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Illness beyond the Scottish National Imaginary: Anorexia and Scots-Italian Historical Trauma in Andrew O’Hagan’s Personality

La maladie au‑delà de l’imaginaire national écossais : anorexie et traumatisme historique scoto-italien dans Personality d’Andrew O’Hagan
Fred Spence


La folie et les états mentaux altérés sont des thèmes majeurs dans la littérature et la critique écossaises. Cependant, de nombreuses formes de souffrance mentale ne correspondent pas à l’imaginaire national et, de ce fait, sont trop peu étudiées. Cet article examine deux de ces problèmes de santé, l’anorexie et le traumatisme intergénérationnel ou historique, dans le roman d’Andrew O’Hagan, Personality (2003). Personality suit les mésaventures de l’enfant-vedette Maria Tambini (très inspirée de Lena Zavaroni) et le traumatisme subi par sa famille en tant que Scoto-Italiens durant la Seconde Guerre mondiale. J’examine ce que signifie à divers titres l’anorexie, les silences du récit sur les procédures thérapeutiques et le traumatisme intergénérationnel, et la préférence de O’Hagan pour une guérison symbolique. L’argument est que O’Hagan décrit une culture du vedettariat pathogène, et une culture écossaise psychopathogène du fait de ce traumatisme historique irrésolu, plutôt que du fait des inégalités économiques et sociales ou du déficit de pouvoir politique de l’Écosse au niveau national, thèmes bien plus mis en avant dans la littérature et la culture écossaises. En considérant les textes à un autre prisme que celui de l’imaginaire national, les études écossaises peuvent permettre d’établir un canon écossais informé par les humanités médicales et ainsi de pleinement faire advenir une discussion sur santé et politique dans la culture écossaise.

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1Madness, mental ill-health and altered psychological states are prominent themes in Scottish literature and criticism. Scotland is often imagined as psychologically fractured. Literary critic G. Gregory Smith (1919) uses the term Caledonian antisyzygy to describe Scotland’s supposedly split psyche while political theorist Tom Nairn claims that the separation of nation and state following the Union of 1707 created a Scottish “split personality” (2015 [1977], p. 135). Many key twentieth-century Scottish novels, such as George Douglas Brown’s The House with the Green Shutters (1901), George Friel’s Mr Alfred M.A. (1972), Alasdair Gray’s 1982 Janine (1984) and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993), explore mental breakdown, addiction and suicide through alienated male characters, often in a Scotland defined by unemployment, deindustrialisation, economic inequality or political disempowerment within the Union. So closely is Scottishness and pathology tied in the cultural imagination that, as I have argued elsewhere, the pathological Scot is one of the key myths of Scotland (Spence, 2023).

2Yet many forms of mental distress do not fit this national imaginary and remain under-researched. This article expands the scope of Scottish literary criticism by discussing two such health issues, anorexia and intergenerational or historical trauma, in Andrew O’Hagan’s novel Personality (2003). O’Hagan is a novelist and journalist whose work often explores celebrity culture, social issues and traumatic cultural events, such as Hurricane Katrina and the Grenfell Tower fire. Personality tracks the life of Scottish-Italian singer Maria Tambini. Maria is closely modelled on real‑life child star Lena Zavaroni (1963–1999) who, like Karen Carpenter, was one of the first celebrities to bring anorexia into the public consciousness in the 1970s and 1980s. Personality begins with Maria’s early childhood on Rothesay and her fame following her first television appearance on talent show Opportunity Knocks aged 13. It follows her international stardom, developing anorexia, faltering career and repeated hospitalisations. The novel ends with Maria and her boyfriend Michael moving to Rome, a journey almost interrupted by a final confrontation with stalker Kevin, whom Maria secretly kills in self-defence. I discuss the competing meanings of anorexia in the novel, the representation of therapeutics and the narrative gaps around Maria’s eventual recovery, showing O’Hagan’s preference for symbolism. Personality also explores Maria’s grandparents’ traumatic past as Scots-Italians facing anti-Italian rioting, internment and enforced deportation during the Second World War. This historical or intergenerational trauma contributes to Maria’s mother Rosa’s lifelong depression and its resolution is symbolically key to Maria’s recovery.

