I hadn’t expected to be blogging again before the new year, but having just read The Light in My Mind by Joyce Passmore (published by Speak Up Somerset) I just had to share my review of this very significant book.
The Light in My Mind tells Joyce Passmore’s personal story of having been a patient in a psychiatric hospital from 1957 to 1972 and her subsequent recovery from this horrific and unjust experience.
At the age of 13, Joyce was admitted to the Merrifield Children’s Unit (the very same institution, albeit in an earlier guise, which inspired my own book). Merrifield was, essentially, the children’s wing of Tone Vale Hospital – an old Victorian asylum – in Somerset. Joyce did not, however, have a mental health problem; she suffered with epilepsy, and she was told she would only be in the unit for three weeks while they attempted to stabilise her condition with medication. She writes of the austere atmosphere of the unit, and the quiescent oblivion of the children who surrounded her – all numbed by tranquilising drugs. Joyce, too, came to suffer the effects of excessive and inappropriate medication. Joyce relates all of this using very direct and minimalist language, painting a remarkably unadorned picture of her situation.
Joyce goes on to describe how she was given a more thorough diagnosis of her condition by a neurologist at Guy’s Hospital, London, together with the recommendation that she be discharged from the unit in Somerset. But Merrifield ignored the findings of this authority and continued to keep her incarcerated and subject to unsuitable drug therapies.
If Joyce’s experience thus far is shocking, it is nothing compared to the horrors she encountered when transferred to the adult hospital, Tone Vale, at the age of 16. Joyce’s use of language continues to be plain and unadorned as she moves into this phase of her experience. She doesn’t wallow in her misfortune, but simply portrays it in a matter-of-fact way, punctuated with the occasional insight enabled by more recently gathered information.
In reading her account of this period (which continued for well over a decade) the various elements – including electroconvulsive therapy, violent attacks on her by other patients, and unconscionably abusive and dishonest staff – all merge to form a seamless nightmare. But while we have the ability to put her book to one side for a moment if we wish, for Joyce this nightmare would have seemed never-ending.
Ultimately, however, The Light in My Mind is a story of hope and recovery. One thing that supported Joyce through this nightmare was the Christian faith she had inherited from her early upbringing. She writes of this hopeful thread running through her life with a tangible sense of gratitude – it is the only thing that offers her relief, and without expressing it explicitly, it is clear from her turn of phrase that she doesn’t take it for granted.
The background to this faith is located in the time before Joyce’s nightmare began. Having been sent to a church Sunday School by her parents, she had absorbed teaching centred on the figure of Jesus, and so she clung on desperately to this figure, her only source of hope in the darkness. In the present-day climate, where there are so many voices objecting to the exposure of children to religious teaching, it is interested to see that it was this kind of teaching that equipped Joyce for survival in the ‘hell’ she had to endure.
A good proportion of the book is devoted to the support Joyce received from Christian organisations and individuals following her final discharge from Tone Vale – most notably in Tunbridge Wells, well away from the geographical site of her torment. After such a long period of institutional captivity, it is no surprise to learn that Joyce emerged ill-fitted for life in the outside world. But it was people of faith who enabled Joyce to make the long and difficult transition. It is also worth noting that, during this period, she found a real sense of satisfaction in her singing ability, using a talent affirmed by the validation of others – outside her immediate faith community as well as inside it. If the earlier description of her troubles was matter-of-fact, her description of the pleasure she found in singing overflows with real delight.
Those who are sceptical, or perhaps hostile, to the whole issue of religious belief should pause for a moment to note what faith has actually done in Joyce’s case. It is true that many injustices and wrongs can be attributed to religion, but here we see a life genuinely saved by faith (to use a very loaded expression).
I can make no negative criticisms of this book, though I do have one fear. My fear is that Joyce’s emphasis on her faith – which is inevitable, given how instrumental it has been in her recovery – will mean that some people may avoid reading this book (and, just to be upfront, I note this as a person of faith myself). But this book is essential reading beyond those who share Joyce’s faith. If you have an interest in mental health issues, in social justice, and in the mechanisms by which people can be rescued from victimhood, then this book is hugely significant.
The Light in My Mind by Joyce Passmore is published by Speak Up Somerset
Delivered Unto Lions by David Austin is published by CheckPoint Press
For more information visit www.davidaustin.eu