Monday, June 22, 2015

'Down into the Darkness': Mental Illness & Family History

Van Gogh's Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity's Gate),
a painting sometimes associated with mental illness. 
Mental illness can be one of those uncomfortable topics some of us may not want to talk about; nevertheless, we may find evidence of it on our family trees. We might turn our hearts and our minds away from psychiatric illness, simply because we cannot figure it out; it is not easily solvable.

There is no visible wound, no gash to bandage, nothing like a broken bone that can be reset and covered with a cast. With the exception of Alzheimer’s, we tend not to accord heroism to those who cope with diseases of the mind.

Histories of mental illness dangle from many family trees, with stories that are spoken of in whispers or dismay. Perhaps there are tales of shell-shocked cousins who would cry out in the dark shadows of night, and then find it impossible to function in the light of day. We might focus on the heroic side of their military careers while failing to acknowledge the truth about the impact of war on their mental health.

So too, there are those histories to which reference is made in cruel jokes about ‘mad’ relations with strangely obsessive habits, aunties who wore bizarre looking hats and spoke to invisible companions, and uncles who weren’t quite ‘all there’.

For some family historians, there may be something soothing about dealing only with the stories of people who appear to have been cognitively rational. They fit into easy slots. We can say person A was a butcher or baker, person B lived in Dublin or Wicklow, but the mentally ill may not always fit so easily into the picture of family life. For some researchers, it may be easier to joke about mental illness, not out of maliciousness, but perhaps out of ignorance, or simply a desire to distance themselves from a connection to something so unsettling.

Still, some of us know what it is to go down into the darkness. We have found the unwanted experience of mental illness laid right at our doorstep. Some of us have suffered from deep depression, the clinical sort, the kind that tips your soul right out of your body, and leaves you in a dark and forbidding place. When we find histories of mental illness on our family tree, aspects of those stories may feel disconcertingly familiar.

We have one beautiful boy on our paternal family tree who, on the brink of a brilliant academic life, emerged as a schizophrenic. Onset of the illness manifested in subtle changes over time — dropping grades and social isolation. A hammer attack on his mother was the horrifying signifier that his mind had completely moved on to an alternate universe. When he was a very little boy he was sweet and shy, curious and a little mischievous, and loved to have his photograph taken. He loved the infinitesimal details of maps, and obsessively computed the distances linking cities and towns, counties and countries, but could not connect with people. He lived with the voices inside of his head, voices who at times seemed to be the only ones who could understand him.

We have had a least two suicides on our family tree. Two beloved young men, a brother and a son, whose hearts were too tender to hang on to this world. Family members of both men have beautiful memories of times filled with light and laughter. However, in the minds of these young men the world was ordered differently, so for them the only hope of peace was to escape it. The deep and abiding love of family members and friends was not enough to keep them on this earth.

There have been periods in history when mental illness was viewed as a moral failing, or as a failure of control, with individuals characterized as self-centred and ‘giving in’ to their wounded or broken minds, and their inclinations toward deviance.

Our Edwardian period family members appear to have been very much a product of their time, and social class, believing those with mental illness made a choice to live inside of sorrow and allow it to feed on them. There was often no hint of understanding, just a recognition of, and sometimes frustration over having to deal with the ’shattered nerves’ and ‘melancholia’ of the individual in question.

Tom Kettle, a first cousin on my maternal family tree, was plagued by mental illness for years before his death on the Somme in 1916. Writing to him in May of 1901, Tom's brother Laurence scolds Tom for his melancholy, because it makes Laurence feel bad afterward. Laurence writes,

‘Why, oh why will you ever assume such a pessimistic attitude in your letters? It makes me feel uncomfortable for a week after.’

In The Ways of War, a book Tom Kettle co-authored with his wife Mary Sheehy, Mary offers an explanation for Tom's overall negative temperament, but she does not point to the origin of his pre-existing 'shattered nerves'. Mary writes,

'[A] brother, a veritable twin soul, to whom he was deeply attached died. This was an everlasting grief to him. This sorrow, together with his shattered nerves, was responsible for his somewhat tragic and melancholy temper.'

Tom’s beloved brother William died of tuberculosis in May of 1903. Perhaps triggered by this tragic loss, in the summer of 1904, Tom suffered a mental breakdown and was sent to recuperate in Innsbruck, Austria.

Noteworthy in the correspondence between Tom and Mary during this period are references to his 'black mood' and ‘miserable glooms’. In November of 1904, Mary writes,

'My dear Love, I see by today’s letter that you are allowing the black mood to keep you company...You must not do that...Keep looking forward — always forward and that will help.'

