May, 2010: The first thing I said to my therapist when I sat down in her consulting room was “I need to find out what happened to me.” Getting in touch with ‘me’, the person I know myself to be, has been a painful journey. And the journey continues with a greater knowledge of my imperial, patriarchal, brutal past.
I grew up in Rhodesia, a British colony in southern Africa. My mother was an only child and was raised in Basingstoke, in the south of England. She gained her nursing qualifications in 1937 from University College Hospital in London. My father was born and raised within an Orthodox Jewish family, the only son in a family of four. He grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. In 1935, he graduated from the University of Cape Town with a degree in Medicine. My parents met during the Second World War at the Springfield Military Hospital near Durban in South Africa. After the war ended, my father trained in psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital. Together with my two older siblings, my parents emigrated to Rhodesia in 1952. I was born in 1955 and my younger brother arrived two years later.
When I was a year old, my father took up the offer of free accommodation on the grounds of Ingutsheni Mental Hospital where he worked as part of a small team of psychiatrists. My earliest memories are of the women’s ward which was opposite our house. I could hear the women’s screams and wails through the hibiscus hedge in our garden. An annual summer fete was held at the St. Francis Home for Mentally Handicapped Children, situated on the hospital grounds. Until the age of sixteen I lived an isolated life, cut off from suburban streets, school friends, local shops and social amenities like playgrounds and parks. The hospital was surrounded by seven hundred acres of bushland, so my brother and I had the freedom to roam along myriads of dirt tracks, some of which took us to the hospital farm or to the deserted quarry which became a small lake in the rainy season. My family didn’t participate in ordinary activities like birthday parties, attending church on Sunday, going on family picnics or having friends over for a meal. Serendipitously, in 1963, when I was seven years old, a psychiatrist with a young family came to live in the house next door to ours. For two years, I experienced the joy of having a friend the same age as me for play dates, going together for tennis lessons with a retired colonel from the British army and riding our bicycles around the grounds of the hospital.
In 1981, after Rhodesia became independent Zimbabwe, my parents went to live with one of my older sisters in Toronto. At the age of twenty-nine, I got married and two years later, in 1986, my partner and I emigrated from Southern Africa and settled in London. I waited a long time to have a child. When I fell pregnant in 1993, I firmly believed that I was leaving my past behind. My siblings had all become step-parents, so I am the only member of my family with children of my own. I was thirty-eight when my daughter was born so I entered the world of motherhood late. My partner and I had recently moved to Oxford when our baby arrived, so I didn’t have time to make workplace friends. There were no other family members in close proximity and I had zero experience of babies. I suddenly felt very alone and unsure of myself; I struggled with all the changes in my life. My family doctor said that I was suffering from an illness called post-natal depression. He encouraged me to go on a course of antidepressants.
No one in the mental health field asked me why I was feeling distressed. If they had, I would have told them that my mother died when I was six weeks pregnant and that I missed her. During this time, no one told me I was doing a good job as a new mother. I breastfed my baby and held her close; I felt so lucky to have her in my life. I phoned my father one day to say I was struggling with being a new parent, and he asked me if I was suicidal. One by one, the professionals whom I consulted asked me if I was harming my baby or myself; they all asked me if I was thinking of killing myself.
Why didn’t my partner come under scrutiny for his ability to hold things together as a new father when he accompanied me to these consultations? Why were there no questions about my personal circumstances or my past? Why were there no words of encouragement? Why was there no acknowledgement that caring for a new baby is hard work? I was sleep-deprived and breastfeeding, so I’m not surprised, looking back on it, that I felt overwhelmed. I felt that the onus of creating a family landed squarely on my shoulders alone. When my husband lost weight, my neighbour asked me if I was feeding him properly. When our baby arrived, I had no maternity benefits. We’d moved to a new house in a new environment for my partner’s job a few months before I fell pregnant. I found myself in a limiting situation both socially and financially.
My sister-in-law suggested that I talk to my partner’s therapist in London. So, one summer afternoon, when our baby was around six months old, I found myself sitting next to him in Mrs. P’s consulting room. After a couple of sessions, Mrs. P suggested that I could give my daughter up for adoption if I really felt I couldn’t manage. I find it hard to believe that she said such a thing to me and that my partner didn’t defend me.