3Despite prominent bestselling memoirs (often American) about eating disorders, such as Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia (1998) and Lori Gottlieb’s Stick Figure (2000), anorexia is not common in Scottish fiction, beyond Janice Galloway’s The Trick Is to Keep Breathing (1991 [1989]) and Sarah Moss’s Night Waking (2011). Historical trauma is most strongly associated with Jewish communities after the Holocaust and Indigenous peoples in North America (Kirmayer et al., 2014). It is not a major theme in Scottish public health debates or Scottish literature and criticism. When applied to Scottish literature, such as Walter Scott’s historical fiction, it is commonly associated with events like the Jacobite risings (May, 2005). Gavin Miller (2010) also examines identity politics, and culturally and familial inherited guilt and victimhood, in Irvine Welsh’s fiction. Personality is distinctive in exploring historical or intergenerational trauma in relation to Scots-Italians during the Second World War.

Anorexia in Personality

4Maria closely resembles real-life child star Lena Zavaroni. Lorna MacLaren notes the “undeniable” similarities: both are Scots-Italians from the Isle of Bute, achieve international fame after winning talent show Opportunity Knocks as children, and experience depression and anorexia nervosa (2003, para 4 of 25). Although admitting that Zavaroni was “an influence” (MacLaren, 2003, para 2 of 25) and that he corresponded with her family (para 5 of 25), O’Hagan insists that Personality is fiction (para 1 of 25). Yet the differences are often trivial: Zavaroni appeared on Opportunity Knocks aged 10 and won five times, while Maria, aged 13, wins seven times. There is one significant difference. Zavaroni died from pneumonia, a complication related to anorexia and brain surgery intended to relieve her depression, in 1999, four years before Personality’s publication. Maria, however, survives. While I read Personality as fiction not biography, comparisons between O’Hagan’s work and his source material are helpful. Personality is arguably a roman à clef, from the French for “novel with a key”. Literary critic Sean Latham explains this genre is typically published as fiction but actually encodes gossip about real people. An interpretative “key” is needed, whether circulated privately, discovered through research, invented by readers or, with contemporary mass culture, shared through reviewers and gossip columnists (2009, p. 7). O’Hagan’s denials do not eliminate the Tambini/Zavaroni parallel for readers. They may in fact be a canny marketing ploy as well as a necessary legal loophole. As Latham explains, the roman à clef takes shape partly through reception (2009, p. 10) and the elusiveness of the secret is part of the appeal (p. 9). I do not read Personality to understand Zavaroni but I am interested in how O’Hagan arguably rewrites and “fixes” her life and illness.

5Personality is a fairly conventional critique of modern celebrity culture. In literary critic Daniel Lea’s words, O’Hagan critiques “celebrity fetishism” (2017, p. 85) and examines the “balancing act” between maintaining a “celebrity persona” and “coherent sense of private selfhood” (p. 75). In his essays, O’Hagan names Zavaroni a “light-entertainment heroine” and the “patron saint of British celebrity”, and recalls watching her as a “starry-eyed” child himself (2008, pp. 13, 14). O’Hagan’s own fandom is evident in this sentimentality. As Su Holmes explains, Zavaroni was often seen as a “damaged” child star, with her anorexia blamed on fame itself (2015, p. 815). Personality acknowledges this discourse. A newspaper article on Maria’s anorexia claims that her “ordeal started at a young age when the pressures of fame and looking good began to tell on her” (PER, p. 207). In a Terry Wogan interview, Maria recites a similar idea: “I suppose you just get caught up in wanting to look your best and at stage school you see the other dancers and you think, ‘It’s not fair, they look better than me.’ And you don’t realise you’re losing that much weight” (p. 258). This claim of unselfconscious weight loss is contradicted by Maria’s pained obsessions over food elsewhere in the novel. Wogan replies “[y]ou’ve been very brave to talk about it. And you’re over it now” (p. 258). His unquestioning acceptance suggests that this interpretation of anorexia, although simplistic, is easily available and accepted. Holmes argues that blaming Zavaroni’s anorexia on fame is “politically problematic”: framing it as a narcissistic obsession and individualised problem removes it from the everyday social world (2015, p. 818). Personality does not isolate Maria’s anorexia from the social realm, connecting it to relationships, class and feelings of control.

