I’ve had cats in my life since I was fostered at the age of fifteen. When I arrived at the house in London, the woman who was fostering me greeted me at the door, holding a small grey kitten under her arm.
‘This is Grey Cat,’ she said, ‘I only got her yesterday.’
Grey Cat and I were co-fosterings. She was supposed to be my cat … (Diski, What I Don’t Know About Animals, Chapter 4)
Dear friends and readers,
Since reading Kathryn Shevelow’s For the Love of Animals, about the rise of the animal rights movement and development of real fellow feeling in people generally for animals and animal protection laws and effective agencies, I’ve been wanting to know more about how such feeling develops — for myself, an exponential increase since Jim died. Since I’ve also became interested in Jenny Diski’s writing in the last two years, I noticed her What I don’t Know About Animals. Billed as a serious philosophical essay, I wondered how much it was written in reaction to Doris Lessing’s On Cats: Diski, it was said, went into human anthropomorphic responses to animals, and certainly, Lessing’s moving book on two of Lessing’s many beloved cats depends on endowing her cats with complicated moving lives.
Diski’s book has a highly problematic center. Her purpose is to make us agree that animals are “other;” to see that, acknowledge it, and yet give animals full rights and (as she apparently does) treat them when pets as real companions, equals in their way. She goes over several examples to “prove” we attribute feelings to cats (ever her example) that we can’t say they have. For example, when you leave a room and a cat sitting there, near a toy, and then you come back some time later and the cat is still sitting there, is he or she waiting for you? You don’t know that, but then I’d reply, you don’t know she isn’t. Briefly, her examples don’t hold up. Worse yet 2) as she acknowledges the “otherness” argument is the fundamental ammunition of those who want to use animals to benefit humans first and foremost, not attribute real value to their lives. Hers is a philosophical book where she argues with various experts on animals and philosophers of the type Kathryn Shevelow discusses.
However, Diski has what might seem a strange and telling procedure. She begins by telling us her experience of animals by telling us of her early dolls, stuffed toys, and of the animals she came across as dead which she and her mother (biological, a back formation) ate. She calls herself “post-domestic. ” A “domestic” life in animal studies means you grew up with working animals around you (cows, chickens, horses). So her first experience of animals includes watching her mother buy and cook a chicken, eating the bird. This seems to have been enough for Diski to imagine this as a once live animal victimized, and she says soon after she felt impelled to save a baby bird from a nest who was not grateful but terrified. The bird couldn’t understand what she was aiming at, could not trust, much less love her. The result was the poor bird hid behind the stove in their small kitchen where it was dangerous, and they had to pull it out by force. By the time they prodded it out, it was badly wounded; Jenny ended up wishing the bird would die immediately. The point was how vulnerable animals are to us in our habitats. She then moved onto stuffed animals she saw in museums, caught up in death, very dreary (no tigers burnt bright here); then dream animals, as in storybooks and especially Disney films, where they are not quite children, but dressed; and finally zoos, the early ones where the animals were put in caged prisons, for human entertainment.
I grant these are influential and perhaps where our earliest attitudes towards animals are shaped, but somehow to me this is not where my feeling for animals came, and I rather suspected she wanted to deny the importance of her first pet, that cat pushed on her (in effect) by Doris as an intermediary between them. Perversely (rather in the spirit of Jenny herself there), I tried to remember if I had an early relationship with a real animal and could not think of any beyond those I’d see as other people’s pets when my parents and I visited. That I saw dead chickens hanging up at a butcher’s (which I did as when I was young there were butcher shops and chickens that still had their heads and feet hanging from hooks on walls), well the interaction just doesn’t hack it. I must’ve been taken to a zoo but it didn’t affect me that I can recall. My aunt had a dog but I never got to know her; I wasn’t there often enough, and when I was I wanted to be with my cousins and paid attention to them.
