Cailín Deas, Cailín Dána
In our family photographs from the 1970s, one child stands alone, away from the rest, sometimes in the foreground of the picture, sometimes to the side, almost out of shot. She is a full-faced, auburn-tousled girl, with a shy expression, and she is me. I don’t remember exactly why standing apart from my siblings was important to me, but I can still feel that inner, Sesame-streetish push to be away-from rather than near-to; a deep unwillingness to be in the line-up. It was a deliberate act to stay separate and my Da – the photographer – always tried to coax me to stand with the others, but I would stubbornly remain where I was until the snap was taken. That gap between us – them over there, me over here – felt important somehow.
I am the subject of a reluctant haunting and it’s a country that haunts me rather than a ghost. Any mention of Switzerland gets me fizzily alert, though I have little conscious desire to be there, or to dig deep into its workings. I suppose Switzerland hovers in the ether about me because it was the first continental country I visited, a full-on sensory experience that was entirely alien to my sheltered, Irish self. And Switzerland left an ectoplasmic smear that I carry on and in me, whether I want to or not. Things that happened, in one of the two Bernese Oberland villages I stayed in, formed and affected me, and it has taken me over thirty years to return to – and examine – who I was before I went there.
My first Swiss odyssey was taken in the safety of a group. At sixteen, I worked and saved hard to go with my scout troupe for a fortnight’s trip of hiking and lake-rowing, in a landscape pinned with wooden chalets and sonorous Milka cows. The Alps were every bit as picturesque as Johanna Spyri’s Heidi had led me to believe – they were emerald of grass, sapphire of sky, and jagged of mountain. Astonishingly the people even said ‘Hop-là’ all the time, just like Alp-Öhi, Heidi’s cranky grandfather. I loved all of it.
My second Swiss journey, at eighteen, was a solo enterprise, an attempt to prove to myself that I could be brave and adventurous, that I could survive and thrive on my own, without the proximity of my family, without their say-so for everything I did. I wanted to get by alone.
I like being on my own, though I don’t like being lonely. I’m happiest in my own company or, at most, with one other person. I have a propensity for the kind of loneliness that Amy Liptrot calls ‘overripe’, where you crave isolation but, simultaneously, yearn for connections that prove you are alive, while knowing, too, that disconnection can happen in company as much as in solitude.
There is a sense, somehow, that it’s wayward to have pleasure in isolation, or very limited company and, while groups of people have always held a from-afar appeal to me, when I’m in them, I feel – usually – square-peggish and out of harmony. For most of my life, I thought this inability to feel at ease in groups meant I was inadequate. As I age, I realise that this aloofness is more of an inherent trait, rather than a flaw – I find it necessary to stay on the edges, it’s a continuation of that childhood urge to unhitch myself from the line-up. This position is so intrinsic to my deepest self that it’s not something I can change, even if I want to. I need to stand away-from and, mostly, I only attempt to fit into groups because I feel I should want to fit in but, truly – mostly – I would rather not. And though it suits me to be detached, still this inner urge has remained a central dichotomy. Like most people I want to be something of a partaker and a contributor, I’d like to be seen, understood, and appreciated but, stronger than that is my desire to be alone and hermetic. Like the small girl making something asymmetric of family photos. Like Switzerland.
The eighteenth-century Irish writer Maria Edgeworth also took two significant trips to Switzerland. Edgeworth was, according to herself, ‘a happy guest at the banquet of life’, and her letters about her Swiss journeys reveal all of her generosity, good humour, and playfulness. Her cheerful, detail-crammed writings are in contrast with my earnest diary entries from my months-long spell working in a Swiss ski resort.
Edgeworth travelled to Switzerland in parties both times and the second journey, in 1820, included her beloved sister Frances, known as Fanny. The author’s father married four times and Maria parented many of her twenty-one siblings, including Fanny, her favourite. According to the woman they both called mother – the fourth Mrs Edgeworth – Fanny was ‘the dearest object of Maria’s love and admiration’ – a sweet testament to their bond.
