Cover of Mother's MilkI enjoyed Jenny Turner's essay review on mummylit and dadlit in last week's Guardian Review, and I would support her call for a bit less niceness in our writing and thinking about babies. I would part company from her on a couple of points, though. Firstly, I personally found little in the writings of the "post-Freudian baby theorists" (such as Winnicott) that took babies seriously on their own terms, rather than being a mouthpiece for a particular, adult-oriented theoretical perspective. Secondly, I think Turner picks a bad example of the supposed richness of a baby's experience. Edward St Aubyn's Mother's Milk is a delightful book in many ways, and many of its finest qualities relate to its treatment of children. But five-year-old Robert's memory of his own birth is incoherent, and pays no attention to the picture of infant consciousness that researchers have painstakingly drawn over recent decades.
Why had they pretended to kill him when he was born? Keeping him awake for days, banging his head again and again against a closed cervix; twisting the cord around his throat and throttling him; chomping through his mother's abdomen with cold shears; clamping his head and wrenching his neck from side to side; dragging him out of his home and hitting him; shining lights in his eyes and doing experiments; taking him away from his mother while she lay on the table, half-dead ...To the best of our knowledge, babies do not feel these events or form a conscious understanding of them in these ways. As I've noted elsewhere on this blog, it is highly unlikely that a five-year-old child would remember the events of his birth at all. This is a grown-up writer imagining what it would be like, as an adult, to go through the process of birth. It is not even true to a five-year-old child's understanding—which is the astonishing bit, given how carefully and sensitively Robert's consciousness is rendered elsewhere in the novel.