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Book of the Month: Notes to Self

Jenna Luxon discusses Emilie Pine’s collection of personal essays Notes to Self, in light of the author’s recent visit to the University of York

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Image Credit: Penguin, 2019

The University’s November Open Lecture series saw Emilie Pine, now Associate Professor of Modern Drama in Dublin, return to York where she began her teaching career to host a reading and discussion of her first non-academic work Notes to Self, a collection of six personal essays published in 2018.

Beginning the evening with a reading from the book’s first essay ‘Notes on Intemperance’, Pine told the story of her father’s experience being treated for liver failure in a hospital in Corfu and in turn her and her sister’s experience of travelling to Greece to care for him.

What begins as an account of the dire conditions and poor treatment her father faced in that hospital (a tale that will both confirm your gratitude for the NHS and convince you to try and avoid ever being unwell in Greece) takes a far more complex and emotional turn as we learn of her father’s life long alcoholism.

While the conditions in the hospital are shocking, it is the tortured relationship between this man and his daughters that is in fact more difficult to read. The essay flits between her father’s recovery and Pine’s memories, few of them pleasant, of growing up with an alcoholic father. Touching on her feelings about caring for her Dad now his destructive behaviour has finally caught up with him physically.

Instead of using a chronological structure, Notes to Self instead takes a more thematic approach. With each essay broadly representing a theme of Pine’s life so far, be that addiction, infertility or sexual violence. It is because of this structure that we see the voice of Pine now as an accomplished academic contrasting with that of her younger and in many ways troubled self.

Going to see Emilie Pine speak demonstrated this contrast further, seeing this put-together adult woman confident in public speaking, comfortable behind the lectern it was difficult to match her up to the child I’d read about, drinking, smoking and taking drugs aged just fifteen. Running away from home and spending her time with people who would later abuse her innocence.

The essay in which Pine discusses this period of her life as an unhappy teenage caught up in the wrong crowd is hard. Harder still when you know that there are people experiencing the same things today and that it will be a minority who are as lucky as Pine to get out and make a safer life for themselves.

As well as writing about the difficult experiences she’s faced throughout her life from her turbulent childhood to the sexual abuse she suffered as a teen, Pine also writes reflexively about how looking back on and writing about those times has helped her.

This isn’t anything especially ground breaking.  Everywhere we look, we are being encouraged to talk more about our emotion and experiences. Gone are the days of the stiff upper lip mentality and in its place is an era where ‘talking it out’ is promoted to everyone as a blanket remedy.

But what interested me most from her talk at York, was how Pine clarified this point on speaking out. Discussing how whilst talking about difficult things that have happened to us in the past may be a therapeutic tool for some, it can also be an extremely difficult or damaging experience. Sharing the most challenging or intimate details of your life and passing them over for strangers to riffle through and form their own opinions on is not necessarily helpful for everyone.

Whilst Pine chose to speak about her experiences with sexual abuse and addiction, to speak out is not the only option. In this culture where we recommend sharing our stories for everyone else to see, we make it seem as if it is a key element of recovery for everyone and that it not true. What Pine so beautifully articulated during her talk was that victims owe nothing to the rest of us. They do not owe us their stories and so if speaking out is helpful to them, as it was to her, then our priority as a society should be to help them do so. But for those who wish to remain silent, this must also be supported in a pressure free environment.

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