‘We’re a funny old family, heightened self-love in a constant battle with exaggerated self-loathing.’
Motherwell: A Girlhood
By Deborah Orr
Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Two years ago, ahead of an event I was chairing, I invited Deborah Orr into the authors’ yurt at Edinburgh International Book Festival as my guest.
‘So this is what it’s like,’ she said.
‘But you’ve been before, right? With. . .’ I trailed off, reluctant to name the Famous Author she was divorcing, knowing things were complicated and painful.
‘No,’ she replied. ‘He never brought me.’
‘Never mind, you’ll be here soon in your own right, talking about your memoir. I’ll ask to interview you.’ We smiled, relishing the idea.
But Orr died last October, shortly after her 57th birthday, months ahead of Motherwell’s publication. She is missed as much for her journalism—trenchant, funny, bold, poignant—as for her compelling personality, which was all that and then some. Reading Motherwell proved emotional. Deborah’s vividly alive on these wise, beautifully observed pages. I put off finishing it, for that would consign her to the past tense.
Orr grew up in the shadow of Ravenscraig, ‘a steelworks the size of Monaco,’ whose ‘stunning, dystopian panorama’ filled the eye and psyche, moulding a community’s aspirations. When the steelworks shut down the population lost its group identity.
The most dangerous aspect of group identity, she asserts, is group narcissism. Orr believed in the centrality of narcissism. Her question wasn’t are you a narcissist, but what kind of narcissist are you? ‘Once you know how to spot it, narcissism is everywhere. Narcissism explains many aspects of human society. It is, I believe, the psychological motor behind patriarchy, behind racism and behind most, if not all, prejudice. The need to feel better than others, or that others are no better than you.’
Here in Scotland, it feeds a confusing duality: ‘The Scots, it sometimes seemed, hated everything that wasn’t Scotland. This was very true in my hometown. . . . Conformity was absolutely everything. . . . It was bewildering, this . . . constant keeping of two flames, one of Scottish victimhood, the other of Scottish superiority. So much past, so little present. . . . The heritage industry moves in when people don’t know who they are any more and had to focus on who they were instead.’
Echos of this reverberated inside their home. ‘We’re a funny old family, heightened self-love in a constant battle with exaggerated self-loathing.’ Her mother, Win, was funny, talented, and often warm and loving. She could also be cruelly shaming. Win needed constant praise—a trait Orr says she inherited. She adhered to strict beliefs about her place in the world. For Win, agency over a man was the ‘Great Prize.’ ‘My mum slagged off . . . women she didn’t feel superior to, who were different to her in a way that made her doubt herself, because she was so invested in the perfection of her womanhood, and so proud of it.’
It wasn’t until Win died, says Orr, ‘that I was able even to begin to work out how my own life had really been about just two irreconcilable things: defying my mother, and gaining her approval.’ Frequent belittlement left Orr feeling like a perpetual disappointment, but complaining exacerbated the problem. Whatever happened to you was worse for Win—even your cancer.
Imbued with shame, Orr learned to keep secrets, such as bullying by her peers, which included being pelted with bricks. Bricks. She staggered home bleeding, and lied about falling over. She was seven.
Superficially, her adored father was easier to get along with, but she eventually realised his views were often harsher than Win’s. John masked his fears with bravado and intolerance. Handsome, innately intelligent but barely able to write due to an interrupted education, he had a strong work ethic and was inordinately proud of never missing at the factory. He was also a bully who fell out with neighbours, and nurtured a hatred of Catholics that flared when he was most disappointed and dissatisfied with himself.
Throughout Motherwell, as in the column she wrote after her mother’s death, Orr expresses deep love for her mother, but Win’s inability to accept Deborah’s individuality created a rift. She expected Deborah to validate her life by recreating it. ‘Every time I did something that Win wouldn’t have done, it was as if she’d lost control of a part of herself.’
Unlike her younger brother, Orr never had a key to the house. Her parents monitored her whereabouts and would have censored her thoughts, if they’d had a mechanism to do so. They flagrantly violated her privacy. Neither accepted Deborah having, much less enjoying, sex. Win said sex was awful but an obligation. John said, ‘I know what men are like. Because I am a man.’ Though they denounced and belittled her, though they warped her ideas about love, Orr’s reckoning is compassionate: ‘The self-loathing of it. The sadness. What an unfortunate, unlucky pair, so eager to support each other in self-abnegation. So keen to shore up the other in their mutual horror, their culturally fostered mutual horror, of something as simple as sex.’
‘Collective narcissism’ keeps everyone in line. It trapped her parents, who were baffled and threatened by her urge to achieve and need for individuation. Those urges carried Orr away to university although they forbade it, and bore her onwards to London. There, the daughter of a man who couldn’t write, became a renowned journalist. There, the daughter of a woman who controlled the family’s words found her voice.
Motherwell is full of telling details, startling stories, humour, horror, and warmth. It’s full of anger and empathy. It reminds us that in addition to losing an extraordinary woman, we’ve lost all the books she never had a chance to write. It’s all the more reason to cherish this memoir and her memory.
Motherwell: A Girlhood by Deborah Orr is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced £16.99