My solitary run to Switzerland took me to work in a hotel in the village of Meiringen, a place Edgeworth cut the legs from under with the observation that although it had been ‘much cried up’, she found Meiringen lacking. She wrote: ‘whether from the usual perverseness of human nature, or from being spoiled by the luxury of cascades, valleys and Alps we had previously seen, we were disappointed in it.’
I was disappointed in Meiringen, too, and never quite rose out of that discouragement in the few months I stayed, though the village is charmingly postcard-perfect, with its valley setting and mountainy views. I was upended in Meiringen by absence of foresight – despite being a sensitive and sheltered teenager, I hadn’t anticipated missing home on my great solo adventure. I missed my sister Nessa, especially – she was the Fanny Edgeworth to my Maria, my friend and guide. My diary from my first days in Meiringen – at Christmastime – is a maudlin mash of tears and heart-hurt, with mentions of ‘horrid snow’, footsore hours of dawn to dusk bar work, and chilly bosses. One of my hotel colleagues, a baby-faced Yugoslavian man called Miro, told me the German word for homesickness was Heimweh. Gently he said, chucking my chin, ‘Du hast Heimweh.’ You are homesick.
Over the years, my siblings and I sometimes joked about being autistic. Something would happen and one of us would say ‘You’re so autistic’, and we would all agree. We acknowledged our propensity for introversion, aloneness, and insularity; our distaste for disruption to order; our trickiness around friendships; our severe sensory reactions to ostensibly ‘normal’ conditions; our devotion to solitary, creative pursuits. I was an anxious child, a house devil/street angel, and my mother often used to say to me, ‘I think there’s something wrong with your brain,’ but, alas, she never had me assessed.
In recent years, the more I researched how neurodivergent people operate, the more I came to understand myself. One of the elements of autism that chimed strongly with me, was the business of masking: the adopting of false selves to conceal the true – autistic – self. My whole life has felt like an extended acting role, and I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to assess – and even mimic – what ‘normal’ people do and say. I also attempt, always, to unpick how or why people appear to be so easy and happy and good, when I seem to be discombobulated and unhappy and bad. Unlike Edgeworth, I’ve never felt like a happy guest at life’s banquet, I am more of an awkward intruder, desperately trying to figure out how to mould myself well enough so that I fit in.
In 2022, I mentioned to one of my younger sisters I was going for an autism assessment, and she told me she had recently been through the process and – no surprise to anyone – had been diagnosed as autistic. Similarly, the results of my own assessment affirmed my beliefs – I am autistic, too. Though anticipated, this is a new reality and a welcome one – I look back now at that singular, stand-apart child and teenager with renewed compassion; my neurodivergence made me who I was, I wasn’t just wilfully awkward, I wasn’t trying to be angelic on the street and devilish at home, and my brain wasn’t ‘wrong’, it was merely untypical.
Before going to Switzerland to work, I had completed a year at university in Dublin while working part-time in a vibrant tourist hostel, a place I loved. In contrast to my collegial hostel bosses, the couple who ran the hotel in Meiringen – Herr and Frau Ricker – were a handsome, humourless pair with little patience for a tear-scalded Irish teenager. My diary’s litany of sadness tells me that on Christmas Eve I went to the local church where I cried lavishly and lit a candle, which I didn’t pay for, but reassured myself with the words ‘God won’t mind’. The pages also recount that I prayed and ‘picked baby Jesus up out of the manger’ and, presumably, got some seasonal succour from his cold plaster body. What bargain was I making with my god? Did I hope to be transported home to comfort? I certainly craved the replacement of the cold shrug of the world I had entered, with the warm, eccentric embrace of familiarity. I’d yet to learn that there is a settling time in travel, that strange rooms and places need a sort of willed cushioning before anxiety abates. Even now I have to temper the unwelcome of foreign rooms by pouring myself into their crevices, using the soft of my body, and various comforting objects – candles, photos, lavender oil – to tamp down their hostility.
Naturally, I feel some tenderness for the yearning, eejity girl who clutched the baby Jesus in a Swiss church one long-ago Christmas. And, while acknowledging it must have helped to write it all down in my diary, I also want to trounce that girl for the obsessive cataloguing of Heimweh woes. Missing my sister Nessa was a perpetual bruising; she was ‘the dearest object of my admiration’ as the one who understood me best, but did my diary really need to detail every way I missed home, and every disgruntlement with Meiringen and its people? When I read the entries now, I want to kick the girl me outside, to appreciate the natural wonders and fresh possibilities of this new place; to make her focus on all she has gained by being in an unknown world; to drag her from self-focus and sorrow. I read the diaries, shake my head, and growl, ‘Describe the fucking scenery, please.’
