We spoke to Company Four founder Gemma Whiteley about how her ancestral research inspired a theatrical exploration of postpartum psychosis. Here’s what she told us:
My mum had watched a lot of Who Do You Think You Are? on TV and it sparked her interest in our own family history. One of the things she was really keen to find out more about was her grandad Jack, my great grandad, because she knew he had been raised by his grandmother rather than his mother. We’d heard that his mother, Mary (my great, great grandmother), had died of pneumonia when Jack was a young baby.
However, as we started to delve into our family history, we discovered that this wasn’t actually the truth…
My mum managed to get hold of some records relating to Jack’s mum and one of the files she managed to find was her death certificate. I remember being upstairs and my mum shouting up at me to come down and take a look because something didn’t add up.
My mum showed me the certificate and I remember she seemed confused and said ‘am I reading this right?’
The certificate stated that the place of death was Cheddleton Asylum – so we obviously thought that was unusual because we didn’t believe people were put in an asylum for pneumonia – even back in 1900 when Mary passed away. So that led to us asking the asylum for the relevant records to find out more.
They unearthed three or four pages of information and documents which they sent on to us. When we read them we learned that Mary had what they then called ‘puerperal mania’ – which we now know as postpartum psychosis (PP).
The documents were quite detailed, telling us how Mary was behaving, what she was doing and saying. For example, it said she was throwing books out of her window and saying she could walk on water. And of course it mentioned Jack, and how Mary’s mother was the person who raised him after taking Mary to the asylum.
The notes also painted a picture of who Mary was as a person before she became unwell. She was a dressmaker, she had kicked her husband out for being a ‘ne’er do well’ and was often a naughty child who played truant from school. She worked in factories from the age of 13 and seemed to be full of life, somewhat ahead of her time and extremely strong-willed. Her mother painted a very vivid picture of how strong she was growing up.
In terms of her illness, however, it sounded as though her case was really acute and she wasn’t getting better at all, but the only treatment we read about was sedation.
But even though we look back on these notes, wondering why the only treatment she was given was sedatives, it’s interesting to remember that, back in the day, that would have probably been considered the right treatment for her symptoms. In fact, the doctor who was looking after her became known as a leading expert in maternal mental health. Speaking with experts now, however, we know that the sedatives would have stopped her sores from healing, so they will have ultimately had a detrimental effect on her at the time. And of course sedatives alone do not tend to cure symptoms of psychosis.
Mary was just 27 at the time of her death.
A theatrical exploration of PP
Through my theatre company, Company Four, we do a lot of devising work, exploring new ideas and themes to take to the stage. My Company Four partner, Suzi, had mentioned mental health as a possible next topic and I shared our newly discovered family story. We were both equally intrigued and decided to take it further.
I had some pre-conceived ideas about what PP was, but finding out what happened to Mary made me realise that I hadn’t been well informed at all. Suzi agreed that she didn’t know much about PP or about maternal mental health generally so we were both really interested in learning more. And being able to tell a story about a different time – the 1900s and the asylums – was also an exciting concept, as we could explore the difference between then and now.
We did our own research and we also worked with APP to speak to women with lived experience.
What we discovered was that, while there were lots of differences all those years ago, for example the name of the illness and the types of treatment, some things haven’t changed. We found on speaking to women that far too many births are still difficult and traumatic. We also found that PP, particularly, seems to be something that people are worried about discussing due to the stigma that surrounds it. Many people seemed to react with fear or worry when we told them what we were making a show about.
Working with real experiences and voices of people from the APP network, we developed performance material and shared this with an invited audience for feedback. We used performance and audio recordings and puppetry, and we’re now looking at how to take the story further, so we are seeking a commitment from a venue to host a production, and funding to produce it as a full length piece. It can be a long process putting on a production, but it’s also been an exciting and life-changing process – I’ve really changed the way I feel about motherhood and speaking to the women and them sharing their stories with me is something I’ll always hold close to my heart.
We honestly had no idea just how emotional a journey it would be, but we’ve had lots of fun and laughter along the way too. Now we just need to get those funding bids in so we can continue to play our part in raising awareness of PP. And we really hope the audiences walked away from our initial sharing with more understanding and less fear.
To find out more about Company Four’s R&D process and to view more of the photography, visit the web page here