The (does it yet qualify as That?) Meghan and Harry interview with Oprah Winfrey was on point on timing, screening just as International Women’s Day 2021 urged us all to ‘Choose to Challenge’. Ha! Could there have been a day better to maximise impact?
As Meghan reclaimed her own narrative, a (former) princess recounting a number of potent secrets which ‘The Firm’ would doubtless really rather she hadn’t, a fairytale was re-written before our eyes.
As she said, life is about telling our stories. The narratives we weave around ourselves shape our lives, while the stories others tell about us affect us also. And if those stories, particularly the worst offerings of the tabloid press, push a racist, discriminatory agenda as in Meghan’s case, what choice is there but to speak out? Shame lives and breeds in silence. Speaking out must have taken immense courage but speaking her truth was vital. I was cheering her on all the way, knowing just how freeing the experience of reclaiming the narrative can be.
Penning my own story in my memoir, No Place to Lie, enabled me to share my family secrets, meeting a promise I made to myself back in 1981. A promise to tell the truth of what happened to my younger brother David when he died in a remote Nottinghamshire mansion.
I wanted to hand back to David the fact that he’d made a choice, which I’d felt was taken away from him when my father spun his suicide into a less shaming story of accident. I also wanted to spell out the huge human cost of what had happened. After all, one suicide affects 40 people, really badly. But what if you can’t even name what happened for what it was?
Telling the truth
For me, the problem was that I felt I couldn’t tell the story until both of my parents had died. Uncovering our secrets would have hurt them too much. They got through their lives by holding on to a life raft called ‘Accident’ and who was I to make them sink? I was just grateful they stayed alive as long as they did after David’s death.
So, it took 40 years. I think it was worth the wait. Because over that time, the grief eased a little. The crater blasted in me by his death wasn’t as jagged as it had been. I’d lived a bit. Being a family lawyer and mediator for over 35 years had taught me stuff.
To explain better though, I’d need to tell you more about my family. My mum was not what you might describe as a typical Mum, if that even exists. An ice queen beauty with corn coloured hair, she was a private, secretive person with the most dazzling smile. When my father met her – he a Cambridge University classics scholar, the only one in his family to go to university, she a secretary working in his father’s office furniture salesroom – it was love at first sight. Or so the story went.
“He saw her, she saw him, they both blushed and that was it,” was how my Auntie Judy, Mum’s younger sister who worked in the same salesroom, described my parents’ eyes first locking together. Funnily enough, they never told that version themselves, nor did they say much about their lives before they met each other.
Their own version of the story was more how they had built my father’s legal practice together, how as soon as Dad finished his law studies, they married. And when he set up shop in Doncaster, Yorkshire with his brass plate of GC Garlick & Co, my Mum, pregnant with me, typed letters for pretend clients, before the real ones came along.
I was born, then two years later, my brother David, their golden, blue eyed boy. David was supposed to take over his (our) father’s law practice. But it didn’t actually work out that way. David was more interested in inventions, motorbikes, star gazing and fishing: there was no way he was ever going to be a lawyer.
Keeping up appearances
Tensions between my parents simmered, silences hid what was really going on. One thing I always remember was that my mother used to like to have her hair cut short at the hairdressers. Whenever she got her hair cut, my father wouldn’t talk to her for four days. That was the rule, we all knew the consequences.
My parents rarely touched one another, unless there was a camera pointing at them. Then they smiled. Dad might even put his arm over Mum’s shoulder. But I can’t ever remember them cuddling up on the sofa when my brother and I were growing up. Back then, we didn’t talk much about feelings, more ‘What would you like to drink?’
They stayed married for nearly 59 years, the union ending only upon my father’s death in 2014. My Mum died three years later, just eight days after she’d moved into a care home.
When clearing her things, I’d found a white envelope with her handwriting on it. She’d written, ‘I am and will always be not the same but be different – not the norm’. I read on, transfixed. ‘I don’t understand why I’m different. It’s not a talked about subject. It’s 2017 and in a little village no one ever mentions it. I wonder how other lesbians cope’.
Lesbians? What? My feelings spun dizzyingly, a burst of laughter shortly followed by denial and amazement. Could this really be true?
A life lived in secret
Mum went on to name women she had relationships with, including her old school friend Gwen, whom I’d always known as a close family friend. After talking with my aunt, who likewise knew nothing, and my kids, who incidentally thought it was really cool to have a gay Grannie, I wrote to Gwen by email and asked her if I could talk to her about something. She responded that she had been waiting for my mail all her life and would be happy to answer any questions I had.
Those conversations gave me a completely different window into my family life, a whole new perspective. And writing the book, I confronted my family’s hidden secrets, brought them out into the open and banished shame.
Writing No Place to Lie helped me see my past through different, clearer eyes. As they say, the truth will always out.
No Place to Lie is out now, published by Whitefox (£9.99). Buy your copy here