The analyst offered it bluntly. What if, he proposed, the most meaningful feeling that you can create in another person isn't that of love but of guilt. He wasn't proposing this as a general thesis for being; he was suggesting it might be a useful way for me to look at my own approach to the sentimental life. I am not sure if I had taken up therapy to arrive at a happier place, or just to try and find someone with whom I could talk, someone who would couch the sentimental in terms that wouldn't affront me with their cliches. All these phrases that have accumulated around what we now call relationships, a word hard to avoid but too easy to use. When did this word become commonly utilised? Didn't people before court, get engaged, get married, maybe even get divorced? Now we are all having relationships, and isn't there something in the word that is itself non-commital: that there is now an assumption we will have a series of relationships where we wouldn't have been inclined to say we would have a series of marriages? If someone tells us they have had half a dozen relationships we might assume they are a bit picky, are uncommitted, but if someone told us they had been married six times we would assume a life of emotional wreckage.
Through my job I managed to get a dozen free sessions, claiming that it would be useful for the work I happened to be doing but even more aware that it would be a necessary way of speaking about things I was finding increasingly important to talk about. With friends, most of the time the conversations would descend into what I can only call relationship talk. The chats were personal but not revelatory, as neither of us managed quite to escape the language of the moment: the language that appeared to be making our chats anecdotal even if sitting behind our remarks were the knottiest of feelings. One friend might say to me that I didn't want to commit; another that they didn't want a child to get in the way of their lifestyle. I would insist it was the work that mattered; this wouldn't be the part-time social work that enabled me to get free therapy; no this was the filmmaking I would do and which I believed sustained me: short films based on looking at people's faces, or at views absent of people altogether. I wanted, in cinematic form, to create the equivalents of portraits and landscapes: to paint with the video camera. Occasionally I would get into discussions with people about this, and they would say that I was being too easy on myself. How could I compare myself to a painter when all I had to do was turn the camera on. I didn't need to learn how to draw, how to paint, how to create perspective. I would reply that I could draw and that I had mastered perspective. Yet I knew if I couldn't or hadn't it wouldn't have made any difference. I was defending myself, but I wasn't expressing myself in these debates. I wondered as well if somehow in all my relationships I wasn't expressing myself either. I was again defending myself. What was perhaps unusual was that around the same time the therapist and somebody I met managed to express something for me; managed to articulate, however provisionally, ideas about my feelings and ideas about the work. In the process, they may even have helped me to understand the link between the two.
I asked the therapist that afternoon in his office whether his remark about guilt over love was one he would make about his clients generally, or was it specific to me. He replied saying no doubt it was applicable to quite a few other people as well, but he had never thought about it before, and presumed he did so because it might apply to the person sitting in front of him. He offered his comment with a humorous undertone that had been there from the first session. I said to him that there was no pressure, the sessions were free and all I hoped for was a good chat: he didn't have to cure me. He said that sometimes a good chat is harder to find than a decent cure. He would see what he could do.
His comment about guilt came halfway through the sessions. Considering what we had discussed thus far, he wondered whether I didn't want girlfriends to love me but to leave me and that I would know that they loved me because of the amount of guilt they would feel in the leaving. I had told him during the second session that my mother had left me when I was five, that I was an only child who became a lonely one, fostered out for a couple of years before being adopted at seven by a family who had money and stability but couldn't quite offer love. We are not your parents they would occasionally tell me, but we are good guardians. You will be safe and cared for.
My mother had given me up, she told me years later, because she couldn't cope. I had never known my father, which is one thing, but my mother had never known him either: he was one of a number of men she had been seeing in her early twenties at a moment in her life when she was lost, she would say, drinking too much and going from one poorly paid job to another, one useless man to the next. She didn't believe she deserved any better, and when we talk now, as we often do, she says she isn't sure if she deserves any better now either, though she has been with a man who adores her for more than a decade. I would tell this to the analyst, and he asked me how many relationships I had been in and how they had broken down.
I counted around ten, and they all ended in a similar manner. I would struggle initially to show much affection and resist some of theirs, all the while acknowledging superficially that I wanted to be alone while increasingly becoming attached. Yet even this increased sense of attachment on my part rarely manifested itself in much outward display of affection, and usually, after about a year they would leave - often for someone else who instantly made clear how attracted they happened to be. Did these girlfriends fall in love with the new person, or were they just happy to escape from me and find affection elsewhere? I couldn't say, but I don't doubt some found the love they were looking for and saw me as an incidental figure in their life when they thought about it retrospectively. I too would have been a useless man.
