It's hard to square the content of Terri White's memoir with her evident success: a talented editor, gifted writer, and a woman in possession of what can only be described as a glamorous life, complete with film star interviews, invitations to book launches and a series of enviable jobs. But her professional world is an afterthought, worthy of only occasional comment in this memoir. And that's perhaps the point.
Coming Undone is not about how White escaped from a horrific childhood in a Derbyshire village to the bright lights of New York City. Rather, it's about how her childhood trailed her as she sought to evade it, and how her outward achievements couldn't repair the damage done.
On the inside, White remained fragile and distressed. In this memoir, she determinedly turns those insides out.
White's recollections of her childhood read like something from the 1950s, but she was born in the late 1970s to an angry, violent father and a struggling young mother who was just 19. Her memories are infused by the family's poverty and the trauma of sexual and physical abuse, perpetrated principally (though not solely) by one of her mother's boyfriends.
Those early experiences never leave her, no matter how far she goes. Men are a source of terror and violence, so it is little surprise that the course of White's relationships doesn't run smoothly.
Pulsing through these grim descriptions is White's dreamy prose, which grants elegance to the most brutal reality. Like her fellow journalist and memoirist, the late Deborah Orr, White had a fierce intelligence, and knew that education would provide a way out.
As she puts it of her childhood, "Getting away was the only possible solution. The furthest place away from home I knew was London - and the only way I could think of to get there was by going to university." Confronted by naysayers, she adds, "F**k it: I was going."
White says little of what must have been a swift ascent in the magazine world, bringing her to London, then New York, where she edited Time Out and won a clutch of awards.
Given her reliance on alcohol, drugs and prescription medication, and the hours she spent just staying in her room, how she managed to achieve so much is a mystery.
Still, she offers glimpses of an outrageously competitive office life. On her first day at work, a colleague says, "I won't stab you in the back, I'll stab you in the front". White is acerbic about New York women, who are "toned and tight", always perfectly made up.
"They are perfectly smooth and hair-free," she says, "and their shiny faces glow… This is what men want." The generalisations are unsisterly; but a few more such wry reflections on the professional and personal habits of New Yorkers would have brought light relief to the story.
The book is framed by White's stay at a psychiatric institution in New York where she ends up after a suicide attempt.
Its opening dwells on the experience in minute detail, the stark loss of privacy as a woman she calls the Suicide Preventer follows her to the toilet, and her extreme fear of being stuck in the institution forever.
Her account of this time echoes Joanne Greenberg's 1964 semi-autobiographical novel, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, which depicted the lengthy inpatient treatment of a young girl with schizophrenia.
White is shocked to learn of a padded cell reserved for difficult patients, or electroconvulsive therapy, apparently back in vogue for the severely depressed.
"One patient, a forty-something New Jersey wife and mother, has it every other day," she writes. "She is taken off for her treatment in the morning while we're still asleep. As we eat breakfast, her unconscious body is wheeled past the break room."
When it comes to New York, White is ambivalent, and ably captures the city's love-hate allure. Over time, she starts to "curdle at New York's touch", and realises that it makes her "sharper, shorter, angrier, less patient, more irritated", but struggles to accept that her relationship with the world's most mythologised city is not working out.
In the end, she writes, "When the lust, the longing, the belief that I could be reborn there starts to fade - if it has ever truly been there - the city is hard and cruel".
Coming Undone is about a redemption that readers don't get to see, when White decides to leave the city after one last alcoholic bender. It's a raw tale of one woman's descent to rock bottom, landing in a place where even Alcoholic Anonymous is snobby and unwelcoming.
Several parts of the memoir, such as her descriptions of self-harm, are very hard to read. When she returns to London for a new job, and to what seems as though it will be a better life - today White is editor-in-chief of Empire magazine - both she and the reader breathe a sigh of relief.
Coming Undone: A memoir
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