6Part One depicts Maria’s pre‑fame childhood. Personality draws on the model of anorexia as a developmental problem, proposed by psychoanalyst Hilde Bruch (1904–1984), a key figure in defining the condition. Bruch claims that anorexia often develops in adolescent girls who fulfil their parents’ dreams of a perfect child through “obedience and overconformity”. Lacking autonomy and ill‑prepared for adolescence, she “withdraws” to her body to exercise control (1980, p. 170). Anorexia is therefore “a desperate fight” against feeling powerless (p. 169). Mothers are particularly to blame, frustrated by sacrificing their own aspirations (Bruch, 1978, p. 27). Perfectionist and overbearing, they prohibit the child’s development and autonomy (Bruch, 1980, p. 170). Similarly, her own performing ambitions abandoned, Rosa is demanding in her continuous attention to poise and presentation: “lift your chin up” (PER, p. 29), “[p]ull your socks up” (p. 44), “hold yourself in a wee bit when you’re singing […] like all the great Italian singers” (p. 29). Maria is hyper self-conscious, even in private and before fame. In bed, she imagines a flying camera outside her window; she “create[s] a look on her face” and turns to face it (pp. 76–7). Later, looking in the mirror, she feels “it [is] somebody else looking. Her body [is] apart from her” (p. 157). The constant self-surveillance demanded by her overbearing mother alienates Maria from her body.

7Maria’s struggle for control is foregrounded in Part Two. Psychoanalyst Susie Orbach’s Hunger Strike, mentioned in the novel’s Acknowledgements, is a key influence here. Orbach argues that the anorexic “in effect on hunger strike” (2005, p. 82), refusing to eat “in protest at her conditions” even if unable to articulate why (p. 83). As Maria deals with a demanding career, she protests her lack of control. Her sense of self is fractured when her agent Marion forces an interview. She finds “another version of herself” in each of the “dozen angles” in the backstage mirrors, saying “[y]ou’re in charge” out loud in feeble self-reassurance (PER, p. 169). Resisting food redresses this power imbalance between star and agent: Marion later “beg[s]” Maria to eat but she refuses (p. 180). In Las Vegas, Maria finds watching the gamblers compulsively playing the slot machines “frightening”. The players are “over-weight and [do not] care about losing the coins”; they “just put more into the slot and keep staring at the machine”. She is disturbed by “the fixed look in the people’s eyes, their fat hands cupping the coins, their fat arms pulling the lever, the wheels spinning” (p. 176). The slot machine’s lever gives an illusion of control but in fact represents a mechanical lack of control, connected here to fatness itself. Maria worries about the machines “get[ting] so good at taking the money” that they “devour everything”, including the players [original italics] (p. 176). She imagines a monstrous, destructive appetite that, if indulged, risks becoming unstoppable. She feels “happy again” after deciding that “[s]he need[s] nothing. She would eat nothing”. With her body “cleansed and empty”, she believes that she “control[s] everything”: the “traffic move[s] in response to her walking” and “the warm breeze itself [is] shaped and commandeered by her mood” (p. 177). Rejecting food provides heightened, even delusional, feelings of control yet this does not equate to real autonomy. Maria conflates her physical needs with a distaste for unchecked economic consumption, rejecting both.

8Themes of control, hyperconformity and self-surveillance, fairly conventional feminist models of anorexia, are prominent in Part One and Two. The key model in Part Three is the hunger artist as O’Hagan turns critically towards fame and fandom. Medical sociologist Sigal Gooldin explains that hunger artists were a popular form of carnivalesque entertainment “performing an emaciated body” through fasting (2003, p. 45). Maria and boyfriend Michael visit an art gallery; the dialogue is mostly a class discussing German Expressionist painter Otto Dix (1891–1969). They examine a (fictional) Dix painting called The Hunger Artist, in which a “small girl [sits] cross-legged in a bell-shaped glass case” elevated “high on a wooden table” in a busy restaurant, “her large, black eyes staring out at the crowd, her body emaciated” (PER, p. 280). Maria stands “between the painting and the group” as if the subject of discussion (p. 279). The teacher explains hunger artists “starved themselves as part of a public entertainment” (p. 280) and were “extremely fascinating” to Berlin audiences (p. 281). As Gooldin notes, “the Hunger Artist’s show was precisely about suffering and overcoming difficulties” [original italics] (2003, p. 46). Suffering itself was the entertainment. According to the teacher, “Dix set out to provide a moral portrait of his time” (PER, p. 280) as he believed the hunger artist “gave a shocking insight into modern culture” (p. 281). O’Hagan provides his own moral portrait in Maria. He too questions the ethics of press and audience fascination with celebrity suffering, criticising the morbid voyeurism of modern celebrity culture. In an essay on Zavaroni, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and Billie Holiday, O’Hagan suggests that the “thrill” of their pain became “the bigger part of their performance” and was enjoyed as a “fetish” by a public “complicit” in the “aestheticising” of this pain (2008, p. 252). O’Hagan condemns the audience for enjoying and even fuelling celebrity suffering. In Personality, he describes a core audience “attracted to [Maria’s] suffering” whose interest in her “rise[s] with her decline” (PER, p. 263). Anorexia is not caused by fame, but O’Hagan does use the condition to condemn morbid popular interest in celebrity suffering.

