Hazel McHaffie

psychiatric illness

A Place Called Winter

All except one of my trusted readers/critics have now given me their feedback on my latest book, Listen. Exciting times. But before I sit down for a serious edit, I’m immersing myself in some exquisite writing, beautiful language from the pen of a master, that will be a incentive to me to raise my own game – I hope!

The author? Patrick Gale. The book? A Place Called Winter. A sad, tender, compelling tale of Harry Cane’s battle with his own demons, the taboos of his day, and the wild wastelands of a new country. It’s an intensely personal novel inspired by a true story from Gale’s own family history: one gay man reaching out with sympathy and deep feeling to another (his mother’s grandfather) across a century of social change.

Harry Cane is born into privilege, raised to ‘believe that what mattered was to be unmistakably a gentleman’. He rides horses; others muck out their stables. His soft hands remain idle while callouses build up on the palms of his social inferiors. But his childhood is emotionally impoverished, with his mother dead and his father absent, schooldays punctuated by all the trials upper class boys can inflict on those they see as weaker prettier mortals. Consequently his life is centred on his younger brother Jack. It’s Jack who drags his shy insecure brother into society after their father’s death and introduces him to Winifred Wells, his future wife. Theirs is a gentle undemanding relationship which reluctantly produces one daughter before it settles into platonic coexistence.

The time is the early 1900s; apartheid is unchallenged; class distinctions rule; abortion and homosexuality are unlawful, the latter punishable by hard labour and utter disgrace; ‘treatment’ for psychiatric illness and ‘deviance’ is draconian. When his brother-in-law discovers Harry’s guilty secret, Harry – now an exiled ‘unmentionable‘ – signs up for a new start in a new country, Canada, one of 511 passengers on a ship sailing to the unknown.

The vast impossible prairies are simply waiting to be tamed, and after serving his year-and-a-day apprenticeship to a Danish farmer, Harry commits himself to converting 160 acres of wild wasteland into a self-sufficient thriving homestead within three years. Setting out with simply the map coordinates SW 23-43-25-W3, and directions to a place called Winter scribbled on the brown paper the cheese was wrapped in. An English innocent in a harsh unbroken landscape where there is ‘not much call for cash‘, and ‘neighbour is a relative term‘.

His closest neighbours are a brother and sister, Paul and Petra Slaymaker, whose lives become intimately entwined with his own. Beautiful relationships are established which are tested in the cauldron of  gossip, violence, war and illness. But their peace is threatened much more by the reappearance of a common enemy whose actions and knowledge cast a long shadow over their lives.

Gale’s writing is superb. His characters are beautifully realised, their emotions are captured with tenderness and palpable truth, and the abiding fear of loss, disgrace and exile haunts every hour of reading. Much as I revelled in the writing, though, I had a powerful feeling of desolation at times. Harry’s apologetic personality, his sad acceptance of the degrading things that happen to him, his gentle resilience, his innate decency even in the face of extreme provocation, stand in sharp contrast to the militance and ferocity of modern day campaigners for individual and collective rights. I wanted to reach out to him with compassion, understanding and reassurance.

But it’s a novel. I must instead give you a flavour of the lyrical prose:

… hot breakfast rolls as soft and pale as infancy.

… torn rags of sentences.

… they gave the impression of having emerged, fully formed, from eggs, as brittle as the waxy shells they had discarded.

There’s the heir and the spare and the heiress-beware.

A horse is ‘like a sofa with hooves‘.

‘Vaccinated by this cruel loss of his first daughter, he approached fatherhood the second time round with a certain reserve. He did not consciously harden his heart, but he loved with hands metaphorically behind his back.’

… war was declared in August, when harvest preparations were at their height. The news was sown swiftly, shaken from pulpits and scattered by posters and threshing gangs.’

I rarely give a book 5*s – this novel reminds me why. It wholeheartedly merits them. Highly recommended.

*****

 

 

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Human experimentation

Sledgehammer drugs, induced comas, repeated electric shocks, brain washing, extreme forms of psychological torture, lobotomies … we’re into the stuff of nightmares, thrillers, and scary films. The Monkey-Puzzle TreeIn The Monkey-Puzzle Tree these are ‘treatments’ meted out by respected psychiatrists to vulnerable patients. But with sinister intent, for these scientists are actually testing techniques capable of turning innocent people into automatons who would do the CIA’s bidding even against their own will or moral scruples. Would even kill to order.

Pure fiction, huh? Not a bit of it. These torturous practices were actually practised … in my lifetime. During the 1950s and 60s the CIA instituted a series of experimental programmes in mind-control involving 144 universities, 15 research facilities/private companies, 12 hospitals and 3 prisons. Almost all of the subjects were unsuspecting American or Canadian citizens, ‘educated, productive, caring members of their community who for a brief time had ceased to function efficiently’; ordinary individuals who sought help for their problem (depression or chronic anxiety or drinking) from one of the top names in the country. None of them had irreversible mental problems or psychosis or schizophrenia when they presented, but after ‘treatment’ their sanity was permanently weakened. They were never the same again.

