A year on from publishing a therapy memoir, Eina McHugh talks about the impact of revealing her secret life and childhood angst during The Troubles
Eina McHugh, director of The Ark in Temple Bar. Photograph: Alan Betson
Eina McHugh has the look of a successful woman: the smart, stylish clothes, the confident smile, the articulate voice. A recent Fulbright Scholar, the current director of The Ark Children’s Cultural Centre in Temple Bar, and former director of the Cinemagic International Film Festival for Children in Northern Ireland, McHugh is a well-known champion of creative work for children.
But, this time last year, McHugh published a memoir, To Call Myself Beloved (New Island Books), which reveals an early life of trauma growing up during The Troubles and her subsequent nine years of individual and group therapy in Belfast.
The book is compelling in its honesty about the fragility of a teenage girl, emerging into adulthood with a dominant but loving father, an emotionally absent (from Eina’s perspective) mother, in a house that was bombed several times during the North’s violent conflict.
But one’s first thoughts are why on earth did she bare her soul in public – after already bearing it in the privacy of the therapist’s rooms for almost a decade?
“I started the book in 1999, three years after I had finished therapy, and wrote most of it between 2000 and 2006, but it took me a long time to release it into the world,” she says.
“I wanted to write a book from the client’s point of view because I couldn’t find that book when I was in therapy. There were rows and rows of books by therapists writing for therapists. I set myself the creative challenge to take the reader alongside me through the intimacy, complexity, humour and at times deeply painful experience of therapy.”
The narrative is set almost entirely in the group and individual therapy sessions but also draws on letters McHugh wrote to her therapist over the nine years.
McHugh also felt that “the trauma of The Troubles has seen very little light of day – that ordinary, everyday experience where nobody is dead but a lot of things are set in motion at a subterranean level. There was a sense of a community imploded.”
In To Call Myself Beloved, McHugh’s therapist challenges the compulsion of the McHugh family to return again and again to a home that had been destroyed by bombs. The third child of four, McHugh recounts a particularly devastating experience when she was the only child who stayed in the house with her parents during an attack.
And, while “The Troubles” is the backdrop to the book – one group therapy session continues on the edge of an area condoned off due to a bomb alert – it’s the suspense of the relationship between therapist and client that is really engrossing.
Remembering that McHugh was aged between 27 and 36 during therapy, the reader bears witness to the emergence of a feisty, fragile and funny woman struggling to reconcile her intellectual development (including a strong commitment to feminism) with her emotional under-development and her fear of the physicality of sex. “I wanted all that in the book – the despair, the being hurt, the struggle, the anger, the human flaws, the joy, connection, embarrassment and humiliation, the inner unravelling and coming together in therapy,” she says.
And, unsurprisingly for such a long therapeutic relationship, the classical transference of the therapist into the dominant father figure and later the romantic male, takes place.
McHugh acknowledges that during therapy, she experienced desire like she had never experienced it before. “That desire and longing were there and it is possible in the depth of therapy where two people are meeting and changing. It took me many years to integrate this experience – to let everything settle inside like the sand and the sea. I missed him [the therapist] terribly and grieved the end of the relationship.” Even though she admits now, “I didn’t know anything about his life outside of the sessions and he didn’t come to the book launch, although he saw a draft and didn’t change a word.”
Since therapy ended, McHugh says that she went on to have happy romantic relationships, but she is currently single.
The psychological debris of a poor relationship between a mother and a daughter is an undercurrent throughout the book. And McHugh acknowledges the huge significance of the reconciliation with her mother following therapy.
“My mother and I became friends in later life. There is that sense of seeing afresh one’s parents and being who you are. I recognised that I needed my mother, to go on in life, and I am so grateful that I came into a real relationship with my mother and to be at her deathbed – being loving and loved by her. I feel the gift of that every single day.” McHugh also sought her mother’s permission to publish the book – which she gave without reading it.
She also says that her relationship with her father changed. “That parent on a pedestal – adored and demonised – no longer fitted. I came to understand the shadow side of that lovingly strict, dominant, wilful father and how wounded I had been by him, how my voice [which was saying, I don’t want to go back to a house that is constantly bombed] was denied. But when you come to know your parents as people, you realise that they are ordinary people doing their best.”
McHugh’s father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2005. Her mother died in 2009.
Now 52, McHugh says that the creative experience of writing a book has allowed her to value the different aspects of her life. “I understand differently the whole of my creativity – as a published writer, my role as director of The Ark, which is about protecting the nourishing creativity, and the creativity of the person I am.”
Perhaps fortuitously, McHugh won the Fulbright scholarship to study art education in the Lincoln Centre for Performing Arts in New York just weeks after the book was published.
“I had applied for this scholarship [as director of The Ark] before I had a publisher for the book. I felt the gods were giving me space to adapt to this deeply intimate book being in the world,” she says. So, rather than deal with face-to-face responses immediately, she received letters and emails which she has now posted alongside reviews at her website, tocallmyselfbeloved.com.
“The feedback on the book has been beyond what I could ever have imagined. Therapists and counsellors said that it was so rare for someone to write the process the other way round with such honesty. People in therapy recognised something in it similar to their own path and those who knew nothing about therapy said they were completely fascinated and intrigued and they couldn’t put it down. I found it a great joy that people found the book a page-turner,” she says.
And would she go into therapy again? “Yes, definitely, if I needed to. You never know what challenges life brings up. But I have a sense of inner self now that means I can negotiate the world on my own.”