9The fan-star, or para-social, relationship between Maria and her stalker Kevin is central to Maria’s health in Part Three. In Joli Jenson’s words, early scholarship conceived of fandom as a way to compensate for a “lack of autonomy, absence of community, incomplete identity, lack of power and lack of recognition” (1992, p. 17). Graeme Turner explains that researchers now believe that celebrity consumption has important social and cultural functions (2004, p. 94). Yet the negative view of fandom as compensatory and deviant remains through ideas of what Jenson calls “the obsessed individual and the hysterical crowd” (1992, p. 9). O’Hagan’s portrayal of fandom is fairly conventional though negative. Maria’s fanbase is represented primarily through stalker Kevin, a key figure in the novel’s third section. Kevin is a typical “pathological fan”, one who has an intense fantasy relationship with a celebrity and stalks, threatens or kills them (Jenson, 1992, p. 11). He is volatile in his many letters, shifting from respectful admiration (“Dear Miss Tambini”) to obsessive love (a stolen drinks stirrer “tastes of you and you left it for me like a kiss”) to bitter delusion (“You fucking bitch […] I have allowed you to have your career and be away from me”) and back to sentimentality (“Love and kisses”) (PER, pp. 286, 289, 290, 291). His obsession stems from disempowerment and alienation. He complains about “work[ing] all hours for slave wages” (p. 288) and nostalgically recalls neighbours watching television together “like a nice family” but now “[s]all [sic] changed” (p. 320). Kevin’s stalking is the implicit cause of Maria’s increasing paranoia, mood swings and anorexia in Part Three. Fans here are not passively entertained by star suffering; their excessive interest actively contributes to that suffering. Indeed, Maria’s recovery depends on Kevin’s symbolic (and literal) destruction, discussed below. In Jenson’s words, “[f]ans are seen as displaying symptoms of a wider social dysfunction — modernity — that threatens all of ‘us’” (1992, p. 16). Similar anxieties are present in O’Hagan’s portrayal of Kevin. Fandom is compensatory for the deficits of modernity, such as social fragmentation, and exacerbates Maria’s illness.

10It is worth, then, considering how readers are positioned: are we presented Maria’s suffering as entertainment? O’Hagan complicates our relation to the text through narrative proximity. Katy Rothfelder and Davi Johnson Thornton highlight that mental illness narratives often create closeness and empathy between text and reader to challenge stigma, yet this risks an invalidating, superficial identification (2017, p. 360). They suggest that playing with narrative proximity by “simultaneously inviting and discouraging empathy” can help readers to understand an individual experience without superficially assimilating it as their own (p. 364). Proximity is key in Personality. The novel is formally diverse, including newspaper articles, interview transcripts, letters and idiosyncratic first-person accounts. Maria’s first-person voice is absent until the final chapter, less than a page long. Third-person chapters about Maria provide limited access to her thoughts and motivations. The phenomenology of anorexia is largely absent. Maria is often inscrutable, especially with food. The first time she rejects food, backstage before an Opportunity Knocks performance, she “move[s] her tongue in the orange squash” before spitting it out (PER, p. 134). The detached tone gives no indication of her motivation, whether she feels disgust or empowerment, complicating a straightforward identification with Maria’s experience. As a public figure, Maria is presumed knowable but Personality uses proximity to frustrate our sense of entitlement to a celebrity’s private life. Elsewhere, though, O’Hagan does provide intimate access. Singing with Dean Martin, we see Maria the giggling stage performer. Afterwards she “suck[s] a piece of toast”, licks nectarine pulp and takes “twenty laxatives” (p. 178). By presenting these contrasting moments together, O’Hagan highlights that the novel itself provides special access and insight. Personality explores possible aetiologies at length, such as examining Maria’s childhood. If understood as a roman à clef, the novel seems to offer insight into Zavaroni’s life. O’Hagan, then, indulges in the same fan intimacy that he condemns. Indeed, is O’Hagan so different from the audience “attracted” to Maria’s—or Zavaroni’s—“suffering”, whose interest in her “rise[s] with her decline” (p. 263)? The novel’s use of proximity effectively complicates access to the experiences of anorexia and celebrity while also exploiting a sense of fan intimacy.

