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Rebecca Williams

In conversation with Leonora Fitzgibbons

I never really follow the norm of everyone else. But I am not quite sure whether that is a good thing or a bad thing.

In my family, I am called the black sheep, or one of them with my uncle. A cousin of mine went to uni after he left the Navy, but other than that I am the only other person in the family who has been to university. And I have some grand ambitions and I’m going to travel. I’m not conventional as my family would see it. I don’t want to settle down and have…well, I might want some more kids. From that respect, in the family situation, I felt a bit different. My father was in the Navy for 42 years and is very conservative, traditional. We are just complete opposites. So, I was an only child and my parents were quite old when they had me and I suppose that the situation that I was in was different from the norm. And who I was and what I believed just clashed totally with the situation. And the fact of being bisexual, having Phoebe at 19, being a single parent, being into different things adds to that feeling of being different and singles me out. So I suppose in some ways I have never fitted into one category: family, I’m different; uni, I’m different because I have a kid; and relationships, I’m different.

But part of me is almost very traditionalist, I read these books about life in Bethnal Green in the 1960s. They are married, they have seven children and they scrub their doorsteps. And I think, ‘Oh, that would be so nice, they are sorted. I would like to have a house in Bethnal Green and chat with my neighbours. That would be so nice and so easy. Have a normal relationship and a normal husband and a normal kid.’ And then I think, ‘I can’t really do that. I have gone way past normal anyway.’

I guess I am just honest with people. I say: this is me, this is my situation, this is what I think, feel, x, y, z. Once you have that, you have better relationships with people because you know people’s positions.

I have always had much better relationships with women, because I think that it’s much easier. You just get on, better wavelength, better emotions. I can relate better to women. But I have relationships with men and women, gay people, straight people, bi people. Categories don’t come into it really.

I am very wary of any relationship because of the level of destructiveness that was involved in my past relationships. I had a hugely destructive relationship. Everything coincided. I was suffering from post-natal depression, self-harm on my part and suicide attempts. I would get back together with this person, then we would break up again and all hell broke loose. So that wasn’t a very good time. Since then, I’ve met other people. I am aware that my levels of feelings and emotions seem to be much more intense. I just need to be wary about what I feel on a day-to-day basis, otherwise emotions take over. I have to be very pragmatic. I mean, I have a boyfriend now, and it’s very nice, and it’s very straightforward. I don’t think that I would let myself get into a relationship that is very destructive because I just can’t get into that situation anymore.

I don’t know why I have these destructive relationships. I hated school so it was probably a low self-esteem, not fitting in thing. At 16 I was just sleeping around with whoever, taking drugs. It’s all part of life’s rich pattern in retrospect. You learn stuff, and think, ‘Why on earth did I do that?’ But at the time you think, ‘This is a step towards the holy grail of happiness, that elusive something.’ The more destructive relationships you have, one thing leads to another and you end up with strange people in strange situations. But on the positive side, I had Phoebe. I have no contact with her father, she has no contact with her father, but I still have her from that weird relationship. So there are positives.

I don’t really look for a relationship. I find myself in a situation and see what happens. But I don’t want to get married and I want independence in most ways. I want to go travelling, to prove that I can, to prove that I don’t need a partner and things like that. If I were to have a partner and have more kids, I think that would be really weird for me to do the whole compromise, adapt thing.

It’s like any parent, once you’ve got them, you couldn’t imagine life without them.

I suppose the reason that I had Phoebe was because I wanted a baby, I wanted one as soon as I can remember, and I definitely didn’t do much to prevent one since I started having sex. I never, thank God, got pregnant before I did, which was good because of timing. I wanted to have a baby and I had one. Because if you don’t have a focus in your life, you don’t know what to do with your life, you think, ‘If I have a kid…’ That’s why most teenagers get pregnant and have babies, because most people want it.

