Stephen Bernard has led an institutionalised life. Behind the doors of the church presbytery, at public school, on hospital wards after repeated suicide attempts, in therapists’ offices, at Oxford University — he has sought protection and cure. Some institutions woefully failed, while others revived Bernard from the appalling child abuse inflicted by Canon T.D. Fogarty, Latin teacher, priest and rapist. An account of the open wounds left by years of assault, Paper Cuts is also a memoir about the anxiety of seeking to belong, yet as a survivor never quite finding a part.
We follow Bernard for a day, now aged 40 and an Academic Visitor at Oxford’s Faculty of English. He has a looming deadline to finish an article for the TLS. Scenes of his abuse as a boy arise abruptly between breaks from writing, while around town (‘Fogarty’s semen on my back’), remembering elegant friends from youth (‘the boniness and weight of him in me. In me’) and dinner at high table (‘I feel, when I think of Fogarty, paper cuts’). Bernard unsettles his readers’ assumptions about which experiences are quotidian and which exceptional. ‘A man, a boy. A house, a bed. How very ordinary, and extraordinary too,’ he writes. The ‘mundane’ details, as he calls them, of the abuse he and other children suffered, are set against the rarefied privilege of the Bodleian library. Bernard does not ask for straightforward sympathy from us, nor are we permitted to come too close.
Paper Cuts demonstrates the ways in which minds are authored by one another. Along with trauma, Fogarty brought classical music, literature, ‘love and the law’ into Stephen’s life, which are now soiled pleasures. Bernard can no longer listen to Beethoven and Britten, nor has he ever had a romantic relationship. As an academic editor, he is influenced by other voices that are long dead. He finds the Augustans — Pope, Dryden, Swift — remedial, and so too are the18th-century newspapers he reads every morning out of habit. But the voices of psychologists and psychiatrists, with their diagnoses and dismissals, have also left their mark. Too many professionals, who were trusted to help, have wanted to ‘build a lie that explains things, that we can all live with’.
Bernard’s own voice is itself unstable. Passages of the text reflect his paranoid, manic trains of thought. To temper these instabilities, he is given regular ketamine injections as part of a drug trial for resistant bipolar disorder. Yet still comes the fear that ‘someone, somewhere, has malevolent intent... is planning my destruction’. Despite a proven need for treatment, Bernard is ambivalent about whether medication’s effect is dishonest. If ‘the needle goes in, and the truth comes out’, is truth deserting him or finally being heard? The prescribed sedatives and antipsychotics drown out his delusions: ‘Swallow. The self. In a bottle.’ By following the regimen, he has ‘taken charge... let them take charge’. These nine tablets are a daily reminder that Bernard does not even fully belong to himself.
Paper Cuts was written in a mere six weeks. The prose speaks with immense power as testimony, but as a whole, the book does not quite hang together. ‘I wrote it for myself,’ Bernard confesses, ‘but share it with you now.’ Which is why it reads like a therapeutic object. The effect of this is somehow to protect the work from aesthetic evaluation; or at least ensure an audience’s criticism is accompanied by guilt, as if they were challenging a patient.
I found the passages intoned with wry humour hardest to read. A ‘good rape’ has ‘a kind of architectural beauty, a musical perfection’, Bernard tells us, that is ‘almost impossible not to admire’. By making us countenance this impossible thought, he risks becoming unlikeable. However, he quickly retorts: ‘I am not here to be liked, but to be believed.’
It is a relief to be granted permission to acknowledge dislike. Crucially, this is not the same as disbelief. Paper Cuts is a timely reminder that public anger and censure of a crime is not necessarily accompanied by warmth towards its victim. And neither must it. The text has achieved its end when Bernard finds repose on the final page, reassuring himself as if still a child — ‘Sleep now, sleep. Rest, rest.’