Robinson, Catherine 2011 Beside One’s Self: Homelessness Felt and Lived, reviewed by Hester Parr
Catherine Robinson, Beside One’s Self: Homelessness Felt and Lived, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY, 2011, 200 pages, $24.95 cloth, ISBN 9780815632528 (http://www.syracuseuniversitypress.syr.edu/spring-2011/beside-ones.html)
This is an extraordinary book. It is extraordinary for several reasons: it is written in an uncompromising style that takes the reader on a harrowing journey into close proximity with the subject matter; it is also unusually honest for an academic text, peppered with the experiences of the author in a way that is often surprising; and thirdly, it seeks to forge new ground on researching and particularly writing homelessness.
If I take this list above as the primary anchors for my brief review, I shall elaborate questions of style, position, and purpose in Beside One’s Self by Catherine Robinson. These three pivots are indelibly related in the book. In terms of style, Catherine writes with a disarming voice, drawing us into different ‘scenes’ (sometimes ones relating to her own life), often poetically rendering the horror of homelessness into words that wound. Part of the very reason for this book is the author’s insistence that we do not know enough about somatic and emotional dimensions to homelessness, and it is through this neglect that we effectively refuse the collective trauma of what it is to be homeless. Catherine constructs a story of social policy’s silence in this regard, partly through reflecting on her own researching career, one marked by substantial policy reports and multiple other contributions in this field. Depicting the multi-disciplinary fields of homelessness research as largely positivist and empirical endeavours (with notable exceptions), the key call here is for an epistemological rewriting of homelessness as felt. This is not an innocent or naïve request for (simply) different kinds of qualitative data; it is a call for a new resonance with “persistent homelessness as a state of long-term woundedness” (page 19). The troubling task of relating forms and states of distress that are resistant to language is one this author faces directly. She writes the psychological and physical trauma of homelessness as an ‘epistemological and methodological rupture’ and as part of a politics of visibility in which the site of the body is given prominence.
This linking of style and purpose are part and parcel of the book’s unique offering. The language used in the book is haunting, tough, and unrelenting, and which at times risks capturing homeless lives in only negative ways (there are hints towards ‘other stories’). The author’s visceral search for words does extraordinary work in not simply revealing homelessness as felt, but also helping to render the reader more proximate to the horrors that have been researched. Homelessness is brought in very close by the ‘crippling’ ‘trauma’, ‘blocked lives’, ‘exclusions’, ‘abuse’, ‘abnormalities’, ‘outsideness’, ‘displacement’, ‘erosion’, ‘pain’, ‘panic’, ‘disorientation’. The strong wash of painful words flow over the pages again and again, compounding, elaborating, and doing their important visible work. Catherine Robinson is successful in the task she sets herself in this regard, and consequently this is not an easy read (in existential terms), although an absolutely essential one.
The position of the author is also bound into this deliberate search for language that tries to engage with what she calls a ‘somatic cartography’ in the “emotional geography of displacement marking homelessness” (page 138). We are witness to Catherine’s tears, her breathless panic, her reflection on her own body and bodily skills to write homelessness. The book itself arrived following years of research which she herself ‘accumulated suffering’, a kind of suffering which had no viable place in standard homelessness research and could tell no story, and so the sense of journey in and through this text is profound. There are two related trajectories here: one of the author’s researching and lived body, and one of the bodies of the homeless people that are encountered. This tricky relationship is part of the subtext of the book.
Beside One’s Self is also profoundly spatial, alongside an organisation of writing that speaks of geographical sensibilities – homeless people are ‘besides’ themselves, they can be ‘outside community’, or ‘doing a geographical’ (these are chapter headings). There is a rich accounting here for modes of displacement for young homeless people which seem comprised of hollowed-out place-relations. Useful literature review is interspersed with respectfully long quotation from respondents with elaborate placelessness, mobilities, unsettlings, and ‘place-panic’. Homelessness is conceived as a process of separation from key sites that inform how we occupy social position, and this is particularly useful in understanding homelessness conceptually.
The difficulties of the long term homeless emerge as profound and almost intractable, as possibly always outside. One tentative critique of the book might be about the uncertain location of hope within it. The book is not hope-less, though, and I think that Catherine would argue that recognition of suffering is the first step in a shared responsibility to end it; perhaps ultimately hope lies with the reader. She has written about a “form of suffering requiring a response” (page 140). She ends the book speculating about what an insertion of emotional witness and politics into service-orientated research, appraisal, and delivery might do. This is an enormous challenge, and this book begins asking questions about what might be involved in this. It is important to say that I was moved by this book, and I was surprised by it: this, I believe, was the author’s aim as she goes about carefully and skilfully constructing the “transformative potential of emotional politics” (page 145) with reference to lived and felt homelessness.
Hester Parr, Geographical and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow, G12 8QQ Scotland