Views & Reviews Between the Lines

Too much information

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 11 March 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b938
  1. Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

    I once read a biography of Somerset Maugham, otherwise excellent, that told me more about his behaviour when demented than I thought I needed—or indeed had any right—to know. Maugham’s literary career was over, and revelations about his dementia could hardly cast any useful light on his work. Just because a fact is biographical does not mean that it should appear in a biography.

    What, then, of John Bayley’s account of the dementia of his wife, Iris Murdoch, the philosopher and novelist? It is often touching and sometimes deeply moving, but at other times it tells me, at least, things I would rather not know. I don’t really want to know that an eminent person spent her last years incontinent of urine and with an inclination to put her faeces where they did not belong. I don’t want to know that she would have been happy to eat ice cream mixed with baked beans or that at one time Bayley, formerly a professor of English, wanted to hit her. I don’t want to know that he shouted “I really fucking well hate you!” at her.

    People less squeamish than I am might say that Bayley here does a public service to those who, with deep devotion and unsung heroism, look after their demented spouses. It would be surprising if many of them did not at times feel anger towards those they have to care for and who are no longer capable of appreciating their sacrifice. To know that a man as educated as Bayley could have been reduced to the above exclamation might bring them comfort.

    I suppose the question boils down to whether you think that everything in life should be out in the open or whether some things should remain concealed. I favour the second view, but I think I am now in the minority. It is not merely that, like everyone else (I assume), there are things about me that I would wish no one else to know: I think there are things about everyone I care for that I would not wish to know. The art is in knowing where to draw the line.

    The hidden is, in part, what makes life interesting. To say that someone is an open book is also to imply that they are shallow. There are many things that should be skirted over or even brushed under the carpet.

    The last two or three decades have seen a vogue for memoirs of illness, by those with the illness and by carers. A magazine once sent me seven such books for review in a single article. The ostensible justification for these books is that they give aid and comfort to people similarly placed; but I do not think this can account for their popularity, because people read about illnesses that they neither have nor are likely ever to have.

    I think rather that they are attempts to give meaning to suffering in a post-religious age, to give a transcendent gloss to what otherwise seems arbitrary and unfair. Murdoch’s Alzheimer’s disease was a terrible affliction, principally for her husband, no doubt: but at least three books and a film (see BMJ 2002;324:177; doi:10.1136/bmj.324.7330.177) came of it.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b938

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