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Beautifully Written and Very Brave
on 6 January 2017
This is a beautifully written and brave memoir of a woman who has struggled from anxiety for most of her life. As a child, Joanne Limburg was physically courageous (a champion tree-climber and daredevil cyclist) but socially nervous, and struggled to fit easily into groups at school, where she was bullied. As an adolescent, her fear spread to all sorts of physical things, she had trouble being accepted into friendship groups at her girls' school (though she was very happy in smaller groups, or chatting to one other girl) and her efforts to seek relief in academic achievement led to her worrying so much about getting good marks that she was unable to take pleasure in her work. She had a difficult time at Cambridge, where she struggled to find a subject that suited her, and to produce work good enough for her satisfaction, and had an unhappy love life. Her twenties were even more disrupted and confused than most people's twenties are, with various abortive attempts to complete a doctorate, to find a career that suited her and a home where she could be at ease. She also suffered several devastating bereavements. Eventually, in her late twenties/early thirties she fell in love, got married, brought out two books of poetry and had a son. But the anxiety continued... until one day her reading directed her to a study of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder...
Whatever other purpose this book will serve readers (and it's an example of superb writing for the most part apart from anything else) I consider it invaluable reading for any high-achieving academically-minded and insecure woman who had a difficult adolescence or a hard time post-university. Although I certainly had a better time (I think) at Cambridge than Limburg, there was a huge amount in her book that I could identify with - the struggle to belong in a big group, while being perfectly happy with friendships a deux or in smaller groups, the early romantic traumas, the sense of never being pretty, witty or clever enough, the belated teen rebellion post-university (this is a particularly hilarious section, though also very poignant), the constant sense of under-achievement, the happy relationship at the point when one had given up hope (Limburg's partner and mine are, by strange coincidence, both cat lovers with the same Christian name!). If my experiences are anything to go by, this book will certainly make a lot of women feel less alone - as Hilary Mantel noted in her Guardian review. And the fact that Limburg, however inadequate she feels, has achieved a great deal - two published volumes of poetry (and a lot of what she quotes in her book is very good), leading creative writing workshops, a happy long-term relationship, a degree in philosophy and I think, looking at her webpage, a finally near-complete doctorate - will certainly show readers how much one can do even when it seems near-impossible. And the writing is so good and so vivid throughout that, despite a subject that could be depressing, the book isn't in fact ever miserable, and is always very interesting.
The one thing I wasn't sure about in the end is how far Limburg's anxiety and emotional difficulties could be linked simply to a medical disorder. (To be fair, she makes it clear that she isn't, either.) Though some of her fears - walking down the street alone in case she got attacked or shouted at, or walking with her son by the river in case he drowned - were undoubtedly extreme, others seemed more natural (particularly after the series of bereavements she suffered). How much was the OCD a medical condition that she was born with and that needs pharmaceutical treatment, how much was it genetic (both Limburg's father, who died young, and her brother, who committed suicide, had depression) and how much was it down to circumstances, such as her being bullied as a young girl at school? And what is the best treatment for Limburg's condition - medication like Prozac, cognitive psychology or 'talking cures'? (Certainly, a life where one feels at one's best on Prozac doesn't really seem ideal long-term.) I also felt that Limburg perhaps under-estimated quite how well she does perform, even with this condition - publishing two volumes of poetry, caring for a child, a husband and two cats, teaching and studying while living with OCD is pretty impressive. But maybe the strength in this book is that it doesn't give simple answers, that it leaves you wondering how much of Limburg's fears are simply due to 'mental wiring' and how much due to life experience and temperament, and that it doesn't offer a single straightforward treatment for OCD, but shows what a wide-ranging condition it is.
In any case, I found this a brave, beautifully written and sometimes very witty memoir, completely devoid of self-pity, and constantly full of interest. I hope that Limburg increasingly comes to feel that she has her condition under control, and look forward to reading more books by her - and I hope that this book plus her poetry volumes and debut novel is the start of a distinguished career in literature. She is a brave woman and richly deserves success.