Memoirs November 21, 2017
Graham Cavaney, aged sixteen

Like a cracked windscreen


Graham Caveney’s memoir about growing up in 1970s Accrington, Lancashire, opens in the middle of a therapy session. Using the new, possibly faddish, technique of confronting traumatic memories through regulated “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing” (EMDR), his therapist asks him to “Recall the scenes . . . as though they were on a video loop . . . . You can control what happens. You can pause or fast forward or rewind”. What follows, however, shows that this is precisely what he cannot do. He cannot be “unfucked”. The abuse inflicted on the fifteen-year-old Caveney by his family’s favourite priest has rendered him “The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness”. An insidious legacy of self-loathing and panic attacks is “managed” with tranquillizers and alcohol.

Caveney’s story is riddled with ambivalence, for it is also a story of seduction. “I loved being groomed”, he reflects with the ruthless acuity that pervades his writing. “If I had my adolescence all over again, not only would I want to be groomed by Kevin O’Neill I would want to be groomed by others too”. In being groomed he was made special. Father O’Neill provided a hallowed space for discussions about Beckett and Kafka, about religion and philosophy, gave him opportunities to go to the theatre and even to travel. Caveney tried to convince himself that “the sex stuff” was “not that big a deal” but discovered that “corruption can not just co-exist with tenderness, [it] can become part of its fibre: the tangled nature of bribery”.

The sensitivity to language, which, ironically, Caveney learnt from the priest, gives him the tools to explore the profound insult. On the one hand, language failed him as a teenager: “I don’t say ‘Stop.’ Not that I could say stop with his tongue in my mouth. His tongue is colonizing my gums”. On the other hand, words – such as “kiss” (an active verb which transforms him into an object) or “his private parts” (no longer his, or private) – had “their own slippery principles” which Caveney followed until his sense of self shattered “like a cracked windscreen”.

While Caveney expresses a brutal blind anger towards a second abuser, Frankie (“I hope that he died alone. I hope that he died in his dead mother’s house, surrounded by empty beer cans, pie crusts and hard-core pornography, and that his body wasn’t found for a week”), he continues, throughout the memoir, to view O’Neill through a series of aggravating questions: at what point in the meticulous grooming process did he decide he would force sex on his protégé? Can he really believe the sickly argument with which he justifies his behaviour (that Catholics are pragmatists who know that they are destined to fall short of their own moral standards)? Caveney is told some twelve years after the end of the abuse that O’Neill has received “treatment” for his “problem” but no punishment; when later he learns that O’Neill has Alzheimer’s, he regrets the lost opportunity to demand, “What was it about me?”

While the story of abuse drives the memoir, Caveney’s interests extend far beyond it. The book is also a study of memory – its individuality, its disjointed impressionistic quality (“not so much chronology or linearity as disjointed montages of sensation”), and its intractable hold on emotion, identity and even on our physiological responses. Caveney shows how books, films and music shape our memories. He also explores the meaning of class, and tries to rescue his experience of “working class” from boiler-plate language. He demonstrates a shrewd sensitivity to embedded bias: “My mum’s work in the mill was never really discussed as work . . . the women’s hands were getting dirty, their bodies were clearly sweating. Yet it was to my dad’s world that such language belonged. My mother ‘simply’ went out to work”. He catches the sentimental resonance of racial bias where people share slurs such as “Paki” to establish a sense of social cohesion, and then deny the harm they inflict (“We were just having a bit of a laugh”).

Eventually, worn phrases and names (particularly “Father”) let him down, his linguistic resources break apart, and he feels betrayed by language: “We feel we have lost some intimate part of ourselves and if we want to communicate this loss we are forced to do so by the second-hand, jumble-sale, ragbag thing called language”. Nevertheless, The Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness clearly and distinctively voices the terrible loss of a childhood.