It isn’t often a book comes along that gives poetic voice to a seminal scientific theory and when such a meeting of the minds does occur, we should take note. In this case, Ian McEwan’s new novel Nutshell is an extraordinarily accurate depiction of the scientific theory of eminent psychoanalyst Bernard Bail, who has discovered, through sixty years of clinical practice, that human beings are imprinted in utero by their mother’s unconscious mind. Although he does not yet have the international recognition enjoyed by Mr. McEwan, Dr. Bail’s insights into life in the womb and its ensuing consequences predate this novel by at least a decade, most notably in his 2007 book, The Mother’s Signature, in over a hundred essays on his website bernardbailmd.com, and he will soon become known to a wider public in a documentary movie about his life and work to be released in 2017.
The gift of great artists (and I include scientists in this designation because the great ones, truly are) is their courage and ability to tap into the deep Unconscious of the world and to share what they discover there, by way of their creations. This is the case whether the ultimate creation be Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Watson’s model of DNA. Thus comes the adage, great minds think alike; great minds are accessing the same Source. When two experts in seemingly disparate fields come back with the same or similar insights, the truth and relevance of each is amplified.
This isn’t the first time Dr. Bail’s theory has been confirmed in other fields. For example, in 2006 The New York Times published an article entitled “Silent Struggle: A New Theory of Pregnancy” reporting the research findings of a Harvard evolutionary biologist and geneticist named David Haig. Dr. Haig found that mothers unconsciously alter genes of their fetuses. He dubbed this process genomic imprinting and predicted that the discovery of this phenomenon will be one of the most important ideas in science in the near future.
I became interested in Dr. Bail’s ideas many years ago because I heard the unmistakable ring of truth when I heard him speak about psychological matters, in a field where I had begun to despair of ever finding clear, grounded wisdom about the causes of the suffering we see all around us. After studying his ideas for two decades, I find them to be remarkably useful in understanding not only the emotional struggles of my patients but also the seemingly insoluble problems that plague our larger world.
Nutshell is the first book ever written completely through the mind’s eye of a fetus and I take its appearance as a sign that the time might be rapidly approaching in which Dr. Bail’s theory of Imprinting will finally gain the attention and recognition it so richly deserves. After reading Nutshell with its uncannily astute reflection of life in the womb, a picture previously understood and arrived at scientifically by Dr. Bail, I am more than ever convinced of it. The crucial importance of prenatal life and the emotional health of the mothers who give birth to us all is a reality that can no longer be ignored.
The stage is set for Nutshell with the following epigraph from the Bard:
“Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.”
Mr. McEwan’s tour de force novel hits all the notes of the Hamlet drama, cleverly reset in a modern and prenatal context. Our nameless narrating fetus, like Hamlet before him, is forced to consider the burning question of existence (“to be or not to be”) because of the emotional upheavals, poisonous feelings and bad behavior of his mother, of which he is all too painfully aware. The mother of our fetus is named Trudy (Gertrude) who has recently separated from her sad sack poet husband and taken up with his brother, Claude (Claudius), a slick, insensitive brute of a real estate developer. The couple plot to poison her husband, the fetus’s father.
The narrating fetus of the book is breathtakingly wise. His mother’s heartbeat and chemistry, even the tone of her voice, are his window into her soul. “The body cannot lie, but the mind is another country, for when my mother speaks at last, her tone is smooth.” The mother can dissemble to others and even to herself, but every fetus is privy to the truth.
Our fetal narrator understands the laws of nature and exactly what he is in for “…the bad won’t end, the bad will be endless, until ending badly will seem a blessing. Nothing will be forgotten, nothing flushed away. Foul matter lingers in unseen bends beyond the plumber’s reach.” The Imprint by definition is the mother’s “foul” unconscious feelings that remain within her and her child for life. What Mr. McEwan doesn’t know is the hope that Dr. Bail’s discovery delivers: that dreams can extend the reach of the plumber/analyst’s understanding so that the bad can finally be accessed and cleansed.
This highly sentient fetus gives voice to Dr. Bail’s concept of the Imprint: that not only do we live our earliest life in our mother’s body but also, more fatefully, in her mind and that experience marks us for life. “This was my paternity, until my mother wished my father dead. Now I live inside a story and fret about its outcome.” The fetus will have to recreate, live and fret in his parents’ story and he will come to forget that it is not his own. He is aware that his greatest burden is his mother’s emotional state, “My heart is struggling with my mother’s angry blood.”
Mr. McEwan makes us feel the wrenching dilemma of every fetus with this passage, “I need a moment alone, beyond the reach of voices. I’ve been too absorbed, too impressed by Trudy’s art to peer into the pit of my own grief. And beyond it, the mystery of how love for my mother swells in proportion to my hatred. She’s made herself my only parent. I won’t survive without her, without the enveloping green gaze to smile into, the loving voice pouring sweets in my ear, the cool hands tending my private parts.” Later, the picture of this painful fetal reality is completed, “Blood-borne well-being sweeps through me and I’m instantly high, thrown forwards by a surfer’s perfect breaking wave of forgiveness and love. A tall, sloping, smoothly tubular wave that could carry me to where I might start to think fondly of Claude. But I resist it. How diminishing, to accept at second hand my mother’s every rush of feeling and be bound tighter to her crime. But it’s hard to be separate from her when I need her. And with such churning of emotion, need translates to love, like milk to butter.”
Finally, with stunningly poetic insight, our narrator describes life in the womb by summing it up perfectly in three words, “Feeling is queen.” The mother’s unconscious feelings will rule the life of her child. We are all ruled by these feelings, despite our conscious, logical best intentions. Any attempt to improve ourselves or our world will fail unless these feelings are understood and resolved.
Nutshell is short and deliciously full of Mr. McEwan’s insight and literary virtuosity. But, even more importantly, this book is a vivid depiction of what will in all likelihood prove to be one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 21st century: that human beings spend their first nine months of life struggling with their mother’s “angry blood” and that experience marks them for life. Anyone who thinks that this trauma does not affect every fetus should consider the question of whether any woman alive today does not carry the legacy of centuries of oppression and mistreatment by a male dominated culture. By understanding the root cause of the emotional difficulties that beset so many people, the theory of Imprinting, an idea whose time has come, opens the door to a cure for the universal trauma of life in the womb as portrayed so artfully, first in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and now by Mr. McEwan in this unforgettable book.
We all have the bad dreams referenced in the book’s epigraph above. Most people, if they remember them at all after waking, pay little heed to them. But those bad dreams are the key to understanding what happened to us, the story we “live inside and fret about”, the story we didn’t create and that, unbeknownst to us, colors our daily lives. The new paradigm for psychoanalysis that Dr. Bail’s work provides offers us finally an opportunity to free ourselves from the nutshell of our early trauma.