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  • Writer's pictureAnna K. Schaffner

To know one’s mind

A masterly tale of parenting and analysis

The decision of whether or not to have a baby can be agonizing for some women, loaded as it may be with questions about maternal competencies, fears of an irreversible loss of independence, and anxieties about perpetuating poor parenting patterns. The first-person narrator of Jessie Greengrass’s outstanding first novel, Sight, wrestles with all these concerns before deciding to become a parent anyway. Ultimately, the resolution to her existential deliberations is not intellectual in nature, but takes the form of an intuitive-emotional epiphany that overrides all doubts. Gradually the question of whether or not to have children is no longer the novel’s primary concern. And neither, notwithstanding the title, is visual perception. Rather, the book grapples with broader philosophical questions pertaining to sight’s wiser cousin, insight, and to related concepts such as revelation, discovery, analysis and various forms of truth-seeking.

There is a kind of twisted narrative arc – taking us from the narrator’s decision to have a child to her second pregnancy – but it is elliptical. Musings on motherhood, the narrator’s childhood and the recent death of her own mother are interspersed with astute reflections on medical and psychoanalytic breakthroughs, including Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery of the X-ray, Sigmund Freud’s development of psychoanalysis and his collaboration with his daughter Anna, and the Scottish surgeon John Hunter’s work on scientific method and the anatomy of pregnant women. How is scientific knowledge produced and how does it relate to our subjective understanding of the world and of others, the narrator wonders? When does the “serendipity of discovery” tip over into insight, and how do epiphanic, analytic and scientific modes of knowledge relate to one another?

Following her mother’s early death, the narrator begins to suffer from excruciating headaches: she feels as though “there was something swelling inside my skull, an abscess filling slowly with whatever stuff unhappiness is made of”. It is only when she falls in love that these headaches disappear. When the question of starting her own family arises, she begins to reflect anew on the lives of her mother and grandmother, who was a psychoanalyst. Although the novel consists almost exclusively of lyrically inflected reflections on personal and medical history, Greengrass’s narrator does not really psychologize; rather, she philosophizes, most captivatingly on the question of psychoanalysis. Reported dialogue and actual acts of communication are short, sparse and stunted, as if to emphasize the stark contrast between our rich inner life and the impoverished snippets that we actually exchange with one another.

All of the narrator’s case studies, which include her own grandmother, Doctor K, are used to illuminate the invisible – whether exposing the bones hidden in our flesh, the mysterious patterns of desire that determine our human minds, or the channels through which a baby travels from the womb into the external world. The narrator’s reflections are also at their most poetic on the subject of psychoanalysis. Doctor K tells the narrator that the analyst “is not a tour guide, leading their client through those vast and vaulted galleries, the cloisters of the mind, and nor is it their task to point out shadows, but rather they must provide an instruction in the mechanics of such shadows’ investigation”. Psychoanalysis, as the narrator’s grandmother understands it, is an aspiration towards achieving transparency – which thus connects it with Röntgen’s and Hunter’s inquiries. The mind is to become clear, “a thing of glass in which all desire, all motivation, want, might be seen and measured”. For decades, Doctor K’s first patient each morning was herself, mingling the roles of analyst and analysand, in an attempt “to peel away the obscuring layers, the muddying cross-currents of desire, and to live a life which was intentional, directed not by the hidden motivations of a covered mind but by an elucidated self”.

Yet the narrator is also attuned to the ethical conundrums of psychoanalysis, manifest, for example, in the analysis of children by their own parents, as seen in the cases of her mother and grandmother, Freud and his daughter Anna, and Herbert Graf, the boy fearful of horses who became known as Little Hans in one of Freud’s most famous case studies. Moreover, there is cruelty inherent in the act of analysis: Little Hans’s fear, “for all its power, had previously been a simple thing, susceptible to adult protection; now he was being asked to put in place of it a metastasizing complexity – an enforced awareness of the unreliability of thought, the way that one thing can come to stand in for another without us noticing the difference”. And this is the more general problem that analysis evokes: “to be made to feel in ignorance of oneself, to be stripped of those privileges subjectivity brings – a still, sure place to stand; a premise; the right to know one’s mind”.

The complicated ethics of parenting are the engine that drives the wider intellectual inquiry at the heart of this novel. Existing in “a shifting landscape of duty and fear”, aware of the “impossibility of not causing hurt”, the narrator also knows that the inevitable outcome of successful parenting is that she will be left behind in the end. Yet there is no way simply to become one’s former self again, even when the child is gone; instead, the narrator feels permanently “half-made, a house with one wall open to the wind”.

Jessie Greengrass’s masterfully interwoven tales of discovery both personal and medical are “prayer(s) for understanding”, attempts to render accessible the uncharted regions of the self. It is a precarious project, as well as a necessarily incomplete one. As Bertha Röntgen, who was profoundly spooked by the sight of the X-ray image of her own hand, knew well, the loss of mystery is also a kind of death: “the price of sight is wonder’s diminishment”.

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