:: Article

The Fragments of My Father

By Susana Medina.

Sam Mills, The Fragments of my Father: A Memoir of Madness, Love and Family Secrets (2020; 4th Estate, 2021)

Parents’ health is a lottery. For those of us who have parents with chronic or age-related illnesses, or both, the loss of the carer parent leads to a caring vacant place which has to be filled in by their offspring. It is often a full-time role thrown upon you, while you are still grieving, casting your life’s plan into further disarray. If you are a writer, caring for a loved one is a reality you cannot easily shut out, as it is as close to the bone as it gets. Ideally, writing is made of uninterrupted time. Writing and caring, both labours of love, are a challenging combination, not only because of the endless hours caring steals away from writing, but also because of the profound impact caring has on your consciousness and mood.

Sam Mills deftly explores this experience in The Fragments of My Father, giving us a searingly honest portrait of family life, and what it takes to care for a schizophrenic father who, after her mother’s untimely death due to cancer, develops catatonic schizophrenia — a rare condition. A quiet, gentle, ghost-like man; a self fractured into voices, her father needs help with navigating his humanity. Mills sets out to translate life for him, to non-intrusively suggest how he might live life: ‘I was his translator for the world he lived in. I was his protector.’

Meandering in and out of tragedy with refreshing candour, playfulness, meticulous research and political critique, Mills builds a seamless narrative out of her mother’s life as a carer, her dad’s, and her own, which in turn, and respectively, radiate into multiple strands: caring and literary carers, medical history, writing and publishing, and how romantic love may be undercut by the pressures of caring.

Focusing on mental illness, we’re treated to a long stroll through Virginia Wolf’s history of mental health problems, as Mills delves deep into the lives of two literary male carers married to writers: Leonard Wolf, a feminist and exceptional carer, who refused psychotherapy for Virginia in order to protect her genius, and an ill-prepared, chauvinistic nightmare of a carer, Scott Fitzgerald, who had drinking and aggression problems, and felt threatened by American novelist Zelda Fitzgerald’s mental illness: choosing expensive clinics as a substitute for his own care, he used her diaries to base his books on, curtailed her writing and publishing career, and even suggested to her publisher not to praise her as it might trigger ‘incipient egomania.’

An homage to carers, the touching pages on her mother’s life are brimming with psychological insight, as she narrates her powerful effect on those around her, which she sums up with the final words in Middlemarch. Reflecting on her inspiring guidance, sacrifice and secret bid for romantic freedom, as well as how her own personal history is coloured by feeling an outcast due to the stigma and economic impact of mental illness in the family, Mills peppers her narrative with sharp references to Christopher Bollas and Foucault, as she sets out to untangle the riddle of her father’s malady, interweaving definitions, experiences and fragments of the history of madness and schizophrenia: from eighteenth century madhouses, which had no medical training or nurturing intentions, and were the result of a new trade in lunacy, to the Victorian achievement of state-owned asylums, to the Aktion T-4 mass murder programme during the Holocaust — which, having productivity and profit as its guiding compass, killed a quarter million schizophrenics — to how social care evolved from the abuses of psychiatry, as well as economic priorities, to care in the community and the introduction of the Carer’s Allowance in the 70s, which is currently set at £1.89 an hour, while carers save the UK economy £132 billion a year.

We need to reinvent the concept of ‘care,’ to elevate those who protect life, and to untangle devalued caring qualities from the realm of the feminine. One in eight of us are carers, a figure that must have risen with Covid-19. Caring often becomes a gradual responsibility, its nature is hardly static, and it needs different keys at different times. As I juggle work and writing, as well as part-time caring with my brother, I kept nodding at many points Mills makes: how you have to play doctor, psychotherapist, cheerleader and personal assistant; how your life becomes suspended and you soon find yourself under house arrest, your dreams postponed; how the house may be infused with flatness, and the loneliness brutal. Unable to be half as productive as before, as exhaustion takes over, you defer, ask for more time, and decline invitations. Badly in need of taking care of yourself, you also require some psychological distance, which might lead to some wrong choices. Above all, you are forever making up the time lost to caring. And yet, your endeavours become lessons in love, kindness and compassion, and, crucially, a loved face lights up.

If caring is a learning process, it is also an activity which we can transform into a creative act. The Fragments of my Father is an extraordinary and important book that powerfully captures vulnerability, preparing us for looking after our elders, the possible role of becoming a carer and the need to look after carers, rather than abandon them to their own resources. Written beautifully and gleaming with insights that bring to mind the joy of writing, it is a hard and painful but necessary read, which reminds us that we need to develop a culture of care. Although initially reluctant to identify with the term ‘carer,’ Mills ultimately celebrates it, surrounding it with a wave of empathy and new wisdom — a much needed recognition of the vital role carers play in society, and how it affects every aspect of our lives. This memoir will stay with its readers. It is a masterpiece of a memoir.

Sam Mills’s Chauvo-Feminism is reviewed here.

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Susana Medina has just finished Spinning Days of Night, and Rebel Rebel, An Emergency Dialogue, co-written with Roc Sandford. She is the author of Philosophical Toys, offspring of which are the short films Buñuel’s Philosophical Toys and Leather-bound Stories (co-directed with Derek Ogbourne); Red Tales (bilingual ed. co-translated with Rosie Marteau) and Souvenirs del Accidente.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 5th, 2021.