Yet with three girlfriends this wasn't so. I don't know whether they still loved me, but they didn't wish to cease contact: they would send me occasional postcards, write me an email or phone me every few months. They all 'left' me, and all seemed to feel guilty about doing so. Frances and I had been with each other for two years, living in the same city but in different flats, and she thought it would be nice if we shared a place. I had been in my flat for five years, in the West End of Glasgow. It was not much bigger than a studio, but the rent was cheap and the views great, and, perhaps the main reason I rented the place was because it had a nearby garage I could use as an editing suite. The owner had a row of garages and always allowed his tenants to use them for free. I, like many others, have terrible stories to tell about private landlords, but this one was as philanthropic as they come, and I didn't want to leave the flat and find myself in the hands of another profiteer. The garage even had light streaming in from a back window that removed a sense of claustrophobia as I would sometimes sit there for eight to ten hours editing. If at that time Frances had asked me if I loved her or my flat more, I might have been forced to answer that it was the latter. I would have had to admit my well-being resided in it rather than in my affair with her. Frances never asked and I never said, but perhaps I didn't need to do so: she could see that I was content with my life as it was and not how I wished it to be. Maybe one of the problems with being happy is that we don't possess the dissatisfaction for change. I suppose I always wanted to evolve in the work and never had any interest in making money at what I was doing. I wanted simply to keep filming the world and my life, to find a means by which to record what was passing and to extract from this flow of reality moments that would be worth preserving. I had of course over the years filmed all my lovers, but it was only with the three with whom I have remained in contact that I feel any nostalgia towards the material when I sometimes look at it again.
Frances was also the first one to show any interest not just in the art of what I was doing, but the motivation behind it. While we were going out together she would sometimes say that I would film to bring back moments that gave me the power over time that I didn't possess. She knew the story of my mother and wondered if I recorded my life now as if to make up for the memories I didn't have with her. It seemed a fair remark to make, but over the two years it became an increasingly embittered one, and when she left she said it again with the air of a certification: a doctor diagnosing the mentally ill. She had found a man who wanted to live in the present and towards the future, she insisted, and as I said I would try and focus more on her and more on a life we might have, she adamantly said it was too late.
Yet over the next couple of years we were in contact often. She never talked about the person she left me for, but one or two friends who met him said he was a good man, and by implication suggested that I hadn't been. What did she still want from me, I wondered, without thinking enough of what I wanted from her.
It would have been eight months afterwards when I was flicking through some CDs in a record shop that doubled up as a pub and a vegan eatery that I noticed next to me someone who seemed curious about the CDs I was pausing over. I returned the compliment and looked to see which ones she was lingering over too, and we both laughed as there was a CD that had been misplaced and so we found ourselves looking at the same CD in our respective aisles. I decided I would buy it, and she decided to do the same. We walked over to the counter, strangers complicit in a moment of contingency, and the assistant looked at us with a smile as though joining us in our complicity.
We left the shop smiling and it seemed only natural that I would ask if she wanted to get a drink, and she laughed again saying hadn't we just left a place where we could get one? So we turned around and went back inside; two people somehow suddenly familiarised by the most meaningless of chance encounters - with both of us nevertheless determined to turn into a meaningful one. We ordered a beer, and a couple of hours later we were still chatting. I asked if she was hungry; she said she was starving, and so we got a couple of vegan burgers and chips.
