I inherited a story based on loss: a black hole of a loss, a loss from within a closely knit extended family – a family that didn’t know about its loss until decades later.
My great-aunt was diagnosed with schizophrenia just before the Second World War, her dynamism and potential curtailed by illness, circumstance, and the trauma of treatment.
My grandparents passed on boxes of highly emotional letters written to and from my great-aunt and a personal account of her life written by my grandfather. I was given the privilege of reviving the past, but setting a fictional plot around my great-aunt’s complex and tragic life was challenging.
When my grandfather wrote about his sister, he wanted us to understand her legacy. More than that, he wanted someone to breathe life into it. His account was full of questions: how and why did this happen, was his sister’s illness inevitable?
I wanted to explore these questions, put them to my readers. In choosing episodes from my great-aunt’s life to include in the plot, I found myself focusing on fractures and shocks. If my great-aunt was genetically prone to schizophrenia, she was living at a time when there were few safety nets. The insecurities she faced during her life, including the build up to World War Two, made her increasingly vulnerable.
My narrative structure is intentionally fragmented – a format which reflects the nature of schizophrenia which means, ‘scattered mind’. The plot is chronological, but interspersed within it, are episodes set in hospital in the 1940s and 1950s.
Schizophrenia is an illness that is not fully understood. Symptoms are varied. It seems terrifyingly easy to misdiagnose. Historical accounts reveal people who might now be diagnosed as autistic or depressed were subjected to all sorts of aggressive treatments after their doctors diagnosed them with schizophrenia. The media portrayal of schizophrenia that many will have absorbed is one of violence and aggression, of isolated, terrified, and terrifying individuals. These instances are, in fact, extremely scarce. Most people with schizophrenia find it hard to distinguish real from unreal, some hear voices, some experience hallucinations, most withdraw from social interaction or norms in some way or other, most suffer anxiety or paranoia, hardly any are violent towards others.
I researched the illness and the experimental treatments that were meted out in the 1940s-50s, but what was important to me was not to lose sight of the person at the centre of it. Someone utterly unique who fought desperately to get on with life, do good, help others, while all along her insecurities ate away at her confidence and undermined her enormous potential.
We are all vulnerable when it comes to our mental health. We may be forced to rely on others to make decisions about our lives. Transparency, openness, and oversight are essential, none of which were present mid-twentieth century when patients were certified and treated with little more than a signature from the family.
My great-aunt’s hospital looked like a grand stately home, but she couldn’t leave it without a doctor’s permission. There was a war on. There was no hope of a stable, peaceful environment within which to recover. Those she trusted left to fight, and her nightmares became a living reality she couldn’t block out.
When I outline my novel to friends, I don’t want to start with, ‘My great-aunt was diagnosed with schizophrenia just before war broke out.’ This sounds like the most dramatic element of the novel and the most important factor in my plot but, in fact, it is just one part of what makes her heroic.
Get your copy of Pippa’s novel, A Thin Sheet of Glass, HERE!