Maria Edgeworth, by contrast, wrote this of her first impressions of Switzerland: ‘I did not conceive it possible that I should feel so much pleasure from the beauties of nature as I have done since I came to this country. The first moment when I saw Mont Blanc will remain an era in my life – a new idea, a new feeling, standing alone in the mind.’ Edgeworth, of course, was on a pleasure tour, I was facing nine months of drudge in a strange land.
But the funny thing is, whenever I call to mind my months in Switzerland, the stark homesickness I suffered is eclipsed by a sensual flood of pine forests, cascading waterfalls, aquamarine lakes, trains tooting through chocolate box valleys, and the majesty of the snow-peaked Alps that girded Meiringen village.
Knowing now that I am autistic, I have new insight into the self I always was. For fifty plus years I viewed myself as an active introvert and a born melancholic, perpetually in awe of naturally cheerful people, and envying them their optimism and complacency. I was not always dismal, I just had – and have – a natural inclination towards worry and, though I work on being lighter and airier, my default position has ever been sensitivity to the world and unease in it. So it’s no wonder that sadness not scenery occupied me in Meiringen at the start – the stories I was telling myself were sad: My family will forget me/I am utterly alone/I don’t want to be without my sister/I should never have left home.
To be fair to myself, I was struggling with the Swiss German dialect, and toiling in a job that I didn’t like, with bosses who didn’t like me. By contrast, Maria Edgeworth was on a leisurely holiday with her dearest sister and other companions. And it’s not as if she’s complaint-free – in Sarnen she laments the ‘sour wine’ they drink and, in Stanzstadt, a bruised-faced scullion serves food in ‘the dirtiest inn’s dirtiest room’. In Lausanne the party find themselves in the ‘the worst inn’s worst’ accommodation but still, she is able to say, ‘we are not grumblers, so we drank coffee and were all very happy.’ One biographer wrote that Edgeworth’s whole life was ‘an aspiration after good’ and, shelving her vast privilege as a gentlewoman for a moment, that seems like a decent way to push on through life.
I had little interest in alcohol before I left Ireland for Meiringen. I grew up in a pledged-up, ultra-Catholic household, so there was no precedent for drinking and, even with my hometown and college friends, I rarely drank. But in Switzerland, in that cold-aired mountain town, I became a drinker.
My only Anglophone colleague in the hotel was Californian Kay, a young woman with an inscrutable nature and a solemn, adult way of sipping Merlot from a green-stemmed wineglass. I admired her serious-faced confidence, her owning of her own space, her talk of the re-birth of souls, and her way of never caring about much of anything. I cared wildly about everything, and this Santa Monican girl, who most likely thought me silly and sad, cheered me up with green-stemmed glasses of Fendant. The wine made fluid the giddier, chattier side of my introverted self, and I enjoyed that. I loved that my Heimweh was drowned and silenced. I became, with wine in hand, gregarious, less cautious, more fun, and less me. Less autistic, as it happens. And even though the buzz only lasted through drink one, into drink two – by three, I felt muddy – I persisted.
In those glasses of Fendant, I chased after some lofty place of calm and belonging, though I actually twigged relatively early that there mightn’t really be an end point, a high plateau of peace, in drunkenness. Still, I kept on – it could be that serenity was over the next ridge, or the next peak, or the next one. After this glass was down or the one after, I might rise up and gain that out-of-reach place. Maybe, just maybe.