Author Elizabeth Nickson‘s mother was one of them. Simple postnatal depression brought her into the care of one of the psychiatrists leading these experiments, and he became a constant and malign influence in the Nickson’s family life.

Hard to believe that very few people were aware of these infamous regimes, even those snared at the heart of the web, but that was the case. Elizabeth, however, resolved to bring the reality to public attention in a novel way. She could have exposed the unvarnished truth as it actually happened to her family; instead she tells the bigger story in a way that’s intended to touch people more closely, more roundly – through fiction. In The Monkey-Puzzle Tree she is the narrator, Catherine, unwrapping the horror layer by layer ‘as warily as if it were a timebomb’, and then fighting to expose the injustice and barbarity. She stays close to her mother’s lived experience, retains the principal characters as they really were, but uses the literary device of fictionalisation to make the abuse even more gripping and immediate, if that’s possible.

WARNING: This post contains spoilers

The story begins with the attempted suicide of a young man of 31, Brian, and we’re instantly thrust deep into the psychiatric problems which beset the narrator’s family. Brian is her brother. Then, gradually, revelation by revelation, document by document, we learn of the ‘treatments’ inflicted on Catherine’s mother, ‘sweet innocent beautiful‘ Victoria Ramsey, following the birth of her children; ‘treatments’ which violate not just the Nuremberg Code but every decent code of behaviour. She and her co-victims were accorded no more moral worth than lab rats by the scientists in charge of the programmes. Moreover the things that were done to Victoria affected the whole family at a very profound level. Returning home after months of treatment the once lively vibrant mother is limp and grey, confused, darkly brooding, unreasonably fearful at times, absurdly hysterical at others. Her children ‘catch her moods like the flu’, they become resentful, needy, uncontrollable. The emotional and physical toll on them all is enormous and cumulative.

What’s more, the evil influences are still pervading the lives of Catherine’s family decades later. Phones are bugged. Nuisance calls happen at all hours. Parcels are tampered with. Cars are pranged. Viruses are blown into the face of Catherine herself in a supermarket. A bogus workman calls. Catherine’s father meets with a terrible accident. The threat becomes increasingly sinister.

Any attempt at bringing these cases to court has been thwarted at every turn by unseen forces, dragging them out till the plaintiffs are old and unnaturally infirm. And then Catherine herself gets involved in the fight; her life is again turned upside down.

Sunset Silhouette © kiwinz https://www.flickr.com/people/kiwinz/ Used under Creative Commons Licence 2.0

Monkey-puzzle tree. Sunset Silhouette © kiwinz https://www.flickr.com/people/kiwinz/
Used under Creative Commons Licence 2.0

In the midst of such terrifying horror it seems facetious to talk of writing styles, and yet, as a writer, I couldn’t help but admire the occasional flashes of literary delight.

‘He was pencil-thin, with a face God forgot to punctuate.’

‘… a small stiff, wiry hairdo of a woman ..’. 

‘A coven of black umbrellas hung furled on the railing on the steps down to the plane …’

‘Emotion was an embarrassing luxury, a fur coat worn on a sightseeing trip to the slums.’

This book is a sobering read because we know all along these nightmarish things really happened in the name of medicine.

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Giving up the Ghost

Knitting and bookMay, chez nous, is a month of concerted efforts to raise money for several charities close to my heart. I’m hoping to keep the new novel simmering gently, but plans are in hand for assorted foodie events and sales and door-to-door collecting and creating goods to sell, as well. The knitting needles are already clacking ten to the dozen, at the same time as I reduce the size of my tbr pile of books. Happy days!

I won’t bore you with the domestic saga but all you bookworms and thinkers might well be interested in the reading. First up was an autobiography which proved fascinating.

Hilary Mantell has become a household name: the only woman to win the Man Booker prize twice, a prolific writer, reputedly one of the greatest living literary authors. But she’s arrived at this reputation, this successful place, through much tribulation. Giving up the Ghost: a Memoir is her own story, written back in 2003, not ‘to solicit any special sympathy’, she says, after all, many other people have survived far worse and never committed anything to paper. Rather it was an attempt ‘to take charge of the story of my childhood and my childlessness’; to lay a few ghosts to rest – the ghosts of past relations, past mistakes, the ghosts of her own unborn children. It was never intended to tell her whole story, and it doesn’t.

As a youngster ‘Ilary’ was weighed down by the burdens of her Catholic indoctrination: ‘You grow up believing that you’re wrong and bad. And for me, because I took what I was told really seriously, it bred a very intense habit of introspection and self-examination and a terrible severity with myself. So that nothing was ever good enough. It’s like installing a policeman, and one moreover who keeps changing the law.’  Her whole world was distorted through the lens of a perpetual guilt that started within five minutes of each confession. However, she lost her belief in God at the age of 12, a circumstance which had it’s own repercussions, although to the dispassionate observer some of her adult hauntings seem uncannily like the metamorphoses of her childhood superstitions, simply in a different guise.