My husband went back to work immediately after our daughter was born. I felt guilty about our dependency on him. I had enjoyed working hard and had loved living in London with its theatres, museums, exhibitions and the job opportunities that were so readily available for me. I didn’t consider paying someone to care for my child because I couldn’t afford it. I wasn’t willing to put my daughter in a nursery when she was an infant; I had waited so long to have a child. State-funded childcare in the UK is not universally as available as it is in some European countries. In the UK, access to high quality childcare in a nursery setting varies widely and is expensive. Most nursery provision, outside of workplace nurseries, doesn’t provide for babies and infants. Eventually I shared a nanny for two mornings a week when my daughter was eighteen months old. This worked well as a way for her to get used to playing with another child away from me. It made it easy for her to adjust to attending a kindergarten when she was three.
My father passed away eighteen months after our daughter’s birth. A few months later, I took my daughter with me to Zimbabwe to scatter his ashes at our family home at Ingutsheni. Shortly after we returned to the UK, I felt very unwell. My doctor diagnosed me with a return of my post-natal depression and prescribed antidepressants. I suspected that I had malaria. My doctor grudgingly said he would take a blood sample to put my mind at rest. Two days later, he phoned to say that I needed urgent treatment for malaria in hospital. I had already started taking the antidepressants he prescribed for me. I used to joke that that was why I felt relaxed when he phoned me to say that I needed immediate hospital treatment. In fact, I felt shaken and somewhat frightened by this experience. What would have happened to me if I had not insisted on having a blood test?
The antidepressants made me feel like I had cotton wool in my head. I experienced a dry mouth and slightly slurred speech. I didn’t like taking the pills but I wasn’t offered an alternative.
When I began to share my experiences of childcare with other mothers, I slowly gained confidence in my own abilities. Eventually I came to the realisation that I was caring for my child very well. I felt pulled in different directions as I worried about my loss of income and my lack of an extended family network to support me. I earned small amounts of money via part-time employment (some of which was child-minding). I entertained our friends and took care of our home and garden.
In 1996, after I became pregnant with my son, my doctor said that women who have suffered from post-natal depression are significantly more likely to suffer it again with subsequent children. This was not true in my case. Having another baby was a wonderful experience. By then I’d come to terms with losing both my parents and my son’s arrival signalled a new beginning. Besides, I felt more confident the second time around. I worked hard to give my children the best of myself and what I was able to offer them, but I always felt alone. I often felt misunderstood and undervalued as a human being. Juggling motherhood with my low earnings meant that I lost the freedom to act as a financially independent person. As time went along, exhaustion became a way of life for me but I got on with family life with great enthusiasm. We had a good time.
When my daughter was sixteen, a long-lost friend found me on Facebook and turned my world upside down. Penny and I had lost touch for forty-five years. We had lived next door to each other in the grounds of Ingutsheni. Our fathers were professional colleagues. In 1965, when we were both nine years old, Penny’s father Paddy died suddenly, while his wife and children were away visiting relatives. My parents told me that Paddy suffered a heart attack in the bath, and that’s why he died. Penny’s version of events was troublingly different to what I’d been led to believe. She told me that her father and some other psychiatrists were undertaking experiments with ether. She said that her father had died during an experiment that he had conducted on his own. After Penny’s disturbing revelation, my understanding of my past collapsed into a morass of loss, secrets and betrayal.
As a doctor my father was held in high esteem within our small, white community. He served on the Marriage Guidance Council and the Mental Hospitals Board. He was on first-name terms with the Minister of Health, the chief medical officer and highly ranked members of the judiciary. I thought of him as an expert on human relationships. After Penny’s unsettling news, I experienced a series of extremely troubling flashbacks and immediately sought the help of a therapist.
When I began to talk to my therapist, I felt like I was wrestling with a Leviathan. I wished that Penny had never found me; her emails opened up a can of worms that made me squirm with fear and an overwhelming sense of unease. I had been very wary of my father. He often flew into rages and beat us regularly. His oft-repeated statement that we were childish, selfish, immature, self-deceptive, unrealistic and deluded became a mantra throughout my childhood. It was impossible for me to talk to him about anything. All my life I had believed the trope that there was something wrong with me. My father’s mental health was not something that aroused concern. My younger brother and I made light of his behaviour and joked about him with our friends. Before working with my therapist, I had never seriously questioned my father’s actions or his words.