11Proximity is more problematic in relation to recovery and therapeutics. Maria’s first diagnosis and treatment are not dramatised, only reported through a newspaper article in Part Two which claims she is “battling with the long-term effects of the slimmers’ disease anorexia nervosa” and has received residential treatment in a London clinic (PER, p. 207). Maria is repeatedly hospitalised in Part Three. Initially Maria and Michael reject medical intervention. Michael “encourage[s] her gently to eat something here and there and to drink water; they both [know] she [is] trying her best, and they [hold] to the notion that patience might allow her to recover in her own way” (p. 276). This method is initially effective but Michael is eventually “frustrated that things [have] taken such a step back” (p. 293). The cycles of hospitalisation continue: “The first two months after coming out of hospital [are] great” but “after those first months she [begins] to lose weight again” and returns to treatment (p. 305). Maria’s hospital stays are not dramatised and little information about her treatment given. Her final hospitalisation, narrated from Michael’s perspective, is explored in only slightly more detail. He describes their own improvised treatment routine. Feeding her with “no one coming or going to disturb [them]”, they talk extensively, and Maria begins “to reveal herself, getting over sadness and panic”; she “reache[s] into herself” and “save[s] her own life” (p. 316). Recovery is collaborative and relational yet professional intervention is conspicuously absent despite the hospital setting. While it is arguably empowering that Maria “save[s] her own life”, O’Hagan remains elusive with the gloss that she simply “reach[es] into herself” (p. 316). O’Hagan acknowledges the chronic nature of anorexia and the difficulty of recovery yet resists exploring therapeutics. This omission is striking given the extensive focus on the aetiologies and meanings of anorexia, and because of Zavaroni’s own death just four years before the novel’s publication.

12Instead of fully depicting therapeutics, O’Hagan uses symbolic means of recovery, both through stalker Kevin and the narrative of historical trauma. When Maria and Michael leave the hospital for Rome, Kevin confronts Maria with a knife in the train station bathroom. She counters his attack: “[drawing] all the moments of her life together, and reaching over pain, over doubt, she [becomes] perfect in that fraction of a second” that Kevin tries to stab her. With “all the force” of “the pressure of decades”, she lodges the knife in Kevin’s throat (PER, pp. 325–6). She becomes “unbreakable in those minutes” and “[knows] this might be the last and most decisive performance of her old life” (p. 326). Her suffering turns to strength and, empowered, she defeats Kevin, his death marking a dramatic sense of finality to “her old life”. This struggle for her identity is made literal as she reclaims her hospital name tag from Kevin’s hands (p. 326). Maria, without mentioning this confrontation, leaves with Michael. The novel ends on the ferry crossing the English Channel. The journey is pleasant and calm, with the boat “mov[ing] like a prayer over the water”, and the appearance of land suggesting safe arrival (p. 327). Maria throws the name tag in the water, discarding this symbol of her illness and past identity (p. 327). Despite the chronic nature of Maria’s anorexia, this is an optimistic ending of survival. Through this highly dramatic and symbolic murder, O’Hagan evades the problem of narrating chronic illness and slow recovery. Something of Maria’s illness is externalised and embodied in Kevin, who is then expelled. This simplifies the complexity of Zavaroni’s real life experience and the typical recovery trajectory for anorexia into a more conventionally structured narrative. However, to fully make sense of this ending, and Maria’s sudden recovery, we must examine historical or intergenerational trauma in the novel.

