Reviewed by Victoria
‘Our culture is one in which,’ Polly Morland writes, ‘more than ever before, we feel entitled to change our experiences and ourselves to fit with our dreams and aspirations. That option to change, to be the author of one’s own life, matters. It defines the extent of our freedom, entwining our most cherished ideas about equality, democracy, autonomy. Yet all too often we ar flummoxed as to how to go about it’.
In this highly intriguing book, Morland considers the way we long for change, fight hard against it, and are forced to realise in the end that ‘Change – as an unfolding process rather than a sovereign remedy – is who we are.’ The way she considers change and its effects on humanity is to look at nineteen case studies in some detail. All her subjects speak for themselves, responding to interview questions that Morland has put to them (possibly over the past couple of decades as the stories range in time scale). And she observes them closely as they tell their tales, attentive to bodily gestures as well as sympathetic to their – in some cases – extraordinary transformations. But she is also a distanced observer who refrains from making any overall comments about change and the people who go through it. She allows her interviewees centre stage, which was something I both appreciated and felt frustrated by at times during the narrative.
It’s understandable, though, given the quality of the subjects she has discovered. There are all kinds of fascinating stories recounted here, from the blind man who is given a strange experimental operation that allows him to see his wife and daughters for the first time, to the ex-con who is determined to go straight, to the obese man who slims down through a tough diet and fitness regime, to a young Rwandan university lecturer who survived the genocide in his country but witnessed his own father’s massacre, to a London-born car mechanic who joined Al Qaeda briefly before realising what had happened to him and changing his life entirely.
There were many stories that struck me forcibly, two of which I will mention here. Didier Long must get the medal for the ultimate chameleon. As a young man he was a tearaway and a rebel, but all that changed when he joined a Benedictine monastery as a novice. Ten years later, he fell in love with a woman who had come to interview him as the editor of the theology imprint he was running from the monastery. Didier Long left his vocation, moved to Paris to start a business producing and selling theological CD-ROMs, married the woman who had visited him in the monastery and settled down to an unremarkable life. At least, until the death of a close friend prompted another violent alteration in him, and he converted to Judaism. How’s that for identity-altering transformation?
But perhaps the key story in the collection concerns Dr H’Sien Hayward, a Californian-based academic working in psychology. She decided to rework an older study by Schkade and Kahneman who compared the lives of lottery winners to paraplegics, and found that in both cases people had overestimated the changes these huge turns of fortune had made to their lives. They were neither so badly off nor so well off as they had predicted. Dr Hayward, however, looked at a longer time-scale with her two sets of subjects and found that, when asked ten years after the life-changing event, the paraplegics were every bit as happy as the lottery winners. The human capacity to adapt is quite astounding, given enough time. And this result was especially interesting to H’Sien, who is herself a paraplegic. Even more extraordinary, her family first suffered the death of her older brother in a tractor accident before H’Sien, seven years later, was in the car accident that broke her spine. Yet the resilience of her family, and H’Sien’s own extraordinary courage, helped her to rebuild her life in positive and meaningful ways.
Polly Morland doesn’t comment on her case studies, but she includes little snippets of theory, psychological, social and so on, to help illuminate the lives she details. Whilst these are always interesting, I did find myself by the end wishing for a more overall assessment of the metamorphoses she had considered. This is a determinedly positive book, looking only at changes for the better, and it doesn’t mention that such change is often needed because it has been preceded by changes for the worse. In times of the kind of traumatic upheaval we all dread – death, illness, accident – it seems to matter a great deal how much love and support are in the family and friend network. It matters to have tough, courageous parents and to have a specific goal. It matters, too, how many general resources are available. Given that we now find ourselves entering another period of unprecedented change in our political and social history, we need to read books just like this one in which every kind of change is offered up for inspection. What’s wonderful about this book is the way Polly Morland gives us hope about what we can achieve, with enough good will and tenacity.
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Polly Morland, Metamorphosis; How and Why We Change (Profile, 2016). 978-1781254127, 256pp., hardback.
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