Samantha was one of the most unusually beautiful women I have met. There are many oddly attractive people I see on the street here in Glasgow, and when I travel, but I never get to know them; they are people who remain obscure and unknown as well as strange. Yet I got to know Sam very well, and I made more short films about her than about anyone else. I have often tried to show with my films the strangeness of things without filming things strangely. I rarely adopt canted camera angles, filters or special make-up if I am filming a face. I believe film to be there to reveal reality, not hide it or exaggerate it. I want to film what my eye sees, but of course, not everything the eye sees is of great interest, so mostly I film nothing at all. If someone were to criticise me for what I do, if someone were to say that you hardly edit the films you make, that you seem to catch mundane moments anybody could have filmed, I would agree with them from one perspective but disagree with them from another. I would suggest that yes anybody could film what I film, but they don't. The editing lies in the choice before the filming of what I will film, and in very prolonged, thoughtful but I belive unobtrusive choices in the editing suite. One reason people won't film what I film is because they are looking for the exceptional: they want to film an event they deem special, objectively. I try to film subjectively, but the personal comes through without that subjectivity obviously present. A question I often get asked is why did I film for example a tree swaying in the wind for several minutes. Why did I film a building, or a person's face? I then do one of two things. I will ask the person to look more closely, or I will explain my intentions. What I frequently notice is that the answer I give is the answer they find if they look long enough to think about it. I often reckon people aren't stupid, aren't even imperceptive. But most are hasty: ask them enough questions and if they are willing to interrogate themselves, intelligence usually manifests itself. Samantha was both great to film and knew instinctively why I filmed the way I did. On our first meeting, she told me that she was fed up with filmmakers shooting people as if they were grotesques, instead of filming as if everything is somehow the same. The achievement she believed didn't rest in viewing things aware of their oddness, but doing so aware that the strangeness is always out there in the world.
Samantha was an artist who admitted that day we met she rarely quite found the time to get any work done: she worked too hard in jobs that didn't pay and then relaxed too often in pubs after a shift. She worked in a cafe, not unlike the one we were in, finding the public great in some ways and detrimental in others. She said she rarely felt that she had wound down enough to retreat into the pace required for concentrating on her art. It was then she asked me what I happened to do and I explained the work and a little about the purpose behind it. She didn't assume what I did happened to be so much easier than her painting: she knew that all arts are interested in the obliteration of a ready perception. That is why she couldn't easily paint. She would have only painted the everyday perceptions that the work demanded of her. I said that I filmed the everyday but, yes, tried to do so without the perceptions that we are expected to walk around with: the ones that allow us to function and communicate.
We saw each other several times over the next couple of weeks, without anything sexual taking place between us, and after a few meetings, she said something to me that was very beautiful but was not merely a compliment. She said that our meetings reminded her of the space she sometimes found in her work, and indeed over the last fortnight she had been painting a great deal. She didn't have the urge to go and drink after her shift: she wanted to see me or paint. I was moved by her comment and said that I would like to kiss her, but that I didn't want her to feel that she had simply expressed her feelings tome: as if to say that the sum total of that feeling could be met by my desire. No, she said, she knew she could say it and that I wouldn't...She looked for the right formulation and said that she believed I would accept that, even if her remark contained immense feeling for me, it wasn't the sum total of it. We had shown each other our work, respected what each of us was trying to do, and then respected each other as we embarked on an affair.
If I wouldn't be inclined to see Sam as a passionate love it rested in that comment and how we became lovers. It always seemed as if there was an excess of feeling beyond our relationship: we enjoyed each other's company, I suppose, but enjoyed our work even more. Yet the bond was deep and my attachment much stronger than I would have thought, and when she left I was pained for several months, and angry for a lot longer. We had made arrangements to travel for two weeks in the south of France. She was going to take paints and an easel. I was to take my camera. We were going to look at the same things, but she would paint and I would film. A week before going she said that she had met someone and that she was leaving. It wouldn't have been honest for us to stay together and go on holiday, she said. I proposed that by the reckoning of honest feeling, surely it would be pretty hard to have an enjoyable time with someone else after acting so brutally with me. But of course I was being naive; not because Samantha didn't care, but that guilt is rarely the most immediate of feelings. I didn't see her again for months after she announced she wasn't going to France, and I knew her closing remark would probably haunt her more than it would me. She said that it wasn't as if she weren't sacrificing things too: she was foregoing the holiday and the tickets she had bought for it.
I was alone for around eighteen months when I was through for the Edinburgh Festival twice a week and catching about five shows a day. One that I saw was about an actress's depression. She was the only one on stage, and for an hour she talked of the various degrees of despair she would feel in the depressed state. Sometimes it would be no more than struggling out of bed; other times it would be a struggle to stay alive. She shaped the performance around three anecdotes: one from her childhood; one from her late teens and the third from a couple of years earlier. She said she was not an unhappy child but she lived in an environment that didn't make happiness conducive. She lived with her father and his second wife, a woman who would attend to her husband's wants and ignore her stepchildren's needs. She wasn't at all the wicked stepmother, but her desire to be everything for her husband meant there wasn't much feeling left over for the storyteller and her brother. That their father admitted to them on numerous occasions he felt burdened with them (their mother having passed away), meant that the stepmother was well-aware that doting on them would earn her no extra love and affection from her husband. So she gave it all to him. A culinary regularity, she believed, exemplified this well. About twice a week her father liked nothing more than a good steak, and so his wife would go out to the best butcher in town and buy it, cook it exactly as he liked it, and they would all be eating something modest like fish fingers, or steak pie, while he dined on fillet steaks.