Historical trauma in Personality

13Alongside celebrity and anorexia, Personality also explores historical or intergenerational trauma through Maria’s family. It describes the terrorising, arrest, internment and death of Scots-Italians during the Second World War. The resolution of this trauma is important for Maria’s recovery, illustrating O’Hagan’s preference for symbolism. Nathaniel Vincent Mohatt et al. define historical trauma as “a complex and collective trauma experienced over time and across generations by a group of people who share an identity, affiliation, or circumstance”. Originally used in relation to Holocaust survivors’ children, it now is associated more broadly with other communities with histories of oppression and victimization (2014, p. 128). According to Mohatt et al., some studies show that groups with histories of trauma are more vulnerable to poor mental health in later generations (p. 129), including anxiety and depression symptoms and a predisposition to PTSD (p. 132). However, Marinus H. van Ijzendoorn et al. claim that studies on intergenerational trauma transmission show inconsistent outcomes (2003, p. 460) and suggest that symptoms of “secondary traumatization” may be an artefact of study design, such as convenience sampling (p. 465). Regardless, the concept of historical or intergenerational trauma has become influential across a number of disciplines.

14To understand the appeal of the historical trauma model, it is worth reflecting on larger memory discourses and how they are politicised. Writing in 2000, T. G. Ashplant et al. discuss the increased global interest in war memory and commemoration in the 1980s and 1990s (that is, the decades before Personality’s 2003 publication). Social groups experiencing injustice or trauma from war have increasingly demanded public recognition (2000, p. 3). Theorist Walter Benn Michaels elaborates on the relationship between the past, memory discourse and identity. When history is reimagined as memory, as something remembered rather than learned, then the past becomes “the fabric of our own experience” and key to our identity (1996, p. 7). If Holocaust memories sustain Jewish identity, their disappearance threatens Jewish identity and preserving these memories is crucial (p. 8). Within the historical trauma model, remembering is therapeutic for individuals and society; forgetting or denial is pathogenic. David Becker et al. argue that societies seek closure through forgetting traumatic periods but victims need public acknowledgement (1990, p. 149). Clinical psychologist Yael Danieli suggests that a cultural “conspiracy of silence” is a destructive and prevalent way of transmitting trauma. It reflects an inability to integrate trauma on an individual and community level (2009, p. 352). Danieli outlines healing strategies, from the individual to international level, including compensation, commemoration and education (p. 353).

15Personality explores collective memory and the Scottish-Italian experience of the Second World War. Historian Wendy Ugolini highlights that while evacuation, air raids and rationing are the dominant British motifs of this war, for British-Italians the main motifs are internment, enforced relocation, anti-Italian riots and the Arandora Star tragedy (2004, p. 140). Anti-Italian rioting in Britain followed Mussolini’s declaration of war against the Allies on 10 June 1940 (Colpi, 1992, p. 172). Large numbers of Italian men were systematically arrested: Terri Colpi estimates that 4,200 British Italians, 600 British-born, were arrested in two weeks (1992, p. 176). Police were instructed to arrest the “dangerous characters” on the MI5 list, as well as all male “known Italians” aged between 17 and 60 with less than 20 years’ residence. This was a poorly managed procedure, with many arrested who should not have been and vice versa, and resulted in hundreds of innocent civilians dying (p. 173). Arrestees were typically transferred to “collecting points” before internment at Warth Mills, an unsanitary camp and disused cotton mill near Bury, Lancashire. Many were then shipped to the Isle of Man or deported overseas (p. 175). The Arandora Star was a deportation ship set for Canada. According to Colpi, the ship had around 1,500 passengers. Between 712 and 734 were Italians; the rest were German or Austrian, both refugees and Nazis, and British servicemen (p. 178). A German U Boat torpedoed the ship 125 miles west of Ireland. Two thirds of the over 700 deaths were Italians (p. 177). This British-Italian experience of the Second World War was long surrounded in a cultural silence or amnesia. After the Arandora Star sunk, hostility towards Italians prohibited public mourning and most of the bodies were never recovered (Ugolini, 2015, p. 95). Ugolini observes that communal mourning was muted until the mid‑1980s, with renewed interest in the Arandora Star converging with the wider trend of cultural remembrance described above (2015, p. 97). This “British-led” memorialisation reflected increasing national empathy for the diasporic Italian experience (p. 98). O’Hagan, not of Italian descent himself, is part of this British movement to acknowledge this traumatic past.

