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How would you feel if your mother died?

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My revelation in the psychiatrist's room
Redmond O'Hanlon Writer
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My GP, who I went to school with, was a good thing, said... well, you know, I had desperate rages because I couldn't write anymore. I didn't want to be engaged with The Fetish Room and the deep unconscious and so on. He said, 'Well, I know what. Just go and see a psychiatrist.' You know, I never wanted to, but if you're... you're in your late 50s, of course you do. You just don't want to die unhappy, or more to the point, you don't want to make your wife of 40 years die unhappy. And then, when you get there, of course, it's wonderful. The attention you get. The attention you get. Every little thing is of interest. I mean, you've never felt so important.

And out it all comes, that you had no idea was there. It is... it is extraordinary. Now I should have known, having written a thesis partly about Freud and having read all his work, but I thought he'd probably created the unconscious, you know, as a wonderful literary idea. But to have little Olga, this wonderful Greek psychiatrist, jump back on her chair and she says, 'How have things been?' And you think, 'Wow'. And then you tell her.

And it helps that she's Greek, because I said to her, I remember saying, 'Well, God, you're so intelligent. Why don't you... you could write a new Greek tragedy. Why aren't you writing a wonderful Greek novel? There have been no novels.' And she said, 'My job here, is to avoid Greek tragedies, hah'. And I thought, 'You win'. There was just no... how wonderful this is. How extraordinary the National Health Service is.

And then bang, you know? So, about your mother and so on. I'd say, 'No, no, no', I think it's perfectly possibly for anybody to work by making sure that, in their own minds, they have no father and no mother. That I couldn't produce a single word if I thought of my mother and father. That's what The Fetish Room's about. You have all your really sacred, precious things from childhood, your bird books, your bird's eggs, things that bring back a rush of happiness, pre-intellectual. They can just eliminate any terrible influence from your extreme Protestant parents. And Olga said, 'Well, perhaps not, you know? I don't think so.' And I thought, 'You stupid woman'. Then she went, 'Tell me a little bit about your mother', and I... then I was telling her, 'Well, every time I cried, she would grab me by my wrist with these great hands of hers, vicar's wife, but had been an actress'. Full of bitterness. And God should not have sent a tickly tentacle down and converted her. Up the stairs, I'd be flying, so I must have been quite young, little feet not touching the floor, along the long corridor at the top of this vast vicarage, pressed down on her stool that she... well, her makeup stool, but it was very, very rough. It was some kind of embroidery. Anyway, so my little head pressed down there. And then she would beat me with her hairbrush, flat of her hairbrush, until I fainted. So I would always wake up underneath the chair.

But she'd be yelling, 'You horrible, hateful, selfish child, you. My name could have been in lights.' And sometimes, she'd add, 'Like Sybil Thorndike', but not always. That's... maybe that's it.

So you suddenly find yourself saying these things. And then I'd creep downstairs, when I did wake up, and into my father's study, maybe. And he'd be writing his sermon from a book of all the sermons that were copied out. And he wouldn't turn around. And his dog, Roger, a spaniel, who normally bit me, was... would always be there, in front of the... one of the very early electric fires. So I got very close up to the dog and Roger didn't bite me. He could see things weren't great. And my little prep school sweater burst into flames. And only then did he turn around. And then he turned back to his work, and he yelled, 'Kate, Kate'!

She came in, and then it was... she put the flames out with a cushion and I wasn't badly burnt. And then it was into her arms. 'My darling', 'my baby', my this, my that. So I'd always mistrusted the idea of love or affection. Never believed it at all.

British author Redmond O’Hanlon writes about his journeys into some of the wildest places in the world. His travels have taken him into the jungles of the Congo and the Amazon, he has faced some of the toughest tribes alive today, and has sailed in the hurricane season on a trawler in the North Atlantic. In all of this, he explores the extremes of human existence with passion, wit and erudition.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: NHS, Sigmund Freud, Sybil Thorndike

Duration: 5 minutes, 49 seconds

Date story recorded: July - September 2008

Date story went live: 11 August 2009