Under the
Eye of the

[New Edition]
Christopher Nolan
Nolan writes his autobiography as if it were biography. Some would say that this is disassociation, plain and simple. In any event, Christopher Nolan becomes Joseph Meehan, and the name says it all: "Meehan." As in "Me."

By setting himself in the third person, Nolan gives himself a greater freedom, makes it possible to distance himself from the pain of what he is and what he has to tell us. For --- as we finally learn on page twenty-six --- he was born with cerebral palsy. He can't speak, at least, not in clearly formed words. He cannot control the random flailing of arms or legs. He has to be tied in his wheelchair, carried into a car, lifted into the tub, set on the toilet, put to bed. To communicate, he uses his eyes and "bows." He chooses to eat alone --- a gentle pride --- because (we assume) he fears that people seeing him in the midst of a meal will not like what they see.

We are with him when, for the first time, he tells his mother, at age three, that he has just realized that he is different:

    He gazed with his hurt gaze, lip protruding, eyes busy in conversation. He ordered her to look out the window at the sunshine. He looked hard at her ear ordering her to listen to the birds singing. Then jumping on her knees he again asked her to cock her ear and listen to the village children out at play in the school yard. Now he jeered himself. He showed her his arms, his legs, his useless body. Beckoning his tears he shook his head. Looking at his mother he blamed her, he damned her, he mouthed his cantankerous why, why, why me?

    She says "You are you...listen here Joseph...you can see, you can hear, you can think, you can understand everything you hear, you like food, you like nice clothes, you are loved by me and Dad. We love you just as you are."

    His mother said her say and that was that. She got on with her work while he got on with his crying.

"How do I overcome my muteness," he asks early on. His brain is crammed with words; there is no way for them to get out. The given of Under the Eye of the Clock is that what he calls "this mute" must get heard. But every time he and his mother try with the typewriter --- she holding his head, a stick tied to his forehead --- he misses the keys.

A new drug appears that curbs much of the lack of control, and, finally, at age eleven, Christy/Joseph is, at last, able to type. He quickly wins two annual prizes of the British Spastics Society for his writings, and, when he's fifteen, his first book Dam-Burst of Dreams is accepted for publication.

§     §     §

The style of Under the Eye of the Clock is different, sometimes difficult, often topsy-turvy. Nolan is a poet who writes in prose. He likes inversions --- sounding, at times, like Joyce, or Dylan Thomas, or Yeats. He jiggles verbs and nouns and adverbs and adjectives around willy-nilly, so that when he writes about something as cliché-ridden as Christmas, it becomes fresh, almost hortative:

    Bells pealed in all the Dublin churches as midnight nudged home its bashful meaning to all the crazy longing. Christ the God-child now breathed a human breath. The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst man. Manger-cradled the Saviour lay. Midnight Mass marked the moment for Joseph; crested now with knowing, he marvelled at the nobility of the human person.

Note the choice of words: "midnight nudged home...its bashful meaning...to all the crazy longing." (Bells are allowed to "bash," midnight to "nudge.") Some of the phrasings are right out of Beowulf, like the alliteration of the "m's," Midnight Mass Marked the Moment... Instead of saying "The saviour lay cradled in the manger," he turns it on its head, making it new for us, making it sing a new language. This is poetic prose, and is, we believe, writing of the highest order. In the same way that his body is turned into an inversion of the body of a "normal" person, his language turns the traditional structure of English on its head.

He tells us, in rich, ripe words, of trips to the country with his family, of the wonderful times he has in school with his new friends, who hide him from the teachers so they can teach him to smoke; they teach him to drink; they confide in him. Every now and then, he tells us (almost in passing) about his body --- "He felt zoo-caged, and wished he wasn't..." Or, he is

    castrated by crippling disease, molested by scathing mockery, silenced by paralysed vocal muscles,


    He had long ago slapped shut his challenging, fees-fashioned future and humanhinded his woldway as a celibate pilgrim through life.

His salvation? One is his good and loving family --- the kind of wise and understanding and loving family that many of us would die for. And, there, too, is his religion: not the religion that comes to him with unwanted attention,

    The head-strokers --- poor child, God love him, ah God is good, never shuts one door but he opens another,

but rather, the deeply felt spirituality of the Irish Catholic church, a powerful refuge. When Fr. John Flynn comes to his house on Wednesdays to give him communion, a difficulty presents itself. How to receive the host? At times of stress --- or even just in bodily contrariness --- his jaws will clamp shut. What to do? His sister Yvonne figures out how:

    Pretending that she didn't even notice his difficulty, she would very suddenly make her move. In a lightning-fast move she would press on his forehead with open hand whilst leaning on his chin with the other and whether as a result of her spontaneous action or his own startle reflex Joseph could then beautifully relax his jaw. Fr. Flynn would nod in thoughtful credit as voicing great words of worship he'd place the white host on the boy's tongue.