16One of Personality’s lengthier chapters is Maria’s grandmother Lucia’s account of the Second War World. It describes her emigration with husband Mario and their early life running a successful cafe in Rothesay. Lucia recalls befriending an Italian community in Glasgow and London before the war and falling in love with opera singer Enrico. As war begins, the cafe “customers [turn] against” the Tambinis, “breaking the windows of the Italian shops” (PER, p. 190). Mario is arrested and “interned at a camp in Warth Mills, a place near Bury in Lancashire” seemingly because Lucia is connected to the Italian community group (p. 191). Lucia is arrested soon after and leaves her daughter Sofia with a neighbour, Mrs Bone. Lucia spends a night in a cell marked “Enemy Alien” before being transported to the Isle of Man (p. 192). Enrico learns that the interned Italians will be deported on the Arandora Star and arranges for Lucia and Sofia to be smuggled aboard the men-only ship so that they can start a new life together. When the ship sinks, only Lucia survives. She is “silent for two weeks” (p. 202). Eventually she returns to Rothesay with Mario but they remain silent and secretive about the past. Mario “never [speaks] of those war years” and Sofia’s name is only “whisper[ed]”, with Lucia insisting that she died of leukaemia (p. 85). While Lucia attempts to “close [her] mind” to the past, she acknowledges that “some things that happen to you are there all your life […] You think things are past but they never are” (p. 63). She cannot avoid her repressed memories indefinitely. Lucia’s Arandora Star suitcase sits forgotten in a storeroom for “over thirty years” before being returned (p. 64). She then hides it for five years, unable to confront its unknown contents. The clothes and banal daily objects inside are “relics of some life that failed” (p. 188). This resurfacing of the suitcase is symbolic, the return of the repressed made literal. Lucia’s war memories, long denied, are finally acknowledged.

17Historical or intergenerational trauma is key to understanding the Tambini family, from Lucia’s own initial trauma, to her daughter Rosa’s depression and to some extent Maria’s anorexia. There is a connection, both literal and symbolic, between cultural forgetting and psychopathology in the novel. Recovering this memory is curative, or at least salutogenic. Silence and secrecy do not protect Lucia’s children Alfredo and Rosa from their parents’ trauma. Even though “it wasn’t mentioned”, Alfredo feels that his parents’ war experience “coloured every day of [the family’s] lives” (PER, p. 83). Lucia is overprotective and Mario is distant. C. Fred Alford explains that, in studies of Holocaust survivors’ children, some are “overwhelmed” by their parents’ suffering while others “want to be let in” (2015, p. 275) and “feel abandoned” (p. 277). It is the latter that characterises the mother-daughter relationship in Personality. Rosa’s knowledge that Lucia is keeping a “great secret” is “the invisible source of an unending grudge” (PER, p. 64). Rosa’s depression results partly from familial and cultural silence around the Tambini’s traumatic past. Her depression dominates her characterisation. She cries “so often and so predictably that no one really notice[s]” (p. 10). Lucia claims that Rosa is “[d]etermined to be unhappy” (p. 62) while Rosa “wish[es] [her] family could be normal and [she] would be fine” (p. 213). Rosa ultimately dies by suicide. While some newspapers report that Zavaroni’s mother died of a heart attack (Rimmer, 1999, para 11 of 26), others report that she died by suicide, partly because of Zavaroni’s worsening anorexia (Watson-Smyth, 1999, para 10 of 19). Although Rosa does not overcome the family trauma herself, her death provides the closure symbolically needed for Maria’s recovery. There is an inevitability to Rosa’s death. It is a narrative necessity more than a full exploration of depression. It triggers a reconciliation between Lucia and Mrs Bone who have not spoken since Mrs Bone helped smuggle Sofia onto the Arandora Star. Meeting on the street after Rosa’s death, they hug each other and cry (PER, p. 304). They do not mention Rosa by name, suggesting that they are finally acknowledging and mourning Sofia’s death (and their own guilt) as well. Alfredo announces Rosa’s suicide and Lucia’s dementia in the same chapter; memory loss, reconciliation and death provide closure for the historical trauma.

