As a book on her life experiences is launched, Eina McHugh tells Jane Hardy how, after years of treatment, she healed the emotional scars left behind after a traumaticTroubles childhood.
It seems fitting to interview Eina McHugh in the Europa Hotel, Europe’s most bombed building. For the pretty Northern Irish 51-year-old, wearing designer hippy gear and a broad smile, has also been damaged. Her therapy memoir, To Call Myself Beloved (New Island), describes the events that led her from an eventful childhood in a border town to a course of psychotherapy that lasted seven years and cost her thousands of pounds.
Of course, it sometimes seems as if the whole of Northern Ireland should be suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Eina is inclined to agree: “Terrorism does terrible things to people and there’s been a tremendous psychological fall-out from the Troubles. Sometimes we’ve encouraged talk, sometimes it’s been avoided, but it is interesting my book is being published now. Maybe there is a shift in the Northern Irish psyche.”
As she says, no one may be dead, no one may have been injured in a particular incident, yet there will still be repercussions. Eina’s own story, in which she bravely bares her soul, underlines this.
The events that traumatised this sensitive teenager to the extent that she self-harmed and remained a virgin into her late twenties, feeling she couldn’t trust men, were characteristic of the mid-70s. She recalls: “We lived opposite a police station in a small town on the border. This was the dream home my parents had built after they returned from London to give their family everything they didn’t have. It was quite big, and there was even a tennis court.”
But what should have been a place of security became a house of horror as the McHughs were caught up in a sequence of political events not of their own making. Eina says now: “Our house was bombed constantly and at one point we were made homeless after a car bomb was planted outside, with no warning given. I’d fainted that day after one of my first periods and I remember I remained in my nightdress.”
Eina recalls the dilemma facing her father at this point. “What was more dangerous, to lead us out and a bomb to go off or build a shelter in the safest point of the house?” Brendan McHugh, Eina’s father, a teacher by profession and survivor by inclination, chose to remain in the house.
In the book, Eina conveys the fear and trembling of that night brilliantly, as recalled in therapy. His decision was to have very far-reaching effects on his second daughter.
She writes: “The night after St Stephen’s Day. Crouching in the corridor. Body stiff. Waiting. Waiting for the bomb to go off. Thud. Thump. Someone is moving upstairs ... Daddy?” This passage continues until she faces the deepest fear after hearing someone, possibly a gunman, moving about upstairs. “Must get ready for death. I’m bleeding, bleeding ...”
Those staccato, nervy sentences indicate the depth of fear that made her shun love and not want to grow up. Eventually, during therapy, Eina was able to reveal that her self-harm involved a kind of parody of the sex act itself, using sharp instruments.
You can’t help wondering why Ms McHugh wanted to put this most private account in the public domain, when a refrain in the book is her fear of “exposure”. Exposure of her anxieties surrounding sexual relationships, exposure of her innermost feelings, exposure of herself.
She says now: “I wanted to track something utterly authentic. And to write something that wouldn’t just relate to here in Northern Ireland but that people in places like Syria and in the Middle East might read and understand.” In effect, Eina wanted to write the title she needed when she first decided to consult her psychiatrist.
What makes this title compelling to people who may never have experienced the so-called ‘50-minute hour’, ie a session with a counsellor. is the beauty of the writing and the fact it contains a compelling love story.
The love story, and it is as passionate as anything by fictional greats such as the Brontes, isn’t girl-meets-boy and therefore doesn’t have the normal conclusion. It’s girl-meets-wise psychiatrist and therefore the conclusion is mutual understanding and platonic love rather than anything more physical.
You could call it 50 Shades of Dismay, but that would be unfair as the relationship actually resonates with longing, passion, and a kind of fulfilment. In a nice detail, Eina reveals right at the start that one of the reasons she approached J for therapy — he is never named, but practised in Belfast in the 1980s — is because he was described by a friend who’d studied with him as “safe, trustworthy ... and awfully good-looking”.
As Eina comments, looking herself like an ad for the value of therapy in a big armchair among the scurrying business people in the Europa’s first floor cafe, J was a kind of “ideal man”. He certainly seems to be a kind of Mr Knightley-Mr Darcy hybrid, but, of course, she means this at a higher level.
It was love, though, and Eina goes on to admit this was an intense relationship that pulled her out of despair to wholeness. “Oh, there was desire, battiness, daffiness, mutual change and understanding.” She adds: “I couldn’t have published it without J’s agreement.”
That’s clear on reading the book. We learn about their intellectual friendship and that she sometimes felt she wanted more from the relationship. After her close friend Carmel was murdered abroad, Eina goes into psychological freefall and J is there to catch her and help with the grief. Although comforted, she emerges from one analytic session feeling slightly let down, even though they'd faced her fears together.
