An alert: A friend who read the review has let me know that she found my review so disturbing that she was having images, and cannot read the book as it stirs up her own traumatic memories. I had not thought about this when I wrote the review, which contains some explicit details of abuse from the book. There may be some readers who are not able to read these disclosures without having trauma re-awakened. So I need to raise this alert, and to apologise to any who have felt such disturbance. It is a very confronting story, and readers need to be aware of that.
The Art of Disappearing, by Elisabeth Hanscombe, published by Glass House Books, is a compelling and disturbing account of the author’s childhood in a family of nine children, with Dutch parents. The theme of this memoir is the author’s enforced role of bearing witness to continued abuse from which there is no escape other than making herself as invisible as possible. As a witness, Hanscombe is relentlessly honest, and for one who taught herself so early so consistently to withdraw into herself, to escape, she is naked in her honesty. The personal work which she must have done to achieve this nakedness, to transform herself from a shy, awkward young girl to a psychotherapist and a writer, is beyond measure. To speak out, to bypass family taboos (“We do as if nothing is wrong” was her mother’s mantra, when her father, drunk on brandy, would rant and rave, abusing her mother) in itself is a huge achievement. To do so as eloquently, simply and transparently, is awe-inspiring. Through it all, the author’s voice remains detached, as if she is observing it all from a safe place, but she was never safe. She spent her nights huddled in her bed, watching and listening for her father, who would wander the hallway, checking out the rooms, and often, come into the bedroom she shared with her older sister.
Elisabeth is not usually her father’s target; it is Hannah, her older sister. Elisabeth sees him enter the room, leaning over Hannah, and turns to the wall, hoping he will think her asleep; she hears the blankets peeled back, the rustle of sheets, moans and murmurs. Then the soft thud of his bare feet across the room, the rattle of the door handle, and Hannah’s sobbing. She never knows when her turn will come.
Somehow, she manages to avoid it throughout her childhood, except for one terrible night when her mother takes refuge in Elisabeth’s bed (Hannah has left home by now) and the father enters the room and gets into bed with them, naked. Elisabeth remembers Hannah’s advice, ‘If he touches you, scream.’ She tries to squeeze herself up tight like a sheet of paper, thin enough to blow away. The mother leaves the room, then comes back and tells him to go back to bed.
She’d come in the nick of time. Any longer and my head would have burst with the fear of what was to come. A fear that stays with me still.
Somehow, she and her siblings and their mother survive this life of poverty, struggle, fear and abuse, and Elisabeth starts studying Social Work at university, and experimenting with the freedom of living away from home, having a boyfriend, exploring life as an independent sexual being. Yet she is never free of the fear of penetration, of violation, and even after her father dies, after five years of abstinence, his shadow haunts her life.
… even then my body could not forget the fear and the impulse to hide, the sensation of walking into a room as if I was made of stuff lighter than air, as if I consisted of mind and brain matter only, as if my only protection was the smile I wore to keep others at bay.
And although she has been able to write and publish this book, and lives a fulfilled life as a therapist, a writer, a wife and mother, a person in her own right, she tells us that she still feels compelled at times to practice invisibility, and is haunted by dreams of her father. But the fears are released by the knowledge that he has lost his power, to insult, to hurt, to violate.
She no longer needs to hide.
This book is a remarkable testimony to the power of self-transformation — through life, through study, through therapy, through writing. No longer needing to disappear, she is triumphantly present in these pages. Well done, Elisabeth.