The air in Meiringen was perpetually cool, uncrowded, and clear, and the starkness of the atmosphere extended, I thought, to some of the regulars at the hotel’s bistro. They were stand-offish and watchful, with a poker-faced reserve, whereas I was more used to Irish familiarity and bonhomie. The men would flatly order a small einerli of wine, or a Krug of beer, and drink in silence. I met warmer Swiss natives, of course, but the mountainy people held an aura of the icy ozone of the region. Maybe there’s a certain froideur of character needed to survive elevated habitats – I found something of the same contained resolve in Scottish Highlanders when I lived among them years later. More recently, in New Mexico, I was told that alcohol potency increases in high altitudes because the height impairs some brain functions. Maybe all that Fendant was rushing through me more robustly than I even knew, taking hold of me body and mind, equating its seductive strength to sociability and to ease when, in fact, it was cooling my warmth, and separating me from myself.
When I read reverent passages from other travellers to Switzerland – Alexandre Dumas and Edgeworth, for example – about places I was uplifted by, I feel a bit nauseated. Where is the glacier I hiked to, the waterfalls that so impressed me, the evergreen forests and snow-hugged peaks that affected me deeply with their majesty? A giddy desire to return to those spots floods me, I want to go back and write well and fully about them. An early train trip to nearby Ringgenberg is detailed: ‘a small greeny-grey river runs alongside the train tracks, slim frosted trees on either side, the mountains towering up behind give an altogether surreal effect.’ I crave more. But I was gauche, lonely, and self-obsessed as a teen in Switzerland and, though I fancied myself observant and capable of journaling vividly, my diaries are mostly a record of fanciable boys and men; details of friends’ woes; meals and drinks taken; and complaints about tough hikes and work issues. Though I know I had many an ‘occasion for unselfing’ – as Iris Murdoch called our human awe before natural beauty – it seems I was content to let them go unrecorded.
Dumas wrote transportingly about the Reichenbach waterfall in Meiringen, the place where Sherlock Holmes faked his death: ‘…the Reichenbach bubbles out, looks like the portico of a fairy palace; and marvellous columns, which one would believe to be the work of geniuses, so light and transparent are they, support a vault serrated by the most varied, elegant and bizarre festoons…we are so amazed by this fantastic architecture that we envy the goddess who lives in such a dwelling and feel the jealous need to rush there to share it with her.’
My diary entry about a trip to the falls, with an Austrian work-colleague, is concerned only with the fact that she misses her far-away boyfriend, and my empathic sorrow for her. Really, I think reading it, that’s it? Really? No fairy palace porticos or loving descriptions of dashing, clashing water for the young Nuala, it would appear.
Obscure enough as a place, Meiringen has one claim to distinction: meringue, in all its snowy, foamy, sugary fabulousness was, allegedly, invented there in the 1700s, by an Italian pastry chef called Gasparini. Presumably he looked to the Hasliberg and surrounding mountains for inspiration. Some say Gasparini made the eggy-sugary treat to serve to Napoleon Bonaparte; others that he prepared it to titillate the tastebuds of Princess Marie of Poland, fiancée to King Louis XV. Whatever the truth, it’s not hard to make the lexical link between Meiringen and meringue, or the visual link with the snowcapped peaks.
My female in-laws engage in Pavlova-warfare, no gathering is complete without a meringuey-fruity parade, and they inspect one another’s creations and say, ‘Look, she put kiwi and mandarins on hers!’ or ‘Oh, raspberries’, so I am well-accustomed to eating meringue. But, still, every time I encounter the word meringue, my Da’s dear, departed voice playfully reforms it to ‘merin-gew’ in my mind. And I sometimes think of Meiringen, too, the valley village that turned me from the good girl I was into the bold girl I became.
My letters from Meiringen, to my sister Nessa, are more sane and upbeat than my diaries, though the letters are performative in the way my writing to her always was, ‘a happy mixture of sense and nonsense,’ as Maria Edgeworth would have it. I tell Nessa in one letter that I’m newly obsessed with Prince’s song ‘Anas Stesia’ (‘Have you ever been so lonely/That you felt like you were the/Only one in this world?). But heartfelt lyrics aside, in my letters there is a large emphasis on fun things like train trips to Interlaken with Californian Kay; trying out skiing; various discos; and the fact that most of the workers at the hotel are decent sorts stuck in a precarious situation. Because of the lack of snowfall that late-eighties winter, Herr and Frau Ricker regularly threatened to let everyone go, so there was an icy strain in the hotel, and our bosses were unpopular. I tell Nessa, in one letter, that Kay describes Frau Ricker as ‘so hot on herself’, and that Miro is less kind, calling her ‘eine große Hure’ which is, no doubt, self-explanatory.
