Book Review by Janice Morgan
I’m drawn to memoirs of personal journeys, especially as they relate to mental health. Readers may recognize Katherine May from her best-selling book, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times (2020). But fewer will know about her earlier memoir, which in many ways forms the foundation for the later book. Published two years earlier, Electricity’s subtitle is “A Woman’s Walk in the Wild to Find Her Way Home,” and it’s about the challenge she set herself in the summer of 2015: to walk 630 miles on a well-known trail in England called the South West Coast Path. Similar to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, this is a story where the walker not only covers the rugged terrain of a physical landscape but also explores the complexities of her inner world, one she needs to understand better in order to heal.
May is approaching forty when she conceives this grand adventure. She feels she can take this on now that her son is three years old and more independent. She’s moving forward in her career, as well. She’ll be starting a full-time teaching job in the fall, and both she and her husband sense that the spaciousness of outdoor time alone for her on weekends will relieve the extra pressure of a new work schedule. Walking in open landscapes has always been one of her greatest pleasures; it’s a release of psychic energy as well as inspiration for her writer’s imagination. What better place to do this than the picturesque and legendary southwest coast of England?
She starts the trail in Minehead, Somerset in August, exhilarated by coastal winds. She’s carefully planned the weekend stages of her itinerary, and her supportive husband (discreetly called H and who doesn’t like to hike) has signed up to be loyal transport team, along with young Bert, so that the family can re-unite each evening to refresh at a pub and spend the night together. It all sounds perfectly arranged, and at first the astounding views are breathtakingly beautiful for her to behold. However, the intrepid author soon finds that her fitness level is far below what it should be. The trail, having been designed for coast guard scouts to scour these cliffs and coves for smugglers, is far from easy to negotiate for a townie more accustomed to walking to coffee shops. Instead, the SWC path is “bloody-minded” May tells us; it takes you relentlessly up and down perilously steep climbs, exhibiting “a willful refusal to provide any kind of short cut, even where it’s obvious that any sane person would take one.” Additionally, the trusty Ordinance Maps she carries offer surprises for a novice. What looks like a two-hour walk when read on the page can easily turn into four hours when you figure in the cost of those steep contour lines, the ones she conveniently overlooked. Time and again, her legs hurt, her back hurts, she’s hungry at all the wrong hours and then, at dinner with her husband and Bert, can barely eat from fatigue. And all this is before the pelting rains and cold winds of autumn set in.
Small wonder that Katherine begins to wonder why she wanted to do these weekend walks in the first place. Added to her physical exhaustion is a nagging sense of guilt: isn’t she abandoning her family? How can she ask them to sacrifice so much family time together to facilitate her “alone time” on the hills and crags? Especially if it’s not going terribly well and she’s complaining about it. On one Saturday she makes the decision NOT to walk the trail but to spend time sightseeing with H and Bertie. Yet, that doesn’t always go well, either. Her husband eventually confesses: “It’s just easier when it’s me and Bertie. We get along fine. But everything bothers you.” Devastating but true, she admits. She knows she’s hypersensitive.
But she’s a fighter, too, and does not want to give up so easily this time. She’s afraid of yet another failure. She tells us she’s already abandoned too many other projects in her unending battle “to cope” as she puts it. As Katherine evokes earlier episodes in her life, we learn that she has always felt “different.” Since childhood days of being bullied and ostracized, she’s had more trouble than most with even the regular trials of everyday life. For her, solitary pursuits like reading, writing, and exploring nature were more than pastimes; they were her main internal survival strategies. So now, how will this latest walking venture take her where she wants to go?
Then comes an extraordinary moment. Driving on an errand one evening back in her native Kent, May happens to hear an interview on the radio. The voice is that of a woman, talking about her experience with Asperger’s Syndrome. As the speaker details her discovery as an adult that she’s always had this type of autism, May is suddenly riveted. The symptoms described are the same ones May has: a tendency to miss social cues that others recognize easily, while at the same time, there is an overwhelming sensitivity to sound and touch, along with an inability to filter all those sensory messages. May can relate: it’s as if a person’s brain can become overwhelmed by them all. It’s as if you’re experiencing electrical currents that others don’t perceive, ones that can suddenly overload your circuits and cause a blow-out. And these unfortunate explosions are ones other people don’t easily understand, especially the people you love.