There was little money and few luxuries when she was growing up but her situation resonated for me: it wasn’t unusual in the post-war years. I too remember looking on with wonder and not a little fear at the early vacuum cleaner – a Hoover Constellation which I was led to believe would gobble me whole if I allowed the nozzle anywhere near my long hair. I too vividly recall the flexes and tubing on appliances more sticky tape than original casing, coaxing each appliance to survive way beyond its sell-by date.

Secondary education for Hilary at a ‘rather posh‘ convent school was perceived through a more cynical eye, nevertheless, tales of humiliating punishments for unknown crimes, physical and psychological abuse inflicted by teachers, make sobering reading in these days where teachers are chary of even comforting a distressed child lest their contact be misinterpreted and reported.

For a long time ‘Protestantism’ carried much baggage in her mind, but it’s clear she harboured a great number of other misapprehensions and misunderstandings too, not all related to religious indoctrination and mystery, and perhaps more a consequence of the prevalent practice of simply not explaining things to children, coupled with her vivid imagination. Once again I identify with all of this. For her as well as for me ‘council housing’ carried sinister undertones. Aged three, Hilary was ‘waiting to change into a boy. When I am four this will occur‘, and she was nine before life disabused her of this notion, at which time she plummeted from ‘hero to zero‘. Neither, she discovered, was she actually destined to form a band of knights errant, nor become a parish priest, nor be gassed if she didn’t attend school.  She listened and overheard the adults but was forced to put her own construction on the meagre facts she gleaned.

Life was further complicated by the irregular arrangements within their household with her mother’s paramour, Jack, living under the same roof with the family. Hilary’s ‘childhood ended‘ (aged 11) in the autumn of 1963 when they moved to a semi-detached house in a different county, leaving her father behind, Jack now posing as her stepfather (although the relationship was not regularised through marriage), ‘the past and the future equally obscured by the smoke from my mother’s burning boats’. They now had a lawn, a rockery, an apple tree, new carpets … but another name. Nevertheless, their relocation didn’t stop new neighbours and school children taking a prurient interest in their private living arrangements, which Hilary resented greatly.

Even though her autobiography reveals a curious child with her fair share of scepticism, in many ways she remained a young woman of her time, and looking back she is amazed that she wasn’t more challenging; perhaps nowhere more so than in respect of her health. Even as a pre-teen she was never robust, but as time passed she was plagued with chronic and severe pain in many parts of her anatomy: ‘Miss Neverwell’ as she puts it. For years she was treated as psychiatrically ill, with devastating consequences. By the time she eventually diagnosed her own illness as endometriosis it was already so widespread and invasive that she was robbed of any chance of having children or ever recovering fully. Now she wonders why she didn’t insist doctors paid more attention to her complaints; back then ‘The proper attitude to doctors was humble gratitude; you cleaned the house before they arrived’. But the humiliation and shame of not being believed had a profound effect on her.

In spite of her frequent absences from school, she was clearly a very bright and able student, becoming head girl and entering law school. Once there, though, constant ill-health and an all-consuming passion for a young man changed the course of her life. They married while both still students, living in a hovel and close to the breadline. The marriage fell apart at one stage but some years later they re-married, and today she declares her worst fear is ‘losing my husband’, although curiously in the book she never gives him a name. His work as a geologist took them abroad for years – to Africa and Saudi Arabia – all rich fuel for Hilary’s active imagination and growing portfolio of writings.

Her body image was another ongoing issue for her. Following her diagnosis, a combination of medication and an underactive thyroid made her weight balloon. She went from being frail and skinny to being so large she had to move into ‘loose covers rather than frocks’. This affected not only her own behaviour – ‘When you get fat, you get a new personality’ – but also that of others – ‘When I was thin and quick on my feet, a girl with a head of blonde hair, I went for weeks without a kind word. But why would I need one? When I grew fat, I was assumed to be placid. I was the same strung-out fired-up person I’d always been, but to the outward eye I had acquired serenity. A whole range of maternal virtues were ascribed to me.’

Like many before her, Mantell was not always the hugely successful writer she is today. Publishers rejected her manuscripts – how sick they must be in hindsight! But perhaps the most surprising thing for me, reading her autobiographical account, is that she is addicted to colons and semi-colons, using them with an extravagance and abandon I have never seen elsewhere; I counted ten within two paragraphs early on in the book! A tutor on a creative writing course would make short shrift of that kind of obsession, but when you’re a writer of Mantell’s stature it seems it can become part of your signature.

On with the next ball of mohair!Charity knitting And the next book.

Knitting and latest book

 

 

 

 

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