Decca Aitkenhead on Empathy and Memory

Published August 15, 2016


“I was almost ten years old when my mother died, and I can remember someone telling me at the time to write down all my memories of her,” writes Decca Aitkenhead, a British journalist for The Guardian, in the prologue to her memoir All At Sea  (Nan A. Talese). “What a daft idea, I remember thinking … I’m hardly likely to forget anything about her. Unfortunately, however, within a remarkably short time I found I had forgotten almost everything else. She had been my mother for one week short of a decade, and before I was even in my teens I could barely remember a thing about her,” she continues. “Tony drowned just a few months before our tenth anniversary, and I am frightened of losing that decade too.”

Out tomorrow, All at Sea focuses on the life and death of Aitkenhead’s partner Tony Wilkinson. The narrative begins with the pivotal tragedy—Tony drowning while saving their young son Jake from a rip tide while on holiday in Jamaica—before delving into the history of both partners. The couple’s love story, or at least their courtship, is unconventional. While Aitkenhead was raised with three older brothers, the youngest child of liberal intellectuals, Wilkinson was born in Leeds to a 15-year-old white mother and black father, and adopted by a working class white couple. When the two met living on the same street in London in the early 2000s, Aitkenhead was an established writer and Wilkinson was a crack-addicted drug dealer who had spent time in prison. Both were married to other people. Before the birth of their first child, however, Wilkinson had stopped taking drugs. At the time of his death, he was a father twice over (their other young son is named Joe) and worked for the children’s charity Kids Company.

Through Aitkenhead’s memories, you get a sense of Wilkinson as kind, caring, affable, and warm. The devastation felt by those who loved him is incredibly, palpably painful. “For most of my life I have known how to control my feelings,” Aitkenhead writes. “I you can control your feelings, you can pretty much control your whole world. It’s amazingly effective.” Tony’s death, however, Aitkenhead deems “beyond [her] control,” and the story seems crueler, still, when you learn that just after finishing her memoir, Aitkenhead was diagnosed with cancer and had to undergo chemotherapy.

On the phone, Aitkenhead is calm and thoughtful. It is no surprise that she was named Interviewer of the Year at the 2009 British Press Awards.

EMMA BROWN: When you began writing All at Sea, did you intend for it to be public or published? Or was it just supposed to be for you, your children, and your family?

DECCA AITKENHEAD: I suppose if I didn’t write for a living and it couldn’t be published, I would have wanted to write anyway. I think there’s something about the act of writing that organizes thoughts and memories. I find I try to remember something now—talking to you now—I might struggle. [But] if I sit in front of a computer things happen in one’s mind that don’t happen unless we’re writing. For me, it was important for a few different reasons. One of which is when somebody dies young in a very unexpected or tragic circumstances, some people have an urge to start charities or foundations or raise money, and they run marathons. I understand that purpose now. It’s a way of memorializing the one who died. For me, writing a book that would be in a public domain was a primitive urge, to say, “This person who mattered so much to me lived. He existed.” I’m not one for running marathons or anything like that. For me, writing about him publicly was a way of memorializing his life.

There was also another reason why I wanted it to be a book rather than a private diary: I was very aware, weirdly only days after his death, [that] the manner of his death—dying saving his son—meant he would be described as a hero. For me he was always a hero. Obviously to my children he would be. I was nervous for the impulse of posthumous deification when somebody dies young and in these circumstances. I could see, of course, that would happen. Whilst all of that is true, that didn’t make untrue the bits of his life that were less easy to celebrate or less easy to glorify. It became apparent to me very quickly that people didn’t want to talk or even mention his name around my children. Who wants to talk a really small child about their father’s death? I realized that I was going to be the sole gatekeeper of Tony’s history to my kids. I could see how tempting it could be to allow versions of Tony that just serve, “Oh, what a heroic man he was for dying saving his son’s life!” I could see that would become the only version that would be retold to my children. I wanted them to know the full truth of his life, all in its different dimensions, with the early difficulties he faced and the problems that he got into.

I could see immediately one wouldn’t tell them about that then when they’re too young because they see the world in black and white and it might be really difficult for them to reconcile that the dad they knew was someone who had been in prison and addicted to crack and had been violent against the law. In adolescence it might be tempting not to tell them because they might say, “Well if our dad did all of that and got away with it then we could too.” They might see it as a license. Then if I put it off until they were grownup they would feel really cheated and angry that there was this whole other side to their dad’s life that no one had told them about.