The letters to Nessa – confidante, sister, best friend – are self-censored. The diaries tell one story, the letters another. I do not mention the glasses of white wine that have become more and more a part of my life. And I certainly do not mention that Miro has been slipping into my virtuous bed, being kindly and sympathetic, but also determined to penetrate my as yet unpenetrated body. Evasive, sweet, supportive Miro who I begin to suspect has a wife back in Yugoslavia, but who is happy to offer comforting, loaded embraces that, in my loneliness, I am happy accept.
I don’t mention to Nessa, either, a scolding from a local GP who sternly instructs me to use contraception when I go to him for a pregnancy test. Or the days of agony waiting for the result. I suppose I don’t tell Nessa about these things because I’m aware that my letters home will be passed around the family, and am in horror of my parents knowing that, against all their religious values and cautionary words, their good, sensible, awkward girl is getting drunk and having unsafe sex with a stranger.
Later, when I told Nessa that I had had a pregnancy scare in Switzerland, she said she knew that, despite the up-beat letters I was sending home, there was more going on, because I cried down the phone so often. My good girl façade was faulty, despite all attempts to maintain it.
I buy a pendant engraved on both sides with words in Irish. One side says ‘Cailín Deas’ – good girl – the other, ‘Cailín Dána’ – bad/bold girl. The pull between the good and the bad has always been a conundrum with me; these are familiar battlelines, no doubt, for many of us. Not knowing I was autistic did not help this inward combat. I tried hard to be good, but handled myself – and others – poorly over and over, through clumsy choices, mutual misunderstanding, unnecessary emotional wrangles, and, sometimes, betrayals. I lament the hurts I’m directly responsible for – they wound me. But it pains me, too, that for years I felt my inner cailín deas was less powerful, less important than my inner cailín dána. Still, the word dána, I remind myself, means bold as well as bad. And boldness is just another word for courage. Now, with new insight into autism, and particularly how it manifests in females, I see how all my untoward choices and doings were a pushback against a typical world that does not easily accommodate untypical girls and loves nothing more than to label them and try to bend them to palatabilty.
It is no strange or unusual thing to lose a sibling. Just hours after my sister Nessa died, my parent’s neighbours – a young couple – both hugged me. The wife said, ‘Welcome to the Dead Siblings Club’, a club that both she and her husband were reluctant members of, and I was now joining, bewildered and shocked. So while sibling-death may not be a strange occurrence in a life, it is particularly devastating when that sister is your closest familiar.
I could not even fathom when Nessa died the depth of missing a beloved someone who is so woven into your life. The gulp of silence after death is like the no-sound after church bells. It’s a tinging absence and nothing has the right contours to fill it, nothing said, no other person, nothing that happens, and nothing that you do occupies the void. And this remains. Nessa’s death made it harder for me to believe in bright, hopeful horizons. Her illness and early removal from life, upended certainties, made me confront impermanence. Grief took up residence inside me, an unwelcome guest – a mouse, as Emily Dickinson wrote, that chose the ‘Wainscot in the Breast/For His Shy House.’
Maria Edgeworth prematurely lost Fanny, her darling sister, too. Fanny who was pal, travel companion, and amanuensis; Fanny who acted as to-the-point editor, slashing passages from works in progress, and suggesting plot points for Maria’s fiction. And although Fanny’s mother reported that Maria bore the shock of her sister’s death ‘without apparent injury to her health’, Maria died of a sudden heart attack not long after Fanny’s unexpected end. The mouse in Maria’s breast grew too large to accommodate and, perhaps, pushed out hope entirely.
