David is a retired university teacher. David’s mother, Flora, suffered from Postpartum Psychosis in 1933, and died in 1943, before the advent of the NHS, and antipsychotic and mood stabiliser medication in the 1950s.
David wrote down his moving story for his children, by way of a historical record, self-explanation, and a caution of the risks of failing to communicate about mental health. He has agreed for us to share it with you.
Stigma, fear, misinformation, lack of awareness regarding PP still exists in many parts of our world - in families, playgrounds, mums and baby groups, our working lives. Thanks to APP’s Big Lottery project, things are changing, and this change is now beginning to take on a pace of its own.
Secrets and Lies tells of the individual pain caused by failure to communicate with loved ones and, in particular, children, about Postpartum Psychosis - and the intergenerational impact of stigma, shame and family secrets.
She met my father Henry William Mervin (always known as Harry) at the Civil Service Sports Club at Hilsea in Portsmouth some time during the late 1920s. He was employed by the Post Office which he had joined as a telegraph boy. After service in the army during the First World War he had spent three and a half years in Egypt, working as a wireless operator at the GPO wireless station at Abu Zabal, twenty miles from Cairo. On his return to the UK Harry was posted to the Central Telegraph Office in London where he worked for three years before his marriage to Flora in 1930 at St Marks church in North End, Portsmouth. He was then 31 and she was 26.
On 31st July 1933 I was born in a nursing home in Ealing where the recently married couple had settled. Flora was unable to breast feed me and became, as a consequence, intensely distressed. Harry arrived home one evening to find his wife being looked after by a neighbour who, he said, had found her to be “ in a desperate state of depression.” He then set about removing Flora and her baby back to Portsmouth.
There she was diagnosed as suffering from puerperal insanity, now known as postpartum psychosis; this is a rare condition, occurring in 1-2 of 1000 births, or 0.1%. Flora was admitted to Portsmouth City Mental Hospital, (formerly known as Portsmouth Lunatic Asylum, and later as St. James’ Hospital) on 27th November 1933 with Harry telling the hospital that his wife had been “normal till two months after parturition. She then complained of feeling confused and not able to concentrate on anything. She had difficulty in feeding the baby then she became depressed with suicidal tendencies-remorseful seemed to think she had let her husband down.” Meanwhile her brother, my Uncle, George Balfour Bell, stated “that she had an idea that she had neglected her baby, that the baby was dead, and that she herself should throw herself in the sea.”
The above is heart rending enough, but it is nothing compared to the dreadful, agonising detail of her situation 5 1/2 years later when Dr Thomas Beaton reported that Flora’s “condition on admission was one of acute confusional psychosis. She was grossly confused, restless, hallucinated and needed every nursing care and attention. During the course of her illness the acute excitement and confusion have diminished. She remains now indolent, apathetic and disinterested. She is still vividly hallucinated and continually complains of voices which talk to her from the walls and ceiling. She is still sufficiently intelligent to realise her position, but she is liable, from time to time, to periods of violence, during which she becomes destructive. She is quite incapable of occupying herself, needs considerable attention in regards to her physical habits and cleanliness, and is essentially a patient requiring hospital care and control.”
The same doctor noted further that Flora “has been given intensive treatment, including the modern convulsion therapy, but in spite of this her condition, following the acute confusional state, has shown a progressive deterioration, and she might be described now as suffering from chronic hallucinatory psychosis with a slowly progressing secondary dementia”.
While Flora was going through these ghastly agonies I was a small child totally unaware of my mother’s existence, growing up as an evacuee in Chichester. Seemingly the lady who cared for me there had been instructed by my father to tell me that my mother had died when I was born. It came as a great shock therefore to be informed in 1943 by a fellow evacuee, with the brutal frankness that children are sometimes capable of, “Your mother just died……its in the paper.” I now know that he was referring to the bleak announcement in the Deaths column of the Portsmouth Evening News of 1st October 1943 which read “MERVIN, Flora Agnes (nee Bell) at St James’s Hospital, 27th September. Loving memories Harry, Mother, Balf.”
