Archives for category: Madness

Book

By chance, this is the second Margaret Drabble novel that I have read in recent weeks. I came across a second hand copy of the 1965 The Millstone in Paris a few weeks ago, a book I had not read for some decades.

The Pure Gold Baby was first published in 2013. Having just read two Margaret Drabble novels written almost 50 years apart, I can see both what seduces me in her writing, and also what can challenge the reader. Drabble’s prose tends to have minimal dialogue, and is both intense and dense in terms of content and word. Yet, to skip over a sentence or a paragraph renders the reading experience incomplete and much less satisfying.

As a result, reading The Pure Gold Baby, although a relatively short book at less that 300 pages, takes time and commitment. Which it deserves.

The novel tells the story, narrated by a friend, of Jess and her daughter Anna, the gold baby of the title. Anna was the result of a short affair between Jess, an academic and an anthropologist, and her professor. A delightful and good-natured child, it slowly became apparent that Anna had developmental problems – she was clumsy, uncoordinated, slow to walk and to talk, and never mastered reading. There was no definitive diagnosis, but a vague label of ‘learning difficulties’ and ‘special needs’, which necessitated alternative schooling and an inability to lead an independent life, hovered over Anna’s and Jess’s lives:

‘Anna’s condition did not seem to answer with any precision to any known conditions. Like the shoebill, she was of her own kind, allotted her own genus and species. She did not suffer from any metabolic disorder, of either rare or frequent incidence. Brain damage in the womb or at birth was not ruled out, but could not be confirmed…An obvious genetic cause was sought in vain.’

Anna’s problems were not immediately obvious, especially to strangers. As a result, no leeway was given to her, which caused much anxiety for Jess as well as confusion as to the extent to which she should protect her daughter from the insensitivity of others.

The story largely concerns Jess’s life as she watches over and protects her much loved daughter. Drabble’s narrative style fascinates – not just how she unfolds the lives and thoughts of her characters, but also the details she delivers on the society that her characters inhabit.

The Pure Gold Baby is set in an earlier mid/late 20th century England – ‘We didn’t known about cholesterol then. It hadn’t been invented’. It is also the tail-end of the era of asylums. Colney Hatch, the Friern Barnet asylum that had been purpose-built in 1850 was being slowly decommissioned at the time; ‘Colney Hatch’ at the time had become slang for ‘barmy’. There is also reference  to ‘the experimental programmes of R.D. Laing’, and his community based management of schizophrenics at Kingsley Hall:

‘ ‘Yes,’ said Susie, ‘Kingsley Hall was Liberty Hall, that’s what I heard. No rules, no discipline. The patients did what they liked; they didn’t have to take their medication if they didn’t want. They could stay in bed all day if they fancied. They could paint the walls with shit if they wanted.’ ‘

In part a social study against the backdrop of the evolving narrative of the lives of Jess and Anna, the novel also contains many literary and anthropological references, including Melanie Weiss’s Bagration Island, Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape, and the writings of Proust and Wordsworth amongst many others.

The ‘new forms of asylum, of the communities of the mad where the sick were reborn or, as a phrase of the day had it, rebirthed’, took on a personal significance for Jess when her friend, the ‘depressed poet’ Steve, attempted suicide. Steve successfully recuperated in a new 1960s therapeutic unit in Essex. This event poignantly highlighted a significant different between Steve’s condition and Anna’s – ‘There was material in Steve’:

‘Anna’s condition was not very interesting, except to Jess. It lacked drama and progress and the possibility of a surprising or successful outcome…Whereas Steve was in need, and might respond to a cure, and in a suitable haven, recover.’

Much happens and challenges the day to day lives of Jess and Anna. But theirs is not an unhappy or ultimately sorrowful story:

‘I will leave [Jess and Anna] in mid-air, but you will know that they landed safely…’

Earlier, the narrator shares a more fatalistic viewpoint while listening to Sibelius:

‘The natural world would survive us whatever we did to it. We could cement and tarmac it over and turn it into a motorway a mile wide, but it would break through in the end. That’s what Sibelius was telling us.’

The Pure Gold Baby is a rich, textured and complex book. At the very least it is a story of mothering, of the challenges that face those who do not fit into our idea of ‘normal’, and of what loving and being loved can overcome. The personal also interweaves with a social and anthropological narrative.

I was consumed and enriched by the sum of much more than 291 pages of text.