My father was a man of his time in a place where racial divisions were enshrined in the law of the land. As a psychiatrist, he had enormous power. He was employed by a repressive colonial state. As part of my research, I read Lynette A. Jackson’s excellent book about Ingutsheni: Surfacing Up: Psychiatry and Social Order in Colonial Zimbabwe, 1908-1968. There, I discovered that the inmates at Ingutsheni were ethnically segregated; people of colour were housed in cramped, unsanitary conditions. Black men and women were made to sleep on concrete floors which, in the winter, turned into blocks of ice. Black patients were subjected to more rounds of electro-convulsive treatment, at higher voltages and often without adequate anaesthesia. Black patients were regarded as sub-human. Their cultural beliefs were considered so dubious as to be proof of a collective sort of insanity.
I learned that the hospital’s ethnic-sounding name was a bastardised use of the word “Engutsheni,” the name of one of King Lobengula’s settlements, remnants of which can still be found within the grounds of Ingutsheni. Lobengula was king of the Ndebele people, whose territory was invaded by white settlers towards the end of the nineteenth century, forcing him to flee into exile. On admission to the hospital, African inmates were asked by white psychiatrists: “Where are you and why do you think you are here?” When they replied, “We are at the place of Lobengula’s wives,” they were told they were clearly insane because they were at Ingutsheni, “the place for mad people.” When I was a child, I was told that the word “Ingutsheni” meant “place of blankets.” This was another bastardisation of the IsiNdebele word ‘ingubo’ which means ‘regiment’ and refers to King Lobengula’s regiment of protective warriors, a bit like the regulars in the British territorial army who assist citizens with civic duties and who are called upon in times of need. These warriors wore a particular kind of blanket. The colonial authorities implied that Ingutsheni was a place of care, a place of blankets… when in truth, for Africans and people of colour, this was clearly not the case.
Lynette Jackson examined hundreds of patient records and found that many of the Black inmates were suffering from malnutrition and sexually transmitted diseases. They faced extreme poverty, especially in times of drought. Africans lived in segregated ghettos around the mining and farming industries; there was enforced separation between men and women, husbands and wives, where women raised children in rural areas (known as ‘tribal trust lands’) while men worked in male-only compounds in urban areas. Many African and non-white inmates at Ingutsheni had been transferred from jails, having been imprisoned for contravening laws that prohibited them from setting foot in ‘white only’ areas.
David Harewood wrote in his recently published memoir about his recovery from a psychotic breakdown: “A psychiatric ward is a dangerous place to be ‘othered’ in. Which is probably why, like me, so many Black men only enter the mental health system at a point of crisis rather than seeking help at an earlier stage. Can you imagine waking up in a hospital you don’t recognise, surrounded by people who don’t know you, full of antipsychotic drugs and only being referred to as the ‘large Black man’?”
I would add: Can you imagine being sent to a psychiatric institution where everything about you is considered of no consequence — your name, your background, your family, your heritage, your spiritual beliefs and your language? Black inmates were sent in work squads to toil on the grounds of our house. They moved like zombies, many of them exhibiting tremors in their emaciated limbs. They were heavily medicated with Largactil so that the whites of their eyes were a deep orange colour. The pink fleshy parts on the inside of their eyes were blood red. Their heads were shaved and they wore tattered clothes throughout the seasons. White inmates wore blue and white striped pyjamas, and they too suffered from the effects of heavy doses of Largactil, evidenced by their jaundiced skin tone and slurred speech.
Under my therapist’s guidance, as my siblings and I shared our memories, it became clear that our father had not only been self-medicating with benzodiazepine drugs but he had also used a variety of drugs on us, his children. If this was not disturbing enough, what really shocked me was when my younger brother and I realised that our father had been able to admit us into hospital under false pretences when our mother went abroad for six weeks and we had been left in his care. My brother and I had surgery for bogus appendicitis emergencies and ended up being cared for by a group of nuns in a private hospital whilst our mother was away.
My therapist helped me to use ordinary words to describe my feelings as I came to terms with what we had endured. While I was often ridiculed for being ‘over-emotional’, I had no emotional language as a girl. I had learned to play tennis through my friendship with Penny Baxter and as a teenager I became a national tennis player. All my emotional energy was expended through my determination to beat opponents who were bigger and better than me. I learned how to fight for myself and to build an identity that afforded me a sense of power and respect.