I remember I longed for a pet, or thought I did. My parents refused saying the dog or cat would ruin the furniture and was a responsibility. I was an only child with only one or no friends at a time. After we moved away from my aunt and cousins, my father bought me a blue parakeet which we called Joey, thinking the bird was a boy. I did love it for a time but then even though I dutifully cleaned the cage once a week (I was an obedient child, especially good at routines), I didn’t play with it enough, my father said, and we got another because (he said) Joey was lonely. Well, Joey grew listless and unwell, and one day we found him dead; we went to vet then and discovered Joey was girl and had gotten pregnant and we needed to hep her give birth. This occurred before the days of the kind of animal medicine people regularly nowadays buy from vets. Nancy, the green parakeet, named by me with a girl’s name, but a boy, died son after that. Was she pining for Joey? The experiment was a failure. Now I see from Diski’s book, yes, animals are vulnerable to us.
Much briefer: when I was 10 or 11 my father attempted to buy me a dog; but he wouldn’t pay money for one and didn’t want to go to a rescue shelter; the dog really belonged to someone else. I had already begun to withdraw from painful experiences and didn’t try to make friends with the dog. I don’t even remember his or her name. Only that he or she was medium-sized and white. He or she was returned to the owner before the end of one week.
So truly my second experience of an animal for real was a feral cat (if that’s the appropriate term) I half-adopted shortly before Jim and I married (September 1969) and we came to live together permanently in a “self-enclosed flat” (£2 10 shillings a week), both of us with jobs (Jim a stockbroker’s clerk, me a personal assistant cum-secretary in a toy-packaging firm, Waddington’s). We lived in a poor Pakistani area of Leeds (England) just off a great park. Somehow he got into our flat. My hunch is it was through a small opening with a flap in the wall next to which the milkman left milk. I gave him a dish of milk. I did not know milk is not good for cats! Stories and films pictured cats happily lapping up milk. He did not know he was not supposed to drink milk either. He began to show up regularly, sat under the cooker (as we called the stove) where it was warm, and I began to buy cat food for him, also cans of fish, before you know it, he was sleeping in bed with me most nights. Jim wasn’t keen, but didn’t object as long as the cat stayed on my side of the bed.
I didn’t name him that I can remember.
I had to abandon him when we left for Southampton and the US (April, seven months later). It was not practicable for us. I understood we needed money to pay to make him healthy enough, for shots, to vouch for him, and who would take him on board a plane? Would it not be prohibitively expensive? We didn’t begin to have it. And after all, he was a stray; sometimes he didn’t return for several nights or a whole weekend would go by without seeing him. Who knew if he wanted to come? I’d have to put him in a carrier. He would not care for that. One night he came in all bloody, looking just so awful. I cried and exclaimed and began to wash and care for him. I’ll swear he looked at me and communicated the idea, ‘You should see the others.’ Was he really triumphant? Or did I imagine this (as Diski might ask). He stayed in for a couple of nights after that. I wasn’t sure how attached to me he was. Maybe he preferred Leeds. When I’d get home from work, Jim and I often went out to a pub because we didn’t have central heat. We had no TV or radio even in those days. Or I read.
Years later (14 to be precise) I realized I was very sick for 2 weeks shortly after my cat came to live with us on-and-off because I caught some potentially deadly virus from him. My immune system had thrown it off with difficulty. I was out of work for over a week and went back before I was quite ready (lest I lose the job). I found out when Yvette was born prematurely, and the tests showed she had these antibodies to this dread disease. At first this panicked the hospital staff in Fairfax hospital, and they thought she had this dread disease, and looked funny (suspiciously) at me; but then they saw it was rather that I had actually transmitted antibodies to this premature baby. The disease hadn’t been known about until AIDs had spread and homosexual men came down with it and died. Jim’s mother had had a cat and dog (called Judy, a Pomeranian) during much of his childhood and so maybe he had developed antibodies early on to this disease and that’s why he hadn’t gotten sick.
I left one last bowl of milk and dish of cat food and the door ajar when we left that flat.
Then there was Llyr, the dog we bought shortly after we came to NYC and who lived with us for 12 years. I walk around with intense guilt over her last two years or so of life — which coincided with our last two years in NYC. I was very good to her for 10 years, so too Jim; but we didn’t act to her as we would today. One evening after we came home from work and discovered she had torn apart a couch, we wanted to go out and so we tied her long leash to the radiator so she could not get near the furniture. I can almost still hear her cry of distress as we left. We rushed back and took off that leash and told her to destroy the furniture if she wanted to. But that we could even think to do such a thing to her (tie her to a radiator) shows how thoughtless as young people we could be. We did play with her; she slept with me, one summer when I was studying Latin night and day to pass an exam in it, she was my steady companion.