The second story she told was about losing her virginity as seventeen. She was in her final year at school, and her main form of release was popping pustules on her chin, removing blackheads from her nose. If the spots were ripe and ready she could leave her face looking a blotchy mess in the evening, and wake up to skin that had calmed down and appeared presentable. Then she bought some cream and it worked the miracle the advertisers claimed it would. She found she needed to release energy somewhere else, and found boys looking at her more than they previously had; perhaps because she had started to look at them. A boy asked her out, she said yes. They went to the cinema and then for a hot chocolate afterwards.The next time he suggested they could watch a film at his parents' place. They would be away for the weekend. So that was where she lost her virginity. Now what was interesting was that it felt like a surgical operation. He proposed she should get a towel from the bathroom, lay it underneath her, and that she should remove her underwear. He then clambered on top, moved in and out of her for a couple of minutes while she felt a mild discomfort, then he rolled over with a groan that could have suggested either pleasure or a mild injury. She lost her virginity like she would have a tooth removed, or perhaps your tonsils taken out. It was something done to you, or at least had been done to her.
For years she would have sex with indifference, never once finding a lover who quite knew how to pleasure her, nor whose sexual company she enjoyed more than his company over dinner, or while walking hand in hand. She slept with someone since they were a couple; it is what couples do. Throughout this period, from when she was seventeen to thirty, she would sometimes have depressive episodes, but they seemed contained by the sense that her body would move too slowly rather than too quickly, and she would wonder if this was partly why she found sex so uninteresting. It required of her a passion she couldn't invoke in any area of her life. Throughout this period she had the same job: she didn't go to university and worked as a librarian in the small city in which she was brought up.
Then around two years ago, she went on holiday on her own. She booked a ticket for the South of France, and travelled over three weeks from Nice to Narbonne: she flew into Nice and out of Montpellier. Why? She didn't know. She wanted to do something arbitrary: she could just as easily have gone to Thailand or Mexico, Spain or Italy. As she would walk through the streets of an unfamiliar town she herself felt like an unfamiliar person. She had no reason whatsoever for being there, and this released her from the torpor she would often feel. During the trip, she met a man whose company she was in for only a week, but with whom she would make love as others would occasionally describe it. While before she would feel mild pleasure at the dead centre of her being, with this man she felt pleasure that went to the end of her fingertips. There was no sense that it would last, and after a week he left the hostel they were both staying in (and where they had screwed in her single room since he was in the dorms), and said he was flying back home in a few days: he was returning to Argentina.
She wouldn't say she had fallen in love with this man. She didn't enjoy his company any more than those of others she had gone out with, and was even after a couple of days irritated by the thickness of his accent and the predictability of his conversation. When she mentioned her depression he insisted it was all in her head. She concurred, saying that was exactly the problem, hoping he would see that a problem in the mind can be much more devastating than an injury to the body. He laughed as if she were joking.
Yet their sexual congress had revitalised her nervous system and, while it didn't really alleviate the depression, it was as though it changed the nature of it. She was no longer lethargic but instead living much more nervously; more given to agitation and frustration, but with far more energy. Over the next year, moving to New York and staying in a room at her Aunt's brownstone in Brooklyn, she had more than a dozen lovers, and never slept with someone more than once if he didn't satisfy her. She believed she was more in control of her life than she ever had been before, but no longer in control of her nerves. Before she rarely felt raw, instead feeling lethargic, sleepy, bored, and lacking enthusiasm.
In the following year, the one up until today, she said, she hadn't slept with anyone at all. She instead wrote every day whenever she had time, and the result was a novel, six short stories, and the play that the viewer happened to be watching. Her point? Perhaps that sex needs to be sublimated, but it needs to be activated too. Her year of celibacy was one of renunciation for a higher calling: to find out what she wanted from life by activating the very source of it: the sexual act. Would she be celibate forever; had she cured her depression? Of course she could not say, but she had one more story to tell she said, and told the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, prefacing it by saying she herself might not have been beautiful but she certainly believed she had been sleeping.
