Guest post by Kristen den Hartog
“. . . little by little, the ghosts take shape.”
My sister Tracy Kasaboski and I wrote a book together called The Occupied Garden, about our father’s family in Holland during the Second World War and their subsequent move to Canada. Being a collaboration and a work of non-fiction, the book seemed a bit of a departure for me. I’ve written four novels and feel most comfortable making up stories; the weight of responsibility is huge when reviving a true story whose characters are family members, even when they’re no longer living.
And yet, as our project moved along, I realized it was not as great a departure as I’d imagined. Like my novels, it was a story about “family” in the universal sense, and the connections between husband, wife, mother, father, child, and sibling.
Five years have passed since The Occupied Garden was published, and Tracy and I have embarked on a companion book, this time about our mother’s family in some of the poorest neighbourhoods of First World War London, England. Because we don’t speak Dutch, the biggest hurdle with The Occupied Garden was language; the greatest challenge with this new book is that we’ve dipped further back in time.
There are no longer living family members to give us those personal details that make a memoir come alive. Our grandmother Dory died in the 1990s. Orphaned as a young girl, she remembered very little of her parents. So reconstructing her childhood is detective work, in a way, and painstaking. Sometimes it’s even tedious. But it’s also immensely gratifying when the snooping yields results: little by little, the ghosts take shape.
Dory’s father died when she was a baby, and when Dory was 7, her mother Mary Ann was diagnosed with breast cancer that had spread to her brain. Mary Ann was declared a “lunatic” and placed in the Cane Hill mental asylum, where she died in October 1917. Because so little of Mary Ann’s story remains, we have to search for clues to shape her experience. And there are so many compelling avenues to follow.
There’s the Cane Hill Asylum itself, a large, hilltop building erected in the 1880s because existing asylums for the poor were filled to capacity. It closed more than a century later, and quickly fell into disrepair. The site became popular among so-called urban explorers, who documented its decay in haunting photographs of peeling paint, broken windows, rusted bed frames, and tattered patient records. The images serve as reminders of the people who once lived there, and all the stories that disappeared with them.
One of the patients was Charlie Chaplin‘s mother Hannah, a music hall entertainer lost to mental illness, and kept at Cane Hill until Charlie had money enough to put her somewhere better. Once when Charlie’s brother visited, she whispered to him as he left, “Don’t lose your way because they might keep you here.” Chaplin later wrote, “How could she go insane? Vaguely I felt that she had deliberately escaped from her mind and had deserted us. In my despair, I had visions of her looking pathetically at me, drifting away into a void.”
Did young Dory feel that way about Mary Ann? Only the tiniest anecdotes have been passed down about Dory and her mother together: a train trip to Cane Hill, a spot in a chair beside Mary Ann’s bed, and Mary Ann saying vacantly, “I must ask the nurse to bring you a cup of tea.”
Among the other patients during Mary Ann’s stay were shell-shocked “pauper” soldiers sent to Cane Hill during the war, traumatized by the horrors of trench warfare, many of them buried anonymously in the asylum’s cemetery. As I search for these men on the census or in military records, the details that come through are fragments, but all the more piercing because of their specificity:
Samuel Schoolneart had a tattoo of forget-me-nots and a slight hammertoe, and was declared delusional after action in France.
Walter Sutton, a father and husband, was “aggravated by service in the war with Germany…. Admitted with history of having been peculiar and stupid in France. Is dull, slow in mind, careless, irresponsible and happy. His mind wanders incoherently from one subject to another and his speech is indistinct.”
And Charles Fray “began to imagine some months ago that people in the streets gesticulated at him and made disparaging remarks about him…. He has voices telling him that he is to be made away with because he is a spy. The man is of German parentage hence the nature of the delusions.”
All of these men died at Cane Hill not long after Mary Ann passed away. Did she speak with Samuel or Walter or Charles on one of their more lucid days? We have little to go on, but we gather the scraps and put them together.
Tracing the doctor who signed Mary Ann’s death certificate, Edward Salterne Littlejohn, we find that his father was also a doctor. Edward grew up where his father worked, at the Hanwell School for deprived children (also called “Cuckoo School” because it was built on Cuckoo Hill), which Charlie Chaplin briefly attended. It’s amazing to see these paths circle and intersect, and to find our own ancestors’ footprints upon them.
And speaking of footprints — archival photographs show us shoes worn by patients at Cane Hill who were in the habit of removing their clothing; instead of laces, they had straps that locked closed. Did Mary Ann wear such shoes? These are details we will never know, but used skillfully and honestly, they can still help us depict Mary Ann’s life, and so Dory’s.
As much as I believe in the power of fiction to capture truth, there’s something particularly moving about the stories of real people, and the act of preserving them. What begins to emerge with this kind of research is not just a family’s story, but a web of stories spun into a dizzying pattern that hints at the connections between people, how one life impacts another, and why.
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Kristen den Hartog’s most recent novel is And Me Among Them, published in Canada by Freehand Books and due out in the US as The Girl Giant in spring 2012. She lives in Toronto with her family, and blogs about the books she reads with her daughter at Blog of Green Gables.
Saturday, March 10th, 2012