Trying to find my parents through faded photos and broken hearts

‘In the Dark Room’: How an effort to write a cultural history of memory became a deeply personal memoir

My mother died on a fine summer day in 1985 – she was 50, and I was 16. She had been seriously ill, one way and another, since I was three or four years old; but things had escalated only in recent months, when her doctors began to admit there was nothing more they could do for her. Early in July we went on holiday as usual, to my mother's village in north Kerry. I remember the train journey down from Dublin: my father, my two brothers and I silent in front of her pain and fear. I remember the careful way she placed her bandaged hand on the table between us: she'd recently had the nail removed from a frozen, gangrenous finger. After a few days in Kerry she was rushed to hospital in Tralee. I sat on my bed in our rented cottage 12 miles away and thought: If you're going to die, die now.

In my earliest memories of her, she's dancing in our sitting room or strumming her guitar while I'm tucked beside her on the couch. Then, as one of my brothers put it, she simply seemed less present. Postnatal depression condensed into something more immovable: a cloud of dolour and anxiety that darkened her life and ours for good. I think my head will explode, she used to say to her sons when we would not be quiet or still. (Later, I thought this was a metaphor for how depression felt; later still, in the middle of my first breakdown, I discovered she was being perfectly literal.)

My mother’s days were measured now in periodically adjusted doses of tranquillisers – I knew about Valium, aged five or six – and antidepressants: there were brown glass bottles by her bedside, little green pills lined up every morning. At some point in the 1970s she was prescribed electro-convulsive therapy, though of course we children didn’t know that at the time, nobody mentioned it till long, long after she was gone.

Real enemy

Her depression had lifted for a time when the real enemy struck. For years she’d suffered from Reynaud’s phenomenon, her hands turning blue and white and painful in the cold. (Half my family has the same symptoms: every winter I watch my own merely chilly fingers for the signs.) In very rare cases, Reynaud’s may presage the onset of a more serious condition. Scleroderma is an autoimmune disease of obscure origin and diverse symptomatology, some of which in extremis will kill you.


My mother's skin turned hard and taut; her hands ulcerated and curled inward like claws; her beautiful face shrank: Mauskopf, says the medical literature. Her throat tightened so that eating was a terrifying agony, and internal organs started to atrophy: lungs, kidneys and liver all failing slowly. Her depression returned, and why wouldn't it? I'd be better off dead, she said.

I wasn’t with her at the last. My brothers and I had left the hospital ward with an aunt and uncle who led us outside in the sunshine, looking for some lunch, while my father stayed with her. When we saw my mother again it was in her coffin, at the hospital mortuary, before her removal to Mount Argus church.

I remember nothing of the mortuary room, or the prayers, but just this: a fly kept landing on my mother's face and walking about there for a few seconds before her father, tall and bent in his black suit, reached forward and brushed it away. He must have done this half a dozen times, like an old man in an Italian film or a story by Flannery O'Connor, before I thought: none of this is real, it cannot be happening. My father now leaned to kiss my mother's waxy forehead, and waved me forward to do the same.

Individual grief

We hardly spoke about her after she died. I remember that my father came into my bedroom and said: Pray for her. And that may have been all he said on the subject. In my memory the four of us are dispersed around the house, each sunk alone in his dumb grief. My father tried to get us to sit together in the evenings, but we wandered away with our books, music and homework – my dad too, into the routine of cooking and cleaning after work, then brief respite behind his newspaper, a whiskey some nights to try to sleep. I was with him one day when a neighbour stopped to talk and he said to her: Yes, it is very lonely, yes. It was hard to look at him after that, as much out of shame as pity.

The things that memory clings to. With three teenage boys in the house, it had been full of music; our diverging tastes became the currency by which we communicated, replacing the shouts and blows and horseplay of childhood. What was the first record we dared play after my mother died? I can't recall, but I know the first one I bought, in the autumn. It was Cloudbusting by Kate Bush: a sort of hymn to preternatural weather and idealist, maybe delusional, hope. Every time it rains, you're here in my head, like the sun coming out – I just know that something good is going to happen. I was filled with guilt by the time I got the seven-inch single home and onto our ancient mono record player. How could I think of pop music at a time like this? Filled with a sort of bravado too: although it wasn't true, it felt as though Kate Bush's was the first female voice to sound in our sad male household since my mother died. I played the record over and over again while my father sat quiet in his armchair, played it at him like some kind of message, some type of rebuke – for what?

Father’s death

Five summers later, my father dropped dead of a heart attack while taking a mid-morning stroll after Mass. My brothers and I were still asleep when the police came to the door. I stumbled into some clothes, cursing: fuck, fuck, fuck. At the hospital the nurses showed us into a room where my father lay fully clothed – I think even his tie was still neatly in place – and with his eyes closed. As we stood there looking down at him I thought: What exactly are we supposed to do now?

We had embarked on a perilous orphanhood. The three of us lived on, in the aftermath, inside the three-bedroom semi-detached house that my parents had bought when they married in 1968 and which, apart from an extension a few years before my mother died, had hardly altered in its drab decor and gloomy furniture. We went to school and college and tried to make our way in the world, but we came back every night to this place that was falling apart around us and filled with memories of the family we had once been. It was all still there, the texture of a life gone by: in the things my parents had left behind, in our efforts to stick to certain household routines, inedible attempts at the meals my mother made and which my dad had taught himself. None of it worked: the walls seemed to close in, and inevitably we turned on each other. There were hard words and kicks exchanged, knives thrown and holes punched in doors.


