Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Last Asylum: Barbara Taylor

This was a remarkable memoir of historian Barbara Taylor. Part memoir, part historical treatise on psychiatric care and services in Britain, it was an extremely interesting insight into one person's very difficult and prolonged experience of psychiatric illness and the various services and treatment approaches she came into contact with, either by choice or otherwise.
While her personal history and illness was tough reading at times, it is an extremely honest and open account, even allowing us into her psychoanalytic sessions with V,, excerpts of whose dialogue is interspersed through the memoir. This was a very clever way of providing us with her background and exposing us to her unrelenting and frightening unconscious, but also showing us how the psychotherapeutic process works, building a relationship of trust so that the unconscious can be explored in a safe space. The challenge of this work is huge, and for the author, extra support was required, and so she was committed to Friern, an ancient asylum, which closed down some years later. Here we learn about life in such an asylum (she had three stints of varying lengths in total in Friern), and the various hardships but also friendships from such an institution.
I found these accounts most interesting and compelling reading. The humanity at the heart of this memoir was remarkable, as well as the honesty and courage in allowing us in to such dark and secret places, though which pertain to us all.
What I found harder to read were the historical descriptions of the various asylums and their closures, and the scholarly accounts of the community care model that took their place. Though I understood why this was important, I was more interested in the author herself, her particular experience which I could relate to more easily than the wider objective lens used to comment on current practice.
However, in all it was a fascinating account of this authors journey through the darkness, and the various supports that helped her through to be able to manage the darkness and support herself to live a fulfilled and meaningful life. Her conclusion was simple but strong: relationship is central to recovery. While more modern systems emphasize independent decision-making and self-management, this is often not what people in crisis need. Her own experience is testament to this, and this book questions the consequences of the closures of asylums, which is a very pertinent consideration for our times.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Burial Rites - Hannah Kent

I read this book on the strength of a recommendation by Marie, my sister-in-law, who praised it highly and lent it me, with an eager "Read it!" I'm always compelled by a recommendation, and though historical fiction is not usually my thing, I decided to go for it.
I can't say I was sold straight away on the story. But I did persevere over the first chapter or two and found myself really enjoying it and engaging with the plot and narrative about a third of the way in.
The story is based on a true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, a servant woman accused of killing two men, her employer and lover Natan Ketilsson and his guest, Petur Jonsson. Agnes was the last woman in Iceland to be executed (1830), and was often defiled as a witch or a cursed figure in popular lore. This story, told through records, letters and narratives from different perspectives, occurs in the months preceding her execution, when Agnes is put up in the farmstead of Jon Jonsson, as a servant and maid to his family: steely wife Margret and daughters Lauga and Steina, and where she would meet often with a priest for counsel. This custom was common for convicts facing execution. During these months, in which the changing seasons of Iceland is so beautifully observed, we come to learn of Agnes'very difficult past, through her sessions with Toti, her priest and confidante, but also with her position in the family, which at times really tests the strength of her character. We learn through her various chores and wise observations just how capable she is. The family, though unwelcoming and hostile grow to depend on her. Margret, determined from the outset to keep her in her place, softens her attitude towards the end, and even allows a few moments of compassion or shared understanding with Agnes, moments hinging on intimacy. These moments, for me, were the most touching in the book. This, and Kent's wonderful use of imagery to describe the harsh and bleak beauty of the Icelandic landscape, were the high points of the book.
At times, I feel, the switching voices of the narratives, unsettled the movement and the sense of direction of the story. The facts of the case were complex enough, and I think the use of too many narrative voices to tell the story took from the natural flow of the story.
That said, I did really enjoy the book and I feel I learned a lot about Icelandic customs, and the language. I had to 'google' one word that was so often used: 'badstofa', which I learned is the traditional sleeping quarters in a farmstead, often heated like a sauna...Nice...!

Monday, January 4, 2016

Le Pigeon

This little book was a real gem. The story takes place over one day in the life of Jonathan, a man in his fifties, who, we are told in the opening lines, expects nothing further to happen in his life but death, one day. He liked predictability, he liked his safe existence, he liked to know where he stood in life. Standing, in fact, is what he spent his life doing. As a security guard in a bank, his function was to stand on the entrance steps, open the gate for the manager at the same time each day, and close it on his departure. This he did, day in, day out. Then one day, a pigeon arrives.