A lot of friends of mine who are ten years older think, ‘Should they go back to work? Should they have a nanny? If they have a nanny etc. etc.’ – the guilt they feel. I don’t know whether it’s because it’s just me and Phoebe, but most of that is irrelevant. I feel that my having her at nursery, it’s great for her. It’s chilled out, I still spend loads of time with her, it’s really flexible. There are no qualms about what I do. But I suppose that I am not in a 9-5 job. If I want to pick her up early this afternoon, then I could. I can have long holidays. I can chill. I think that’s fine. I’m that much younger, and I think it’s a different relationship I have towards her. I can just chill out, go shopping with her. It’s very different to the relationship I have with my mother. She got married at 19, never used contraception and 22 years later got pregnant. So…I wasn’t really expected in any way. She read the manual. Wake up baby, feed the baby. There was no element of relaxing. She is like that with Phoebe. She can be so neurotic, ‘Why is she hot?  She should have a vest on. Why isn’t she reading and writing? You were reading and writing.’ She was so much older than me. It is very, very different between Phoebe and me.

I suppose it is just me and her. I think, ‘If I have kids in the future when am I going to have them?’ I want her to have siblings. I have a friend whose mother remarried. When her little brother was born, she went totally off the rails. She felt totally excluded from the new family. I would like Phoebe to have a sibling sooner rather than later so that she is young enough for it not to affect her. But it’s not really practical and I want some sleep. So there are all these questions that get thrown up because I am in this strange situation, whereas if I was happily married…

My big fear is of something happening to Phoebe. Anything that happens – car crashes, anything with children – I fear. You are way more aware of every nasty thing in the world, all the potential disasters. It doesn’t matter so much about me. As soon as you have someone like Phoebe, you are thinking, ‘I can’t let her out of my sight.’ At some point you have to give her some sense of freedom, you have to get a balance, you don’t want her to be so overprotected.

It was very difficult to adjust to being a parent. Very weird and very strange for the first two years of her life: post-natal depression, weird relationships, coming up to Oxford. It was difficult to adjust. But I’m so grateful that I have her. You know when I was pregnant I thought, ‘What shall I do? If I had an abortion and ten years down the line I couldn’t have a baby.’

I have this school reunion thing in a few weeks, I am the only one who has a kid, and I think, I have her, that’s something concrete. I have had her, and I am really glad that I’ve had her. So, also having had her and being at Oxford, I want to build on this. I want a career and I want to study and I want to achieve something, I want academic recognition. Having her kind of makes you more focused.

I never, ever, want to find myself in that position again.

It is the most horrendous experience. It is horrendous. And you think, ‘Right, I’m out of it.’ But I don’t want to say that and find myself back in that situation. It’s difficult because I’ve always thought as a kid, I’ve always felt things. I don’t know, you can’t feel others’ feelings. But I’ve always thought that I have felt things more acutely than other people or that I think about things more than other people. I suppose that I’ve always read a lot, I am academic. The flip side of that is that I’m always thinking, always analysing, and I’m always obsessing. I’ve kept diaries since the age of 10 and I would analyse all my feelings and write them down and experience all this stuff and have this big curiosity for life and every kind of life experience. I was given Marianne Faithful’s autobiography at the age of 14, and I thought, ‘I’ll read this, it sounds interesting.’ And it opened this door and I thought, ‘She has done all this by the age of 18.’ And I thought, ‘I only have four years to take drugs, and marry a rock star and have babies.’ I hated myself so much so I thought, ‘Let’s find this other life, this other thing, the search for the holy grail.’ I was thinking a lot. I hung out with people at the age of fifteen who self-harmed and I picked up on that quite quickly. All these people were cutting their arms. I went out with guys who did. A very goth thing.