Another time a year after Caroline was born (1979) she may have saved our lives. I heard a man’s voice making a huge ruckus and opened the door to see someone there in uniform. Llyr suddenly began to growl ferociously and showed her teeth. That was most unlike her. The man angrily demanded I “put away that dog,” so he could read the meters. What meters I asked. Nervously I shut the door. Later that day I heard the man was not an employee of a utility company and had attacked another woman in another building later that day. How grateful I was to Llyr. When I’d walk with her in Central Park, I believe she functioned to protect me. When I had Caroline, Llyr would look at her over her cradle. When Caroline would cry, Llyr would howl. Jim went nuts trying to pay attention to his math studies.
It’s probably true to say about 10 years on, I was having a nervous breakdown (finishing my dissertation and unable to contemplate looking for interviews, no idea how to cope with them), Jim in a bad way (his dissertation had been rejected!), no money for food even at times. He had quit his full-time job to get a Ph.D. in math and we were both adjuncts with small salaries. So Llyr suffered too — as much because I didn’t have an emotional strength to companion her properly. Then she looked terrible, so thin (like us), and my father paid for a vet and we discovered she had cancers on her legs. He paid for an operation, complete with cone upon coming home, and I began to pay much more attention again. But within the year the cancers returned. The vet told us we should “put her down,” she was old, 14. Nowadays I’d question that, and take my dog to another Vet. Nowadays maybe the Vet would try again.
I cried hysterically the night she laid on the bathroom floor after several nights of not wanting to sleep with me. Jim kept saying, “it’s just a dog.” He was upset at how upset I became. I had failed her and couldn’t retrieve what I had done.
Then another of these brief incidents. We came to Alexandria, and Jim agreed to get another dog. We went to a rescue shelter and brought home a dog that Jim worried had been abused: Gueneviere her name. White, middle-sized. Caroline liked her and we said it would be hers. Of course I knew she was too young to care for a dog. But soon after that again I was feeling this was too much for me, when the dog acted oddly and was difficult to train to make outside, and a phone call from the shelter told us the dog had not been given up by its master. It was “a mistake” of some sort (?). Jim said let’s not look into this; let’s return her. We did. Poor creature.
Fast forward to 7 years ago now when Caroline and I went to buy Clarycat and Ian. Caroline had two cats and I was seeking to have common ground with her. I thought too (like my parents the presence of the two kittens might keep Yvette company (she was home from college) and bring her out of herself. Jim did not want this and I overrode what I knew he was against. It turned out, he became far closer to Clarycat than I did because he was retired and at home. I was still working (in effect) full-time, and after an initial destruction by said kittens of the wires in this room attaching the computers to the outside world, Jim forbade them this room. Since I spend a lot of time here, I didn’t see them enough. About a year before I retired though, I felt they so disliked my staying in the room without them, and I myself disliked it so much (we were missing out), I insisted they be let in again. That’s nearly 4 years ago.
And now they are my close companion-friends — as anyone who reads this blog regularly knows. They are attached to Yvette too.
Jim was not post-domestic. His mother had a greenhouse where she grew vegetables and also chickens who she would kill, pluck and cook and the family eat them. Jim told me that one day when he was around four he was “playing” with one of these chickens and it pecked him hard. He ran away, but then he came back and told it his mother was going to kill it and they would eat it, so there. Now I wonder if he was teasing the animal.
The second early experience of animals Jim told me about is fuzzy. A dog is after him, and he is terrified, and his mother puts him high on a shelf. I wonder now if he teased animals when they were around him, and had done so to this dog, and it lunged for him.
He also had a long-term experience: the cat and Pomeranian, Judy. He said Judy was fierce and every once in a while would attack the cat and it would flee in terror. When we came to Southampton and lived with his mother and father for a month, I saw this pair of animals. The dog was long-lived; the cat was one of several his mother had had, one after another. Jim thought there was not much sentimentality or emotionalism towards these pets since he could not remember anyone grieving over each cat’s death; each one (in his memory) was simply replaced by another. But perhaps Jim under-estimated the complexity of his mother’s feelings: she was a woman who had grown up in the countryside of Hampshire.
