Following Mental Health Day on the 10th October, I want to highlight a couple of books which I have read recently that deal broadly with the often difficult topics of mental health and mental disability.
The first book is one which I am not sure if you can still buy, but it was one which had been in our house for a very long time. My Mum had read it when she was younger, and it had made such an impact that this thin little paperback had survived the many (many) ‘spring-cleaning’ sessions that we have in our house (oh, the books that have been lost to charity shops, never to be seen again).
And in fact, the second book has had the same sort of journey through the decades. Which gives you an idea of how incredibly important it was that these books were written, and how they have touched the lives of those who have read them.
I understand that most people read books for an enjoyable experience, as do I most of the time. Recently a friend mine, who had seen me finish ‘Walter’ and received a somewhat depressing summary of events, asked me why I would want to read such a distressing and painful book. When I read a book I am not necessarily looking for it to make me happy, make me fall in love or give me a thrill – human experiences can be hard to read, but I think the most important thing is that they’re shared.
‘Anna’ by David Reed
It seems likely to me that ‘Anna’ is actually a women by the name of Hannelore Pfeifer, a doctoral student of German literature at Munich University who died in 1973, and her then husband ‘David Reed’, the award-winning British-born biographer, academic and broadcaster Nigel Hamilton.
Written in a combination of narrative prose and sentence-fragment journal style, this is ‘David’s’ story of his life with ‘Anna’ and her struggle with paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar depression.
Anna is described as having shown signs of mental illness from early-on, but with relative stability they marry and have two children. Not long into the marriage Anna experiences an almost complete break from reality. She is allowed to remain at home with weekly “talk therapy” sessions. This method is suggested by Anna’s psychiatrist (who I believe to actually be the therapist Leon Redler), the theory being that schizophrenia is a reaction to oppression, and once the patient went through a process of the breakdown they would come to recover.
This book describes psychological trauma, child endangerment, atttempted suicide and intense physical suffering. Hopes for her recovery were dashed by a suicide attempt by fire, which she survived with burns to 75% of her body and later died as a result of.
This is nothing but a heartbreaking account of the final breakdown of ‘Anna’. David looks back at their marital relationship and refusal to put her in a National Health hospital, believed to be synonymous with electric shock treatment, and reflects on the choices that were made and how they failed to safeguard her.
‘Walter’ by David Cook
“Some call him ‘backward’, some say he’s ‘handicapped’, and others just think of him as a joke. But Walter’s parents stand between him and the world. Till one day Jesus comes and takes Eric away and not long after that He comes for Sarah, too. Walter prays to Jesus, asking Him to change His mind- and then Walter and the pigeons sit in Sarah’s room, waiting for her to wake up.”
This book is one of those that will stay with you a long time after you’ve finished it. Walter is described as one of “Jesus’ mistakes”. It is described in the book how his father was born as a result of incestuous abuse, and Walter as a result is mentally and physically challenged.
The book is beautifully but painfully observed, following him from childhood to adulthood – and all that he is subjected to in between. It is described not only from the point of view of Walter, but also that of his parents, as their innermost, brutally honest thoughts about their ‘simple’ son are revealed to us.
It doesn’t have the (admittedly unrealistic) happy ending you so wish for throughout. Though, I can say that Walter as a character is so wonderfully developed by Cook that by the end of book he is a positively heroic figure.