Jean Winter’s Mindshadows is a fictionalised memoir, which follows the story of 20 year old Gardenia Baxter who has been sectioned following the experience of having an abortion with the result that she in extreme trauma and living with her mother in a state of peril. Review by Colin Hambrook
Mindshadows parallels Sylvia Plath’s roman à clef The Bell Jar in detailing the life, thoughts and concerns of a young woman struggling to find her place in the world having left home for the uncertain world of college life.
Where Plath strove to conceal her identity as author, Winter directly broadcasts her relationship to the novel with further autobiographical details in the form of an Appendix that proffers the effects of psychiatric medication suffered by her protagonist Gardenia Baxter – effects which in and of themselves would be enough to make anyone mad.
The author’s introduction tells us:
“This is a true account of my life, an assessment validated by factual events and logical construct. It is not just a matter of opinion, of what is right or wrong, real or imagined. The story describes my experiences in the mental health system. The diagnosis is real, the medication is real, the [medical] reports are real. While my judgement can be seen as subjective, the relevance of medical objectivity is still questionable. Who has the power to control a person’s mind and who has the answers to what is right or wrong?”
Implicit within that opening paragraph is the expectation that as people disabled by Psychiatry we will not be believed; our account and testimony will be passed off as at best fractured and unreliable and at worst irrelevant. There has been a long history to our struggles to give expression to our experiences in a public forum.
Mindshadows is a nuanced, deeply troubling, witty and astute account of life inside a mental hospital in contemporary times. The events take place in Adelaide, Australia, but the geographic location of the institution seems irrelevant. The world over psychiatric hospitals share in common a reliance on harmful drugs and deceitful doctrine justified with un-evidenced theories of ‘bad genes’ and ‘unbalanced brain chemistry’.
The book’s theme of who or what is believable is cleverly augmented throughout the text with Gardenia’s persistent silent thought processes expressed in italics. This convention of using first-person narration to display inner dialogue gives life to the writing, allowing us an insight into Gardenia’s personality even if she remains invisible to the other characters.
This device also allows Gardenia to give vent to some of her most acerbic and pointed criticism of the way she is patronised and infantilised by psychiatric professionals.
She complains that as a consequence of the medication she has been forced to take she has become constipated to the point where suppositories and enemas have no effect. And Gardenia has had only had one menstrual period in six months. The psychiatrist Dr Grimshaw responds:
“And does that worry you?”
Now I knew he didn’t have a brain.
“Perhaps you might be pregnant?”
Wouldn’t I be looking fairly large at six months pregnant? I chose not to even answer that question.
Dr Grimshaw reacts to Gardenia’s tortuous physical reaction to the medication by prescribing more and heavier drugs.
God I’d like to throw him out of the window. What’s in the garden Dr Grimshaw? Are the plants talking to you and how do you feel about that? Can you define it?
Some deeper truths about our expectations of Psychiatry and how we have imbibed its’ deceitfulness become explicit when Dr Jarvie – a psychiatrist at a private institution Gardenia is referred to, responds to her patient in an affirming way.
“You’re still taking the major tranquilizors? How are they affecting you Gardenia?”
I looked at her blankly. I wondered what world she was on, perhaps Neptune. Can I give a reply – does she think the tablets are working? Perhaps she just wants to know how I’m feeling, what’s going on?
“I can’t concentrate or think logically if that makes sense?”
“It makes perfect sense. I’ll put you on a new medication…”
If she’s going to change my medication, even lessen it perhaps, then that’s not so bad. She actually thinks I have a brain. Well it’s her job to realise I have a brain. She’s actually asking for my opinion and she’s taking me seriously.
What rings true throughout Winter’s account of her time in Felixstowe Hospital is that the definitions Psychiatry uses of a persons state of mind is simply a matter of conjecture based on the judgements of professionals who however well-meaning, are more often than not, clueless.
Mindshadows takes us into the thought processes of a young woman struggling to understand why she isn’t being listened to or even acknowledged for the insights she has into her mental state – often made worse by debilitating ‘treatments’.
‘Am I crazy?’ I said. Well why not ask the obvious? A direct question certainly makes life easier, doesn’t it?
She looked at me and then continued writing.
I knew I was going through some kind of bereavement process, but I had no idea what it entailed. I was in an unreal world but was hesitant to think that they could see me as someone experiencing some kind of schizophrenia.
Mindshadows is a shocking but sadly all-too-real account of the author’s experiences in the mental health system and is a valuable contribution to the canon of literature critical of the false Science that Psychiatry struggles to come to terms with.
The book sits alongside works such as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Clare Allan’s Poppy Shakespeare, Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Janet Frame’s Faces In The Water – to name a few – in giving a valuable female insight into the largely male dominated world of clinical psychiatry.