Nonetheless, Diski persuaded me of the importance of all our contacts with animals (cooked, dream, on film, in books, zoos, wherever). So I feel vindicated that early on and for years in teaching Advanced Comp in the Natural Science and Tech, the second paper I assigned to students was to ask for an observation and most students who had no lab courses, and didn’t garden (a rare choice but it happened) chose to observe animals insofar as they could — complaining often that zoo experiences were artificial. But they had to sit and watch an animal for hours on end, and a repeated comment was they had had a distorted notion of that animal from Disney or animal film. She is probably right to say David Attenborough has had a strong and beneficial influence on how people who get to watch his films regard animals. I loved his Life on Earth; Yvette talked of his Life on this Planet. Like Mr Rogers, he is still on TV talking to young people. Since Attenborough or occurring at the same time, zoos treat animals very differently: insofar as zoos can they offer the animal an environment the animal can enjoy and thrive in, and animal companions, and follow their timetable. The animls are not there for our entertainment in the same way at all.
I am now thinking Caroline developed her love of cats when she watched Mr Roger’s Neighborhood. I remember how she would get so involved with Henrietta Pussycat if anything the least untoward happened to that cat. OTOH, she developed her cat family in response to her husband, Rob. When she first came to live with him, he was living in a close relationship with a cat named Lucy. Caroline was Lucy’s rival, and Caroline took Lucy’s central place in the household by buying two more cats, so Lucy was put in her place as one of three. Maybe Lucy provided an excuse for a long-delayed response to Henrietta Pussycat. Now Caroline has four cats and daily puts photos or videos of her four beloved companions on her I should have been a blogger blog.
My father could love an animal. He told me of when he was a boy coming across a dog hiding in an alleyway. It was cold, looked miserable and beaten. He went over to it to make friends and it tried to bite and scratch him. He was startled out of his complacency: he realized that the dog had learned to guard itself from others from its hard experience of the world. Fast forward many many years later after my father retired. Briefly he had a Siamese cat. It was fierce to outsiders and since I’d never had a cat and cats don’t reveal their inner nature to anyone but their owner, I didn’t believe the cat was as capable as a dog of attaching itself to a human being. I was wrong. That cat loved my father. My father grieved intensely when “Pushky” died.
I can’t resist saying a second core of What I Don’t Know about Cats is Diski’s relationship with Doris Lessing. There is an intense frisson when that fourth chapter opens and there is her foster mother (sort of) never named with a kitten or cat in her arm. Their first meeting together was Doris giving Jenny a cat to have a relationship with. We learn that the cat turned to Doris more than to her as Doris was there much more of the time, was more reliable for food and Grey Cat’s timetable. The foster mother is never named. I have to think that Doris asked Jenny (using their first names) never to in print talk about their relationship. Others clearly knew (from the columns and this book too) or asked that she not until Doris died. I don’t think the latter as Jenny didn’t tell until Jenny was diagnosed with incurable cancer. Jenny Diski did not want to die not having told about this central person in her life, how she fits into her biological parents and having shown that she was very important to Doris too: she is the one who followed in Doris’s footsteps, not just as a writer, but a person with cats. At any rate, this is Jenny’s response to Doris’s On Cats, a very anthropomorphic masterpiece. Jenny’s book is not a masterpiece.
I find myself so drawn to their relationship because 1) I had a very sore relationship with my mother and from other women I’ve known this relationship sore or not goes as deep into understanding the person and their choices in life as any and 2) it’s a central paradigm of l’ecriture-femme, women’s literature. Wolf Hall is not l’ecriture femme even if it has a woman in drag at its center because Cromwell and his fathers are the issue.
Diski’s relationship with the bird she tried to rescue is a kind of fable. It died terribly. I remembered my early experiences with animals and realize the lesson I should have taken away was how dangerous I was as a keeper; they could die if I didn’t do right. In later years I was at long last old enough to see this and thus we didn’t replace Llyr for many years as I feared I would not be up to the responisbility. Her fable is to show how vulnerable animals are and how often if we look they end up dead well before they have to if they are given inadequates mistress/masters keepers, unloving.