Some years back, I enrolled in a graduate seminar in Analytic Philosophy. At the start of the first class, the professor posed the question—what makes you you? What is the core of your identity? If one were to teleport you through time and space, what part of you would need to be transferred so that it would actually be you that stands at the other end of the Star Trek-like shipment? Would it have to be your DNA sequence—some sort of recipe of proteins? Would it be your feelings? Your face? Your soul or your mind? Your conscience? Your sense of humor? Would it have to be your memory? What makes you distinct from anyone else in the world? After some initial offerings the class spun wildly toward some distorted idea of Nietzsche and human flourishing. Basically, anything that fell short of the mental flourishing seemingly evident in a university graduate student was not really a person. The discussion became heated quickly. I was indignant. I loudly, though clumsily, asserted that infants, the unborn, people in comas, the mentally ill, the developmentally disabled, and those suffering dementia were all individuals—dignified in every respect as the healthiest, most fully developed of human beings. Many students disagreed with and parodied my sentimental screed. I dropped the class, took a course on Hemingway, and was quite happy.
Matthew Thomas’s new novel, We Are Not Ourselves, seems to be a meditation on the question—what makes us who we are? Perhaps there is an even deeper question—do we have any right to consider ourselves apart from others? That is, can we think of ourselves as isolated from those we love and from those around us?
I do not want to scare participants in the Catholic Book Club away from this book by my philosophical musings, but I do want to hint at the novel’s depth. The story is quite beautiful. Essentially, it is the story of Eileen Tumulty, the daughter of Irish immigrants. The reader meets her as a child and watches her develop into a nurse, wife, mother, and professional. The novel is her portrait – a portrait of her love, her suffering, her imperfection, her striving, her aging, and her goodness. It is a portrait of her family—her husband, Ed, and her son, Connell. Eileen pulls the two men in her life toward her dream of suburban peace and upper middle class comfort. She desires reliable respite from the tumult and toil of the majority of her life. Toward the beginning of the book, there is a wonderful scene when Eileen is driving her mother to an AA meeting. She must also ferry her mother’s friends, fellow alcoholics, to the meeting. As she drives through wealthier neighborhoods, the young Eileen thinks to herself:
Life is what you made of it. Some of the houses she’d dropped these people off at would have been enough for her, so why couldn’t it be enough for them? If she lived in one of these houses, she wouldn’t need to get into another woman’s car and head to a damp lower church for a meeting. She could look at her fireplace, her leather sofa, her book lined drawing room; she could listen to silence above her head; she could peer in on empty bedrooms lying in wait for fresh-faced visitors, pleasantly useless otherwise. It would all be enough for her to put a drink down for. And yet these people were. The fact that they were there, that everything they owned wasn’t enough somehow, disturbed her, suggesting a bottomlessness to certain kinds of unhappiness. She shook the thought from her head like dust from an Oriental rug and decided that a house would have to be enough (45-46).
Eileen is mystified that someone could seek dissipation in drink when he or she possesses such a comfortable place to call home. For years and years, she strives for such comfort, yearns for it fiercely. As Eileen’s story unfolds, there are instances of incredible grief and vivid portraits of how human beings are capable of hurting those they love most. There is also humor and the type of perseverance that sweeps up the reader into solidarity with the novel’s characters.
Matthew Thomas’s prose draws the reader into Eileen’s heart and mind. The writing is efficient and thoughtful and kind. It is void of cynicism, vulgarity and irony. The novel offers a portrait, and, through this portrait, it provokes us to consider what exactly it means to be human. How much of who we are is determined by our parents, our siblings, our spouse, our children, even our neighbors? How much of who I am resides in whom I love and who loves me? Finally, how much do I remain myself if I lose everything, including my memory?
I think I have offered enough questions for readers in this introduction to the first half of Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves. Please contribute some thoughts on the book or on any of the questions above. I will offer the second part of the introduction at the beginning of October. In the meantime, I urge members of the Book Club to pick up a copy and begin reading.