I had this fear that if I didn’t write a book making it public that I might, as the years go by, give into the temptation to withhold or airbrush or procrastinate. I didn’t want to do that. I can’t stand family secrets. I think they’re such a toxic thing and they always leak out. To write a book about Tony—although my kids might not read it for years and years—essentially I’ve forfeited the opportunity to lie to them or airbrush the truth or withhold bits about their dad to them when they’re older. There’ll be times in the future where I might regret having done that or wish that I had maintained editorial control over his story. [laughs] I think it’s better for them in the long run where I’ve put myself in the position where I can’t do that.

BROWN: Did you start writing directly after Tony died in the nine-month period you cover in the book?

AITKENHEAD: I started sketching out ideas and thoughts about four months after he died. I actually started writing it on what would have been his 50th birthday, the beginning of January 2015. I finished it, coincidentally, on the anniversary of his death: the 15 of May, 2015. It was all written within the first year, partly because I thought, “I don’t know I’d be able to bear to revisit this if I allowed the passage of time to heal.” I worried I would be reluctant to revisit that level of trauma or distress. I thought, “I’ll do it while I’m bleeding.” That’s a little dramatic, but, “While I’m actually in this state it will be much easier to write it then if I were to leave it.”

Also, as it was the only thing I was thinking about or talking about, it would have felt incredibly difficult to write anything else. I did try for months before I started writing this book to go back to work as a journalist. My kids found this really, really difficult because they didn’t know where I’d be from one day to the next. My mind was so far away that it seemed bonkers to want to try to wrench my thoughts away to something else.

One of the rather unedifying truths about grief is it does block out more or less everything. It has a solipsistic quality to it. I haven’t intended to write about myself very much in my career. I like interviewing people and writing about other people. If Tony had died in the months before the current political drama with Brexit then maybe it would have been different. [laughs] Certainly the political climate we’re living in now is fairly extreme, but at that point there was nothing going on in the world that really penetrated my preoccupation with Tony and his death. It felt like the only thing I could really focus productively.

BROWN: Do you ever have days where you think, “I’m going to take a break. I’m not going to think about this”?

AITKENHEAD: I would have given—and would give—anything in the world for days that I can take a break and not think about it. I expect that will come, but certainly in the first year after his death that would have been like saying to myself, “Oh I think I’ll fly to the moon today.” It would have been as unimaginably impossible. It wasn’t as if when I sat down at my desk to write I was making myself have to focus on these thoughts or relive these memories. That’s all I was doing anyway. I wouldn’t have been able to access as many memories if I hadn’t been writing and I wouldn’t have been able to order it in my mind, but it would have been there swirling around.

I suppose that being the case, being able to organize it and structure it and see it in black and white and access memories that I wouldn’t have been able to access if I were here talking to you was almost a way of taming this preoccupation. It was a way of ordering it and making something productive about it, because I certainly couldn’t escape it. To try and martial it and organize it into something tangible seemed to make more sense.

Just after I finished the book I was diagnosed with cancer. I don’t what the second year following his death would have been like if that had not happened. Maybe there would have been more emotional respite. Being ill and the prospect that my children were now going to be orphaned made it very, very difficult to take a break from it in anyway at all.

BROWN: How did you decide to end the book, because obviously it’s not the end of your story?

AITKENHEAD: I finished it on the 15 of May and I was fiddling around with it. I sent it to the editor and then I was diagnosed with cancer in June. I thought, “Oh god, the book can’t end there? That would be fundamentally unreal and surreal and weird.” It felt like an untruthful end. My intention was to write about having cancer as well, at least as a chapter if not more. That was the naïve intention of someone who had no idea what chemotherapy was going to do to the brain. I couldn’t count the number of times I sat with my laptop hunched up in bed thinking, “Just one paragraph, and then another.” After about three or four times when I literally would be incapable of stringing together a paragraph—let alone a chapter or more—I had to concede defeat and recognize that the book was going to end where it was. I wasn’t able to write a shopping list once chemo started to be honest, let alone anything anyone else would want to read. If it hadn’t been for that I might have ended the book differently, but it just wasn’t possible.

BROWN: In the prologue, you have this line: “I have been writing about real people for all these years, and apparently had not grasped that they were real.” You also talk about how grief is fundamentally lonely. Has it helped you understand the people you write about and is there any community in that?

