In an average year, Maggie O’Farrell comes close to death several times. Seized with terror, she dials 999 and is rushed to hospital in a white-knuckle dash that navigates the border of life and death. Breathing becomes impossible, the skin bubbles and blisters; as consciousness fades, cardiac arrest can be just minutes away. The death O’Farrell must come this close to, over and again, is not her own but her daughter’s.
O’Farrell’s middle child is eight years old. Ever since the age of two, she has suffered extreme allergic reactions between 12 and 15 times a year, which can be triggered by – and this list is far from exhaustive – sitting beside someone who ate muesli for breakfast, or at a table where sesame seeds were recently consumed; sharing a paddling pool with someone wearing sun cream containing almond oil; touching the hand of someone who has eaten nuts or eggs or salad with pumpkin oil; eating a biscuit picked up with tongs used earlier to hold a brownie; being stung by a bee.
At just six, O’Farrell’s eldest child had to be taught how to dial 999 and say, “This is an emergency case of anaphylaxis”, if his sister went into shock. The local A&E staff greet her by name; her consultant has advised her parents never to take her beyond range of a good hospital. They never, ever leave the house without her medication.
“We live, then,” O’Farrell writes, “in a state of high alert.”
The novelist had not intended to write a memoir. She used to joke with her husband, the writer William Sutcliffe, that she was as likely to become a mathematician as to write about her private life. “I never, ever thought I’d do it. It just felt to me it would put too much of a tax on friends and family” she tells me when we meet in a London club. O’Farrell began writing I Am, I Am, I Am (the title is taken from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar) as “a private project”, and even after signing a contract with her publishers, still thought she might lose her nerve and want to pull out of the deal.
She refused to accept an advance, because “I didn’t want the pressure of having to pay it all back if I changed my mind. It felt more liberating to me to write it without any expectation.” The publishers pointed out that they had to pay her something to make the contract legal, so she settled for a pound.
Were there moments when she seriously considered cancelling? “Yes, constantly,” she laughs. “Several times a day. I wasn’t even really sure right up until a couple of months ago that I would publish it.”
The book exists, ultimately, for one reason only: O’Farrell wanted to help her children understand that her daughter’s proximity to mortality is not their unique curse, but in fact surprisingly common. She realised she could come up with 17 of her own close encounters with death, and I Am, I Am, I Am is an account of all these occasions in her 45 years, when, as her own mother put it, “I don’t like to think what might have happened.” The memoir is a literary exercise in normalising the near-death experience.
The 17 range from a chilling near-miss encounter in her teens with a murderer to an ambush by a machete-wielding thief on a remote beach in Chile. She almost drowned twice, haemorrhaged catastrophically during her first labour and nearly died of amoebic dysentery in China. Other chapters are less dramatic – an HIV test following the discovery of her boyfriend’s infidelity; a close brush with a passing lorry while out walking – but all are crafted with O’Farrell’s trademark economy and control. She is a breathtakingly good writer, and brings all her elegance and poise as a novelist to the story of her own life.
The self-portrait revealed in its pages, though, is rather severe, and nothing like the person I meet today. More than 20 years ago, O’Farrell and I worked in the same office, and although we didn’t really know each other, I wouldn’t have recognised from her memoir the cheerful presence I recall from those days. “Contrary” and prone to tantrums as a child, O’Farrell’s account of her adult self is often similarly dissatisfied and prickly. Yet in person she is nothing like that at all. She is warm and easy, quick to laugh, full of good humour and generosity. The discrepancy is so striking, I suggest she’s been rather unfair on herself in the book.
“Really? Hmmm. Maybe,” she concedes. “I think I am quite hard on myself, but I think you have to be. I mean, we all are, aren’t we?”
The mystery of how one’s own mind compares with others’ has always particularly deep for O’Farrell, because at eight she contracted encephalitis and was hospitalised in isolation for months. Everyone expected her to die; one night, she even overheard a nurse outside her door tell another patient, “Hush. There’s a little girl dying in there.”
