The Fragments of my Father
The following is text is reproduced with permission from The Fragments of my Father: A memoir of madness, love and being a carer by Sam Mills, a remarkable work of non-fiction that blends memoir and literary biography, in which Mills explores the experience of becoming the primary carer for her father. The Fragments of my Father was a New Statesman Book of the Year, and was shortlisted for the Barbellion Prize. To order a copy, visit 4th Estate.
Sam became a carer to her father, Edwin, who has schizophrenia, in 2015 when he suddenly began to suffer from mysterious attacks of catatonia, which left him unable to walk, talk or eat; he was hospitalised in a local psychiatric ward, where she visited him daily.
Once my father was speaking and eating again, I became anxious as to where the best place for him might be. Would it be better if he was released early and allowed to come home – even though there was always the danger that he might relapse and have to go through the system again? Or was the psychiatric ward the safest place for him to heal?
It was the same question that had tormented Leonard Woolf in 1913. After Virginia recovered from her suicide attempt, he had to seriously consider the question of whether or not she ought to go to an asylum. His close friend Roger Fry, an art critic, painter and member of the Bloomsbury circle (who had an affair with Virginia’s sister) put his wife, the artist Helen Coombe, into an asylum in 1910. She would stay there for the rest of her life. (Some decades later, T. S. Eliot also had his wife, Vivienne, committed, after they separated and she stalked him – though whether she was really certifiable remains doubtful, and it seems a convenient way of ridding himself of a woman who had become an embarrassment.) Leonard questioned whether he could cope with continuing to play the part of carer, whether putting Virginia away was a matter of choice or necessity. Home or asylum: it’s the eternal question that societies and families have debated when considering what is best for the mentally unwell.
‘Hey!’ I was sitting in Crocus Ward, Summerfields, with my dad, playing Scrabble, when the blonde woman stole the box again. I chased after her.
Her blue eyes bore into mine as she confided: ‘I really want to plunge a knife into someone right now.’
I swallowed hard and returned to playing Scrabble with my dad, but I had trouble assembling words; in my shock, my letters just stayed letters. Although I knew, in theory, there were no weapons in Summerfields, I still didn’t feel safe. I fretted that the blonde woman might somehow get hold of something – even if just a fork – and go for me. Here, within this world, I was an Other, a unfamiliar outsider, which was perhaps why she always made a beeline for me the moment I entered. Or, what if she went for my dad? Was he really safe in this place?
Increasingly, Dad seemed out of place on Crocus Ward. He’d gone from being the weakest, most seemingly tormented patient to one of the most civilised and calm. I would visit him and he’d sit there, serene, saying that he was fine and happy there, whilst all around him would be a varying chaos: paranoid patients bickering violently, someone openly masturbating, and now the threat of a woman with knife fantasies.
A day later I saw the blonde woman sitting at a table surrounded by visitors: her family. One of the friendliest nurses, a guy called Moses, stopped by my dad’s table and told us that the woman had once been a brilliant snooker player, excelling in championships. All of a sudden, I had a glimpse of the person she was beneath the veil of illness. As time went by, this happened again and again. I’d hear a story about a patient who seemed in a ruinous state, and learn that they had been happy, creative, successful, run companies, before tragedy had struck and their lives had broken up, broken down.
Observing the patients, I thought: they have all the neuroses that we experience every day, but the volume is turned up. The woman who was so paranoid she snapped at everyone for looking at her – don’t we all have that fear, scuttling around, that so and so doesn’t like us, is judging us? It’s one reason why there is such a stigma around mental illness; we may feel a sense of shame when we see someone losing their wits because we see ourselves in them. The difference between the so-called mad and the sane is in many respects a matter of censorship. The sane speak in sub-text; the mad don’t filter their speech. They speak out all those little thoughts that the process of growing up has taught us to repress, and lock up inside. We grow up learning to lie, to flatter, to smile and say hi to the boss we hate, to play games with a lover. In their honesty, the mad break all our social codes.