From this encounter, a series of misfortunes ensue. Jonathan has to deal with these, and moreover the internal chaos they create. We see his incapacity to deal with any uncertainty. His life is governed by fear, which has caused him to cocoon himself so. During the events of the day, we see how his mind works, we feel his terror and his fatalistic thinking, which grows more and more during the day. By the end of the story, he has had an epiphany. We are led to believe that a change has occurred. But very cleverly, the ending is ambiguous.

I loved this book. I could relate to Jonathan on many levels. From the outset, I sensed his impending breakdown. Cutting himself off from the world through such exacting routine diminishes his life. Rather than protecting him from danger, it makes him ever more anxious. Trusting people is not always easy; yet we need people. There is an expectation that life should expand as one grows. But often, we get stuck, or struck by fear. I often marvel at people who seem so naturally spontaneous, who say 'yes' to life. However the more I reflect on this, the more I wonder if the spontaneous instinct paradoxically grows in a person, by practising ever-increasing acts of courage, by challenging oneself out of ones comfort-zone. I read this book in French, a New-Year's resolution to persist with learning French. Ironically, though easy to read and understand, it presented me with another and a greater challenge: to say 'yes' to life; to trust people and the process of the Universe, that I might slowly allow the colours through and play like a child.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


'Don't talk about him in the past tense!' I pipe up from the couch where I pretended to watch TV. Even now, the
sound of my own voice startles me and I have to work hard to fight back the tears. I'd save that for later.
'Aw hun, I didn't mean...I, uh...', Dad fumbles to say the right thing, and starts walking from where he stood at the worktop towards me. I curl up tighter. 'Don't come near me', I think, but manage to stop myself. I know they have my best interest at heart. So everyone says.
'Whatever', I roll my eyes. I reach for the remote and turn up the volume. Dad takes the hint and retreats to where he was.
From the corner of my eye, I see Linda pat his shoulder. Such understanding, such empathy! She continues chopping peppers, and hands the salad bowl to Dad, just to give him something to do. Colourful images are flashing noisily before me on the screen but I can't tune in. I want to go to my room, where I can lie in darkness in peace, but I can't get up to go.
Dad and Linda continue to discuss something but I can't hear with the noise of the TV. I want to know what they're
saying but I don't want to appear interested. I wriggle out of the couch and skulk past them to the bathroom.
'Hey, Jules, dinner's nearly ready. Don't go too far!' Linda says, brightly.
'...the bathroom', I mumble, closing the door behind me louder than I actually meant, leaving an angry echo in my wake.

The house feels too small these last few weeks and time seems to have expanded. I look at myself in the mirror and see death staring back at me. I slump back toward the kitchen where Linda is plating up the spaghetti and pull out the table to get in to my spot against the wall. I refuse to sit in his place.
'Thanks', I manage when Linda passes me my plate.
'Hungry?' asks Dad, tentatively.
I sort of nod, and focus on eating, though know they are watching me. We eat in silence, the scraping of forks on
plates depressingly loud. Dad picks up the bottle on the table, drawing it in to examine the label, as if he knew about wine. He only started drinking wine a few years ago, when he met Linda, and now wine at the weekend has become their little ritual. I feel my teeth clench at their indifference. They're carrying on as if everything is fine.
'A good vintage, is it?' I say scathingly. 'Meet your approval, does it?'
'Ah, come on now, Jules', Linda says, 'we have to get on with our lives. We all do'.
She holds her fork down, and looks me square in the face, eyes all big and imploring. I look down. More scraping and cutting.
'Well, actually...', dad says after a while, 'it's not as nice as the South African version. Must remember that for again'.
Suddenly I'm crying. Tears streaming down my face. I brush them away with my sleeve, but cannot stop them.
'Sorry Jules, that was my stupid attempt at humour! I'm sorry'. Dad's big hand is on my arm and now I'm sobbing. Big loud sobs, shaking my whole body.
Dad awkwardly scrapes his chair back, and stands up. He leans over me, drawing me against him in a hug. I can feel him quietly sobbing too.
'I'm sorry, I'm sorry', I manage between sobs.
'Sh, sh', says Dad.
Linda sits across from us, hands in a prayer over her mouth, head down. It's not her place to intervene just now. She knows that and respects it. And this is the first time I've felt as though I want her to.
'Why did he have to go, Dad?'
Dad just rocks me in his big arms. I feel his body heaving with sobs, but he holds me tight, not wanting me to see. But I know. It's the first time I've ever known him to cry.