The damage to her cerebellum has left her with lifelong physical impairments, but the neurological legacy can also include traits such as irritability, oversensitivity and, she writes, “a profound sense of unease and dissatisfaction”. Does she feel that her personality has been determined by the disease?
“That’s what’s odd. I can’t tell. Maybe it’s a bit like having a pin in a broken bone. Your body grows around it and it becomes part of you, doesn’t it? Your personality absorbs it. I don’t know where the encephalitis ends and I begin, and which is which.”
She can never be sure, either, if it’s what made her a novelist. From the earliest age, she wrote compulsively, “but I think my illness probably, yes, made me into an observer, an interpreter of what was going on around, the unspoken. It also made me into a reader.” Confined to bed, she read classic novels over and over. “And the eighth or ninth time, you start to think: why did the author change tense here? Or why does this book start with a conversation, instead of a description? You start thinking in those terms.”
Born in Ulster to Irish parents, O’Farrell grew up with her two sisters in Wales and Scotland, where her father lectured in economics. Always academic, she studied English at Cambridge, and had planned to do a doctorate – but her results weren’t good enough. She began her career as an arts journalist. She published her first novel, After You’d Gone, in 2000, and following her second, My Lover’s Lover, two years later became a full-time novelist. She has since published five more, one of which, The Hand That First Held Mine, won the Costa book award, and all of which have been critically acclaimed hits. Spare and unsentimental, yet hauntingly vivid and suspenseful, her work deals with love, loss and all the timeless complexities of the human condition.
“I absolutely love writing,” she says. “It’s the only thing I ever really wanted to do. I never understand when I hear writers saying it’s agony. I always think, well, don’t do it then! Do something else. Go work in the coalmine. Go be a barista – see how you enjoy that,” she chuckles dryly.
I tell her I found the memoir quite confronting. I’ve always been impatient with the “what if?” sentiment. Some of her experiences’ claims to be “near-death” felt a little tenuous. It’s only in the very final chapters, when she reveals the full trauma and legacy of her childhood encephalitis and the unimaginable horror of her daughter’s condition, that her motivation for stretching the definition of near-death to include so many instances becomes clear. It wasn’t melodrama but compassion – the urge to comfort and reassure her daughter that she is not alone.
She agrees at once that to dramatise minor near misses can suggest, as she puts it, a slightly grandiose “Look at me” quality. “Yes, I was worried about that,” she nods. I’m curious to know why she didn’t begin the book with the final chapter about her daughter’s illness, to help the reader understand their context, but at this she looks surprised. Her sensibility is entirely literary, and so to her the answer is obvious: it is the dramatic reveal of a novel. “I just approached it as a novelist, and the structure of it is how a novelist will write.”
How O’Farrell has managed to remain such a successful author since her second child was born is a total mystery to me (her oldest, a boy, is now 13, and she has another daughter, aged five). Those life-threatening allergies have been compounded by eczema so severe that for the first five years of her life, “she was literally covered. Every single crease and hair was encrusted in blood. Her earlobes actually detached from her cheek several times, and her skin used to get infected, so she’d have abscesses on her legs, sepsis. She didn’t sleep. I mean, she really didn’t sleep. On a good night, she was up three or four times. On a bad night, she would be up seven, eight, nine, 10, 11 times. I mean, there were nights when at 2am we put her in the bath, and we would still be there at 6am. I have never, ever known anything like it, ever.”
O’Farrell has written about what happened next for the Guardian: in desperation, and equipped with nothing more than O-level chemistry and Google, she invented a homemade emollient that her daughter applies four times a day. But unlike every pharmaceutical cream she was ever prescribed, which had to be applied 16 times a day and didn’t work, O’Farrell’s potion has transformed – possibly even saved – her daughter’s life. Without it, she would be unable to go to school; even with it, she must be hyper-vigilant. “If she was sitting here now, the detergent used to clean these glasses we’re drinking from would have her itching. She couldn’t sit on this sofa because it’s woolly. But our home is a total detergent-free zone in every way – and we manage.”
