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Cells: Memories For My Mother By Gavin McRea – Confronting The Past

In the last 20 years of her life, the artist Louise Bourgeois created a series of small architectural spaces that she named Cells. Each of them contained objects arranged to evoke rooms from her past, along with the trauma that occurred inside them. Encountering them at an exhibition, Gavin McCrea, who is the author of two novels, Mrs Engels (2015) and The Sisters Mao (2021), found himself overwhelmed with sadness and grief. While the contents of Bourgeois’s Cells were specific to the artist, McCrea recognised “in their pattern and their ordering, in their blending and their juxtaposition, in their communicating and their clashing, the episodes and moods of my own childhood”.

Cells, then, is McCrea’s own exhibition piece, a raw and deeply affecting memoir in which he reconstructs and dissects traumatic scenes from his past. The youngest of four siblings born and raised in Dublin, McCrea left home in his early 20s having determined to close the door on his upbringing. “What I have since learned,” he notes, “is that this hatred of my past is really just an acknowledgement of an element of my psyche that will never be eradicated. Within the instinct … to leave behind, there will always remain traces of a contrary instinct: the one which will send me searching for the way back.”

And so we find McCrea back in Dublin after a 20-year absence and living with his mother who, though still active, is in the early stages of dementia and increasingly in need of care. It is 2020, the world is in lockdown and McCrea is meant to be writing a new novel, though instead he ends up writing about his mother, whom he loves but is endlessly maddened by. When McCrea was small, his mother would call him “my prince” and show him off to her friends. But during his secondary school years she pulled away from him. At the same time, McCrea was subjected to homophobic abuse at school and by local gangs, which would often turn into vicious beatings. His mother declined to acknowledge her son’s sexuality or his suffering, while his father only once broke his silence on the matter, calling McCrea a “freak”.

While much of Cells focuses on the rupturing bond between mother and son, unhappiness bubbles all around. There is the mental disorder suffered by one of his brothers, named here as N, manifesting in bouts of explosive rage, along with their father’s quieter breakdowns, which periodically see him institutionalised and culminate in his suicide. After their father’s death, McCrea’s sister’s grief surfaces in the form of an eating disorder. In a startling display of cruelty, McCrea opts not to look at her while visiting her in hospital: “I could not take the risk involved in comforting or supporting her: the risk, that is, of ‘catching’ all this madness like a cold.”

In peeling back the layers of familial dysfunction, McCrea doesn’t shrink from his own ugly moments, whether reprimanding his elderly mother for her repeated questions or abruptly delivering the news of his father’s death to N: “Wake up, Dad is dead.” Though he loses focus with diversions into Jungian theory and exhaustive (and exhausting) breakdowns of his dreams, the author’s account of his trauma, which continues into adulthood with an HIV diagnosis and another shocking homophobic attack, is vividly drawn.

There is much to be gleaned here about the damage inflicted within families and carried through the generations, and the corrosive effect of silence. But most poignant is the author’s journey towards self-knowledge. McCrea has spent half a lifetime afflicted by a helpless and all-consuming rage, a trait he realises has been passed down from his mother. But in her twilight years, he sees how she has drawn a line under her pain and learned to stay in the present. “If I am anything like her,” he reflects, “I will do the same.”

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