Later in my room, I hold the origami bird he made for me. He was always good with his hands. 'Not good at much else', he'd joke, 'but books and learning isn't for everyone'.
He had a reputation, my brother, as the toughie, always in trouble. But holding the feather light paper bird, letting it sit gently on my palm, it's top-heavy head bobbing down, I knew he was soft inside.
I remember him, only days before he left, sitting with me, patiently showing me how to fold the bits of paper. It took me several attempts to get it, and even then it looked more like a rocket than a bird.
'It's stupid', I said.
'It's beautiful, eh?' he said. 'Good job, kid'.
I gave it shyly to him, saying nothing, just placing it into his hand. I expected him to reject it.
'Thanks, Babyface! And in that case...' he trailied off as he handed his one to me. '...for you'
Gazing at the bird now, I imagine him swimming in blue beaches in the Far East, I picture him wandering about in a thick forest in South America, I see him sitting around a campfire in Africa. He's smiling broadly, his body is relaxed. He's abandoned all the stuff he hated, all the stuff that kept him down, and he's free now, free as a bird.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Out of joint.

The flickering sunlight danced shadows around the old barn. Like a spotlight, it threw little details of the shed into clear focus, and quickly moved to cast light on another pocket. This was now his workshop. The greasy, single-glazed windows let in just enough light to work with, but were rendered opaque by the spotty green mildew that refused to wash off. This suited him.
Today he had come as usual just after midday. Five days in a row without a break. He examined the contents of the bottles that lined the shelves. Opening one, he tested the texture gently with a long skewer. Good. It was coagulating nicely, holding itself together against the gentle force of the skewer, springing back in a way that satisfied him. He replaced it on the shelf along with the others.
He pulled back a long length of curtain beneath the counter that hid his shelved trolleys of plants. Rows of them, all in different stages of growth. Each tray had its own heated mat, and the tiny seedlings were insulated by a layer of thin fleece. His babies! He cut off some leaves from a mature plant, and carefully crumpling them, he rolled two joints. He would allow himself two today.
He noisily shook open the makeshift metal table and chair that lay folded against the far wall. He opened his tablet to his webcam screen. He had set up this system so he could keep tabs on trespassers. Multiple screens showed the activity of different points of access to his barn, with the central one focusing on this very room, two alternating angles. Yes, here it comes now! He waved to the camera. Almost like the Stasi, he thought! Knowledge really is power.
He tested the moisture level on each of the trays before settling himself down to real work. He lit up one of his smokes, and inhaled deeply. He pulled out his ledger, and scanned the figures for the last month. He had to work hard to make them balance. His next trip overseas was the end of the month. He would need to gather hard cash by next week. He knew his greatest debtors, and running a pencil down the takings for the last three months confirmed this. 'Fucking Rooney!' he thought, shaking his head. The guy was an imbecile! Nearly got him shopped just by talking. Worse than any bloody woman! He was already on his last warning.
Feeling an angry adrenaline rush like the hit of a double espresso, he drummed his fingers urgently on the page, and then knocked his knuckles decisively. He had enough! Time for action! He knewjust the guy to sort him out.
Withdrawing his phone, he found the name he was looking for. He paced around impatiently waiting for him to pick up, his heavy footsteps echoing around the barn. He stretched it out to arms length, squinting for reception.
'Pick up, for fuck's sake,' he muttered to himself. What good was an idle hit man?
He texted a message instead. Brief. Always brief: PHONE BACK. NEED TO TALK. JS.
He worked in silence, but found it hard to focus. 'This stuff hits hard' he thought, and decided not to fight it. Plodding heavily towards the door, he fell out into the sunlight, and nestling down against the trunk of a tree, cowboy style, he lit up his second joint.
Facing the old door of the barn, hearing the rotting fragments of wood on the bottom scrape along the concrete ground as it swung open and shut he got a sudden moment of deja-vu. Suddenly his mother was there, pudgy, flour-covered hands on hips:
'Johnny, get over there and help your father!'
There was her voice, raspy from smoking. The voice that gave a rousing rendition of many a ballad. The voice that scolded and comforted. The voice that told filthy jokes and limericks but that had a prayer or bible story for every occasion. The voice that laughed like no other he knew since. The voice that he struggled to remember as a kid, that trickled further and further from memory, like water going down a black drain, unnoticeable at first until it gurgled urgently to its end. The voice that no amount of women since could equal. The voice.
Rubbing his eyes, all he saw now was the old wooden door, and all he heard were the alternate scrapes and bangs as it swayed or swung with the breeze.
'Jesus, where did that come from?' he thought.
His phone started to ring...

