The title partly comes from a distortion of the debut album by The Smoke Fairies, Sussex born makers of ethereal folky music. I recalled the phrase when reading The Spiral Staircase, Karen Armstrong’s third memoir. Recounting the period in the 1960s where she lodged with Oxford academics Jenifer and Hebert Hart, Karen often had reason to print the words ‘Moon Rises.’ Her charge, Jacob, greeted her with the phrase each morning. He read the newspapers over breakfast and quoted the day’s headlines and mooncycles to her.
This is the second time I have read The Spiral Staircase, and both times I have felt an affinity with the writer and presenter who left a nunnery after a breakdown to ‘begin the world’ as her second memoir was almost titled. Her next essay of 2004 is a mature overview over sixty years, from novice to scholar, teacher, broadcaster and is now well known for her books on mainly the monotheistic religions. I take courage from the time it took for Karen to find her place in the world, for opportunities and careers to abort before embracing her path on a solitary spiral stair, a secular sacred assent that has recently culminated in her worthy compassion charter.
Perhaps the episodes with the Hart family stand out most for me. It was here that Karen was prepared to deal with and accept her own epilepsy, though sadly looking after Jenifer’s son Jacob did not precipitate a diagnosis for her or keep her away from useless psychiatrists who refused to take her frightful visions and black outs seriously.
Although I have a reaction to the faith she lost, denigrated and kind of returned to, my strongest response is to that era where Karen struggled with her health and believed herself to be a few steps from a mental hospital’s inpatients. Since leaving her religious order, Karen seemed to have been surrounded by so called rationalists. I say ‘so called’ as a dogged belief in only what science approves of and a derisory ridicule of anything beyond that is not rational to me. It is the reverse. And many people have entered mental institutions for disagreeing.
Hasn’t proclaiming someone mad long been the easiest way to silence and undermine? Whether you’re Christine from Changeling, questioning the authorities, or the spurned lover of Mussolini, it’s just another set of cells with actually worse treatments and control than a prison. It sweeps away dissenters and challengers; people who might embarrass – not through their behaviour but often by exposing other’s shortcomings. Last week, I posted on the television series Afterlife. The fictional medium Alison Mundy spent much of her past in mental institutions because of her gift. In the first series, she bravely returns to help a young man who claims he has an alter ego that harms him and others. What’s frightening about re-entering that hospital is not the other inmates but the staff. Any dissent and you are hauled off and then given treatments. The staff are inhumane, talking in that patronising unreal way. All of this is designed to destroy souls that the system often doesn’t believe in.
In Afterlife, Alison says that the drugs actually feed the spirits and do not make anything go away. Karen’s experience of drugs were that they were also ineffectual.
I am interested in Karen’s relief at being diagnosed with epilepsy and her willingness to take drugs for it. As mentioned, she was mostly around people who believe in science and the mind. She had rejected religion, believing Christianity to be academically insupportable. She has not returned to experiential faith and her ecstasy now is from art and study – her definition of ecstasy not being one of transported rapture but an etymological leaving oneself behind. She sometimes felt that her ability to feel had been lost and her ability to think originally was submerged for some years, first under her nun training and then in academia. All this perhaps explains why a medical response was welcomed rather than the ideas that Alison of Afterlife or anything that Louise L Hay or a famous medium might tell you.
For them, spirituality and health are connected. Karen never speaks of a higher self, a spirit world or a personal God, but for other writers these are essential philosophies. Understanding symptoms of epilepsy for them would not be about drugs to control electric jumps in the brain. What is really going on is something that can’t be measured, just as our full humanity cannot be.
I am loathe to even mention the idea of fits and demons being linked. Liberal Christians read Jesus’ exorcisms as in fact dealing with epilepsy. Looking at it that way round, it’s a relief: it takes away the terror of potential possession, relegating the fits and any visions to things that can be cured by a dosage, and which has much less fear and stigma attached (there should be none). Perhaps I will no more than hint of the reverse interpretation except to say that such diagnoses can be harmful emotionally as much as the often poorly handled attempts to release sufferers.
But could spirituality and mental and physical health be more entwined than many practitioners are willing to believe? As The Verve sang, the drugs don’t work.They are a wicked form of control, as much as padded cells and restraints. As Alison in Afterlife points out, some previous mental health candidates would have been seen as witches and burned. We are really not very good at fair treatment and empathy with those that are different, including those who manifest behaviours or powers that perhaps frighten us.
I was relieved to think that Mother Julian’s devil visitations might be explained in the same way of Karen’s ghastly visions. Karen’s doctor said she has temporal lobe epilepsy which affects the sight and smell areas of the brain, which explains her eyeless old man and the malodorous sulphur. Something similar was experienced by Julian, though those in the room with her did not. When I first read of Julian’s fiends, it frightened me that a devout woman should be allowed such visions – why didn’t God step in and rescue one of his own from this attack? Two years ago, I decided her visions were because she had explicitly asked for it, and influenced by cosmic ordering, believed God had given her simply what she had chosen. Now I am less comfortable with that.
I have said this before but it is a point worth repeating: we believe what is palatable. There are some things I don’t want to be true – whether it be the existence of a scary cryptological specimen or demonic interventions. And I will work to discredit them. However, there are some things I am happy to embrace and draw comfort from. Evangelical Christians say that those who deny God do so because if he and the miraculous side of the Bible are true, it calls them to face up to things they don’t want to that requires action. Perhaps that principle is true of rationalism in general – that if something is not denouncable, choices are called for and uncomfortable transitions must be made. I often wonder why the existence of a spiritual realm, especially God, is so unfavourable to many people and why the miraculous elements of the Bible are so hard to absorb. I have a very liberal, non mainstream faith but my attitude to all of the science worshippers’ objections has always been: why not? God, flood, miracles… resurrection… what an unimaginative, narrow world where such wondrous aberrations cannot take place.
You will soon gather that I too have a spiralling mind, a theme and title which have significance in my creative writing. So we circle round the staircase to again find our strange moon, and the family that gave this piece its title. I really warm to Jacob Hart and would like to know more of him. I think he sounds witty and interesting. I have been intrigued and impressed by what I have found out about his parents and how their unconventional lodgings were an oddly nurturing time for Karen. I love how Jenifer rescued Karen from the mental hospital and had stolen second hand sweets to comfort her with. I am shocked when Jacob’s appearance and behaviours are called hereditary – by looking at his father. I don’t claim to know what epilepsy and other illnesses are – even if ‘illness’ is the right word. But I question hereditary theories and, and especially the use of drugs and other treatments from inside hospitals. Karen lists some shocking ways of dealing with epilepsy from the past, but we have not moved on very far, especially not in the general world of mental health; and drugs are tied into pharmaceutical company profits – there is more to their prescription (both senses) than supposed greater success of control. Drugs do not even pretend to cure epilepsy. I am sure that other kinds of healers have a far more healthy and holistic way of assisting. One healer wrote of a client who wouldn’t release his epilepsy because it made him feel special. I can understand why that man hung onto it; like why some people on wheelchairs at a Charismatic healing rally say – it’s OK: I can live like this. I don’t need curing. I am whole as I am. And like Alison Mundy – it is part of me and I’d be lost without it.
This is a staircase I like to tread on and may well return to. For now, I shall watch out for moons and think of not only excellent gigs but of a wonderfully eccentric, radical household and celebrate those whose ideas give them ideas to change the world; and of misunderstood people with gifts and traits that should be celebrated and explored, not quashed and scolded, and heaven help us all: treated.