So I had a go one day. Initially it doesn’t make a huge mark. And then gradually I cut so much and thought, ‘Oh cool, it actually works.’ And it gets addictive, it’s very addictive. So I would cut and cut and cut. Not too deeply. And, that was until about 18. Then I got pregnant with Phoebe. I stopped drinking, stopped smoking, stopped cutting. Then I thought, ‘This is my way forward. Maybe it will solve all my problems, it will give me a direction, I don’t know what to do with it, I don’t know who I am. I’ll have a baby, and focus on the baby, everything will slot into place and it will be fine.’ And, of course, it wasn’t. It compounded everything. It brought everything to a huge crisis. And then I had a relationship and that went pear-shaped. So it was a mixture of post-natal depression and it went totally mad. I was cutting and cutting, serious self-harm, overdoses and this and that. I was a mess. Then I was doing analytical therapy which was useless. I went on to medication. Then I came up to Oxford. The first few terms were cool, and then I thought I was alright. Then it was the Easter before Mods, I hadn’t really gotten into Oxford, I didn’t know many people, the work was piling up, and then I went slightly doo-lally again. What did I do? Over Easter I tried to hang myself and I saw a psychiatrist and she said, ‘You either come in or we section you. And if we section you, you won’t be able to get a visa, and you won’t be able to do this or do that.’ That was a horrendous experience in there.

I got out and was in a limbo situation, trying to do some work but I couldn’t. Got to about three weeks before Mods and I was freaking out, I got into a state and I was cutting and nothing was resolving and it was really complicated. I had a really weird relationship with my psychiatric nurse in Salisbury who I got on really well with but it developed these weird overtones of something. She was bisexual. Then she was getting married. I went to her wedding (she is divorced now). She never got on with her husband’s family. It was this really fraught, fraught situation. She got really drunk. She was coming on to me and I was coming on to her on her wedding day and it was all really…Then she went off on her honeymoon and it was the week before Mods and I took a huge overdose and was taken up to the JR. I came out and got yelled at by my psychiatrist. I was here and there over the summer. At the start of the second year, instead of self-harm it was a different behaviour. It shifted from self-destructive behaviour to inability to do anything. I cried constantly. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t work, couldn’t go to the shops. It was total blackness. And then I had allergic reactions to the different medications – my throat started swelling. And everything you know is going to take between two to six weeks for anything to kick in, there is no light at the end of the tunnel, the more you talk about it the more you think about it.

And then gradually I went onto Prozac and things got better. And I quit going to see anyone at all, didn’t go to any psychiatric appointments, stopped thinking about it, stopped looking it up on the internet, stopped writing about it, stopped listening to any music that would trigger it, wouldn’t read any depressing books. Since then it’s been alright – that’s about 14 or 15 months now. So I’m going to stay on Prozac for the rest of my life, try not to think about it, not dwell on it, not allow myself to feel. That’s the thing about depression, it draws you in in such a subtle way. You listen to music, it’s great music, but you know it’s going to alter the way you are thinking just by listening to it, and then one thought will lead to another thought. You dwell on your feeling. It’s such a weird thing. So you have to think, ‘Nope, I can’t do that. I can’t listen to music that I like. It’s not good for me.’ You have to do things that are good for you. It is this constant in the back of your mind.

I think that it’s very good that people question things, the fact that you can challenge things, and there is no right or wrong. But if you get too tied up in the whys and wherefores you lose sight of the real world.

On my History degree, I suppose initially you think history is about the history of mankind and people. Whereas if you are going into post-modernism and post-structuralism you think, ‘What relevance does this have to real peoples’ lives?’ So some of it bugs me. I like the more immediate stuff. Theories are interesting but they are not as relevant. Arguing about arguments and how you argue – it is all very intellectual but is there a point to it? You read Foucault and you think, ‘I am really not interested in that kind of branch.’ You think that it doesn’t really help the real world in any great way, shape or form. You can argue between yourselves in journals but how does this really impact people’s experiences of real life. I am not sure it does.

Most people have an everyday life if you have kids, if you have a husband or wife, you have to get money. There are general, basic things of everyday life. These are still paramount to all of the other questionings and debating. I think about the mundane of everyday life. I don’t generally think about the big issues. I suppose that you are born and eventually you will die. I don’t believe in religious type stuff, so I don’t believe in any predestination. Sometimes I think fate definitely exists; sometimes I think it doesn’t. I mean, how much is coincidence or how much is chance? I suppose I don’t think anything is pre-planned, I think that you make your choices.

