We are a nation obsessed with death. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, a memoir about a neurosurgeon diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 29 weeks. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande, has also ridden the NYT bestseller wave for endless weeks. Now comes the memoir, In Gratitude, by Jenny Diski, an author who was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in August 2014 and died April 28, 2016. Perched at the edge of her existence, Diski reveals for the first time her complicated relationship with Doris Lessing, who took Diski in at the age of 15.
Diski’s tone is unlike the above mentioned books. She is sly and wry, with an underhanded humor. It’s there in the title, how easily In Gratitude becomes ingratitude. She began this memoir when she was handed her diagnosis; she may be dying, but her rebellious personality is alive and vibrant and bursting on the page. For most of her life, Diski lived outside the dominant paradigms—not raised by her parents, in and out of foster homes, psychiatric wards, kicked out of boarding school, periods of drug use. Anything but common ground. But with the diagnosis, she found herself in the deep groove of the well-trodden, heavily clichéd story of cancer—and balked.
Embarrassment, at first, to the exclusion of all other feeling. But embarrassment curled at the edges with a weariness, the sort that comes over you when you are set on a track by something outside your control, and which, although it is not your experience, is so known in all its cultural forms that you could unscrew the cap of the pen in your hand and jot down in the notebook on your lap every single thing that will happen and everything that will be felt for the foreseeable future. Including the surprises.
I got a joke in.
“So—we’d better get cooking the meth,” I said to the Poet, sitting to one side and slightly behind me.”
She was referring to the TV drama, Breaking Bad, but the doctor didn’t get it.
In Gratitude is not a straight narrative. How could it be? Diski lived anything but a predictable life. Diski mentions, revisits, and circles events and people. Early on, we learn after she was expelled from boarding school, she moved in with Doris Lessing. It is only later in the book that we learn how she ended up with Lessing and why she couldn’t live with her parents. And we revisit that moment again and again.
“My particular difficulty is that I don’t like writing narrative, the getting on with what happened next of a story that has a middle, an end, and a beginning. You may have noticed… I’m much more interested in that closed door keeping people outside and in, separating and including,” writes Diski.
If the tone is surprising, so is Diski’s time with Lessing. Diski knew at a young age she wanted to be a writer. (She published 17 books of fiction, nonfiction, essays and short stories). “It’s like something out of a fairy story,” was a phrase so many people said to Diski, when they learned she lived with Lessing. “To which I would answer yes, or sort of, or say nothing at all. Or if I had the will, I would say something to the effect that the Cinderella fairy story of Doris and me was a rare instance of life after the ellipsis at the end of most fairy stories. And they lived happily ever after. People usually didn’t much like that answer, because it messed up with the simplicity of the story, and reminded them that Doris was not a handsome prince, nor I the foundling whose innate nobility was recognized by a prince of the true blood.”
Diski was grateful, but she was also ungrateful and angry and needy. Writers and intellectuals gathered at Lessing’s house, and Diski got to learn the rudiments of artists’ conversations. But as writers are prone to do, Lessing used fragments of Diski’s life and included them in her work. Diski is ‘Emily,’ in Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor. Briefing for a Descent into Hell included Diski’s relationship with one of the patients in St. Pancras.
Early in their relationship, Lessing told Diski there was no need for gratitude. “She offered the civilized justification: people had helped her at different difficult periods and one day I might be in a position to help someone else.” Yet this baffled and infuriated the 15-year-old Diski who wanted to express her gratitude and her rage at having to be grateful: “the gratitude ever increasing, the bill never settled, and made more enraging by Doris’s insistence that I wasn’t to feel it.”
But the most searing moment with Lessing haunted Diski to the very end. Over the course of her young life, Diski had been shuffled from foster houses to friends, while her mother had a catatonic breakdown. After many agonizing weeks, Diski mustered the courage to ask Lessing whether she liked her. And if she didn’t where would she go?
Lessing confronted the question with silence. Then abruptly left the house. In the morning, Diski found a letter on the table, accusing Diski of emotional blackmail.
About midway through the book, another tone dominates and a second possible title for the memoir emerges: In Bafflement. Why was this Lessing’s response to a homeless, needy 15 year old? The question opens the floodgates: Why did Doris take her in at all? Why did she leave her two children in Africa with her first husband? Willfulness? The necessity of art? Why did she keep her third child, Peter, whom she had with her second husband? When Diski moved in, did she take something away from Peter, who ended up a recluse, living in an adjoining flat to the aged Lessing. When would Diski die? How?
Diski speculates and imagines, but, in the end, there are no answers. This is the power of the memoir, the willingness and bravery (she’d hate that word, I think) to sit in the uncertainty of an unfinished life and ask the questions at all.