All the trouble I have ever gotten into has involved alcohol. Sleeping with people I didn’t much know or like? Alcohol. My unplanned pregnancy on a solo trip to the Scottish Highlands? Alcohol. Those two times I tripped and hit my head? Alcohol. Staying friendly with people I had little in common with? Alcohol. The start of the affair that ended my first marriage? Alcohol. These are large dramas. But during the pandemic, having turned fifty, I discovered I no longer wanted all the smaller dramas either: the crankiness when I drank that made me nit-picky with my husband. The never-enough-ness of wine. That trek up to the peak of inebriation to find only more peaks beyond. The constant will-I-won’t-I-drink, knowing, if I did, I would be unwell afterwards in one of two ways: a big way or a small way. The I-can-do-nothing hangovers. The reduction in vivacity. The gloom. The propensity toward badness rather than goodness. Now – alcohol free – I love the unsullied, mountain air clarity I own; the feeling of walking an uncluttered path, my head no longer murky with drink residues. Alcohol interfered with my capacity for joy. It was a mask upon a mask. I knew alcohol silted me when I dove into it in Meiringen; I knew it for more than thirty years. I eventually chose lucidity.
Early in my alcohol-free life, I wrote to an American friend – a wiseman, a quester – telling him that I was trying to change.
‘I’m still Narky Me,’ I told him, ‘trying to be Sunnier Me, but I’m also Hopeful Me.’
He wrote back saying, ‘Generally, for the body and mind (and coincidentally for the spirit), we probably don’t need drink. Yes. Good for you. We want to live like the livewire, the living vine, the branch with buds, the breath, and the ocean. To do this we find ways, more and more as we age: one by one simple ways. We count our loves in a glance and exhale, with no heightened blood pressure but “is”.’
I appreciated his kindness – ‘Good for you’ – all his words: I was trying to learn that ‘is’ he mentioned, to embrace it, the simple now of being alive. The choosing of the good. Gloria Steinem wrote, ‘God may be in the details, but the goddess is in the questions. Once we begin to ask them, there’s no turning back.’ Amen, Gloria. When I reached fifty, I found I was, at last, willing to ask the stark questions about alcohol, and to excavate real answers. Was it loneliness – that damned Heimweh – that made me turn to drink as a girl in Switzerland? A need to be a round peg when I felt so very square? Did a commitment to alcohol as social megaphone arrest my growth? Why did I hide inside its mucky swill for so long? Is there hope in sobriety? I wanted to unlearn ingrained, accepted things, and to embrace other ways. My hope, mostly, was that I would return to myself and be more me by doing that and, with luck, find myself content to be more me. Ending up at autism has been the most welcome revelation.
There is only one photograph of me from the months I spent in Switzerland on that solo trip. Taken on a fir-harried track that leads to the Aareschlucht gorge, a place of roaring glacial water, I stand alone, looking shy and uncomfortable. Kay took it, reluctantly, with my small automatic camera. (‘I don’t do snaps,’ was her imperious comment.) But I made her take the picture as proof, I suppose, that I had had the spirit to do something, to go somewhere, to shake up my good girl life.
Can a photograph tell us much about its subject? Is it possible for me to know the eighteen-year-old Nuala who set off to Switzerland alone? Is she the same as the little girl who insisted on having that space between herself and her siblings? And who is the one who ran to the Scottish Highlands and, not learning from earlier mishaps, fell pregnant? With no insight into how my brain was directing my very being, how could the girl me understand the best ways to negotiate the world?
I have such compassion now for these very me and very not me girls. Unreachable and enigmatic as strangers, I feel I do know a central thing about them in that, even now, I pull away from those I love, and find solace in standing apart. Maybe that is necessary for me so that, from away, I am better able to focus on those I long to be near. Maybe the discombobulations of my early life were a result of my neurodivergence and going through all of these things was inevitable, but fresh insight has brought me closer to myself, or at least closer to understanding.
Switzerland still moves, mote-like across my senses; it’s a cloudy patch, fixed and nothingish, quiet and teeming. Just as in that single photograph of me there, I see myself suspended inside the country’s borders, trying to become, but only managing to arrest myself in the spongy mire of alcohol, where I float unmoored and spectral, until finally being ready and able to come to my own rescue. One photograph. In it one lonesome but courageous good-bold girl, standing alone in her mind, aspiring after good, trying to push on.
Nuala O’Connor is Irish, her fifth novel NORA (New Island), about Nora Barnacle and James Joyce, was a Top 10 historical novel in the New York Times. She won Irish Short Story of the Year at the 2022 Irish Book Awards and is editor at flash e-journal Splonk. www.nualaoconnor.com