18The connection between historical trauma, cultural forgetting and psychopathology is explored in a literal way through Rosa but it is also portrayed symbolically through Maria. Maria is oblivious to her family’s traumatic experiences, believing simply that “[e]verybody liked them” during the war (PER, p. 157). Regardless, the Tambini past echoes in Maria’s life. Sofia is Maria’s double: both are exceptional singers. Alfredo describes Sofia as “[t]he little girl with big voice” (p. 85). This is how Zavaroni, aged ten and less than five feet tall, was often described in the press (McKay, 2018, p. 14). Lucia herself mistakes Maria for Sofia, claiming that the suitcase’s contents belong to her granddaughter and calling her by Sofia’s name (PER, pp. 184–5). The closure of Lucia’s testimony and forgetting, as well as Rosa’s death, filters into Maria’s own narrative arc, as if the resolution of historical trauma is the prerequisite to her own recovery. This is not literal or explicit; Maria remains ignorant. Instead, this is suggested symbolically through narrative juxtaposition. In the chapter following Rosa’s death and the Lucia-Mrs Bone reconciliation, Maria experiences her final breakdown, hallucinating that she is the subject of retrospective television show This is Your Life. Maria then begins her last hospitalisation and (apparently successful) recovery attempt. Indeed, the novel’s ending rewrites Sofia’s death. In contrast to the violent sinking of the Arandora Star, Maria’s boat journey is calm and safe. Her survival is surprising in relation to her chronic anorexia and Zavaroni’s own death. It is, however, better understood as symbolising the resolution of the Tambini’s historical trauma. Liberated from the past, Maria moves towards a new life in a new location, returning to Italy.


19Anorexia has several competing meanings in Personality: developmental disorder, protest method, a project of self-surveillance, and the result of celebrity and pathological para-social relationships. These various, conflicting meanings suggest that anorexia is a flexible concept open to interpretation. O’Hagan shows the chronic nature of anorexia through Maria’s repeated hospitalisations yet avoids exploring therapeutics, preferring symbolic actions, such as Kevin’s death, Maria’s escape from fame and the UK, and the resolution of the Tambini family trauma. There is a narrative gap: the novel cannot quite imagine what recovery from anorexia might involve. The novel’s varying proximity productively complicates our identification with the anorexic experience and frustrates our sense of entitlement to a celebrity’s private life. At the same time, however, it is used to exploit a sense of fan intimacy. Personality performs an act of cultural remembrance, recording the Scottish-Italian wartime experience. This narrative is grafted onto the more famous story of Zavaroni’s career and health. O’Hagan departs from the Zavaroni source material most obviously in Maria’s recovery, partly to create this narrative of trauma resolution. This allows O’Hagan, clearly a Zavaroni fan, to rewrite the tragedy of her premature death as a happy ending and avoid facing the complexity of therapeutics, and indeed in Zavaroni’s case the impossibility of recovery.

20In Personality, mental distress is not explored in a Scotland defined by economic inequality, social disadvantage or national disempowerment. This novel does not fit with the national imaginary, opening up alternative meanings around health and illness. O’Hagan depicts a pathogenic celebrity culture which contributes to Maria’s anorexia and creates the conditions for dysfunctional para-social relationships. He also shows a psychopathogenic element to Scottish culture, not because of a depressive national character or cultural split personality, but due to unresolved historical trauma experienced by Scots-Italians. At a time when neoliberal common sense dictates that individuals must take personal responsibility for optimising their own health and wellbeing, the novel offers an interesting counterpoint. This shows the value of studying fiction to access broader discourses of health. Looking at texts outside the national imaginary provides an avenue for developing a more nuanced Scottish literary studies and a robust medical humanities informed Scottish literary canon. Future work must continue to read against this grain to fully unpack debates about the politics of health in Scottish culture.

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Fred Spence, « Illness beyond the Scottish National Imaginary: Anorexia and Scots-Italian Historical Trauma in Andrew O’Hagan’s Personality »Études écossaises [En ligne], 23 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2024, consulté le 25 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Fred Spence

Fred Spence, formerly of the University of Glasgow, completed Wellcome Trust-funded PhD research examining stigmatised health issues in contemporary Scottish literature and the press (1997–present) and the so‑called “Glasgow effect”—the phenomenon of poor health and high mortality in Scotland, even after accounting for socioeconomic factors. Fred was previously editor-in-chief for medical humanities website The Polyphony.
Fred Spence, ancien étudiant de l’Université de Glasgow, a terminé sa thèse, soutenue par une bourse du Wellcome Trust, qui examine la stigmatisation des problèmes de santé dans la littérature et la presse écossaises contemporaines (de 1997 à aujourd’hui) ainsi que ce que l’on appelle le « Glasgow effect » — le phénomène liant mauvaise santé et taux de mortalité élevé en Écosse, au‑delà de la prise en compte des facteurs socio-économiques. Fred a été le rédacteur en chef du site internet spécialisé dans les humanités médicales, The Polyphony.

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