It is still difficult for me to believe why I did not ask for some sort of explanation for this puzzling new information from the lady looking after me, or from my father on one of his occasional visits. The fact of the matter is I suppose that at the time I was a decidedly timid 10 year old boy and from the beginning I appear to have been drawn into the disgraceful conspiracy of silence surrounding the tragedy of my mother’s life and death.
Much later, when I was nearly 40, I became aware of the circumstances surrounding my mother’s death and my father’s marriage to my stepmother. In a letter written in 1972, he reported that after Flora’s incarceration in November 1933, when he was still working in London “I came down to Portsmouth nearly every week end to visit your mother and you. For the first few weeks it seemed as though your mother might recover, but as the months went by, and she eventually failed even to recognise me, any hopes I had began to fade.” Shortly after Dad returned to Portsmouth and continued for three years to visit Flora with her condition showing no sign of improvement and it becoming increasingly evident that she would never recover.
This was surely an incredibly stressful period in my father’s life. His financial situation was desperate, there was no NHS to provide for Flora’s care and the 25 shillings per week this cost took a large chunk of his meagre salary of £5 per week. His plight was such that whilst in London he was dependent for survival on a weekly whip round by his Post Office colleagues. His finances eased when he was back in Portsmouth living with his mother, although understandably, he suffered from bouts of depression and came to dread having to visit a wife who no longer recognised him. He appears to have given up on the visits in 1936 and it was then that his relationship with Norah began and his life took a turn for the better.
The 12 page letter Dad sent me nearly four decades after these events, arose from a conversation I had with a half sister when she came with her husband to visit us in Knightcote in 1971. On that occasion, probably after a few drinks, I spoke to my her of my frustration at knowing nothing of my mother, of having no idea about what sort of person she was and my unhappiness at my father’s unwillingness to talk to me about these matters.
In that letter he begins by saying “I have always been conscious of my failure to enlighten you on the tragic events following your birth, and I have appreciated your feelings on the subject. You did on one occasion ask me one or two questions about your mother’s illness, which I answered, but nothing followed that, and I have always found it difficult to open the subject verbally - hence this letter.” I remember the occasion he refers to well, indeed my memory of that event is rather better than his. I was home for the weekend, some time in my twenties, and we went for a drink at the nearby pub. In the relaxed atmosphere of that place, I finally plucked up the courage to ask, “My mother, was she anything like me?” This was answered with a resounding “No” with Dad making it clear that no further discussion would be welcome. This bleak, fleeting exchange was the one and only occasion, throughout my life, when my father spoke to me about my mother.
Partly, of course, the fault is mine. I should have had more guts; I was just not brave enough to insist on him giving me some answers to the questions that had troubled me for so long and which trouble me even yet. What sort of woman had that beautiful young girl in her confirmation dress grown up to be? What attracted him to her? What were her interests? What were her strengths and her talents? What made her laugh and what made her cry?
It is difficult not to conclude that my mother was badly let down by her closest relations. Not only by her husband but also by her brother and her mother. Each of the latter two went to their grave without so much as speaking her name to her only child. What they effectively did was to reduce her to the status of a non person, to deny her very existence. Why did they not realise that this was a unforgivable thing to do? In that notice in the paper on her death it said “Loving memories Harry, Mother, Balf” What an awful, bitter irony given the complete failure to honour her memory by speaking about her in any way to her son. All human beings, rather pathetically, are anxious to be remembered. “We will remember them” is the refrain at remembrance ceremonies. In fact few of us will be remembered for very long, and yet for immediate family members to act as if a deceased person has not even existed, to blot out all memory of them, is to do them a terrible disservice.
In trying to understand why my father was unable to look me in the eye and to ever talk to me about my mother, I assume that it was partly due to an understandable wish to shut out of his mind dreadfully painful memories. It may also be the case that it was because he felt guilty. Not about remarrying, given the circumstances he was surely entitled to do that, but because of the unfortunate sequence of events that took place in 1943.