O’Farrell has made sense of her daughter’s condition through the prism of a fairy tale, because her birth felt like a miracle. For years following the birth of her son, O’Farrell struggled to conceive; after a series of soul-destroying miscarriages, she resorted to IVF, only to be told it had failed. Three months later, when still no period had come, O’Farrell discovered she was in fact pregnant.
“In any fairy tale,” she writes, “getting what you wish for comes at a cost,” and her daughter’s eczema and allergies evoke for O’Farrell the cruelty of an old folk tale. “I think these tales appeal to our most visceral need for narrative, as a way to explain different things. It did feel magic in a strange, wonderful, weird, mystical happening for her to suddenly appear after being told I wasn’t pregnant. And then it felt like, ‘You can have this – but on the other hand there’s a price.’”
O’Farrell’s fortitude and equanimity seem equally miraculous to me. She would have every reason to be more like the put-upon, faintly aggrieved protagonist of her memoir than the resolutely cheerful optimist I meet. If I had to deal with what she must negotiate every day, I would be seething.
“We were coming back from holiday on Sunday, and I do find travelling on an aeroplane stressful, because she’s in an enclosed space. Airlines are generally very good, and they sent out the announcement [asking passengers not to eat nuts]. Then I look and a woman across the aisle has got out a huge pack of peanuts. I said to her, ‘It’s my daughter. Your peanuts could kill her.’ But she was still angry and cross and bristling.” Another time, a mother at her daughter’s school insisted it was her “son’s human right” to bring in peanut butter sandwiches for his packed lunch. “They think I’m being neurotic, I’m being precious, I’m being oversensitive. But I have to be determined not to get upset, and mostly people are fantastic.”
O’Farrell’s apprehension about making her private dramas public is palpable in the tension behind her smile. “It does feel very different from publishing a novel,” she agrees, “and I am quite nervous about it. It’s funny. A friend said recently, ‘You’ve basically revealed all the secrets you’ve spent your whole life hiding.’ But I did it for my daughter. I was tired of the silence, I think.”
‘I have walked into his trap’: an exclusive extract from Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir
On the path ahead, stepping out from behind a boulder, a man appears.
We are, he and I, on the far side of a dark tarn that lies hidden in the bowl-curved summit of this mountain. The sky is a milky blue; no vegetation grows this far up, so it is just me and him, the stones and the still black water. He straddles the narrow track with both booted feet and he smiles.
I realise several things. That I passed him earlier, farther down the glen. We greeted each other, in the amiable yet brief manner of those on a country walk. That, on this remote stretch of path, there is no one near enough to hear me call. That he has been waiting for me: he has planned this whole thing, and I have walked into his trap.
I see all this, in an instant.
This day – a day on which I nearly die – began early for me, just after dawn, my alarm clock leaping into a rattling dance beside the bed. I have just turned 18 and I have pulled off an escape. From everything: home, school, parents, exams, the waiting for results. I have found a job, far away from everyone I know, in what is advertised as a “holistic, alternative retreat” at the base of a mountain (exactly where remains a secret I keep to this day). I serve breakfast, I wipe tables, I remind guests to leave their keys. I go into the rooms, I make the beds, I change the sheets, I tidy.
All morning, I sift and organise and ease the lives of others. Then, around lunchtime, if I’m lucky, I have four hours before the evening shift to do whatever I want.
So I have walked up to the lake, as I often do during my time off, and today, for some reason, I have decided to take the path right around to the other side. Why? I forget. Maybe I finished my tasks earlier that day, maybe the guests had been less untidy than usual and I’d got out of the guesthouse before time. Maybe the clear, sun-bright weather has lured me from my usual path.
I have no reason, at this point in my life, to distrust the countryside. I have been to self-defence lessons, held at the community centre in the small Scottish seaside town where I spent my teens. The teacher, a barrel-shaped man in a judo suit, would put scenarios to us with startling Gothic relish. Late at night and you’re coming out of a pub, he would say, eyeing us one by one from beneath his excessively sprouting eyebrows, and a huge bloke lunges out from an alleyway and grabs you. Or: you’re in a narrow corridor in a nightclub and some drunk shoves you up against a wall. Or: it’s dark, it’s foggy, you’re waiting at traffic lights and someone seizes your bag strap and pushes you to the ground. These narratives of peril always ended with the same question: so, what do you do?
