I paused twice before beginning to read Barbara Else’s memoir, Laughing at the Dark. The first pause was at the arresting cover; a long-legged, mini-skirted young woman glances over her shoulder. She holds a rifle. Could this be Barbara Else herself? A few pages in I found a photograph which demonstrates that this indeed is a young Barbara Else; confident, strong beautiful. The other pause was over the dedication to her grandmother “although she would be horrified by much of this.”
As I read further, I was reminded increasingly how strong, clever, capable young women of the era that Else and I share were so obstructed by the more often than not unspoken, though you fully knew they were there expectations, obligations and rules imposed by society and by the families who loved us but were afraid that we would ruin ourselves through reckless and rebellious behaviour. Sex! Horrors!
When Else, as an eleven-year-old, is accosted by a creepy man on a bus- ”Do you know to be careful of the dirty ones?” she is afraid and uncomfortable without understanding why. She waits until her mother is alone to tell her what has happened but without speaking or looking at her, her mother leaves the room. Later Else comments that her mother expected her to learn about sex by “a sort of random absorption method.” Within her family things are “bottled up.” Else and her sisters are discouraged from grieving after their grandmother’s death. The family has a strict sense of morality; when Else’s older sister leaves her abusive husband, she is told by her father that she must not have contact with another man until the divorce is through. Eventually, she returns to her bullying husband since she doesn’t want to be stigmatised as “a divorced woman.”
Else learns to please, “I know that a good girl is meant to keep smiling,” an attitude which she takes into marriage as a very young woman. To be a good wife, she must “follow the job” naturally her husband, Jim’s job, which will, also naturally, take precedence over her own. When she suggests to him that she may begin a PhD, Jim comments that, in that case, she would become a doctor before him. Obviously, this cannot happen. She gives up the idea. Good wives deny themselves.
She and Jim have two daughters. Else knits, crochets, sews, hooks rugs, “for now it’s good to be good in this way, a good wife, a good wife.” But, at heart, Else is a lover of books and ideas and eventually, through joining a night class which she believed would help her to teach writing but in fact, teaches her to creatively write, she begins to write. She’s good at it. Her work begins to be published. Then, she and Jim and their two daughters move to the states-follow the job. Their visa dictates only Jim is able to work. Else cares for the children and the house and she writes.
Else is compassionate, fair and sensitive in her writing about the gradual breakdown of her marriage. Jim, ferociously driven by his work, is very much absent from the family life Else attempts to create. He is uninterested in her writing; he fails to read what she has written or to listen when she tells him about it. He openly states that she is less important to him than his work. He becomes angry when he discovers work she has written which he disapproves of. Else, though, is adamant that she loved and continued to love her husband. They have been happy in the past. She tries to talk with him, she asks for counselling. She understands that Jim is driven by a combination of ambition and self-doubt, that he was badly bullied at a boys boarding school, and that he longs to impress his father. In the end, she realises that the marriage may only be saved by her giving up writing and she must save herself.
In the years following the separation, Else experiences love, joy, the freedom to work in a loving and supportive environment and wonderful success in her writing. She revels in travel, in her daughters, grandchildren, and in creating homes with Chris Else her partner.
And then, there is a debilitating illness. Cancer.
Else writes with utter honesty as she navigates the many paths and threads her life has taken. Rather than a linear, past to present movement, the writing is thematic, reflective. Some of the chapters begin with moments at the hospital or at the oncologist’s office where she waits for news or contemplates the details of her illness. She does not hold back on her grief, there is no “bottling up.” There is the horrifying news that the chemo has not worked but then hope; she has been selected for trial drug treatment. But always, as throughout the memoir, Else brings her own wry humour to the situations she must confront.
I am of Barbara Else’s generation, also brought up with the strictures and rules of the time, also a writer. I nodded, smiled, sometimes wept as I read this enthralling, moving and elegantly written memoir. Else takes the reader on a passage through her own life which is also the lives of so many women of her generation who have been able to slip the mores which bound our destinations and destinies and find our best lives.
Reviewer: Paddy Richardson