The Three of Us

By Julia Blackburn

As Philip Larkin memorably put it, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” He wrote that line in 1971, by which time Julia Blackburn had been well fucked up by Thomas and Rosalie, a violent, substance abusing father and vulgar (“These are piles!”) sexually obsessed mother. In their day lives he was a poet, she a painter, and following Larkin we can’t be too quick to blame them. They were, “in their turn,” inheritors of the misery of a previous generation of degenerates. Pictures of the “fools in old-style hats and coats” are included, one a batty racist preacher who locked his son’s genitals in a cage, the other a First World War vet whose hinted-at delinquencies with his favourite daughter probably contributed to her childhood suicide.

The memoir is launched when Rosalie dies in 1999, telling an adult Julia with children of her own that she will finally be able to write about her. And this is the story that Julia does tell, of her parents’ divorce and the childhood she spent living with her mother. A childhood which gradually matured, at least in her mother’s eyes, into a kind of deadly sexual competition. As Rosalie took in a series of male lodgers, hoping each would turn out to be “the one,” her delusions were cruelly exposed as the lonely men turned out, understandably, to be more interested in her daughter. Hysterical recriminations and many trips to a string of nutty psychiatrists build up to a climax involving the suicide of one particularly hapless lodger/suitor and Julia’s finally leaving home.

Happiness, it’s often said, “writes white.” Which means it’s boring and no one wants to hear about it. All happy families are alike, after all; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. When reading a personal memoir like this we expect a train wreck, and Blackburn doesn’t disappoint. As with most of these efforts, especially given the recent vogue for “MiseryLit” and its blurring of the line between fact and fiction, there are moments when the reader is left to wonder if things could have really been as bad as they are made out to be, or that people could really be this mixed up. But of course we know that London in the swinging sixties – the sex, the drugs, even the psychobabble about animas, missing penises and “mother’s septic tit” – couldn’t have been all it was cracked up to be. One always suspected the depressing sleaziness and dysfunction that Blackburn grew up amid was closer to the truth.

The revelation of so many intimate horrors is what makes The Three of Us such a compellingly readable book, but it’s Blackburn’s writing that lifts it out of the crowded genre ghetto. An accomplished author of both fiction and non-fiction, Blackburn gracefully advances along the different fronts of her story, aided by a memory that, even assisted by journals, letters, and old pictures, seems remarkable. And while a central player in all of the events she describes, she maintains an objective distance – perhaps defensive – from them. The text includes many black-and-white photographs, recreating the curious effect we’ve all noticed when looking at pictures of ourselves from decades ago. Was that really me? Who is that person looking at the camera? What were they – was I – thinking?

The past is like that, another country even when it’s our own.

Review first published August 16, 2008.

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