We practised reversing our elbows into the throats of our imaginary assailants, rolling our eyes as we did so because we were, after all, teenage girls. We took it in turns to rehearse the loudest shout we could. We repeated, dutifully, dully, the weak points in a male body: eye, nose, throat, groin, knee. We believed we had it covered, that we could take on the lurking stranger, the drunk assailant, the bag-snatching mugger. We were sure we’d be able to break their grip, bring up our knee, scratch at their eyes; we reckoned we could find an exit out of these alarming yet oddly thrilling synopses. We were taught to make noise, to attract attention, to yell, POLICE. We also, I think, imbibed a clear message. Alleyway, nightclub, pub, bus stop, traffic lights: the danger was urban. In the country, things like this did not happen.
And yet here is this man, high up a mountain, blocking my way, waiting for me.
It seems important not to show my fear. So I keep walking, keep putting one foot in front of the other. If I turn and run, he could catch up with me in seconds and there would be something so exposing, so final about running. It would uncover to us both what this situation is; it would bring things to a head. The only option seems to be to carry on, to pretend that this is perfectly normal.
“Hello again,” he says to me, and his gaze slides over my face, my body, my bare, muddy legs.
I cannot meet his gaze, I cannot look at him directly, not quite, but I am aware of narrow-set eyes, a considerable height, fists gripping his rucksack straps.
I have to clear my throat to say, “Hi.” I turn myself sideways so as to step past him: a sharp mix of fresh sweat, leather from his rucksack, some kind of shaving oil that seems distantly familiar. I am past him, I am walking away, the path is open before me. He has, I note, chosen for his ambush the apex of the hike: I have climbed and climbed, and it is at this point that I will start to descend the mountain, to my guesthouse, to my evening shift, to work, to life.
I am careful to use strides that are confident, purposeful, but not frightened. Perhaps, I think, I am free, perhaps I have misread the situation.
I am 18. Just. I know almost nothing.
I do know, though, that he is right behind me. I can hear the tread of his boots, the swishing movement of his trouser fabric – some kind of breathable, all-weather affair.
And here he is again, falling into step beside me. He walks closely, intimately, his arm at my shoulder, the way a friend might, the way I walked home from school with classmates.
“Lovely day,” he says.
I keep my head bowed. “Yes,” I say, “it is.”
“Very hot. I might go for a swim.”
There is something peculiar about his diction, I realise, as we tread the path together. His words halt mid-syllable; his Rs are soft, his Ts over-enunciated, his tone flat, almost expressionless. Maybe he’s slightly “touched”, as the expression goes, like the man who used to live down the road from us. Maybe, I think, with a flood of relief, that’s all this means. This man might be like our old neighbour: eccentric, different. Perhaps I should be kind, as my mother was.
I turn to him then. I even smile.
“A swim,” I say. “That sounds nice.”
He answers by putting his binoculars strap around my neck.
A day or so later, I walk into the police station in the nearby town. I wait in line with people reporting lost wallets, stray dogs, scraped cars. The policeman at the desk listens, head cocked to the side. “Did he hurt you?” is his first question. “This man, did he touch you, hit you, proposition you? Did he do or say anything improper?”
“No,” I say, “not exactly, but…”
“He would have done,” I say. “He was going to.”
The man looks me up and down. I’m wearing patched cut-offs, numerous silver hoops through the cartilage of my ears, tattered sneakers, a T-shirt with a picture of a dodo and the words “Have you seen this bird?” on it. I have a mane – there isn’t really any other word to describe it – of wild hair into which a guest, a serene-faced Dutch woman who had travelled to the guesthouse with her harp and a felting kit, has woven beads and feathers. I look like what I am: a teenager who has been living alone for the first time, in a caravan, in a forest, in the middle of nowhere.
“So,” the policeman says, leaning heavily on his papers, “you went for a walk, you met a man, you walked with him, he was a bit peculiar, but then you got home OK. Is that what you’re telling me?”
