As editor-in-chief of a magazine – Empire, the British film monthly – Terri White is more used to being on the other end of journalists’ questions.
“I did have to psych myself up to talk about this over and over,” she admits. “It takes a lot out of you. By the end of the first [round of interviews] I felt like I’d run a marathon and been run over by a bus.”
To say she is retreading difficult roads is understating the case somewhat. Given the catalogue of trauma, violence, abuse and horror that makes up her memoir, Coming Undone, talking to the media has been intense.
Amid a wave of new writers detailing their demons and difficulties – Laura Dockrill, Bryony Gordon, Kerry Hudson, Catherine Cho, Carmen Maria Machado – White’s account stands out. She evocatively details a childhood pockmarked with poverty, violence, sexual abuse and shame. Her mother married her father a day after her 16th birthday; White’s brother arrived before her 17th birthday. Abuse was commonplace in the home. “He punched me into the fireplace and sat on Mum as she screamed on the settee and I screamed for her in the ashes,” White writes of one of her earliest memories.
Her parents split not long afterwards, but worse – much worse – was to come. Other men who walked into her mother’s life subjected the little girl to a cycle of sexual and physical abuse. “You f***ed your dad,” soon became a schoolyard taunt. Coming Undone is a beautiful, if uncomfortable, read and White writes with an unflinching, scalding frankness.
“I wanted it to be as lyrical and beautiful as possible, and at the same time there’s a brutality in those things,” White says. “If you’re writing about memory, you’re trying to re-create what it’s like inside your head. It’s like an acid trip, what memory can be like, which is why some passages seem pretty disorientating.”
For decades, White notes, subjects such as childhood abuse and poverty were shrouded in secrecy, although the swell of new writers brave enough to tackle such topics has ushered in a sea change.
“There’s something interesting happening with women whose voices were never heard before,” White says. “People use the words ‘misery memoir’, and I think that’s a little snobbish, as it’s often only applied to books by female writers. Men who write like this are referred to as essayists, but for women it’s framed as confessional writer.
“I felt I should feel a bit of embarrassment or shame about revealing these details, but, especially with childhood sexual abuse, people find it a very difficult thing to read about,” she says. “The thing about sexual abuse is the nature of who does it and where they do it, and the fact it happens behind closed doors creates a stigma.”
I wanted to write very specifically about what abuse looks like…It would have been easy to cut away and write in euphemisms, but you don’t experience trauma in metaphor
Yet White wrote about the violence, abuse and shame she endured in childhood in granular detail.
“I wanted to write very specifically about what abuse looks like,” she affirms. “It would have been easy to cut away and write in euphemisms, but you don’t experience trauma in metaphor.”
White’s formative experiences cast a long shadow on her life, and she spent the ensuing years trying to get away from Derbyshire, and her demons.
“It’s hard to want to live when you feel your life ended at five,” White notes.
She soon realised that no matter how hard she tries, these experiences are impossible to cut or scald from her skin. Alcohol (given to her by her mother while still a pre-teen) makes everything softer at the edges and, before long, the 20-something White is punishing her body with alcohol and self-harm.
“I loved how it made me feel safe in the world in a way I hadn’t up to that point,” White says.
In time, suicidal thoughts begin to consume her, and she becomes a master at Googling the efficacy of various methods, and writes “six, maybe seven” suicide letters.
“I wanted to be really honest about what suicide ideation looks like – it’s a very intense period of wanting to kill yourself, and something that becomes present all the time. I thought it would make me feel better to have a plan,” White notes.
All the while, school, university and work become a sanctuary. Aided in part by a diamond-tough work ethic, she soon left Derbyshire for London’s media industry and attended university, becoming a receptionist intern at a glossy magazine in her teens.
“I’ve always found refuge in my career,” explains White. “I always wanted to be top of the class. I felt I could get ‘good’ attention and get praise if I did well in exams, and that kind of focus shifted to my career.”
Determined to become a magazine editor in her 20s, White became editor of Shortlist magazine at 29. To the outward eye, White was a dynamic, shrewd and gifted editor, and in her trademark beehive, eyeliner, red lipstick and wiggle dresses, an enviably stylish media figure.
“I don’t think people realise how well you can function – in fact, in many respects, I never worked harder or was better at my job while this was happening,” says White. “You feel so ashamed at what’s happening outside work that you just work longer hours.
“I set myself targets, and felt I’d be finally happy and complete and less broken by what happened when I saw them,” White recalls. “Every time I hit a marker, I’d set myself a new one.”
Soon, she had New York city in her crosshairs. Seduced by the city’s pace and ambition, White took a job as an editor there, eventually working as Time Out New York’s editor-in-chief.
“I figured if I made it there, I’d really have made it and maybe I’ll feel okay,” White admits. Yet the buzz of New York as a city to visit, and the pace of New York as a place to live are two different things entirely.
“In New York it’s career at the detriment of everything else,” White says. “I found the hard edges quite brutal.”
Soon, she found the intoxicating madness exhausting. Living in tiny, freezing accommodation (and eventually, with a landlady who drank more than she did), White fled to New York’s bars, often alone.
I never thought I’d be a parent – I was convinced I was hardwired to be evil and make the same mistakes
my parents did
“Within weeks, I have a list of bars I’d rather not visit, some that I simply can’t,” White writes. “There’s too much chance of recognition. On the good nights, I lose things: my favourite faux fur coat, my red leather gloves, my bank card, my phone. On the bad nights, I lose more: chunks of memory, all the feeling in my hands and toes, my loosening hold on sanity.”
The sense of freefall eventually comes to a crashing halt. After overdosing on prescription medication, White is admitted to a psychiatric institution in New York. After her stay there, she returns home to London and finds the inner resources to turn things around. The UK’s less hectic work culture was certainly a help, as was being closer to family and friends. White left her Xanax back in New York, cut back her drinking and stopped self-harming.
“It wasn’t an overnight thing, but it took time to make these changes and stick to them,” White recalls. “I was particularly vigilant about my drinking, and didn’t drink to black out.
“Being able to live a life happily is now very much the aim, and that’s a very sensible, achievable one,” she adds.
In time, there’s a happy ending, of sorts. Three months ago, White gave birth to her son. She now lives in London with her partner and child. She is not in contact with either of her parents, but her brother and sister are “incredibly supportive” of all that White has achieved.
“I never thought I’d be a parent – I was convinced I was hardwired to be evil and make the same mistakes my parents did,” White admits.
Professionally, White is on a high; personally, she feels settled and content. She returns to Empire from maternity leave soon and is excited to do so. She’s also thinking about how her next book might take shape, and isn’t sure whether or not it will be fiction. She is “in conversation” with film and TV companies keen to option the rights of her memoir.
After feeling for so long that her childhood would define and swallow her, White has eventually mastered what she once thought was impossible; she has learned to live with what happened.
Coming Undone: A Memoir by Terri White is out now via Canongate