Her remark about her own looks contained an aspect of false modesty: she was much nearer beauty than ugliness, and would have played, in another fairytale, Cinderella and not one of the sisters. But there was an ugliness in her telling, in the monologue she offered, that I could see was repelling members of the audience. She started the play with a low, whiny voice, becoming loud and haranguing when she talked about her sexual satisfaction, and then smooth and caressing when she narrated Sleeping Beauty.
I wondered what her off-stage presence was like, but as I waited behind for ten minutes I didn't see her leave the theatre and had to go on to another show in the same general venue but on a different stage. It was after this other show that I saw her seated in the courtyard, on a long bench with others, but apparently in her own company. I got a drink and sat on the same bench, and when she looked up I said that I had seen her play earlier. She smiled and abruptly announced that it was a brave man who tried to make a pass at a woman who has just talked for more than an hour about her need for celibacy, or an interesting one who wanted to engage with someone who wasn't looking to get laid. The voice she offered this in was the one that told the story of Sleeping Beauty, but with a hint of the forcefulness evident in her detailing of sexual pleasure.
I looked at her and thought for a moment. I didn't think I would have been inclined to speak to her if she had ended her play discussing her sexual liaison; whatever I wanted from her was not based on the certitude of sexual desire. But on what was it based? Perhaps on her need to explain and explore, on not seeing her depression as one thing but various things, affected by others, and moderated by time. I would not say I am inclined to depression as others seem to describe it, but I have long been given to feelings of quiet melancholia: the type that never incapacitates but instead facilitates. It is melancholy I believe that makes me film constantly, as though I want to reflect on the world rather than live in it. Yet depression does not seem to allow for this creative possibility; it goes much deeper into the incapacitating: it appears to refuse on occasion all but the most necessary of movements.
It was this that Gilberte and I discussed for longer than her show on that long bench. When she gave me her name I asked if she was partly French or her parents obsessed with Proust. Well observed and well put, she said: they were indeed English but they loved the French writer, and so yes that is how she came by her name. I said I had only read the first book, Swann in Love; she replied that she had too. Not out of indifference, she insisted, but out of procrastination: the rest still awaited her.
As we discussed her show and she asked me about my filmmaking, I could feel an affinity towards her that I might have felt with others, but never so quickly. I suppose we bypassed the crust of social convention by talking directly about our work, and as she talked about how incapacitated she had been by depression until that brief sexual affair, so I said that I had never had such an encounter; that my love affairs had always been contained by a feeling greater than the situation. I tried to explain it thus: I always assumed people would eventually leave, and so what I would do mentally, as well as cinematically, was keep an aspect of the experience somehow for myself; never quite expressed. It would create in the other person the impression often of indifference, but if they would ask me months later if I remembered an event, I would usually be able to describe it in far more detail than they could. It was as though they had lived the experience entirely and then semi-forgotten it; I had half-lived the experience and remembered it completely.
After a couple of hours, I noticed that goosebumps had appeared on her arms. She was wearing the vest she had worn for the show; but the theatre was full and the temperature close to twenty-two degrees; the temperature outside must have dropped to around fifteen. I said maybe she should put on a jumper, that we could sit inside, or that perhaps she needed to go on elsewhere; or that she might be hungry. She laughed at my concern for her well-being and my various hypothesises and possibilities concerning it. It seemed quite Proustian she announced, adding some would say that of our entire conversation.
She admitted she was a little cold, had a jacket inside, and was getting hungry and suggested we could go and eat. Later that night I slept on her couch, and the following weekend I visited her again; this time in a different flat. She had come to the festival from her aunt's place, had never been to Edinburgh before but after a day or two in the city knew she wished to stay for some months. She moved into her new flat on the 1st of September on a six-month lease, and during that period I would often go through and see her; she would occasionally come through to Glasgow to see me. It was odd no doubt to have a relationship that was dictated by a lease, but we both seemed well aware that it would end when she would go back to New York in February. Perhaps she would have stayed longer if it weren't for the dark days and bleak nights: she could not tolerate the lack of sunlight, complained for much of the winter of headaches, and that her very mild arthritis was being aggravated by the damp weather.