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Something blue...

The hotel lobby is empty, save for the doorman chatting with the receptionist. She is vaguely amused by the presence of a uniformed porter in an airport hotel, an obviously perfunctory setting. She had skipped breakfast and the coffee she ordered on rising was soapy and weak. She walks towards the door, spiky heels clicking sharply on the shiny floor. The porter hastens towards it, in obsequious effort to fulfill his duty.
His cheerful "Have a good day now!" greets her like a saucepan crashing suddenly on tiles.
" Yes, thank you", she manages mutely.
A line of taxis awaits her outside. 'Thank God I'm out of this bloody country' she thinks.

Traffic isn't heavy, as she anticipated on a Saturday. The radio creaks and stutters in the front, conveniently diverting the driver's attention. She sees the church in the distance. Discreetly, she withdraws a little bottle from her clutch, takes a quick swig of brandy, and replaces it.
Cars are parked along both sides of the road, so the driver pulls up abruptly, a bit away from the gate.
"Here do you, love? That'll be fifteen so"
She hands him a twenty, doesn't wait for her change and makes for the church to claim her seat near the back, though not so near either as to stand out from the crowd.

The church is unfamiliar, a decided advantage. She knows she will be seeing plenty of familiar faces throughout the day, something she is no longer used to.
The church is awash with excited whispers, greetings, last-minute checks, photos, with the usual strains of a quartet defiantly playing the wedding standards in the background. The noise, people, sense of anticipation, from which she feels removed, is not unlike that of the airport yesterday. There is already quite a crowd, and she scans the seats on the right hand side to choose her spot, her vantage point, when she feels a hand on her elbow.
"Del?! I thought it was you! I said it to Benj. 'I'm sure that's Del', but we weren't sure. We were behind you coming into the church, late as usual! But, it is you! How are you? God, it's been years!"
"It is me! Surprise!", she manages to respond, unable to come near the level of gushing enthusiasm that greeted her.
"Are you here on your own? Never mind! You must sit with us. Leah and Gus are keeping us a seat. Come on..." She links her arm and leads her towards the side aisle, ushering her up towards the centre, where Leah is sitting, guarding space on the pew with her bag. As they approach, the noise of the crowd quietens to a whisper, as news of the bride's arrival spreads.
"Look who I found, loitering at the back of the church!" proclaims Amy, just a little too loudly.
Leah, poised as always, greets her quietly, gently squeezing her hand, while Gus winks at her.

All eyes are on the bride. 'Nessun Dorma' heralds her majestic entrance, as the crowd behold her, gracefully approaching the altar. Amy is gasping beside her, her elbow sharply angled close to her face, straining to take a photo. She draws back from her, not bothered about being deprived of the view.
The ceremony unfolds like a film: she, watching the action from afar.The figures at the altar are hazy in the distance. Everything back here seems so, since she moved away. Like a film, that she can tune in and out of, with the safety of distance, disociation, even. And just like in a film, when she does become involved with the characters, she must work hard to contain her emotions.
"I, Ian take this ring..."
A tear falls down her cheek. She cannot help it.
His voice, crystal clear through the microphone, makes him immediately present to her. His voice, with its distinctive West Cork deflections pronounces without any hesitation that this is his, Ian's wedding. This is no film, no make-believe. This is real, this is happening, now.
Leah, discreetly offers her a tissue. She focuses intently on her smokey blue dress, her Jaegar that once made her feel like someone. Now, as she gazes at it, all she can think about is all she threw away in the name of 'feeling like someone'.
'Why did she come here?' she wonders. She painfully endures the rest of the ceremony. After the bride and groom make their exit through the back of the church, she mumbles something to Leah about needing some air, and slips out the side entrance.

