A life sentence for being ill

Feb 21st, 2010 | By | Category: Ministry

A cross-pollination of ideas allows one book to inspire reviews from different perspectives in the weekend papers.  Frances Stonor Saunders’ biography of the Honourable Violet Gibson The Woman Who Shot Mussolini tells of the Anglo-Irish woman who narrowly failed to kill the Fascist dictator in 1926.  John McCourt’s review in the Irish Times says Gibson spent “ . . . 30 years of her life in a spiritually numbing lunatic asylum in Northampton (a mansion of despair which would also be “home” to Lucia Joyce), taking her place among the residents who were society’s unwanted and discarded, mad and depressed”.  In The Observer, Vanessa Thorpe tells of how the book reveals the sad story of James Joyce’s only daughter, who fell for Samuel Beckett only to be rejected by him and end up in an asylum for 30 years.

The two women’s stories reveal the depressing state in which psychiatric care remained for decades: Gibson was admitted to Saint Andrew’s Hospital in 1926 and died in 1956, Joyce was admitted in 1951 and died in 1982.  Perhaps it was just a symptom of medical thinking of the times.  John Simpson’s memoir of his childhood, Days from a Different World, contains the following note under 12th February 1947.

“A sinister little pamphlet called ‘Pre-frontal Leucotomy in 1000 Cases’ was published that day by the Stationery Office at a price of sixpence. Based on the theory that ‘something must be done in some mental illnesses to break the connexion between the patient’s thoughts and his emotions’, it examined the results in a wide variety of patients. When successful, it said, cutting the physical links between one part of the brain and the rest had enabled a third of the people whose cases were recorded to resume their everyday activities ‘without that emotional tension and preoccupation with hallucinations and phantasies which has hitherto handicapped them’. Another third had shown signs of improvement, though not to the point where they could be discharged from hospital. And the rest? No details were available, except that 3 per cent of them had died. It showed, said one medical writer, that the operation was well worth while in carefully selected cases. Today, pre-frontal leucotomy would be regarded by many surgeons and psychiatrists as a quite unnecessary form of torture’.

But to dismiss the experiences of Gibson and Joyce as something from the distant past would be to deny a reality that persisted, certainly, until recent times.  Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture, published in 2008, is set in the present day.  Roseanne McNulty, the main character has spent most of the twentieth century in psychiatric care, for no apparent reason.  Dr Grene, the senior psychiatrist  in the fictional hospital writes that there is a need to undertake

. . . a task long avoided, which is to establish what circumstances brought in some of the patients, and whether indeed, as was tragically true in some cases, they were sectioned for social rather than medical reasons. Because I am not so great a fool as to think that all the ‘lunatics’ in here are mad, or ever were, or were before they came here and learned a sort of viral madness. These people are perceived by the all-knowing public at large, or let us say public opinion as it is mirrored in the newspapers, as deserv­ing of ‘freedom’ and ‘release’. Which may be very true, but crea­tures so long kennelled and confined find freedom and release very problematic attainments, like those eastern European countries after communism.

RTE’s current affairs programme Primetime on 9th February suggests that there may still be Violet Gibsons, Lucia Joyces, or Roseanne McNultys shuffling the corridors of Victorian hospital buildings.

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