Dolores by Lauren Aimee Curtis
The nuns are kindly, within the confines of the regime of work, fasting and prayer. It’s not ideal for a pregnant teenager but the nuns can’t see, and Dolores doesn’t tell them, what’s growing beneath her baggy robe. As she adapts to the daily rhythms, they hope she’ll take her vows. The convent needs new members, particularly young ones, and the bishop – predictably lascivious – seems to agree.
I enjoyed this simply-told story of a girl’s sexual awakening and the lonely burden of its consequences, but it seemed more like a long short story than a novel or novella. I’m not sure how much my reading experience was tainted by a linguistic error – “slither of light” instead of sliver – that might be forgiven if encountered in a self-published book by an author who couldn’t afford a proof-reader but not when it crops up twice in a short book that must have been scrutinised many times before reaching the shelves.
Thanks to publishers Weidenfeld & Nicolson for my review copy.
Follow this link for more on fictional nuns and how they feature in my forthcoming novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, about a brother and sister separated for fifty years against the backdrop of the longstay psychiatric hospital closures.
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You’ll find a teenager discovering her sexuality and oppressed mediaeval nuns (but not together) in my short story collection, Becoming Someone. Here I am reading the openings of “The Invention of Harmony”.
I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg
But although the hospital has its share of horrors, this isn’t a story of psychiatric harm. For Deborah, the asylum is a refuge, a relief from the arduous effort of trying to pass. If she’s insane, she doesn’t have to hide her real self. She doesn’t have to protect her parents from disappointment anymore.
Before long, she’s up on D-ward, where the most disturbed and disturbing women reside. With little to do save indulge her sickness – no occupational therapy or meaningful engagement from the nursing staff – she might have languished there indefinitely, if it weren’t for sessions with a remarkably gifted and patient therapist, Dr Fried.
Instead of empty promises – the kooky title comes from one of her utterances – Dr Fried offers empathy, a respectful curiosity and hard work. Over time, Deborah guides her through the beautiful yet cruel alternative universe, with its hierarchies and alternative language reminiscent of a fantasy novel, which has served as a retreat from painful reality.
The favoured grandchild of an embittered Latvian immigrant to the USA, Deborah experienced inadvertent childhood neglect. Her parents yo-yoing between wealth and poverty, her mother was temporarily absent from the family following a (presumably traumatic) miscarriage when Deborah was too young to understand. Punished by a governess for urinary incontinence which turned out to be due to a tumour, she underwent painful surgery at the age of five while her mother was pregnant with her younger sister. As happens far too often, she was told the treatment wouldn’t hurt when it clearly did.
Three years of antisemitism at summer camp hardened her defences: a flippancy and a mask of hostility that kept others at a distance. No wonder that, despite her mother’s efforts, the social side of high school proved a terrible ordeal.
While Deborah is extremely lucky in her therapist, Dr Fried is also blessed in her patient’s tolerance and trust. I’m afraid I’m more judgemental in my reviews of fictional therapists, even of one as venerable as Dr Fried. I have to overlook her smoking through the sessions, which would have been the norm back then, but taking phone calls, however urgent, is disrespectful and interrupts the flow. She also fails to prepare Deborah well enough for an extended summer break, abandoning her to a less talented therapist’s ‘icy logic’.
The ward regime is also icy. A flimsy veil of professionalism protects the staff from their fear and hatred of the patients and their illnesses, but their own disturbance dismantles the boundary between sanity and madness from time to time. When one nurse repeatedly (and probably unconsciously) provokes outbreaks of violence (and later commits suicide) and another slaps a patient around the head when she is immobilised in a ‘pack’, the patient group expresses a deeper understanding of the difficult dynamics than the supposedly expert staff. Fortunately, a few of the nurses are sufficiently at ease with their own vulnerability to show a little kindness and concern. From my own observations of inpatient settings almost half a century later, I found this insightful and remarkably well portrayed.
Another more intentional version of iciness in the hospital was completely new to me. Although patients were routinely medicated, especially at night, Deborah’s admission predates the revolution in the pharmacological treatment of schizophrenia of the early 1950s. Prior to the introduction of chlorpromazine, there were wacky treatments aplenty; when the patients on Deborah’s ward were observed to be unsettled, they were tightly packed in cold wet sheets and left for hours fastened to their beds. While it reads as a form of torture, patients did themselves request it; whether that derives from a masochistic desire for punishment or from a sense of containment, however distorted, from the bindings, I don’t know.
But I take the author’s word for it because this is semiautobiographical fiction and accomplished author Joanne Greenberg is Deborah Blau grown-up. Dr Fried is the famous analyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann who, along with others, promulgated the view that psychotic illness could be understood as an adaptation to adverse experience and is therefore amenable to therapy. This, unfortunately in my opinion, remains a controversial perspective, although her case was probably not helped by her unfortunate term schizophrenogenic mother.
First published in 1964 under a pseudonym to safeguard her family’s privacy, my copy, published by St Martin’s Press, contains a helpful 2009 afterword from the author. I ordered it on the recommendation of another author but, judging by its cover – and I don’t care much for the title either, unfortunately - didn’t expect it to be my kind of book.
Do let me know what you think about any aspect of this post!
Roses come with vicious thorns
Yr was a place of peace and beauty, and Deborah was its queen. Its stone walls blocked all sound and sight of bullies; its blue skies neutralised all pain. Each time she left – to see her family, do her schoolwork – her heart clenched.
By design, Yr was a rose garden, but roses come with vicious thorns. They tore her skin and, when she struggled, they scourged her flesh to bone. Yr’s people cackled, they screamed and shouted, refused to let her go. When she wept, they laughed. Her retreat became a place of persecution; its queen became its slave.