It was both terrible and comforting that she would go back to Brooklyn. I knew that I loved her company but dreaded her moods; she would never insult me, but she would often turn silent, and there were occasions when I would visit her and we would hardly talk at all as she seemed to return to her earlier condition of despair. I would arrive Friday evening and she would meet me at the train station with enthusiasm and a hug that would last a minute, but by Saturday morning she would be lying in bed unable to move, hardly able to talk. I would wander around the city on my own, return in the late afternoon or early evening, and hope when I turned the key in the door that she would be up and about, preparing dinner or working on her next project. Sometimes I would see that she hadn't moved. I would order a takeaway and we would watch a film on the laptop. We wouldn't talk about if afterwards, and she would fall back to sleep.
Yet the next time we would meet she could be well for the entire trip, and we would go to a gallery, walk for miles, eat out and then go for drinks with people she had met in the city, and with a couple of friends of mine who had moved to Edinburgh from Glasgow. When she was fine we would talk about the film we might have seen on the previous trip. She had absorbed the film and had much to say on it: she just couldn't say it on the evening that we watched it. I came to accept that no time was wasted; that Gilberte was always 'there' even if she appeared not to be.
After returning to the States she would sometimes send me emails, letters or postcards, and in them tell me how guilty she felt about leaving, and how sometimes she remembered how neglectful she had been when in Scotland. I didn't know how to respond to this; I was quite relieved that she had returned to New York, and I would feel a sense of well-being receiving these missives in various forms. Her continuing acknowledgement of her guilt resembled somehow the hugs she would give me when meeting me at the station after a week or two apart. Yet I would also recall the guilt Frances and to a lesser degree, Samantha would express too. I have dozens of letters, postcards and emails from them offering apologies, and I sometimes wondered whether I wanted this more than anything else. It was talking to the analyst that this became all the more clear and perhaps turns me into a certain type of monster.
It was I suppose the therapist who helped articulate a quality in me that my friends saw but were either too polite or not quite perceptive enough to spot. Yet I've said already that friends who had met Frances's new boyfriend commented on him being a good man, and by implication that I wasn't, but I can recall a number of remarks over the years from people I know. One once said that I was so afraid of abandonment that I wouldn't leave anyone: that I knew the guilt I'd feel would be far greater than the loss. Someone else suggested that I wanted a lifelong relationship with no sense of commitment. He laughed and wished me luck; I would need a lot of it, though he suspected much suffering awaited me.
He wasn't wrong, but the first commentator I think understood me much better, and his remarks seemed to echo some of those offered by the analyst. I might have said earlier that one reason I started going to therapy was that I didn't feel I could speak with friends about these things. Yet it is probably fairer to say that the friends no longer had anything much to say to me. Most of them had sorted our their emotional lives, were living with their partners, having kids and settling down in its various manifestations. They couldn't understand why I wanted to create so much pain and turmoil in my life. I am not sure if I could have understood it myself if the therapist hadn't offered it as a thoughtful provocation.
Now many of the affairs I have had were not of that much significance, but what I might now wonder do I mean by the significant? It was as though the relationship was only part of the affair and not the entirety of it. I have friends and acquaintances who when a relationship ends insist that they want nothing more to do with the other person. They have usually ended it and feel terrible for doing so, or the other person has broken up with them and they feel awful and hurt and any memory of the other person brings them pain. Yet I think I have always been fascinated by the question of judging a person's character not while they are in a relationship but in how they treat you once it is over: when there is no longer the dopamine rush and the need for approval. It is as if something in me waits for the moment that I can judge their character and they can judge mine, and this moment cannot come to pass until the relationship ends.
I have read somewhere that in all relationships people seek forgiveness from each other within the affair: that they seek forgiveness in accepting each other for what they are and not what they wished to present themselves as. Each partner accepts the disillusionment, yet carries on nevertheless; loving the person but without fantasy and projection. I suppose I have never reached that stage, and perhaps never wished to do so, because my desire wasn't for this mutual forgiveness, but for the acknowledgement of their guilt. Frances, Samantha and Gilberte offered it, and I have kept all the letters, postcards and emails proving it.
