The Terrible by Yrsa Daley-Ward
“You may not run away from the thing that you are
because it comes and comes and comes as sure as you breathe. As certain. The thing is deep inside your linings, way down in the marrow. People have had a lot of words for it.”
In Yrsa Daley-Ward’s memoir The Terrible we follow the poet, model and very human human-being on a mesmerising journey of growing up and trying to figure things out, all the while accompanied by a passenger known only as The Terrible.
“When I talk about the The Terrible I am speaking to depression, anxiety, addiction and addictive behaviours, old beliefs, low self esteem, passion, loneliness, illness, impatience, being a wild, wild thing, feeling at sea. All of the things. Things aren’t so black and white.
Who hasn’t entered The Terrible at some stage in their life. You will know that it is not always thoroughly negatively either. It can be altogether Technicolor. It happened naturally, to write about it. The Terrible came right on through and helped me write about itself. I appreciated that.”
The Terrible is a tale about growing pains. About what it’s like to not feel comfortable in your own skin, to not know what your place is in a poor white town when you are one of the only black faces. About coming to terms with your struggling single mother not having enough time or energy to look after you and your little brother. About not knowing your absent father, the Amazing Nigerian, yet having no choice but to know “David, mum’s new boyfriend
who steals money from her
and asks if you’ve done it with a boy yet.” Or Terence “who cheats on her but is otherwise fine”.
Daley-Ward captures the growing pains of a girl who from a very young age is aware of the colour of her skin and how that makes her different somehow. ‘Is it because we’re black? Grandad says the world hates black people.’
‘Coal is black. Night and evil things are black. Brown sounds nicer, Little Roo [her brother], say brown.’ As a young girl Yrsa is conscious of her difference – her unruly hair and deep colour. As she grows older, her dark skin results in her being gazed upon and fawned over, fetishized and desired.
Yrsa Daley-Ward's bones grew so quickly when she was younger that her muscles strained and ached, because they weren’t growing fast enough and needed to catch up. Her breasts grew earlier than the rest of the girls at school and it didn't go unnoticed – by her mum, by her friends' mums. By her friend's dad too, who insists on giving her lifts back to her house when it’s getting too late. The journey should be ten minutes but it takes twenty.
Yrsa perfectly captures the way that we absorb information and ideas as children, that we might not realise the significance of at the time but later take on new meanings when older or wiser. She spends all of her Saturdays in church with her Seventh Day Adventist grandparents who she now lives with.
“We sing lots of hymns with words like,
‘Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow’”
Daley-Ward weaves prose with verse, capturing the uncertainties of growing up and discovering her sexuality on the way. She calls it the ‘powerfear’, knowing that she can harness the power of her beauty and allure, yet sensing the very real threat from the men in pursuit of her.
And there are so many men. So many men who want to capitalise on her exotic allure. So many men who want access to her body via transactions. So many men with a sense of entitlement. And when a man comes along who does know how to be kind and caring, who is there for her in dark times, it’s like Yrsa Daley-Ward doesn’t know how to be loved. “I say no, no and no,
and stop picking up his calls. These days all I do is lie on the old daybed at the top of the house, staring hard at the white popcorn ceiling.”
Yrsa’s stories and poems are particularly poignant given the uprising of the #metoo movement and unprecedented surge of news stories of men in positions of power sexually assaulting, abusing, and mistreating women.
In The Terrible, Yrsa Daley-Ward shares her own experiences—including dating older men who took advantage of her. She says it was important for her to share these stories in this context.
“The fact that we are only just starting a larger conversation about sex and power – one of the oldest combinations that there is - feels ludicrous. It’s important to share all kinds of stories. By now most stories are universal, especially those that involve stories of men abusing their positions of power and women gaining their power back, however they choose.”
The Terrible details how easy it was for Daley-Ward to be sucked in to the sex industry, to use her body as a tool to earn money and for her body to be used by others. When her body is provided with a price by the unforgiving fashion industry, what is so different about pricing it in another context? The Terrible numbs any doubts that might be floating about. When days are pitch-grey it is harder to make things feel worse anyway.
She captures feelings of emptiness and helplessness so devastatingly perfectly.
“and we’re thinking we cant wait this long
to get healed. We’re thinking, skin heals.
Why can’t we? We’re thinking, how long do we have
To travel in this blistering rain, exactly? We’re thinking,
does life owe us anything. Did we get it wrong? And time is
An animal, man. The years. Time.
is killing us
it has us in its teeth"
The Terrible is about the glittering, dazzling highs of drug fuelled nights and their gorgeous connections and friendships. It’s also about the crashing lows the next day of confusion and emptiness, that feeling that everything is sinking. The Terrible is about the creeping danger of going 'down under' when you feel it taking over.
Throughout the book, Yrsa Daley-Ward personifies The Terrible: “The Terrible comes like a bang in the night… It smiles at you, the terrible. Sitting, arms folded, in the corner of the room… It’s such a lonely thing.”
Yrsa’s memoir is so much about the importance of finding your voice when it’s been lost for so long. When you’ve been lost for so long. She was encouraged to be creative from a young age.
“I was so lucky to have had a mother who taught me to read well at an unbelievably young age. It was so uncommonly entrenched, and this love for language was in my blood before I had time to think about it.”
She seeks solace in poetry, suddenly finding this way of expressing herself easy and effortless and healing.
“there is something underneath your seams; you remember poetry. They say write your thoughts out. So you do, and you do, and you do.”
The Terrible by Yrsa Daley-Ward is published by Penguin on 5 June, £9.99.
Yrsa Daley-Ward is a writer of Jamaican and Nigerian heritage. Raised in Chorley in the north of England by her mother and grandparents, she is a celebrated poet and storyteller. Her first collection of poetry, bone, was published by Penguin in 2017.