 

CQ

 

It is 50 years since Sylvia Plath published her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, originally under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, in 1963. The book has never been out of print. The front cover has seen many guises, however, with the current one above, and that from my copy purchased a few years ago, below:

Irrespective of the cover, the content remains reassuringly the same. I have read it probably 5 times, not because it is a great novel, but because there has always been something essential about it for me.

If you have not read it, I truly recommend it. I am not about to summarise the plot or the background, but I will draw your attention to the title, a bell jar signifying entrapment, being kept within, imprisoned:

‘To the person in a bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.’

Thus reflects Esther, the main protagonist in the novel, as she leaves the asylum in the last chapter, and realises that forgetting is not an option: memories are a part of her, ‘my landscape.’

When Esther first arrives at ‘Doctor Gordon’s private hospital’:

‘What bothered me was that everything about the house seemed normal, although I knew it must be chock-full of crazy people. There were no bars on the windows that I could see, and no wild or disquieting noises.’

There was no going back after Esther’s experiences, from what she had witnessed and lived through. She could not, as her mother wished, dismiss it all as a bad dream.

This is not a book whose passages you memorise, but there are some that resonate and stick:

‘The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.’

CQ

I went to see this film primarily as I was interested in how it portrayed mental illness. The experience of mental illness has often been skimpily and superficially dealt with in most fiction films, and so I was hoping for something deeper and more meaningful from this current release.

I was indeed entertained by the romantic, redemptive, uplifting storyline, where loves cures all (even crazy, which is not unusual in cinematic depictions of mental illness, for example Spellbound and Prince of Tides).

Undoubtedly, we need feel-good stuff in our lives.

But, and this is a significant ‘but’, I was not at all sure about the film’s depiction of mental illness, specifically bipolar disease.

Bipolar disease, or manic depression, can be devastating for the sufferer, albeit the severity of the condition varies from one individual to the next. What was reassuring in Silver Linings Playbook was to see those suffering from the condition leading a ‘normal’ life, which is certainly possible for many sufferers.

In the film, the sufferer Pat, played by Bradley Cooper, appears to be mainly affected by problems with anger management. We learn that his 8-month stay in a psychiatric hospital resulted from beating up his wife’s lover. Presumably this event alone did not lead to a diagnosis of bipolar disease, but we are kept in the dark as to what else defined his condition.

When he leaves hospital to live with his parents, we do see some (vaguely) manic episodes. Pat decides, for example, in an attempt to win back his wife, to read all the books on her teaching syllabus. Incensed by Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, he wakes his parents up at 4am to espouse on all that is wrong with the book, and eventually hurls the offending tome through a closed window. Anger, inappropriate behaviour, yes, but mental illness, bipolar disease? I am not so sure that this is necessarily so…

I was also perturbed by the comedy. In parts, the film is funny, and cleverly so. But I struggled with the humour in places, particularly where it felt like the audience was laughing at symptoms of bipolar disease, the acting out and inappropriate behaviour that mental illness can entail, and which also alienates and isolates sufferers in real life.

A further issue that bothered me was compliance with medication. Pat didn’t like how the pills made him feel, which is a very reasonable and common management problem. However, there is so much evidence that bipolar disease can be contained, even controlled, with appropriate treatment, and this was such a golden (and missed) opportunity to stress the importance of compliance.

I suspect that Pat did eventually take his medication on a regular basis, but in the end the film leaves one with the powerful sense that love, not medication and compliance, conquered mental illness.

So, overall, a missed opportunity I felt, as the portrayal of mental illness, specifically bipolar disease, is rarely the subject of mainstream cinema (and, interestingly, most of what we have to date originates from the US), and also the fact that the director David O Russell has such a way of winning over his audience, so much more could have been achieved. Most fiction films that deal with the topic of mental illness portray sufferers as victims in a melodrama (for example Splendour in the Grass (1961)). Documentaries and autobiographical works, for example The Devil and Daniel Johnston, are different, and often much more harrowing, and need to be explored as a separate entity.

Silver Linings Playbook is a romantic comedy, which is also billed as having mental illness within its core focus. Observing Pat’s journey and recovery through the film may serve in some way to de-stigmatise mental illness, but I suspect that many of those in the auditorium with me a couple of nights ago will remember it as a sweet and endearing romantic story, rather than as a melodrama that dealt with the real, and less immediately solvable, issues that underlie the experience of living with mental illness.

CQ