§     §     §

How does Christy (and the reader) see Joseph? At times, there is a feeling of war. He often speaks of "conquering" his body:

    Paralysed I am labelled, but can a paralytic move? My body rarely stops moving. My arms wage constant battle trying to make me look like a fool. My smile which can be most unnatural, can at times freeze, thereby making me seem sad and uninterested. Two great legs I have, but put my bodyweight on them and they collapse under me like a house of cards.

He is in a state of war with his physical self. He is under siege; it never lets up. But there is another war outside, outside of the bosom of his family. His first days in school, his classmates ignore him, start to speak of him in the third person:

    They wondered if the cripple wore a nappy and longed to be able to examine him and find out for certain. Then they discussed his lack of intelligence. They chose tags by which they would rate him. They bandied about the words weirdo, eejit, cripple, dummy and mental defective. They decided he shouldn't be in a school for normal children and set about ridiculing the headmaster and staff for being the innocents they apparently were.

"Eejit, cripple, dummy, mental defective." It's a vicious world out there and many in who have been in Joseph's shoes would rather hide out at home, stay away from the cruelties of peers. But there is help, in his case, from schoolmate Frank Ryan, who suddenly grabs his wheelchair, runs outside with it and asks him "How do ya stick it, Joseph? God I'd love to give them a kick in the puss, but what good would that do?"

Joseph's reaction has to be mute: all he can do is attempt "to flow understanding to Frank," for what he had learned in his "short life he had already discovered that forgetfullness fugues tongues and balms words."

Joseph judges people by whether they look at him or not, and his judgment serves him well. An American journalist comes to interview him shortly after his first book is published. He's a man who would never look at him. He looks out the window, up at the ceiling, just past him, but never directly into Joseph's eyes. Later the journalist writes a spiteful article in which he said that Nolan has created nothing; that his father did it all; that he was pretending that it was his son. Joseph knew something was fishy all along: he could never catch the journalist's eye.

§     §     §

There are hints of change and a most sudden ending for Under the Eye of the Clock proves it. Joseph is living in a very loving family. They obviously care for him deeply, and their caring is cheerful, sometimes ribald. One of the things that he cannot control is his habit of bopping people with his spastic hands. On the street one day,

    Nora's spare hand was holding Joseph's other arm but with lightning speed Joseph's unguarded hand flew in between the man's legs while his fingers tickled all before them. The poor man got the shock of his life and swiftly he turned on his tame attacker. Apologies were offered but the man was too startled to reply.

Christy/Joseph is growing to manhood. As we grow from childhood to adulthood, there are parts of us that demand independence. Had he been quote normal he would have left his family long ago to go out in the world. He loves them, he wants desperately not to offend his mother Nora and his father Matthew even though rebellion is not unknown to them. After all, the first rebellion --- one against him, and the attention he draws --- came from his sister Yvette:

    Did they ever detect jealousy in their sister's clambering for bigger helpings, bigger toys, bigger slices of family attention? Did they every get so much love that the able-bodied sister wished that she were crippled too?

"The able-bodied sister. The one that wished she was crippled too." A very common dream of other children in the family that has a disabled child.

Joseph's own rebellion comes later, much later. It is harder for one who is totally disabled to separate from those who have made survival possible for so long, families who love us, at times, too much.

For one who delights in writing around an experience (a weekend in the country, the school dance, the trips to London for the award ceremonies) the last chapter of Under the Eye of the Clock runs rather quickly. When he is accepted to Trinity, the family moves near the college to get him up in the morning, to get him to school every day, pick him up in the afternoon, take him home, feed him, wash him, etc. Trinity is his ideal, his dream --- but he gives it up after a couple of years. Dependence has its own price.

Trinity is not like high school --- where his fellows automatically befriended him, took over many of the daytime chores of caring for him. People at Trinity are mature --- that is to say, they are less open, less willing to offer friendship, to help to this shy stranger who has no control over arms and legs and face and voice and sounds. If he stays in Trinity for the full eight years, he will continue to be wed to his family. He has to get out.

I suspect that Nolan has no way to express such a truth in this book. How do you publish to the world that you want to --- no, that you have to --- dump those who have loved you and labored over you all these years. These are the people who have wiped your mouth and put food in it and bathed you and washed your bottom and hugged you and cried with you. Christy/Joseph is totally and completely dependent on them --- has been for over twenty years. How can you possibly say to them, "I have to be my own man. I've got to get out of here or I will die."

He doesn't say it. He can't. But you and I --- those of us who have been there --- we know what is happening. We know how hard it is. And we know that it has to be done.

--- L. W. Milam

Go Home     Subscribe to RALPH     Go Up