AITKENHEAD: I am embarrassed to admit that before all of this happened, I flattered myself that I was rather empathetic, that I had rather good imaginative empathy. I’ve realized now that that was a complete self-delusion and that I didn’t really have any comprehension of what it was like to see your entire life go catastrophically wrong in a matter of moments. Since I’ve gone back to work, I have a much greater insight, I think, than I could possibly have done without this happening, into people who have suffered terrific loss. For example, I went to interview a man a couple of weeks ago whose wife was born in Iran—her family are in Iran. She had gone to visit her family with their one-year-old daughter, and as she was queuing to board the flight home, the revolutionary guard arrested her and she’s been kept in solitary confinement without access to a lawyer in a prison somewhere in Iran ever since. I went to visit this poor, shell-shocked man who last spoke to his wife about when he’d pick her up from the airport. Walking into his flat and seeing his daughter’s empty bedroom—this flat that his wife should have been home in three months earlier—and his sense of complete and utter disarrangement, I realized then that I had a much better insight into his internal world. The only downside is—I don’t know if it’s a downside, but I think of it as a downside and I think my editors think of it as a downside—it’s much harder now to observe that journalistic rule, and it’s an absolutely right and necessary rule, that you don’t write an interview for your interviewee, you write it for your readers. That requires a sometimes brutal objectivity that I find harder to summon now, I suppose because I really, really know now that the people I write about are real. That sounds kind of absurd and implausible; of course cognitively I understood that the people I was interviewing were real, but in some really fundamental sense, you think what happens in the papers is about some otherness rather than reality. Although it’s embarrassing to not know that they are real, it is also liberating because it helps you to write about them more freely and objectively. I don’t know if that will last; I can’t tell if that’s a permanent change or if, in time, the old fantasy that they’re not really real will return and enable me to be more brutally detached when writing about them.

BROWN: Do you think that because you understand these people in a way you didn’t before, you are able to convey and impart that empathy to your reader? Or do you feel like it doesn’t really change what happens to your reader because they haven’t been through it?

AITKENHEAD: I’ve thought about this a lot, because I’ve examined myself: “How come you thought you were empathetic but actually it required you to have to have these experiences?” For me, there is no substitute for direct experience. And I’ve wondered about this. Is it just that I was actually, despite my self-flattery, unusually bad at being able to empathize or imagine or place myself in the shoes of somebody in circumstances which I’ve not had experience of? Maybe the average person in the street is better at it than I was. My hunch, for what it’s worth, is that most of us probably find it much, much harder than we realize to really imagine what catastrophe is like. I have a hunch that we all labor under this rather convenient illusion that if we read about the Syrian refugee crisis, we can imagine what it feels like to set off from your home and your life with all your possessions in two bin liners and put your family onto an overcrowded, semi-sinking dingy to try to get to Kos in the middle of the night. We all think that we can imagine that and my guess is that none of us have got a clue. But, like I said, maybe that’s the guess of someone who just fails to realize that people are more imaginatively empathetic than I am.

BROWN: Do you think that people would be able to function if they were truly empathetic because there is so much pain in the world?

AITKENHEAD: That’s exactly right. If I were right now really feeling the plight of refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean in the way that I would be if I’d done it last week or if that were my brother or my child on one of those boats, one would cease to function. I think I’ve realized that there are many more examples of that in one’s day-to-day consciousness in order to get through the day. I might be dead tomorrow, you might be dead tomorrow, one of my children might be dead tomorrow. All of that is obviously true—I have no idea what’s coming tomorrow. Although on a rational level we know that, if we were to allow that knowledge to inform how we conduct ourselves from day to day, life would literally grind to halt. I guess I’ve discovered that, in order for life to go on, you have to believe in necessary fantasies such as what you think is going to happen next week will actually happen, the people who are alive right now will be alive next week. I guess I discovered that because for a while after Tony died, I literally couldn’t comprehend how it was that people weren’t dropping like flies every day. It seemed an extraordinary freak of nature that we were all still alive. I was expecting anyone and everyone to be dead at any moment. I couldn’t even drive at more than 20 miles an hour. Although it’s true, you can’t live a life informed by that truth. I don’t think I consciously tried to distance myself from that knowledge, but I think that your unconscious does it for you. Isn’t that the most strange thing, though—the most absolute fundamental truth of human existence is that it’s utterly impermanent and transitory and fragile, and that there is no logic or justification or order to the luck about why one person drowns one day? When I’m sitting on the airplane flying home from Jamaica looking around at all the other families flying home in tact, there’s no reason why all the other dads are there and my children’s dad is in a coffin in the hold of the plane beneath us. There is no logic to it. It doesn’t matter what a good person you try to be. There are no rules or virtues that you can observe to protect yourself from random caprice. There just aren’t. And yet, as time goes on, I’ve realized I’ve lapsed back into living my life as if there were some relationship between how you conduct yourself and whether or not you live or die because it’s necessary to believe that.