, and what seems normal in one household with one set of personalities would cross all sorts of boundaries in another.

      A book about the theatre definitely appeals to me. I’ll add Love, Again to my Lessing list!

      • litlove says:

        I completely agree with you about the way that one set of dynamics is okay in one household and not in another. Lessing says about her family at the start of her memoir: ‘The fact was, my early childhood made me one of the walking wounded for years… I think that some psychological pressures, and even well-meant ones, are as damaging as physical hurt.’ I suppose when I read the book, I felt quite ready to identify with Lessing. The things she describes happening to her would certainly have upset me as a child, so it seemed convincing to me. I think it’s a problem with memoirs, per se, how our own experiences prepare us to receive them, and perhaps especially when as an adult, the writer doesn’t want to go on too much in a way that might be seen as complaining. And there are many memoirs out there that describe completely horrific experiences, making ones like Lessings relatively benign. Which of course isn’t the way these things are experienced at the time, and not for children. It’s an interesting issue – how to explain what seems awful when it might not objectively look awful.

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