A reader offered the following comment recently in the Catholic Book Club comments section: “I do not have the book yet. Your review indicates Eileen could be any number of women in the world.” To some extent, this is the case. Eileen – the central character in We Are Not Ourselves – harbors the same goals and dreams as most Americans, most parents who work hard and wish the best for their children. But, there is something richer in Eileen’s character that draws out meaningful, heartfelt reflection on the part of the reader. Eileen loves fiercely. She loves fiercely her husband and her son. She also has a tremendous capacity to absorb the relentless effort of sustaining her family. She is tough. She radiates dignity combined with toughness. She is the clear head of her family. After all, she began caring for her own parents when she turned 13. Throughout her life, Eileen absorbs the suffering that such fierce loving entails. In the end, even though Eileen is shrewd and tough, even though she pours herself into her work and her middle class striving, she does not get very far in life. Her husband develops a crippling illness that erases his personality and his ability to care for himself. She will have to work hard to provide him basic care. She will lose her husband while she is still in her fifties. Her dreams and strivings are reduced to simple pleas against the nature of a disease: “She had once imagined getting a luxury car, foreign trips, and antique furniture out of the pharmaceutical industry; now all she wanted was a less rapid diminishment of Ed’s brainpower.” (326)
What makes this novel so wonderful to read are the realizations that Eileen gains as she cares for a dying husband and an unreliable son. She realizes something about the intimate tenderness that occurs between spouses. One night after hours of tending to her husband in his utter deterioration and mounting fear, she experiences a bottomless, almost inexplicable love:
She dressed him with deliberateness and care. He sat on the bed in the bright white of his underwear and T-shirt and felt tenderness for him and a yearning that she almost could not bear…This unlikely coupling with Ed tonight was proof that what was visible to others was only a sliver of the spectrum of a couple’s intimate life. A hunger for contact could overcome intractable impediments. She began to reconceive of her parents’ lives. To imagine that a shadow passion overtook them when they might have least expected it to. (504-505)
Even in the midst of illness and suffering, there can be a private, wordless, nourishing love that exists between husband and wife.
At the end of the novel, Eileen goes to a Mets game by herself. On the way home, she decides to visit her old neighborhood. She knocks on the door of her old house and is invited in by the young Indian family who purchased the house from her eight years earlier. She cannot believe herself when she agrees to sit with them for dinner. She cannot believe that she would enjoy the mysterious, oddly colored heaps of food that the family warmly serves her. Sitting at the table in her old dining room, she recognizes the goodness of her life:
It was only then that she registered that they were sitting in the same arrangement she and Ed and Connell had sat in that room – the father nestled into the table’s head, his back to the window, the boy with his back to the mirror, the wife across from him, ready to shuttle dishes. Eileen was in the seat that had often gone empty at the table. She’d looked at it in the middle of meals and thought how nice it would be to have someone drop in unannounced and bring the world to her. She’d never imagined the scene from the visitor’s vantage point, how complete a picture of life it might have presented, how much it might have looked as if everything that mattered in the world was already there.
[As if she were conveying her feelings about her first experience of Indian food] ‘I didn’t know what I was missing,’ she said, and because there was no way to say what she was thinking without telling her whole story, she picked up her fork, took another bite, and hoped they’d see something more than mere politeness in the smile that was spreading across her face. (610)
In seeing her life from a different point of view, she realizes her joy – the goodness of her life.
In the past two years, I have chosen many novels for members of the book club to consider. Although the novels are not explicitly religious or Catholic, the characters they depict – like Eileen – enrich my understanding of my own life and the lives of those around me. In a beautiful and understated way, Matt Thomas’ work serves to underscore the fact that we are, in fact, not ourselves. It is a fundamental Christian realization that enriches human life and human love. Eileen is not a saint. She is not a housewife. She is a strong mother, a fiercely strong and loving wife who realizes tenderness, gift, and meaning in the relationships that define her life and make it – in the end – satisfyingly joyful. Such realization communicated through thoughtful prose enriches my faith and deepens my perceptiveness as a person shaped by those he loves. Indeed, we are not ourselves and thank God for that.
- As far as a discussion, I hope to interview the author at the beginning of November. I encourage you to take a stab at this beautiful novel and perhaps note what you might want Matt Thomas to address in our conversation about the book.
- Perhaps someone could offer some thoughts on Ed’s letter to Connell and Connell’s own realization at the very end of the novel.