Four years after my father died, we sold the house. We could no longer live under the same roof, and the place was so saturated with bad memories it had become unbearable. At any rate, that is how I explained things to myself later, when I’d moved to England to study and taken with me certain remnants from home. I owned (and own) a few dozen of my father’s books, and some scraps of typescript and newsprint: the handful of stiff, pious poems he published as a young man. I had the Bible my mother kept beside her bed, and in it the painfully handwritten prayers she clung to as her illness worsened. And a fat wallet full of photographs: our family by the sea in the late 1970s, my parents (so very young) looking unaccountably glamorous as they crossed O’Connell Bridge one night, the last photograph of them together: both diminished by my mother’s plight. I tried not to look at these things too often.

Until I had to, that is. In the winter of 1997, when I was 28 years old and sunk in a depression such as I had never known, the words in the dark room began to repeat inside my addled head. I'd picked up this phrase from TS Eliot's poem Gerontion, where it does not stand out among more memorable lines: "Signs are taken for wonders . . . After such knowledge, what forgiveness?' I liked the mundanity of the phrase, the way it only partly pointed towards photography: "dark room", not "darkroom".

What terrors could my father not speak, before and after his wife's death? Mourning is one thing, imagining what it was like to be the mourned quite another

Alone at night when I should have been writing my PhD thesis, I'd taken to poring over my old family snapshots and trying to write something – awkward, doleful fragments – in response. If I'm ever lucky enough to write a book, I thought, I will call it In the Dark Room.

What sort of book? When I was young I imagined it would resemble the books of my literary heroes. Something like Nabokov's kaleidoscopic autobiography Speak, Memory, with its opening description of a tiny Nabokov holding his parents' hands on a country road in the old world. Like Virginia Woolf's The Waves, in which the desires and anxieties of childhood – "clasping hands, afraid of much" – are delicately drawn. Or the books I'd turned to recently, while mind and life gave way: E M Cioran's grim, hilarious philosophy; the melancholy excursions of W G Sebald; Julia Kristeva's study of art and depression in Black Sun. Most of all, I was thinking about my first literary and intellectual crush: Roland Barthes, whose short book Camera Lucida treats so beautifully the author's grief for his recently dead mother, and the photographs of her that remain.

My mother’s hands

What exquisite company I imagined my depressive thoughts were qualified to keep. You might say all this elevated reading was bound to keep at some aesthetic remove the vexing memories of childhood I'd been avoiding for years. And there'd be some truth in that except I think they brought me closer too, especially to the memory of my mother. I'd become obsessed by the thought of her afflicted hands, and how aged about 12 I used to try to massage them back to warmth and suppleness. I remember saying to a girlfriend, in my late 20s: one day I will write a book about my poor mother's hands, the memory of them. But why would anyone want to read that? Who knows. Maybe because, like me, they'd got stuck early on in life, unable to reckon with, or get rid of, such memories. Perhaps there were others, orphans too, encumbered by all this memorial stuff.

In the Dark Room, which didn't get written till I was in my mid-30s, is a book about memory and more or less tangible things: the family home, photographs of my parents, the few belongings of theirs that I own, their bodies and what I can reimagine of them, the places where they lived and died. (Also, remembered music: though I didn't want to name the song at the time, Cloudbusting is the soundtrack to the book's short coda.)

I was supposed to be writing a cultural history of memory and the machinery by which it works: objects and images, places and physical traces – all of this enriched by the history of literature, philosophy and the visual arts. An absurd ambition, really: more a life’s work than a single book. It was only when I sat down to plan and write the thing that I realised it was the same book I’d imagined years ago: an essay, or a memoir, about how I lost my parents as a boy and was trying to find them again among faded photos, scraps of paper, old pens and ashtrays.

Under the exacting care of my editor Brendan Barrington, In the Dark Room was written in a year and published in the autumn of 2005. It was the era of the "misery memoir", and I was so allergic to being aligned with that genre – especially as an Irish writer living in England – that I refused to admit it was a memoir at all. We gave the original Penguin Ireland edition a subtitle – "a journey in memory" – and likely confused a lot of booksellers and potential readers.

Real book

The truth is 12 years ago I wasn't sure (outside of the example of Barthes) that what I had made was a real book at all, that this mixing of modes and ambitions was licit. Nowadays I would come right out and say it: In the Dark Room is an essay of sorts, and hovers for better and worse between the intimate and the critical. A decade and more later, as a new edition appears (rid at last if its subtitle) from Fitzcarraldo Editions, that seems like quite the place to be as a writer. Perhaps In the Dark Room rhymes distantly now with work by the likes of Maggie Nelson, Olivia Laing, Sinéad Gleeson, Sarah Manguso.

If I wrote it now, approaching the age my mother attained, it would be an angrier book, less accepting of the silence my family slid beneath over years and decades. It might not be a book about memory at all, but about experience. Not my own, but my parents’ – what must it have been like to live with depression and worse in that time, that place? What terrors could my father not speak, before and after his wife’s death? Mourning is one thing, imagining what it was like to be the mourned quite another.

They say most writer's first books contain or propose all the others, so it's no surprise I've written about art, books, hypochondria, ruins and disaster. And depression again, the wearying guest returned. I think now about my mother's shock treatment, my father's broken heart, the strangeness of life since – of course I'm lucky, I get to write about it – and I think: You're not done with this at all, you haven't even got started.

Brian Dillon's In the Dark Room and Essayism are published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. He runs the writing programme at the Royal College of Art, London, and is working on a book about sentences.