Coming to grips with our past is always a tricky proposition.
Emboldened by the idea that with examination and hopeful closure comes healing, and often unable to bear the pain of the scars of childhood any longer, we plunge into the fray of memories and past hurts, convinced by feel-good inspirational types that getting better is a smooth, trouble-free process from which only good can emerge.
But as Australian comedian Corey White elucidates all too clearly in his stark but beautifully-written memoir The Prettiest Horse in the Glue Factory, while there is healing to be had, it’s rarely complete, often messy and full of more wrong turns that a family going on a holidays with a busted GPS.
This is particularly so if you, like the author, has had the kind of childhood into early adulthood that makes Trainspotting feel like a romp in the park, a lifetime filled with broken parental relationships, foster care, emotional betrayal and trauma so ingrained and constant that the nearest corollary for the resulting emotional devastation is that of a veteran returning from the theatre of war. (White was diagnosed with Complex-Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome at 27, a common condition for many people caught in persistent, destructive abuse.)
It makes for confront reading at times as you grapple with the idea that one child, or as the advocate for a new approach to foster care argue passionately, many children, could go through so much in one short, scarred life.
“These events aren’t in the past, for me. I still think about them most days, I dream about them. There is no such thing as the past. Linearity is a myth, memory a time machine, trauma an acid eating the wiring, consuming the machine. It malfunctions.” (P. 60)
To hear White tell it, and he does so with words so evocative and imaginative that you’ll marvel, more than once, at his powerfully descriptive grip on the English language, there was so much trauma packed into his life that it’s a wonder he came out the other end alive.
He is honest about the fact that he almost didn’t.
In a book that runs more or less chronologically despite the author’s own admission that memories are always with you and the past, present and future bleed endlessly into each other, one of the final chapters deals with his abortive attempt to commit suicide by leaping off the Story Bridge in Brisbane.
He is saved, by of all things, a phone call from a telemarketer, a fluke of a moment that leads him to unexpected clarity and a workable sense of healing that he admits isn’t perfect but has allowed him to move forward with life and approach the future considerable less encumbered by the hitherto looming presence of his abusive father (though he was a golden child spared his father’s wrath), drug-addicted mother, deeply-flawed and broken foster carers and a host of other people who took gaping chunks out of his battered soul at regular intervals.
What emerges from a gripping tale of life gone horribly wrong in just about every regard is White’s capacity for searing self-reflection and compassionate hope, even in the midst of self-hatred, alcohol and drug addiction and what might be seen as wasted opportunities.
Granted, this tenacious sense of self-belief, which dropped beneath the waves and began drowning more often than it swam triumphantly for the shore, was one begun by his father who, in a weird twist of paternal devotion, spared Corey the kind of physical and emotional abuse that he regularly meted out to his wife and daughters.
Seeming himself so spared, White believed himself to be better than anyone else, breeding a suffocating sense of superiority that saw him sneer at education (his mother let him drop out of primary school; though he later excelled at a Catholic secondary college, driven as much by a love of learning as a desperate need to escape the sinking boat of his years of blighted foster care), social connection and basic humanity, believing himself, erroneously he now acknowledges, above the common concerns of ordinary men.
However, his belief in a bright and shiny future began, and however much it was corrupted over many horrifically traumatic years, it somehow persisted, the only constant in a life that gave him every evidence to drop it as a meaningful signpost to the future.
“I howled and shrieked at the sheer bleakness of my life. Everything had gone wrong: grew up in foster care, mother dead of a heroin overdose, father gone who knew where, raped, an ice addict, mentally ill, betrayed by the love of my life, and now, as I readied myself for suicide, a telemarketer had fucked that up too. I couldn’t catch a break. If I leapt off the bridge, I’d probably land on a boat carrying mattresses.” (PP. 247-248)
The candour of The Prettiest Horse in the Glue Factory is profoundly liberating because it pushes you again and again to wonder what it is in your past that you might have glossed over or expected to be different.
The truth is, while healing is possible and necessary and the only way forward to some sort of functional, rewarding life, reaching it is not a perfect nor uninterrupted linear process, and a little self-awareness and forgiveness can go a long way.
Certainly that is the point White reaches, making peace with his “inner child” – he admits this might sound corny but for him at least, there is life-changing peace and truth to be had – and forging an ward-winning career in stand-up comedy, a happy marriage and a life that actually functions, albeit imperfectly. (The subtext throughout The Prettiest Horse in the Glue Factory is that perfection is an illusion and that imperfectly healing is normal and far better than not healing at all.)
Written with eviscerating honesty and a truthfulness that astonishes, The Prettiest Horse in the Glue Factory is a beautifully, oft-times searingly brutal recounting of a life that on the first half alone should not have any kind of happy ending. (The title alone is worth the price of admission, balancing the idea of self-belief with the idea that any hope of living it out is doomed, or at least, often feels that way.)
But happy it is, well happy enough, and that, White reasons, is victory enough, as he assures us all that healing is necessary and trauma can be left behind but that it is always, in some ways with you, and that it is what you do with its presence that will ultimately determine the trajectory of the rest of your life.