The possibility that May, too, is somewhere on the autism spectrum turns out to be a game changer. If she takes the necessary tests and gets a positive diagnosis, that would explain so much: why her daily life has been full of struggles, why she craves so much time alone to “re-set” jangled nerves. Katherine begins to realize that the very purpose of her walk—and even her identity—may be changing. All her life she’d been trying hard to cope, to “pass” as normal, like everybody else. And she thought she’d done this pretty well—until recently. As she expresses it: “It’s as if there has been a conspiracy, an all-conquering desire to imagine myself as one sort of a person, when I have always actually been another. . .That voice on the radio exploded me. Now, I am seeing all the contradictory fragments again. Now, I am piecing them back together to make an entirely different pot.” (p. 67)
The strength of May’s book is the way she pulls us in to see things from her unique perspective, which turns out to be remarkably multi-faceted. Just as she shows us not only the lofty cliffs and clouds of her walking adventure but also the mud and thorns along the path, so she does the same for her self-discovery adventure as it unfolds.
After she tells her husband about the interview, the two of them wrestle with the reasons for why she would go through tests to get an official diagnosis. What will it change? “I think I just want to know,” she says. “I think I just want to make sure it’s not some weird fantasy that I’ve got tangled up in.” He suggests maybe it will help her cope better, but will it? She’s not sure. She takes a series of tests, then consults the encyclopedia of psychiatric disorders, the then-current American DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual). Anyone receiving—or giving—any kind of psychiatric diagnosis will find her reactions to this process illuminating.
- How does the language of symptoms help a person gain insight into their own behavior? Or is the manual only designed for those doing the diagnosing and categorizing?
- Does the medical language help patients understand themselves better or does it only make them feel “other,” as if their own neurobiology is somehow “defective” rather than just different?
- Do autistic people find that being neurodiverse offers compensatory gifts as well as difficulties?
- If there is no reliable cure for these anomalies, how does one live with them the best they can?
These questions all become points of investigation in May’s research, the new “cycle of thought,” she will churn through on weekends as she strides the hillsides.
The most endearing parts of her narrative are just those times when the author grapples frankly—and in good humor—with her own contradictory impulses. She’s a person of extravagant expectations and those, as much as any autism symptoms, impact her life. Nonetheless, she knows how to take it on the chin when things don’t work out. Once when she’s missed her support team rendezvous by two hours in a rainstorm, she manages to find her own way to a warm pub for lunch, gamely slogging in like a vagabond with waterlogged boots and foggy glasses while all eyes turn to watch. Yet, she takes it all in stride and finds that hot food and lemon shandy taste even better on such an occasion. She also decides to get better rain gear.
As for attitude adjustments, breakthroughs do come, often from other trusted people in her life—her husband, mainly, but also friends she invites to share parts of her walk. “You take the weather personally,” a friend chides her. And when she frets about not always sticking to her itinerary, another wise friend tells her “Look, it’s your walk; you’ve got to do what you want with it.” Adventures have a way of not fitting into schedules. What Katherine couldn’t have foreseen at the outset is that her planned trip would take much longer than a few months; it will take an entire year and involve more than a few delays. Fortunately, creative compromises come to the rescue: if it’s too rainy in wintery Cornwall now, why not continue with walks in her native Kent until circumstances change? Similarly for her mental health blocks: if she can’t find a way to reconcile her nerve state of the moment with the needs of her family, why not take a coffee break for a half hour while H takes Bert off to play?
As Katherine moves through her Kent walks in winter, then returns to the South West Coast trail the following spring and summer, she realizes that accepting the way things are—even with all their setbacks—is a key part of accepting herself. Maybe living well isn’t so much about conforming to any sort of “ideal” but about engaging in an intentional, moment-to-moment improvisation with the reality of what is, especially for yourself and the people you care about. Furthering her personal reflections are the stories she shares about Australian aboriginal “walkabouts” as well as histories of some of the writers and eccentrics whose lives unfolded in the landscapes she crosses.
The later parts of the book spend as much time off the trail as on, showing how the lessons of the two paths connect for her. As a reader, I felt myself pausing to join in, asking similar questions about my own life and relationships. As a working professional used to planning out goals, I can relate to how difficult it was at times to shift emotional gears to accommodate the immediate needs of a young child. Like Katherine, how did I learn to navigate life trails I’d never been on before? What discoveries have I made about my own limitations and how to handle them better?
This book will appeal to anyone who loves nature, long walks, sea coasts, and interior landscapes—not to mention all things British. The agile, nuanced writing with its marmitey, fish-and-chips vocabulary will give you hours of reading pleasure. May’s voice is a welcome companion for the rest of us along our own life journeys.
Janice Morgan is the author of Suspended Sentence, a memoir (She Writes Press, 2019) where she recounts her son’s ongoing struggle with bipolar II and substance use as he leaves jail and enters a drug court program.
Photo of hiker on England’s well-known coastal trail is courtesy of the South West Coast Path Association’s Guide Book for 2020-2021.