“He put,” I say, “the strap of his binoculars around my neck.”
“And then what?”
“He…” I stop. I hate this man with his thick eyebrows, his beery paunch, his impatient, stubby fingers. “He showed me some ducks on the lake.”
The policeman doesn’t even try to hide his smile. “Right,” he says, and shuts his book with a snap. “Sounds terrifying.”
How should I have articulated to this policeman that I could sense the urge for violence radiating off the man, like heat off a stone? I have been over and over that moment at the desk in the police station, asking myself, was there anything I could have done differently, anything I might have said that would have changed what happened next?
I could have said: I want to see your supervisor. I would do this now, aged 45, but then? It didn’t occur to me it was possible.
I could have said: listen to me – that man didn’t hurt me, but he will hurt someone else. Please find him before he does.
I could have said that I have an instinct for the onset of violence, and when the man put the binoculars strap around my neck, even though he was saying something about wanting to show me a flock of eider ducks, I knew what came next. I could smell it. I could almost see it there, thickening and glittering in the air between us. This man was going to hurt me. He meant to inflict harm, rain it down on my head, and there was nothing I could do about it.
I decided I must play along with the birdwatching game. I knew that this was my only hope. You can’t confront a bully; you can’t call them out; you can’t let them know that you know, that you see them for what they are. I glanced through the binoculars for the length of a single heartbeat. Oh, I said, eider ducks, goodness, and I ducked down and away, out of the circle of that strap. He came after me, of course he did, with that length of black leather, intending to lasso me again, but by this time I was facing him, I was smiling at him, gabbling about eider ducks and how interesting they were, did eiderdowns used to be made of them, is that where the name came from, were they filled with eider duck feathers? They were? How fascinating. Tell me more, tell me everything you know about ducks, about birds, about birdwatching, goodness, how knowledgeable you are, you must go birdwatching a lot. You do? Tell me some more about it, about the most unusual bird you’ve ever seen, tell me while we walk because is that the time, I really must be going now, down the hill, because I have to start my shift, yes, I work just there – you see those chimneys? That’s the place. It’s quite close, isn’t it? There will be people waiting for me. Sometimes if I’m late, they’ll come out to look for me, yes, my boss, he’ll be waiting. He walks up here all the time, too, all the staff do, he knows I’m out here, he certainly does, he knows exactly where, I told him myself, he’ll be out looking for me any minute now, he’ll be just around that corner. Sure, we can walk this way, and while we do, why don’t you tell me some more about birdwatching, yes, please, I’d like that, but I really must rush because they are waiting.
Two weeks later, a police car drives up the winding track to the guesthouse and two people get out. I see them from an upper window, where I’m wrestling pillows into their cases. I know straight away what they are doing here, so even before I hear someone calling my name, I am walking down the stairs to meet them.
These two are nothing like the policeman at the station. They are in suits, their demeanours serious, focused. They proffer badges and documents to my boss, Vincent, with faces that are still with practised, skilled neutrality. They want to talk to me in private, so Vincent shows them into an unoccupied room. He comes in with us because he is a good man and I am only a few years older than his own children.
I sit on a bed I made that morning, and the policeman sits at an ornamental wicker table where some guests like to take morning tea; the policewoman seats herself next to me on the bed.
Vincent hovers in the background, muttering mistrustfully. He is a former flower child, a Haight-Ashbury survivor, and has a low opinion of what he calls “the fuzz”.
The police are interested, the woman tells me, in a man I encountered recently on a walk. Would I be able to tell them exactly what happened?
So I do. I start at the beginning, describing how I passed him early on the hike, how he headed off in the opposite direction, then somehow appeared ahead of me. “I don’t know how he did that,” I say, “because there isn’t a short cut, or not one that I know of.” They nod and nod, listening with a measured intensity, encouraging me to go on. Their eyes never leave my face: I have their absolute attention. When I get to the part about the binoculars strap, they stop nodding. They stare at me, both of them, their eyes unblinking. It is a strange, congested moment. I don’t think any of us breathes. “A binoculars strap?” the man asks.