Five years previously the law had been changed to provide grounds for divorce other than adultery. Wilful desertion for three years or more; cruelty; and incurable insanity were now added and Dad and Norah decided to take advantage of this change. They wished to get married and now he could divorce Flora to make that possible. There duly appeared in the Portsmouth Evening News of 9th July 1943 under the headline INSANITY GROUNDS FOR DIVORCE, “A decree nisi was also granted to Henry William Mervin of St. George’s Road, Southsea against Mrs Flora Agnes Mervin on the ground of her incurable insanity. They were married at St Mark’s Church, Portsmouth in 1930 and there is one child. Since 1933 Mrs Mervin has been a patient at the City Mental Hospital.” A little less than three months after the divorce the desperately ill Flora died and a month after that the marriage took place. As my father said in his letter “it was a tragic coincidence that your Mother died during the same year”
The fact that Flora died so soon after the divorce may have instilled in my father some pangs of guilt and possibly, in retrospect, he may have also felt badly about his decision to not have me present at his wedding-an event of which I was totally unaware at the time. I have often wondered why I was excluded from that occasion. It is not as if I was a baby. I was 10 years old and my indignation at being left out increased considerably when I discovered many years later, that a cousin of almost the same age did attend. Presumably, the concern was that if I had been there it might have led to me asking some difficult questions. To put it another way, my exclusion was a major contribution to the conspiracy of silence regarding my mother amongst her relations.
Apart from any guilt no doubt the other factor that prevented my father and others from talking about Flora and her illness with me was the shame and the stigma attached in that era to having insanity in the family. To use an even uglier word she was consigned to a hospital that had just a few years previously been known as the Portsmouth Lunatic Asylum. The fact that this poor woman was insane, or was in the terminology of the time a lunatic, was apparently thought to be sufficient reason for her name to be kept out of family conversations, for her relations to blot out all memory of her and to conduct themselves as if she had never lived.
What has writing this very sad story accomplished? In a small way it has allowed me to give vent to my long felt unhappiness at the treatment of my mother. It has had, for me, a helpful cathartic effect, allowing me to come to terms with an issue which has troubled me for many years It has also brought home to me the merits of speaking frankly, of facing unpalatable truths, of getting things out in the open. Obviously there are limits to speaking frankly. Civilised behaviour requires that we do not give voice to every thought that passes through our heads irrespective of the hurt, or the offence it may cause others, but that doesn’t justify what happened in this case where secrets and lies had tragic consequences.
There is also an element of weakness in writing letters about important matters, rather than speaking about them face to face. And now here am I doing the same, putting my innermost thoughts down on paper, having failed to give voice to them when it could have counted. To add to that, I am ashamed to say, that when I had that conversation with my half sister that led to Dad’s letter I cravenly asked her not to tell him what I had said, for fear of upsetting him- an injunction she evidently ignored. Similarly, on an earlier occasion, I said much the same to an aunt in talking about these matters, in the wake of a drink or two, at a wedding. She subsequently sent me a short letter with a few words that I have treasured ever since “Your Mother was pretty, gay and very intelligent.” At last some one had told me just a little of the woman who brought me into the world and whose awful, indescribably unbearable illness had come about as the result of my birth.
My father was a decent, kindly man who had a hard life, and he endured horrors and privations of a sort that have never befallen me. He did however find it difficult to face up to his responsibility to the poor damaged Flora. He is not alone in that of course, both her mother and her brother should have done more to honour and preserve her memory. And then there is my own culpability. On more than a few occasions, I shrank from confronting my father: I lacked the guts in other words, to demand the answers that I so sorely needed. Finally, this unhappy story does nothing to restore in me any sort of religious belief. Why would a supposedly merciful God allow an innocent young woman to suffer ten long years of torment followed by the obliteration of all memory of her having lived?