Folie a Deux
Laurie Taylor learns to play with others
I never intended to write a book with my son, Matthew. When I finally left my university job I resolved never to embark upon a book again. I was only too well aware that a great deal of my campus writing had more to do with acquiring promotion or satisfying the Stakhanovite requirements of the Research Assessment Exercise than with any urgent need to transmit startling new discoveries or insights.What's more, some of my least successful ventures were the result of collaboration.(v. Taylor and Golightly, 1993. Dewhurst and Taylor, 1997). One was so outstandingly bad that even now I can't bring myself to provide the reference. It began promisingly enough. A senior and rather theoretically minded colleague suggested that we should co-write an analytical volume on deviance theory. His suggestion was that he would send me a few pages of initial thoughts and then I could respond in kind.
Two weeks later I found his six pages of tightly typed notes in my pigeonhole. I could barely understand a single sentence.
For days I wandered around in a state of high anxiety. How could I make any sort of meaningful response to six pages that might just as well have been extracted from the Rosetta Stone? Eventually I confided in another colleague. He had an admirably simple solution. "All you need to do is to send him six pages of your own which are equally incoherent."
I did as instructed and spent an evening composing six pages of such abstraction that they threatened to leave the page entirely and drift off into outer space. Three days later he replied. "Thanks so much for your paper. Very compelling. So compelling in fact that it has led me to change some of my own ideas on the subject." The incomprehensible exchange went on for several more weeks and eventually materialised as a published monograph that was described by a reviewer in the British Journal of Sociology as "profoundly thought-provoking."
Collaboration with Matthew proved rather more straightforward. It began with a question that he put to me after we'd been having a fairly extended drinking session. Why was it, he wondered, that I had so rarely shown any enthusiasm for my role as his father? Why had I so persistently shied away from being a proper or normal dad?
I explained as patiently as I could that I had never wanted to be a conventional father. Back in the sixties when he'd been born, regarding one's child as some sort of educational or occupational project was thoroughly reactionary. Children were to be left to create their own life, follow their own passions. If that meant that they ended up as a carpenter or an itinerant hippie, then so be it. Didn't he feel the same about his own two small children?
No, he told me, he did not. He wanted to give them security and coherence and a sense of purpose. He wanted them to have the sort of childhood that he had been denied. As far as he was concerned, being a father was a vocation.
It was a fine speech but I had a ready response. If being a father was such a noble business then why was it that he so often seemed in the depths of despair about his parental role? He quickly capitulated. Yes, I was right. Too often he found himself looking at friends and childfree colleagues and envying their freedom, their lack of responsibilities, their opportunities for living full and exciting lives. He had to admit that in his bleaker moments he asked the question that he had originally put to me: What are children for?
That was the beginning of our collaboration, the beginning of our book, the beginning of a year long search for people who could provide us with some answers. It was, in some respects, a dispiriting journey. People without children routinely told us that they could no longer see the point of reproducing while those with children persistently confessed that they were now so surrounded by experts warning them of the hazards of child-rearing that there was little joy left in the exercise. We soon began to realise why some demographers were already talking seriously about the time when women might not simply confine themselves to a maximum of one child but decide to stop having children altogether.
Last week the final proofs went off to the publisher. We celebrated at the French pub in Soho. As we drank we began to talk about another possible collaboration. We'd done it once. Why not again? I tentatively suggested a book on the eventual triumph of humanism. "Good idea," said Matthew. "Although we should perhaps see if the Paraclete would have the time to join us. Imagine that. A book on the death of religion by father, son, and Holy Ghost."