Charles Fernyhough


The Baby In The Mirror


Charles Fernyhough studied developmental psychology at Cambridge University and is now a part-time lecturer in psychology at Durham University. He lives in County Durham with his wife and two children. He is the author of a novel, The Auctioneer, and more than twenty-five research articles. His fiction has appeared in several anthologies, including New Writing 11 and New Writing 14. He has been the recipient of several awards, from, among others, the Arts Council and the Society of Authors.

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The Baby In The Mirror

Looking back, I realize that I was asking a lot of a child so small. If Athena had been like me, or just about anyone else who has ever been asked the question, she would have been able to recall very little detail about the first two or three years of her life. No matter how you choose to quiz...

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Looking back, I realize that I was asking a lot of a child so small. If Athena had been like me, or just about anyone else who has ever been asked the question, she would have been able to recall very little detail about the first two or three years of her life. No matter how you choose to quiz people about it, no one seems to have demonstrably accurate memories of their very early childhood. On the face of it, young children aren't just a blank slate, a tabula rasa - they're a non-stick surface. The events of life do not cling to them. There has not, Sigmund Freud once observed, been enough astonishment over this fact. Psychologists have recently begun to make progress in understanding why memories of our earliest lives do not stay with us into childhood and beyond. One thing we know about memory is that different kinds of information are organized in different ways. Information about facts goes into one system, known as 'semantic' memory; information about events that happen to us (our 'autobiographical' knowledge) goes in another. At nearly three, Athena was already skilled at handling certain kinds of facts about the world, such as her date of birth, or the fact that the first train-stop after the Harbour Bridge was Wynyard. But her capacity to organize her knowledge of things that had happened to her was only just beginning to develop. She was not yet an autobiographer. Her own life story was not, for her, a proper topic of study. Perhaps that was because handling information about your own life requires something more than the retention of impersonal, objective bits of knowledge. To say that you possess semantic knowledge of, say, the capital city of a particular country, it is enough simply to know the fact: you don't need to recall the specific instant when that information became known to you. But when it comes to the details of our own lives, that personal, subjective quality is the essence of what we remember. It was not that Athena found it impossible to process facts about her own past. She had prodigious memory for various kinds of autobiographical information, such as promises we had made her in weak moments, or the clothes she had been wearing when she visited a certain place. But she couldn't recreate the visit itself; she couldn't put herself at the centre of the recollection. In fact, memory researchers are now suggesting that this special, subjective aspect of memory may not start to develop until halfway through the third year of life. If this is true, then it would explain why our earliest years are a blank for most of us. In infancy, we are absent from our memories. We can live, but we cannot yet re-live. 'What are you writing?' she said. I looked up from the crowded pages of my notebook. I'd been unaware that, once again, my observations of the thing had distracted me from the thing itself. 'I'm writing down what you say. I've been writing down all these notes since you were a baby.' 'Why?' she said, looking faintly shocked. 'Because that's what Daddy does. He tries to understand how little children think. That's his job.' She laughed at that. Daddies stared at blank pieces of paper all day and then went for long walks, talking to themselves. That surely couldn't bring you to an understanding of anything. 'You know what?' she said, obligingly. 'When I were a little baby, it were very sunny.' I nodded, trying to coax the thought into the open. I suspected that this summery recollection had something to do with the previous year's family holiday, but it may only have been the afterglow of the home movies we had recently been watching. Athena's grip on the memory was unsure, and I could understand why. If she had only begun to centre herself in her memories at two and a half, then five sixths of her life were forgotten. How did it feel, to have so much of your past immediately lost to you? Was life still a blooming, buzzing confusion, a movie in which she had only just begun to star? What was it like for her? I had a particular interest in that question. I had studied children's development in the abstract, from a safe academic distance, for all my years as a graduate student and then part-time university lecturer. I had seen how much profound change happens in the first three years of life, in just about every aspect of a human being's psychology. Within a few years of her birth, a newborn baby has to build a mind out of chaos, gain control of her own actions, acquire the ability to talk about her experience, and get a sense of herself as the sentient being at the centre of those experiences. Even though she is born with certain complex and finely specialized talents, they would seem to equip her only lightly for the tasks ahead. Developmental psychologists have some of the biggest questions of all to grapple with: how a human being acquires both a private and a public self, whether language is a learnable skill or