During my work with my therapist, I discovered the work of Dr. Lucy Johnstone, Professor Mary Boyle and a consortium of others who are challenging psychiatric diagnosis and the medical model upon which psychiatric treatment is based. Lucy, together with Professor Mary Boyle, various professionals and service users, collaborated to develop the Power Threat Meaning Framework, which, instead of telling a patient what’s wrong with them, asks: “What happened to you and what did you do to survive?” The PTMF is a non-pathologizing alternative to the current medical model used in psychiatric diagnosis. The PTMF challenges the scientific validity of psychiatric labels and raises concerns about a Western approach being imposed on people with different cultural traditions and belief systems.
My father had zero respect for Africans and people of colour, whom he called ‘blacks’ or ‘coloureds’. His attitude towards women and children was demeaning. He regarded us as lesser beings. I believe that my father’s role at Ingutsheni damaged him as a human being to the extent that he lost sight not only of his own humanity, but also that of the people under his care.
When I discovered the PTMF in 2018 and then joined the Drop the Disorder Facebook group, I felt that I had finally found a community of people with whom I belong. Up until that point, I had felt that I was a lone voice in a sort of wilderness. All the books in the Straight Talking Introduction Series, published by PCCS Books, have helped to educate me and have radically changed my outlook. The editors Richard Bentall and Pete Sanders write: “The PTMF argues that emotional distress, unusual experiences and many forms of troubled or troubling behaviour are understandable when viewed in the context of a person’s life and circumstances, the cultural and social norms we are expected to live up to and the degree to which we are exposed to trauma, abuse, injustice and inequality.”
Writing has been a powerful way for me to overcome my terror of my father and his world. In Empire State of Mind, Satnam Sanghera’s television series about the British Empire, he voiced this hope: “The truth will set you free.” I wrote my story in order to set myself free from my sense of burning shame and my acute sorrow about a crucial aspect of my colonial past. I found it cathartic to speak about the way that my parents had vilified the African servants who took care of me and my brother when we were babies and then toddlers; how they belittled the servants who followed on from them, who cleaned the cars, swept the drive and the tennis court, scrubbed, vacuumed, polished floors and silver cutlery, washed our clothes and household laundry, ironed, tended to the garden, picked fruit and vegetables, prepared food, made our beds and generally picked up after us. My siblings all remembered their unfailing kindness and gentleness towards us throughout our lives. This was at a time when the majority of white people, like my parents, regarded them as imbeciles and spoke of them and to them with nothing but contempt. I wrote my story, and developed it into a book, to repay a debt of gratitude to them for giving me one of the greatest gifts in the world — the experience of being loved and comforted with unfailing tenderness, at a time when they were denied their humanity and, in many cases, were treated like worthless beasts of burden.
There are people who might feel happier if I stopped talking about abuses and misuses of power, but Ingutsheni still operates in Zimbabwe, and the pandemic has been disproportionately challenging for women who still shoulder most of the responsibility in tending to children, looking after dependents and working in the care sector as a whole. It troubles me that women as mothers and carers are seldom perceived as role models when it comes to leadership and other positions of influence and authority in society. Our collective humanity means helping all the peoples on this planet who suffer disabling distress, not only towards a greater understanding of themselves and others but also towards more transparent, collaborative and co-operative ways of caring about each other and the future of our planet.
I’m also strongly of the opinion that the current British government needs to acknowledge the scale and the depth of the racism and brutality that took place in British colonies. I felt very much when I began to write my book that what took place during my childhood was ‘out of sight’ and therefore ‘out of mind’. I was told by various literary agents and publishers that there was ‘no market for books about Africa and Africans,’ and one of them suggested that it was ridiculous and irrational that I should have any feelings of guilt about being white. Whenever I reflect on my colonial upbringing, with its British education system and mental health agenda, I can’t help but feel that I was raised to be a white supremacist. What happened during the slave trade in British-owned plantations is an important part of Britain’s racist past but its many other colonial investments and institutions must not be swept away and hidden under a carpet commonly known as ‘foreign affairs’. I will never forget what I experienced as a white child growing up in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia. My parents both served Great Britain during the Second World War and were subsidized in their passage to Africa in order to serve Her Majesty’s government abroad. As Sathnam Sanghera points out in Empire State of Mind: The ‘Great’ in ‘Great Britain’ might not be what it seems with closer historical scrutiny and understanding.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.