Oct/Nov 2014 Reviews & Interviews

In My Mother's Hands

In My Mother's Hands
Biff Ward.
Allen & Unwin. 2014. 280 pp.
ISBN 978 1 74331 911 6.

Review by Ann Skea

Buy now from Amazon! Biff Ward was born in 1943. She grew up in a family with an academic, communist-leaning father whose early career was severely damaged by ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) surveillance reports, and a mother who suffered from delusions and paranoia. In this vivid and disturbing memoir, she re-lives times of anxiety and terror but also of joy and, ultimately, of resolution.

From early childhood, Biff and her younger brother were aware that their parents' first child, Alison, had drowned in her bathtub at the age of four months. They were told that their mother had fainted whilst bathing her, but the subject was never discussed and the grave never visited. The blue enamel bathtub in which their sister had drowned remained in the home and progressed from being their own bath, to a backyard plaything, to a washing basket and then to a wood-box beside the stove. The family silence around the baby's death also never went away but this was not the only family secret. Biff's mother's increasingly distant behaviour, her alarming obsessions and her self-harm were ignored as far as was possible and were also never discussed. She coped well with routine tasks around the house but became increasingly erratic and violent as the years passed.

As a child and a teenager, Biff had no way of understanding her mother's mental condition. In the 1940s and 1950s the only possible description was "nervous breakdown," but no one ever mentioned that. Grandparents and other family members lived long distances away, and Biff never knew how much other people were aware of her mother's odd behaviour. When she tried to talk about it, no one wanted to respond. So, the family lived with silences and developed coded communications between themselves to avoid awkward facts.

The family situation was tense, and on at least two occasions, dangerous. Biff's father, however, resisted any sort of medical intervention that might have meant confining her mother to a mental home. Instead, he held the family together, created as normal a social life as possible and at the same time managed to study and forge a successful career for himself.

Biff Ward writes lovingly about her father, but this memoir is as much her own story as it is that of both her parents. It becomes, too, a picture of Australian society in the 1950s and 1960s, of the effects on the family of having a father known by small-town neighbors for his Communist sympathies, and of what it was like to grow up, study, and have a social life in small, close-knit, country communities. First, in Canberra, where her father was one of the first Ph.D students at the Australian National University, and before the development of Lake Burley Griffin and the huge National buildings around it; then in Armidale, a small country city on the New South Wales Tableland north of Sydney, where he became a history lecturer at the University of New England in 1957.

We lived, she says, "in a heaving sea of madness and sadness." Yet there were joyous times, too—the excitement of acquiring their first car and the long drives on unmade country roads singing the folk-songs her father was collecting as part of his Ph.D. research; childhood holidays at the beach with her brother; the freedom of her first years at university; falling in love; peace-movement and feminist activism and close friendships. Biff's life, however, remained overshadowed by her mother, even during the years when she never saw her or spoke to her. After recognising some of the effects of her childhood traumas, she suffered her own terrors, ran away from everything and threw herself into political activism. Years later, her mother suddenly appeared on her doorstep at 7am one morning with her over-loud voice, giggles, glittering eyes, no-teeth, and damaged hands hidden in white gloves. "This is your grandma," Biff told her three goggle-eyed children, who had known nothing of this grandma's existence.

In the last part of the book, Biff tells of her reconciliation with her mother, never an easy process but one which she undertook with courage and love. She writes of her own research into mental illness, schizophrenia in particular, which was the condition with which her mother was eventually diagnosed. She tells, too, of her father's life, and of his final years and death, after which she discovered that a court case had ensued following Alison's drowning. Only then, was she able to read the coroner's report and a full account of the accident in which her sister died, and, at the same time, she learned about Post Partum Psychosis (now often known as post-natal depression) and the fact that it "occurs more frequently in women who have a psychotic illness—bipolar or schizophrenia—or a predisposition towards such an illness."

In this book, Biff draws to no conclusions about her mother's condition but writing this moving and well-written memoir has clearly served a healing purpose for her and has given her and her brother some answers to questions which have haunted their lives. To write such an honest, blunt and revealing picture of the lives of her mother and father, however, also exposes her family and others who knew, worked and socialised with them to public scrutiny. In particular, Biff's father, Russell Ward, who was not only at the centre of a public attention when his early loss of an academic appointment at the University of New South Wales because of blackballing by ASIO was revealed in the media, but also because he became a very distinguished academic, author of a classical study of Australian history, and is still well-remembered by his many colleagues, friends and students. For those who knew him, even briefly, it can feel like tasteless voyeurism to read the most personal, intimate and private details of his life.


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