Sunday, April 7, 2013


She lingers in that middle space, that hazy limbo between sleeping and waking. Maybe sleep will once again evelope her. That is the favourable outcome. She doesn't dare to 'hope', or attach any active voice to this sentiment. She merely waits, passively. When she becomes aware of her waiting, realising she can no longer quench her waking consciousness, she turns over and checks her bedside clock: 3:05am. Great! A half hour earlier than last night.
The rising and falling motion of her husband's body beside her, the nasal ripplings of breath, in and out, in and out, rather than having a calming, hypnotic effect, serve only to make her resentful and even more awake. She lies on, trying to employ the usual strategies of falling asleep she has read up on: empty your mind, focus on your breath and lie still. She begins counting her breaths, in for five, out for five...
The more she breathes, the more awake and annoyed she becomes. 'If this doesn't work', say all of the sleep experts, 'get up and do something else'. So once again, she is up, tiptoing downstairs, wondering how to fill these nocturnal hours.
The cats, asleep on the sofa, sleepily raise their heads, clearly put out by this interruption. Cato sleeps on, wrapping a paw around his head in determined refusal to be so rudely awakened. Tess however, sidles up to her, affectionately nuzzling her head into her arms, purring loudly and playfully coaxing her towards the pantry, where she knows the food is stored. Both cats are drawn to the food, and once they have eaten their fill, settle back to sleep, leaving her once again awake, and at a loss.
The back garden and patio, usually so dark and dull, shaded by high brick walls are tonight bathed in luminous moonlight. She opens the sliding door and floats noiselessly out. Though she spends a lot of time in her garden, none of this is familiar to her. She feels blanketed by the velvety sky, the grass is so soft, almost smooth, like lava, and the plants and shrubs exude an exoticism afforded by the silvery glint of the moon. She lies down on the flat of her back, as she used to always do as a child, making pictures of the clouds. Now, she just gazes up at the sky and waits. She's not 'taking it all in', as in that clicheed expression of moments such as these. Rather, she just gazes, waiting for something to move her. She feels oddly safe out here, safe but detached, like in a dream, a sort of fleeting sense of harmony that she experiences as a listener rather than musician. More and more, her life seems to be like a dream and she's finding it harder and harder to cling onto any sense of reality.
A sudden chill makes her sit up and wrap her gown more tightly around her. She sneezes, gets up, and decides to move. She takes a tin of woodstain and a brush from the garden shed, and begins to treat the shed, a job she had meant to do weeks before now. The soft motion of the brush as it easily glides up and down, changing the faded wood to a deeper, richer red, somehow gives her a sense of purpose. She, yes she, was actively doing this task and the results were immediately visible. She keeps going, the tedious, repetitive nature of the job calming her mind, and the potent smell of the woodstain keeping her focused on this moment.
As she painted, deepening the colour on the shed, she doesn't notice the sky lightening, the moon and the stars receding, the distant sound of birds singing. Only when she finished, and replaced the lid on the tin, did she realise it was morning. Today would be another busy day, and once she rolled into the hospital it would be straight into her rounds. She would go about her day in her usual way, counting down the hours until the end of her shift, when she could come home, and do as she always did, which was to count the hours until her next shift would begin. Whoever says that we don't become institutionalised in this society is a fool, she thinks. Where is the room for magic?
As she makes her morning coffee, she looks out at the newly painted shed, the vague impression of experiencing the beautiful transition from night to day still with her. It is fleeting, but it is enough to support her through the tedium, the senseless, deadening routine, until hopefully the next such moment.