Review by Lucy Fernandes
I have oftentimes found solace and a sense of connection in other people’s memoirs, which is why I read ‘Emily’s Voices’, a memoir by Emily Knoll which was published recently by Amazon. It feels important to me, in light of the Hearing Voices Approach, that a voice hearer has taken the step of writing about her experiences and publishing them for other people to read and to benefit from.
Emily tells of her upbringing in a family where her mother prioritised her own emotional needs over those of Emily and her brother, and Emily was encouraged to keep her feelings about this silent. Emily’s mother puts pressure on Emily to succeed, especially in music, and often finds things to criticise about Emily’s cello playing. Years later when Emily is working as a live-in au pair, she finds herself up against a rather unkind employer, Gloria, who piles on the household chores and is very critical of Emily’s cooking. It is during this time that Emily begins to hear voices.
Emily’s voices make cold, critical comments about Emily as if they are scrutinising her from a distance. For example, one of her one of her voices comments ‘I think she makes no effort’. Elsewhere, Emily tells us about a conversation with her mother, where her Mum tells Emily ‘part of the problem is that you don’t make any effort to meet a boyfriend’. Emily hints at a connection between her upbringing and her voices by including the facts of her life all together in one memoir. However, she leaves it up to the reader to join the dots. I hear an echo between the way Emily’s voices talk about her, and the way she writes about her own life: clipped, unemotional sentences of broken commentary.
Emily helpfully discusses the stigma surrounding voice hearing and bravely admits that one of her biggest struggles is she stigmatises herself. We catch a glimpse of this when, worried about stigma, Emily tells her flatmate ‘My mental health problem doesn’t make me a psychopath’. I wonder whether Emily’s use of medicalising language is a way of self-stigmatising. Throughout her memoir, Emily frames her experience in terms of mental illness. Emily has internalised a medical view of her experiences, so much so that even her voices frequently diagnose her with schizophrenia, something she finds upsetting.
Emily looks in several places for support as she learns to cope with her voices. Two close friends, Beth and Daniel, talk openly with her about what she is going through, as does Emily’s Granny, who insists ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’. Emily writes poems, a journal, a short story, and connects to music to release her emotions. Her therapist, Daphne, supports her to begin to make sense of her voices. Perhaps the most important thing Emily does for herself is apply for a job on a research project about hearing voices. Here, her lived experience informs her work.
Emily’s Voices is a success for me because I felt I got to know Emily. I grew familiar with her struggles and, in doing so, I came to recognise the value of her achievements as, step-by-step, she makes her journey towards a life she can be happy with. For much of her life, Emily feels lonely and even one of her voices points out ‘she wants to be understood’. In the careful scrutiny of her life across the pages of ‘Emily’s Voices’, Emily lets herself be understood.