After the handshake between therapist and client, a little ritual they’d started indicating they’d done good work “or even admitted we enjoyed each other's company”, Eina notes. “... my only thought was, He will never hug me. Not ever.”
After many consultations, the three-word phrase, ‘I love you’, does come into play, but not as she wants, and not exclusively, as J then shares this with the group.
“Am I romantic? Yes, I suppose I am,” she says. Perhaps to inject a note of realism, J would look at the photo of his wife in his consulting room and would refer to his daughters. He was unavailable, yet Eina still dreamt of some sort of closer link, even fantasising at one stage about moving into the consulting room.
As Eina neared the end of her successful therapy, tentative relationships developed away from the couch. There was Peter, the boyfriend in Dublin she bragged about to friends, who chickened out of their growing relationship just before they were due to go on a holiday to Italy. J picked up the pieces, inevitably.
There was married Mike the American, with whom Eina nearly had a one-night stand while on a course in London. He finally fought temptation and decided to give his marriage another go.
One shouldn’t give the impression that this is chick lit with added psychology. It isn’t — it’s a serious, fascinating account of one woman’s painful journey through damage to wholeness.
The other key relationship, and Dr Freud would no doubt nod his head here, is with Eina’s father, now sadly suffering from Alzheimer’s. Brendan comes across as a loving disciplinarian, maybe a bit controlling and, unusually, the parent who ends up instructing Eina in the mysteries of the birds and the bees, and her periods. There is quite a bit of menstruation in the book, it has to be said.
As Eina acknowledges, her father was her hero and she found it hard to see him treated with disrespect once he started a long fight for compensation for their home.
Her relationship with Brendan was in its way as intense as the connection with J. She says: “I was very dependent on and adored my father. Then, when I experienced losing him, as his focus altered, it was tough. He was in a very difficult situation after our house was destroyed that night. It was built to be a dream house, turned into a nightmare, and everything changed because of the Troubles, in a night.”
The world became a very unsafe place at that point and her incomprehension as to why made things worse.
Interestingly, Eina wasn’t at all close to her late mother, Nan, when young. “But my mother and I became very close as adults and I think the experience [of therapy] opened me up to a love between mother and myself.” She says she values the fact that Nan gave her permission to publish this therapy memoir, even though the family isn’t exactly presented in a Waltons-style family glow. “I asked her when my father was ill and it was generous of her to agree.”
Eina's three siblings scarcely get a mention, although her glamorous older sister seemed to provoke a kind of inferiority complex. “Well, it isn't their story, it's mine.”
The big question is what happened next? Did Eina get a man? Of course she did.
“After I finished therapy, I went to London to work for a while and quite quickly met someone. We had an affair.” Pushed on further details, Eina says that when asked to write a follow-up book on life after therapy, she declined.
“I said no to writing about life afterwards. I didn’t want to expose the rest of my life that, with all its ups and downs, belongs to me. People have texted me to say I’m brave, and I am. But I have been brave for a reason, to give people insights into therapy, and to shed a little light on the underside of the Troubles.”
She says she isn’t worried about voyeuristic readers — “I’ve tried to write it with integrity” — but says she possibly shouldn’t have written the book, and commited to the attendant publicity, without sporting the obligatory husband and kids as proof of normality. “I did go on to have an affair but I can’t fulfil people's expectations of a marriage and 2.5 children.”
As Eina points out, in spite of her personal CV, she feels good. “I think life's a process. I feel good about my life now, I'm 51, I can appreciate life is marvellous, I am creatively alive, alive as a woman, totally healed with no frayed edges.”
Eina, who is now director of the Ark children's art project in Dublin, is spending a few weeks in Belfast in her old apartment in the city centre, catching up with people before heading to New York on a prestigious Fulbright scholarship. She will be studying the power of the imagination for a year in The Lincoln Center in a city she likes and is looking forward to “meeting people, studying, seeing the city”.
She adds: “It’s exciting but I am also enjoying being back in Belfast, a city I have always loved. I’ve been rediscovering the delights of the Ormeau Road, have been to L’Etoile restaurant, the excellent Soul Food Cafe and The Bengal Brasserie within the last week. And I’ve been catching up with my friends and family.”
Outside work, film remains a passion. Eina spends time chatting about Ulster-inspired films to the photographer — In the Name of the Father was good but The Wind that Shakes the Barley, although very good, is very violent. I went with a friend who wanted to leave at one point ...”
Her book's title comes from a poetic fragment written at the end of his life by the American author Raymond Carver, most famous for charting lives on the downward trajectory.
“And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”
Eina smiles, saying this sums up what she gained from her time on the couch: “It’s wider than physical love, it's on a different level. But yes, life is good.”
To Call Myself Beloved by Eina McHugh, New Island, £11.99