something reserved for those who have been biologically chosen, how the colours of consciousness can take root in a brain that starts out as raw, proliferating matter. Look closely enough at a developing mind, I would tell my students, and you can learn everything you need to know about being human. Now these questions were coming alive for me in the most immediate way. With Athena's arrival, the phenomenon that had so fascinated me from a distance had installed itself, delightfully, right in front of my eyes. Among all the other emotions of those heady days of new parenthood, I felt something like the surprise you feel when your new next-door neighbour turns out to be your boss, and you see your precious work-home balance disappearing along with your nude sunbathing. Athena made demands on my professional responsibilities as well as my parental ones. She brought my work home with her. For the last three years I had observed this miracle in close-up, watching the momentous transformations of toddlerhood happen to my own precious first-born. In those brief thousand days, our yowling neonate had turned into a person: social, moral, intelligent, articulate. I might not have been fully aware of when it happened, but somewhere along the line I had watched a consciousness emerge. With each new milestone in Athena's development, I mused about how the theories I had studied matched up with the realities I was witnessing. But I also found myself constantly wondering about the other, subjective side of the objective story. I wanted to understand what it was like to inhabit a mind that was a different thing every day, whose understanding of itself was changing so rapidly. I could find few insider testimonies to guide me through this period of life, either in the scientific writings I was familiar with, or in grown-up literature, where the experiences of the under-threes have hardly found a voice at all. For all the richness of their depictions of adult subjectivity, their willingness to eavesdrop on different forms of experience, novelists and poets have shown little interest in the unremembered atmospheres of toddlerhood. That neglect was startling, when all our scientific probings of the infant mind were showing that it was an interesting place to be. Beyond the ordinary pleasures of fatherhood, my time at home with Athena promised to give me that insider's view on to a small child's mind. With a little imaginative projection, I had the chance of putting some subjective detail into the scientific background. Was there anything that it was like to be a newborn baby, an infant on the threshold of language, a fiercely self-sufficient toddler? Would careful observation and questioning, enriched by the insights thrown up by new research, give me some clues as to how those experiences could be described? What do young children understand of their own consciousness, of their capacity to be there at the centre of these colourful, chaotic experiences? How do you make sense of yourself, when that self has no continuity in time? These were some of the questions that had drawn me to the subject in the first place, and now fatherhood was giving me a chance to ask them all over again. The answers, if I got any, would not make me any better at parenting Athena, but they might make her a little less of a mystery. The day after our visit to the Old Vienna Coffee House, I was going through some of the videos of Athena as a baby. I had been transferring our home movies on to the computer and we had been watching them in the mornings, when she crashed down the stairs in her pyjamas, puffy-faced and euphoric from sleep. To the child who sat down with me to watch these video extracts, the baby on the screen did not even trigger the memory boost of self-recognition. I, too, could hardly recognize my daughter in the moon-faced two-month-old who now gazed out from my laptop. For the last three years she had been overwriting herself too effectively, shredding the evidence of her former self as she went along. We were going to need all of my notebooks, these hours of video footage, if we were ever going to understand this strange infant, lost in time. She came in and climbed up on to my knee. On the screen was herself at nine and a half weeks. In the video clip she was sitting on my knee in a floral sleepsuit, propped up by my hands, working her tongue while I tickled her nose and cheeks and scurried my fingers around her bald head. I had zoomed in so that her face filled the screen. Athena's nearly-three self looked at her nine-and-a-half-week self, and her nine-and-a-half-week self looked back. The picture zoomed in even closer, so close that the autofocus was tricked and the image blurred then clarified again. The now-Athena was captivated. The then-Athena opened her eyes wide and pulled up the side of her mouth in a grin. I slowed the playback and let the camera zoom in on each eye in turn, on her flaring nose, her beaked, translucent mouth, the soft curve of her cheek, the miniature ivory-work of one ear. We moved over her baby-self from the shortest distance the focus would allow, as though filming a giant Buddha from a helicopter. Finally the camera settled on her left eye and zoomed in as close as it could. There was a single perfect crease above her eyelid. Her eyelashes were long and fine. Her iris was a dark circle, almost filled by the blacker pupil. Then, for me at least, a strange moment of recognition. It was as though I had stopped looking through a window and had started looking into it, into the mirror of it, to see the details of the room reflected there. Within the shiny blackness of her pupil was another, human roundness, a reflected silhouette. I saw myself looking in on her, caught in the mirror of her cornea: the eye in her eye, her constant observer.

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