Twenty years before I was born, in the time that followed the end of WWII, in a small town near the Hampshire/Dorset border, a mother of four children suffered a nervous breakdown. Her marriage to a local builder had crumbled under the strain of years apart, and the constant rumours of her husband’s infidelity.
Matters finally came to a head when the poor women attacked an innocent bus driver with a kitchen knife, believing, in her deluded state, that the man was in fact her husband. She was wrestled to the floor of the bus and held there until the police arrived to arrest her. Ellen Dunford was subsequently sectioned under the Mental Health Act, and detained indefinitely.
She was imprisoned (for want of a better word) in an institution known as Tatchbury Mount, a local health authority Secure Mental Hospital, where fellow patients ranged from particularly sadistic murderers diagnosed as criminally insane, to those suffering from autism or down’s syndrome.
During the difficult months and years that followed her incarceration, her children were mercifully kept together for a time under the care of her eldest, a 16 year old boy called Jim. Neighbours rallied round to help and the children were able to continue living together in their council house, supported by their local community. The youngest of the four, Sally, was just 4 years old when Ellen fell ill, and although initially taken into care, she was later allowed to return to her siblings.
Life in Tatchbury Mount was very hard on Ellen and she was forced to endure Electro-Convulsive Therapy or ECT, where electrodes were attached to her head and an electrical current was passed through her brain in an attempt to alleviate her symptoms, perhaps unsurprisingly, without success.
In April of 1954 young Jim Dunford turned 18 and was summoned within days to a meeting with the medical experts at Tatchbury Mount. He was presented with a request for consent to perform a frontal lobotomy on his mother Ellen, and was told that this treatment was the best hope for her to make a recovery from her mental disorder.
Just a few days after his eighteenth birthday, as Ellen’s next of kin, he was being asked to make the decision to cut away a part of his mother’s brain in order to make her better. I cannot imagine how difficult that decision must have been for that young man, forced as he had been in the absence of his father to grow up almost overnight. Jim was a bright young man, had attended the local grammar school and had dreamed of going to university before his mother fell ill.
On the advice of the doctors, Jim signed the authority and Ellen Dunford was lobotomised. The damage to her personality and intellect was devastating. The intelligent and resourceful mind that had enabled her to teach her children to read before they had even started school, and had kept them all clothed and fed through the lean years of wartime England was utterly ruined. The Ellen that survived the operation was reduced to the mental capacity of a five year old, and would spend the next forty three years, until her death in 1997 as a resident of Tatchbury Mount.
When I was a small boy, perhaps four years old, I first became aware of my grandmother, when she came to stay with us for a few days for a holiday. I had to give up my bed and share with my brother or sister while Nanny Dunford was with us. I was resentful of her, she was loud and rude with a number of moles on her face with long thick black hairs growing out of them. On her top lip and on her chin, there were more black hairs and her eyes were large, blue and wild-looking. She was quite harmless really, if a little mischievous, but I was absolutely terrified of her.
It was as if a witch had come to stay with us. She would sit and rock in whatever chair she was in, smiling and cackling constantly, and hurling insults at us all. My father did his best to foster a relationship between us, but it was an uphill battle. Every day they would tell me I had to ‘give Nanny a kiss’ and every day I would argue why I shouldn’t; she smelled of wee, she had a hairy face, she was mad, I was scared of her.
My father couldn’t hide the pain and disappointment etched on his face, but I was too young and too selfish to understand how my rejection of his mother must have hurt him and we never spoke of it. Sometimes, in the holidays, we would make the trip to Tatchbury Mount to visit Nanny Dunford, and I remember being deeply shocked that my Nanny had to live in such a terrible place.
Despite the years that had passed since she was first incarcerated, Tatchbury Mount in the 1970’s was still a secure facility and seemed more like a prison than a hospital to my young eyes. The most disturbing aspect of my first visit was a walk down a long corridor that led to a kind of day room. I remember the hallway being lined with doors on either side, each with a small, square hole in it through which the residents would peer, some reaching through to try and touch us as we passed. I quickly learned to walk in the centre of the corridor, out of the reach of the residents on either side. It was a frightening place for a small child to visit and I had so many nightmares about it that I came to dread those visits, and I am no longer certain of which aspects were real and which were the fabric of dreams.
My father died last year, and I never got around to telling him how sorry I am for my behaviour towards Nanny Dunford. I regret that, it doesn’t sit well with me, a little piece of shame that I keep tucked away where I don’t have to look at it. I remember when I was in my late teens my father telling me about the decision to lobotomise his mum, how back then people thought that cutting a chunk of a person’s brain away would actually make them better. I could see he still suffered about it then, after all those years. It was a burden for him, and one he must have carried for most of his adult life.
The last couple of years of Dad’s life he suffered with vascular dementia and although he lost much of himself, there were some positives. He had a small set of strong memories that he held on to, that played on a constant, repeating loop that he would recount many times during the day, and to the best of my knowledge these memories were all positive. He had also acquired a new set of false memories, of fabulous places that he believed he had been to, great adventures in far-flung parts of the world that he was convinced that he had travelled to.
It is said that every time we relive a memory we modify it slightly, filling in the gaps where our recall is poor, emphasising some aspects, deleting or adjusting others. My father had given up the carefree years of his youth when my grandmother fell ill, it is comforting to think that towards the end he was relieved of the weight of some of those more difficult memories. It seems almost as if the illness that ultimately took him away from us, first took away some of his pain; as if to say, you have suffered long enough.