H Is for Hawk, a Literary Memoir

H Is for Hawk“H Is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald is memoir of her grief at the death of her father crossed with a sort of literary biography of T. H. White and a literary analysis of his memoir The Goshawk and his novel The Once and Future King. It includes MacDonald’s account of training her own goshawk, which runs in a sort of parallel counterpoint to White’s. And it has many excursions into nature writing and the history of nature writing and the history of falconry, including many darker aspects of these histories.

MacDonald’s memoir reads as a sort of personal account of a descent into mental illness, displaced onto the practice of training a goshawk in the same way that White displaces his own personal traumas onto the training of his goshawk. She maps her extreme isolation and her increasingly unbalanced and self-deluded magical thinking onto the training of the hawk and onto White’s own disordered relationship with his hawk.

This sounds rather convoluted and confusing, but the result is a multi-layered interior journey and exploration of the process of grief that rambles across various mental landscapes while reveling in beautiful descriptive writing and a fascinating exploration of White and his writing. It is an often disquieting journey and MacDonald doesn’t provide her readers with a neat conclusion either of her own dark journey or of White’s. And yet I suspect this memoir has been a giant bestseller not only because of the lushness of the writing and the surprising quality of MacDonald’s cross-genre inventiveness; but also because of her exploration of the darker territory of grief, which often seems like a no-man’s land in the contemporary western world, a place where we aren’t allowed to linger precisely because of our fear of mental illness, of wallowing, and of anti-social behavior.

As revelatory as MacDonald’s exploration of her grief is, it’s so very particular and so very interior that it would not serve as a roadmap for anyone else suffering from similar grief or mental illness. Nor is it in any way a cautionary tale or a self-help book nor does it contain any warnings or navigational beacons that tell the reader, now we are entering the land of the truly crazy. The journey MacDonald maps is her own and I cannot imagine it being helpful as a guide to recovery and normalcy. But that said, there’s a way in which MacDonald has created for herself a formal ritual of mourning, an controlled descent into a sort of madness from which she is able to ascend when the goal of the journey is accomplished. It’s a sort of hero’s journey into the underworld with goshawk as psychopomp and T. H. White as a troubled Virgil guiding her into the infernal pit. But MacDonald skimps on the details of her return to the everyday world and there’s something a little unsatisfactory about how she leaves the story unfinished.

MaDonald is utterly shattered by her father’s death and retreats into a solitude with the young goshawk her only companion. At times she becomes almost a feral creature, thinking the hawk’s thoughts and seeing through the hawks eyes. She seems to do nothing but watch television and train the hawk. She seems completely out of touch with reality, with humanity. She seems like a madwoman. She identifies also with White who himself is unable to separate his own trauma with the trauma he inflicts on his hawk. The hawk becomes a substitute for his child self while he becomes the adult abuser and tormenter. MacDonald, in her quest for White and her need to ritualize her grief, makes the training of her own goshawk a descent into White’s trauma as well as her own. At times is seems she’s ritually performing a kind of mental illness that mimic’s White’s masochism but sometimes it seems that much of her mental fugue is a sort of performance. What is the line between grief and insanity? How much of grieving is performance and ritual? Is MacDonald a sort of method actor, immersing herself in a role, performing it day and night as if she had truly become the person she is playing?

What is the line between mental health and mental illness? How often do otherwise healthy people cross over it for a time in periods of extreme stress and then once the stress is gone resume normalcy without any intervention of drugs or therapy? Does that even qualify as mental illness?

It seems to me that perhaps we’ve lost a sense of the normalcy of grief. We want to clinicalize all sadness as depression. MacDonald’s retreat into her own world of grief, her identification with her hawk, cutting ties with friends and family, the bizarre patterns of thinking which form during this time…. are these symptoms of grief or mental illness or both? Is it possible that behaviours and thought patterns that would at other times me diagnosable might be temporary coping mechanisms that are more normal parts of grief than we like?

Maybe there was wisdom in having widows and family of the deceased wear black and setting themselves visually apart, giving them a way to display that extreme grief to the whole world? I think the Victorians’ ritualization of mourning allowed people that space to descend into a kind of madness, to wallow and to be transformed by grief. To become a Person Who Is Grieving. And we don’t have that at all. We are told not to wallow. We are discouraged from lingering in that space of grieving. We need to get over it and move on, by any means necessary, even with therapy and drugs. But before we had modern psychiatry we had these rituals of grieving. Rituals help us to process grief and dispensing with them means we have to find other, perhaps less healthy ways, to ritualize grief. Like training a hawk?

MacDonald doesn’t trace a clear “road to recovery” from whatever this mental illness/grief fugue was. Nothing dramatic. But the hawk is trained and then goes to a friend who can keep her while she is molting. That gives MacDonald a break from the intense relationship she created with the hawk. And over time she starts reconnecting to community, friends, and family and resumes normalcy. It was her behavior, her retreat into solitude and identification with the bird, which caused the mental abnormality not vice versa.

It’s hard to know how much of MacDonald’ isolation during this time of grief and hawk training is biographical fact and how much is literary form. The memoir itself is inward focused, an interior roadmap. With the exception of her deceased father, all of MacDonald’s friends and family remain fairly flat characters throughout the narrative. Its primary concern is her own mental state and mapping that onto White and the hawk training. She’s not concerned with painting a realistic picture of the outer world. And that is part of the madness of grief, that retreat and detachment from the outer world. But it’s also a literary technique. The memoir’s narrative mirrors that mental state. If MacDonald were to linger on descriptions of that outer world, the memoir might be a less accurate map of the inner world. Instead MacDonald’s friends and family appear almost ghostlike. They appear and disappear from the narrative without having much independent presence.

The hawk, as it turns out, represents MacDonald’s desire to cross over to the land of the dead, to bring back the dead souls and make them live again. In a way her memoir is the fulfillment of that desire. In its pages both White and her father take on another life. But at the end she is willing to let them all go: “I put it down, and the relief was immense, as if I had dragged a half-tone weight from myself and cast it by the grassy road. White is gone. The hawk has flown. Respect the living, honour the dead. Leave them be.” She decides to leave the land of ghosts and memories and to return to the land of the living.

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