Thursday, September 12, 2019


Along with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens was the most prominent atheist of his generation. For me, he was an orator, bluffing his way through debates about Christianity by appeal to sentiment and zippy one-liners. 

Atheists pride themselves on their superior rationality, but human beings aren't logic boxes. Emotion and experience are powerful factors which predispose us to or against religion. Christopher had an emotionally distant relationship with his father. He was a Navy brat with a nomadic childhood. He spent more of his formative years away from home in boarding schools, where he indulged in adolescent homosexual trysts. His spirited but restless mother, whom he clearly adored, had abortions and affairs, culminating in suicide. 

From the ages of eight to eighteen I was to be away from home for most of the year and the crucial rites of passage, from the pains of sexual maturity to the acquisition of friends, enemies, and an education took place outside the bonds of family. 

And I, well, I was impatient to outgrow my family and fly the nest, and in the vacations from Oxford as well as after I graduated and moved impatiently and ambitiously to London, I didn't go home any more than I had to. 

It was also at about that time–throwing all caution, as they say, to the winds–that she told me she had had an abortion, both before my own birth, and after it.

And I still have a rather sharp pang whenever I come to that corner of Shaftesbury Avenue where I kissed her goodbye, because she had been absolutely everything to me in her way and because I was never ever going to see her again. 

…she telephoned me in London (and this is certainly the last time that I was to hear her voice)…and though I didn't know it, we bid farewell. I would give a very great deal to be able to start that conversation over again. 

…I was lying in bed one morning with a wonderful new girlfriend when the telephone rang to disclose, as I lifted the receive, the voice of an old girlfriend…Did I know where my mother was? Had I listed to that morning's BBC news? No. Well, there was a short report about a woman with my surname having been found murdered in Athens. I felt everything in me somehow flying out behind my toes. What? Perhaps no need to panic, said Melissa sweetly. Had I see that morning's London Times? No. Well, there was another brief print report about the same event. But listen, would there have been a man involved? Would this woman called Hitchens…have been traveling with anybody? Yes, I said, and gave the probable or presumable name. "Oh dear, then I'm very sorry but it probably is your mum." 

My mother had not been murdered. She had, with her lover, contracted a pact of suicide. She took an overdose of sleeping pills, perhaps washed down with a mouthful or two of alcohol…I shall never be sure what depth of misery had made this outcome seem to her the sole recourse: on the hotel's switchboard record were several attempted calls to my number in London which the operated had failed to connect. Who knows what might have changed if Yvonne could have heard my voice even in her extremity? I might have said something to cheer or even tease her: something to set against her despair and perhaps give her a momentary purchase against the death wish.

A second-to-last piece of wretchedness almost completes this episode. Whenever I hear the dull world "closure," I am made to realize that I, at least, will never achieve it. This is because the Athens police made me look at a photograph of Yvonne as she had been discovered. I will tell  you nothing about this except that the scene was decent and peaceful but that she was off the bed and on the floor, and that the bedside telephone had been dislodged from its cradle. It's impossible to "read" this bit of forensic with certainty, but I shall always have to wonder if she had briefly regained consciousness, or perhaps even belatedly regretted her choice, and tried at the very last to stay alive. 

At all events, this is how it ends. I am eventually escorted to the hotel suite where it all happened. The two bodies had had to be removed, and their coffins sealed, before I could get there. This was for the dismally sordid reason that the dead couple had taken a while to be discovered. The pain of this is so piercing and exquisite, and the scenery of the two rooms so nasty and so tawdry, and I hide my tears and my nausea by pretending to seek some air at the window. And there, for the first time, I receive a shattering, full-on view of the Acropolis…The room behind me is full of death and darkness and depression, but suddenly here again and fully present is the flash and dazzle and brilliance of the green, blue, and white of the life-giving Mediterranean air and light…I only wish I could have been clutching my mother's hand for this, too.

Yvonne, then, was the exotic and the sunlit when I could easily have had a boyhood of stern and dutiful English gray. She was the cream in the coffee, the gin in the Campari, the offer of wine or champagne instead of beer, the laugh in the face of bores and purse-mouths and skinflints… C. Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir (2010). 


  1. For what it's worth, Peter Hitchens reflects on how he grew up as well:

    "The House I Grew Up In"

    "The gentle ghosts of Cedarwood"

  2. Wow. Thanks for posting that; I had no idea. Now, I can reasonably discern, at least in part, where Christopher Hitchens' anger at God came from; at least the pain and suffering of his mother's suicide probably combines with his pride and sinfulness and other issues as well. Other internet sources reveal that his mother's suicide with her lover, in Athens, Greece, was in 1973.

    This is a good analysis of his hatred for the Doctrine of the Atonement of Christ / substitutionary atonement:
    (which whenever he mentions this in his debates, he seems to have an extra vehemence of objection to it.)
    He gave (and still gives because of video archives of his debates and interviews) an ultimate expression of a graphic illustration of 1 Cor. 1:18-2:5 & Romans 1:18

    1. I was never convinced that Hitchens was quite as confident as the image he strove to project in public debate. There was so much bluster.