Eminent people and unmade beds, Ann Beaglehole

My Life in Two Halves: A Memoir 
Betty Gilderdale
David Bateman, $30.00,
ISBN 978186953832 

Before I Forget
Jacqueline Fahey
Auckland University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781869405816

The Lost Woman
Sydney Smith
Text, $40.00,
ISBN 9781921922480

Freud, who supposedly said that he would never do anything as crass as write a memoir, drew a distinction between the outward life, which could be covered by a few dates, and the more complicated inward life. Betty Gilderdale’s My Life in Two Halves avoids the complications of the inward life almost entirely. She covers the main events of her successful journey: from childhood in London during WWII; education at University College, London; war work in Malta; marriage and motherhood in Surrey; work in New Zealand as teacher, writer, reviewer, scholar, children’s literature advocate; ending with retirement from teaching to continue writing. Family photos enliven a schematic record of a busy life.

Not least among Gilderdale’s accomplishments has been the skilful way she balanced the demands of career and family, steering husband, children and elderly parents through the challenges of migration from Britain to New Zealand. The migration experience gives the book its title as Gilderdale draws a clear line between her life before and after settling in New Zealand in 1967. She writes that her ideas and attitudes have been ‘tested’ by immigration but does not show how.

Gilderdale’s memoir is comprehensive: social life, family holidays and visitors are all touched on. She notes the eminent people she has met: Margaret Mahy, Lynley Dodd and Joy Cowley among others. Ventures in diverse directions prove successful. Her children’s book The Little Yellow Digger becomes a best seller. She lists the prizes and awards she has received, among them the prestigious PEN award for the best first book of prose fiction, A Sea Change. Gilderdale’s contribution is recognised by the Children’s Literature Association, which renamed its award for services to children’s literature the Betty Gilderdale Award.

In contrast with Gilderdale’s, which reads a bit like a résumé, the memoir by artist and writer Jacqueline Fahey has more of the inward life. It goes off at tangents, leaving gaps. As she acknowledges, there are episodes in her life and names of people she cannot remember. This will come as a relief to readers who have experienced similar lapses of memory. The first volume of Fahey’s memoir, Something for the Birds, ended with her embarking on married life. Before I Forget continues the story: marriage to psychiatrist Fraser McDonald, “handsome like Dr Kildare”; the “pure pleasure” of pregnancies; and the struggles to combine art with domesticity.

Her father’s death leads Fahey back to painting. Realising that her “immediate life” was her “inspiration”, she decides that “rather than getting away from it all”, she would: “embrace domesticity, transform it, interpret it. Who better than someone immersed in it? Everything that made up my life automatically became part of my work.”

Painting the unmade bed, the mess on the table, her career flourishes. She exhibits widely, representing New Zealand at overseas exhibitions. Awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council Grant, she goes to New York. She teaches at the Elam School of Fine Arts. Like Gilderdale, she interacts with famous artists and poets: James K Baxter, Paul Olds, Rita Angus among others.

I was a social worker at Porirua Hospital during the period when the move to empty psychiatric hospitals and place patients in the community gathered speed, so I was fascinated to read about Fraser McDonald’s 40-year career as psychiatrist. Superintendent of Kingseat in the early 1970s, he introduces integrated wards, with doctors no longer having to wear white coats and stethoscopes “like a badge of office”. He dismantles Oakley, “a Maori-only facility that was really a holding pen for potential dissidents unloaded from prisons into the hospital system”, and said to be “a more oppressive institution than any even in South Africa under apartheid”. Titewhai Harawira, in charge of the revamped Maori unit, appeared to aim, writes Fahey, “to create chaos in a Pakeha institution”.  Harawira insists on calling her “Mrs Fraser McDonald” despite pleas to call her Jacqueline: “My own identity as painter and writer deliberately bypassed.”

The history of psychiatric care is as absorbing as the story of Fahey as artist, wife and mother. The personal account, movingly told, returns with her husband’s illness, his personality change after a coronary and his death while Fahey is away in the United States. Compelled to start again, Fahey takes “solace in painting”.  The memoir is illustrated with her paintings.

After two memoirs crammed with accomplishment, it is almost a relief to turn to the third – The Lost Woman by Sydney Smith (not her real name) – in which the writer’s main achievement (apart from this riveting first book) is escape from a ruined childhood. Smith’s family milieu will be known to some readers: controlling and unpredictable mother, wielding the strap; detached father, unable to stand up to the mother, escaping to the bowling club and the workingmen’s club; and brothers, encouraged to study while Smith is forced to do all the chores. Daily life in her “malignant” family includes being made to play outside in the sun after her eyes have been dilated with eye drops and being locked out of the house. And these “cruelties” aren’t the worst of it.

The words “sexual assault” can be relied on to make people sit up and take serious notice. “Be as brave as Smith, take this story on,” says the blurb. Though I’m a coward, the strength of the writing kept me enthralled, taking me back to the days when I was convinced by the theories of R D Laing and others on the power of the nuclear family (mainly the mother) to destroy the sexual and social independence of the individual and even to drive family members mad.

Smith grew up in Wellington during the late 1960s and early 1970s, escaping to Australia at the age of 25 to start a new life. I’m guessing the dates (as none are given in the book) by the closure of the Ascot Cinema in Newtown in 1976, which Smith frequented as a child, and by the opening of South Wellington Intermediate School, which she attended, in the mid-1970s. She is the only daughter of a Maori mother (part Moriori, born in the Chatham Islands) and Pakeha father; she has two older brothers and one younger brother. Having been beaten for speaking Maori at school, the mother tries to bury her Maori identity. When she is with her Maori family the accent of her childhood returns to replace “the artificial accents she had learned during her elocution lessons at boarding school”.

Smith’s portrayal of the Maori family is harsh. When they visit, they “stampeded into [the mother’s] bedroom and ransacked her wardrobe” and “ate with aggressive gusto, dropping potato, pork chops and salad on the floor and laughing heartily at their clumsiness”.  After the short visit, “Mother sat in shattered subjugation amid the ruin.”

The Lost Woman is not a straightforward story of abuse (if such stories are ever straightforward). How much of Smith’s suffering is due to the intentional actions of the “evil” and “cruel” Mother? The book is a gripping read because it presents a puzzle. What is going on? Who is the lost woman: just the daughter or also the mother? Why can Smith not let her out of sight? Why does she feel she has to take care of her mother?

The mother is depicted as hell-bent on destroying the daughter. Aged nine, Smith wants to die. Yet mother and daughter, who share a love of reading, have afternoon teas together at the Matterhorn and the supposedly uncaring father regularly takes the family for drives in the car around the bays and builds the daughter a bookcase.

Research shows we tell stories to make the past what we want it to be. In her author’s note Smith acknowledges: “The writer of a memoir is in a position of great power; their version of events becomes the definitive version, the unchallenged version.” She is aware that she may be depriving her brothers of their voices. What about her parents? This is not a clear-eyed memoir but one that will make you think.

Freud mistrusted them, but memoirs have honourable ancestry (St Augustine, Rousseau). In the memoirs under review, the authors write boldly, trying to make sense of what has gone well in their lives and what has gone wrong.


Ann Beaglehole is a Wellington reviewer and historian.


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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Review
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