“Yes,” I say.
“And he put it around your neck?”
I nod. They look away, look down; the woman makes a note of something in her book.
Would I be willing, she asks as she hands me a folder, to take a look at some photographs and let them know if I see him there?
At this point, my boss interrupts. He can’t not. “You don’t have to say anything, you know, you don’t. She doesn’t have to say anything.”
The policewoman is putting up her hand to silence him, just as I am placing my index finger on a photograph.
“That’s him,” I say.
The detectives look. The woman notes something again in her book. The man thanks me; he takes the folder.
“He killed someone,” I say to them, “didn’t he?”
They exchange an unreadable glance but say nothing. “He strangled someone. With his binoculars strap.” I look from one to the other and we know, we all know. “Didn’t he?”
From across the room, Vincent swears softly. Then he walks over and gives me his handkerchief. The girl who died was 22. She was from New Zealand and was backpacking around Europe with her boyfriend. He was unwell that day, so had stayed at their hostel while she went off on a hike, alone. She was raped, strangled, then buried in a shallow pit. Her body was discovered three days later, not far from the path where I had been walking.
I only know all this because I read about it in the local newspaper the following week: the police wouldn’t tell me. I saw a headline in a newsagent’s window, went in to buy a paper, and there was her face, looking out at me from the front page. She had light-coloured hair, held back in a band, a freckled face, a wide, guileless smile.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I think about her, if not every day then most days. I am aware of her life, which was cut off, curtailed, snipped short, whereas mine, for whatever reason, was allowed to run on.
I never knew if they caught him, if he was convicted, sentenced, imprisoned. I had the distinct feeling, during the interview, that those detectives were on to him, that they had him, that they just needed my corroboration. Maybe the DNA samples were incontrovertible. Maybe he confessed. Maybe there were other witnesses, other victims, other near-misses, who gave evidence in court: I was never asked and was too green or, I suspect, too shocked to pursue the matter, to call the police and say, what happened, did you catch him, has he been put away?
I left the area not long afterwards, so can never be certain. All this happened long before a time of ubiquitous and instantly available news. I can find no sign, no trace of this crime on the internet, despite numerous searches.
I don’t know why he spared me but not her. Did she panic? Did she try to run? Did she scream?
For a long time, I dreamed about the man on the path. He would appear in a variety of disguises, but always with his rucksack and binoculars. Sometimes, in the murk and confusion of a dream, I would recognise him only by these accoutrements and I would think, oh, it’s you again, is it? You’ve come back? It is a story difficult to put into words, this. I never tell it, in fact, or never have before. I told no one at the time, not my friends, not my family: there seemed no way to translate what had happened into grammar and syntax. I have, now I think about it, only ever told one person, and that was the man I would eventually marry, and it only came out years after we met. I told him one evening in Chile, as we sat in the refectory of a travellers’ hostel. The expression on his face was one of such deep, visceral shock that I knew I would probably never tell it again, verbally, in my lifetime.
What happened to that girl, and what so nearly happened to me, is not something to be lightly articulated, moulded into anecdote, formed into a familiar spoken groove to be told and retold over a dinner table or on the telephone. It is instead a tale of horror, of evil, of our worst imaginings. It is a story to be kept battened down in some wordless, unvisited dark place. Death brushed past me on that path, so close that I could feel its touch, but it seized that other girl and thrust her under.
My daughter recently pointed to the top of a hill, seen on our walk to school.
“Can we go up there?”
“Sure,” I said, glancing up at the green summit.
“Just you and me?”
I was silent for a moment. “We can all go,” I said. “The whole family.”
Alert as ever to the moods of others, she immediately caught the sense that I was holding something back. “Why not just you and me?”
Because, I was thinking, because I cannot begin to say. Because I cannot articulate what dangers lie around corners for you, around twisting paths, around boulders, in the tangles of forests. Because you are six years old. Because there are people out there who want to hurt you and you will never know why. Because I haven’t yet worked out how to explain these things to you. But I will.