It was around the same time that the therapist offered me this little revelation about guilt that I started seeing Helen. She was ten years younger than me, probably several times wiser, and sometimes I think wisdom is nothing more than a parental upbringing that means the person doesn't have to devote half their life to working out things that could have been comprehended quickly with a loving background behind them. Yet, of course, I also think the opposite: that the absence of assured love puts everything into question and we must seek out our own answers from the bottom of our pain. Wherever the truth lies let me say that Helen appeared to understand an aspect of emotion that I could only see as a glimmer.
I don't want to say too much about her except to insist that I suspect the therapist's words without Helen's company might have terrified me, made me aware of how much I had lost in the search for a feeling that I couldn't name, and a guilt I appeared to insist upon. Of all the people I had gone out with Helen seemed to have the most loving family and it showed in the confidence with which she approached her feelings. She was in her early thirties and had been in three relationships. The first ended after she went to university; the second after she had finished studying, and the third a year before when her partner of four years decided that he didn't want children and moved back to Australia. She did want kids and didn't want to move to the antipodes. She didn't seem to be at all bitter about any of these break-ups, saying she accepted the reasons why they couldn't last.
She would talk often about her family and she wondered whether they were close partly because her parents had always filmed their lives. At Christmas and on their parents' birthday, her two brothers, her sister and sometimes other members of the extended family would be there and they would watch films of them when they were younger, and talk about it afterwards. They would also of course film those Christmases and those birthdays. In certain circumstances, I might have found this strange, even creepy, but as Helen talked (and later after meeting her parents, her brothers and her sister), it didn't seem unusual at all. It gave the family a sense of its own emotional history, and appeared to 'objectify' it. I have discussed often enough with friends and ex-girlfriends their family environment, and in numerous instances they would talk about possessing memories others didn't have, with the family milieu a world of different perspectives frequently manifest as half-expressed grudges. It was as though Helen's family instead recorded that life and allowed everyone to comment on it as something out there in the world rather than in their heads. I, of course, wondered if this all sounded a bit too wonderful. There were tensions in their family, yes: her father never became the successful architect he hoped to be and made various compromises to raise them. One of her brothers was a problem in his late teens and almost ended up in prison after selling drugs in his first year at university. Yet if anybody would ask whether her childhood was happy, whether her family was content, she offered an affirmative in more than a wordy reply. Her body registered that happiness.
I told her within a week of seeing her that I had recently started seeing a therapist. I said it as a true joke: there she was one of the most apparently balanced people I had met, and there I was seeking some balance too by visiting a counsellor. It would have been around four weeks in and three weeks after I met Helen that he suggested I seemed to want from people the confession of guilt over the declaration of love. Obviously, we both linked this to my mother leaving, and my childhood belief that she left because she didn't love me enough to stay. All she could do once she was gone was register the guilt of that decision, and all I seemed able to do was replay it in my adult life.
The therapist insisted that was a hypothesis, nothing more. He was not there to diagnose; merely to coax emotion out of me. Yet around that time, I was the patient with an illness that is finally diagnosed and where the doctor prescribes the right drug, and where one quickly starts to feel better. My confusion over love and guilt was the illness; yet without Helen would there have been a cure?
I wouldn't want to end this story on an all too easy optimistic note, but I have been with Helen for a year now, and I don't seem to think that she will leave anytime soon. Perhaps I say this for no other reason than that I feel under no obligation to film her. I still film numerous things, I still put the films up on the internet, and soon I hope to find a way of making some money from the work: they are well viewed. But while every other girlfriend I have filmed, I have shot no footage of Helen at all. I haven't even asked her and would be surprised if she would say no. At family gatherings, they still record the events, and I am now in some of those films, just as she happens to be. Yet I wouldn't expect the family in the future to make these videos available to the public, and it would seem oddly violating for someone to wish to do so. I don't feel that at all about my own work; yet I don't wish to include Helen in any of the films I make either.
I have long since stopped seeing the counsellor, and have very little contact with ex-girlfriends. But I do often think about the therapist's remarks, and also wonder what urge made me devote so much of my time to making short films about many aspects of my life. I do feel that these works are art, that they have a purpose beyond my own emotional biography, and that they can extend into areas of other people's lives. I cannot easily explain this, but I know that it is not so with those made by Helen's family, and it makes me wonder how closely linked, sometimes, art and guilt happen to be. It was while thinking about this it occurred to me, with the obviousness of revelation, that the only other person I have conspicuously never filmed has been my mother.
© Tony McKibbin