It has been argued – most famously by Foucault – that the ‘mad’ are the scapegoats of society. After successes in combatting leprosy, we needed to create a new ‘other’ and started locking up those we described as insane. At one time, however, reason and insanity were not opposites; we celebrated ‘wise’ fools, but with the birth of madhouses and asylums, we created a distinction. That evening it struck me that this is also true of people inside psychiatric wards. Everyone was othering everyone else. If you know the history of someone with mental illness, it’s a blip on their character; without this, it is their character. The family of the blonde woman probably looked at me and my father and thought we were the crazies. They had never seen my father outside of the ward. In their eyes, he was just the quiet, strange man who liked playing Scrabble. My father, too, often spoke to me as though he was one of the doctors instead of a patient. He’d tell me a story about two patients becoming violent and how he’d told a nurse and they’d been separated. There would be a quality of detachment in his tone, that of the wry observer.
Virginia Woolf showed a similar tendency when she was locked away at Twickenham. In 1910, she wrote a letter to Vanessa where she described how Jean Thomas takes in ‘innumerable young women in love difficulties … I make Miss T. blush by asking if they’re mad’, playing the role of someone witnessing events around her. Woolf also wrote about seeing ‘a long line of imbeciles’ when she and Leonard were taking a walk along a Thames towpath. Unable to understand that she might be on the same spectrum with them, she declared that ‘They should certainly be killed’. It is a horrific attitude, though not unusual for the time. As asylums were deemed a failure, eugenics was gaining popularity; even Winston Churchill argued for sterilisation of ‘the feeble-minded’. Or, perhaps those ‘imbeciles’ horrified Woolf because she did see an echo of herself and her illness in them and resisted it fiercely. Her own half-sister, Laura Stephen, had been incarcerated in institutions since early adulthood, but Woolf always referred to her as an ‘idiot’, as ‘Thackeray’s grand-daughter’ rather than a relation.
Home or psychiatric ward? In the end, it was clear that the ward was the best place for my dad. Seeing him revive a little each day, I was grateful to the carers at Summerfields for doing a job that would have wrecked me. A friend of mine commented that it must be a relief to have my dad there, because ‘the duty of care’ was passed over to them. But it never felt like that to me. Dad was the backdrop to my every day, in my dreams at night, a constant tug of worry. I didn’t feel I had let go at all – anymore than Leonard did when he hired nurses to help him with Virginia.
Rest was clearly a vital part of Dad’s cure. Before my dad slipped into his catatonic state, I’d sensed that he was very tired, that he was suffering from a sort of deep exhaustion that made small tasks seem epic and gets into the blood of the soul. I could see that being free from all responsibilities, safe in the clockwork of a routine, given meals three times a day, set a curfew for his bedtime, was re-energising him. Being allowed to let go of the details of his life and to let the people around him organise it was giving him the space to heal.
A birthday celebration in honour of one of the patients left him radiant. When I visited him, he told me in an elated tone of how the nurse had brought in a cake and everyone had sung happy birthday. I asked if he felt happier in Summerfields; I wondered if he needed more company. But he replied: no, he wanted to have his freedom back and return home, and when I saw his empty armchair in the living room, it looked lonely, as though waiting for the return of his warm body.
The Fragments of my Father is published by 4th Estate. To order a copy, go here.
Sam Mills studied English Language and Literature at Oxford University and worked as a journalist and publicist before becoming a full-time writer. Her debut novel for adults, The Quiddity of Will Self, was described by The Sunday Times as ‘an ingenious, energetic read’ and by the Guardian as ‘extraordinary’. Her literary memoir of caring for her father, Fragments of My Father, was published by Fourth Estate in May 2020, and her second non-fiction book Chauvo-Feminism: On Sex, Power and #MeToo was published by The Indigo Press in 2021. She is co-founder and MD of Dodo Ink, an indie press dedicated to publishing daring and difficult literary fiction.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.