You see some things, some people, some acts of charity and you think, ‘Great.’ Then you see the flip side of that and think, ‘God, the world is doomed.’ I don’t have any great expectations.

I don’t know whether human nature is compatible with a nice view of the world. Violence is always going to happen and death is always going to happen and problems are always going to be there. There are more things to do, so that you can even it out a little bit, like this campaign to end poverty. But there is always going to be inequality, human nature and difference and competition and you can never have a nice, harmonious society. I mean the more that you can do to try and help people, then great.

I thought of myself as very, very radical when I was a teenager and compared to the people in my school I was. I had very different ideas. I did very different things with my life. And I wanted to change the world and live up a tree and do all this other stuff. And then I had Phoebe. And I thought – I don’t have the energy to go and start protesting about stuff. I sound like my mother or something, but once you go into that next thing, everything takes on a whole different perspective and a whole meaning. I do feel very different to most students in my year because I am in a completely different situation. They are going off partying, smoking joints, sleeping with one another, and having huge intellectual debates about the rights and wrongs of Iraq. I think, ‘Great,’ but that is not quite how…Maybe five years ago, I would have been just the same. I suppose it is more mundane things take over. I am still very interested in issues that are under discussion, George Bush, this, that and the other. But I think that I am much more cynical. I don’t think that you are going to change things by protesting down Broad Street. I don’t think doing signatures and petitions is going to make any difference. It’s good, it will unite people, get them to meet people, but it’s not going to make a difference to what they are protesting about. So, I think maybe the only way you can change things is the whole process of international politics and government.

I still think that we need greater tolerance worldwide. I have had experiences of intolerance. I’m bisexual, I was in an all girls’ school from the age of 5 to 18 and I came out when I was 12, which didn’t go down too well. It was a private school, they were very right-wing and very conservative. That was what their parents believed, that was as far as they went. Initially when I was 13 it was a nightmare on a day-to-day basis, being questioned and quizzed and all that kind of stuff. I suppose the fact that I continued to talk about it, by the time I left, people were like, oh yeah, cool, whatever. Another example of intolerance, when I was pregnant, people had expectations because of the education I had had and they had problems with the fact that I was in this situation.

I think that the power is in politics.

Sure, they are all influenced by big business, which is depressing. I boycotted Nestlé because of their policy in formula feeding in the third world. You realise what Nestlé owns – you can’t buy any Oreal products, any Mabeleine products. I mean what they own is vast. And Proctor and Gamble has just bought Gillette for X many billion. The world is pretty much owned by a few giant companies. But I think politics must still play a role, though. If you think about the communist countries, they can isolate themselves to a degree from the rest of the world. They are obviously not countries I would like to emulate, but you don’t necessarily have to bow down to big business, although it’s hard to avoid.

We need a much more open, tolerant political structure and system. Things like cancelling third world debt, things that are trying to create a more equal base of opportunities for people. I suppose it also comes down to a much lower level – everyone in their own family with their own kid promoting ideas of tolerance.

I wish I had a crystal ball. I want a crystal ball to tell me, ‘Yes, you’ve made it.’

Some kids from the age of three know what they want to be and then they do it. I also know people who have a plan and stick to it. I have friends who say, ‘I am going to have my first baby at twenty-seven.’ And I think, ‘How do you know that?’ They say, ‘Well I’m going to get married at twenty-six.’ And I say: ‘Who are you going to get married to? You know, you might be dead, you might suddenly be very unattractive and no one will marry you.’ I mean, how do people know this?

I have always wanted to be known for some kind of reason, have recognition – it’s probably a self-esteem issue. If people look up to you, or know you, it would be nice. But I’m not sure how, in what capacity. I think to be respected by people that you work with would be nice. Head of the UN? That would be good.

March 2005