In a letter written later that month, Mary appears frustrated with Tom, insisting he has broken yet another promise by choosing to remain in care at Innsbruck, and away from her. Mary writes,

'If it is only the doctor who detains you — we have excellent doctors in Dublin..And I think I could help you and keep away those miserable glooms. You promised to be home in a fortnight and now you are five weeks gone — so I have had enough disappointments.'

It was around this time that Tom’s battle with alcohol also began to take shape. While he was a student at the Royal University, Tom had not been inclined to partake of alcohol; however, after William died Tom began to drink in earnest.

There were other times when Tom received treatment for his mental health, including one last instance in 1915, when he was admitted to a rehabilitation clinic in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, England, where he was treated for alcoholism and a depressive disorder. The purpose of treatment was to make him fit for a return to military duty in France, where he was killed on 9 September 1916.

On yet another branch of my maternal family tree, in 1909, at the age of only 56 years, my great-grandfather Francis Ball died of dementia. Medical research shows that early onset and death from dementia may mean that Francis Ball also likely suffered from depression.

The working life of Francis Ball ended because of his dementia. With the income of the main breadwinner gone, there was neither money to care for him at home, nor to care for him in a hospital, so in 1907, he was admitted to the infirmary of the South Dublin Union workhouse for treatment. Francis was interned there on two occasions in 1907, from 16 to 17 July, and from 21 August to 5 September for treatment of a disorder of 'nerves'. In the winter of 1908, on 3 January, Jane Ball admitted her husband to the infirmary at the workhouse for what would be the last time. He would die there eighteen months later on 3 July 1909.

On the paternal side of my family tree, the first hints that there had been mental illness in the family came in those rare moments when I could get my dad to talk about his childhood. My father’s childhood home in Crumlin had been a place of strife and violence, with the children, and their mother, suffering at the hands of a father who may have been mentally ill.

In the last days of my father's life, when Dad was telling me about what I should seek out and where I should look to uncover our family history, the confirmation came that my paternal grandfather John Geraghty had been an alcoholic, and along with that confirmation came the revelation that he had suffered bouts of severe depression throughout his life, and may have been interned in Grangegorman Mental Hospital in Dublin. What would have brought him to that terrible place, I wonder? Does such illness explain why my great-grandparents had treated John so very differently from his siblings for his whole life long?

Here in the 21st century, I find myself wondering about how well we deal with mental illness. We are supposed to know more, to be more empathetic, to be more accepting of people with mental illness, yet it is not a rare occurrence to see online rants against people who are characterized as 'crazy', 'demented', 'loony', 'psychotic' and so on. A glance at any modern dictionary will give you more than 50 words to describe mental illness, so apparently we've taken the time to develop the descriptors.

However, have we taken the time to develop our understanding of what life may have been like for those relatives and ancestors whose lives were forever changed by diseases of the mind over which they had no control, or for those family members currently dealing with mental illness?

Can we liberate their stories from a one dimensional existence, and tell of the joys in their lives, while telling of their challenges with mental illness?

Do we have the humanity to cradle their histories and share them with compassion?



  1. Jenn, a dark and difficult subject on this beautiful summer's day, but as always beautifully and sensitively written. Thank you for sharing it.

    1. Charlotte, thanks for your comments; always much appreciated. It is a difficult subject, but my hope is that writing about it starts a conversation, in families, and between friends (at it did with us on FB) about mental health issues, and those members past and present who were/are affected by it.

      Cheers to you,

  2. Jennifer, a difficult topic, as Charlotte said, but an interesting one. I think you’re right in saying for some people it’s easier to joke about than face. I’ve certainly been guilty of that. You’ve stated some very sad facts here, and I wonder how many family historians really want to know uncomfortable facts like these.. Catherine.

    1. Catherine,

      Thank you for your comments; as always, much appreciated. I don't think there are too many among us who can say they've never joked about mental health, me included. What I'm hoping is that family historians consider all sides of a person's history when they preserve it, both the good and the not so good. Even talking about mental illness doesn't have to be all bad.

      I recall when the film 'The Hours' came out a number of years ago, and one of the figures portrayed was Virginia Woolf. I was really disappointed because the portrayal of her was very one dimensional, always very dark and humourless. According to some of her family members who knew her best — nieces and nephews — despite her mental illness, apparently Woolf had a terrific sense of humour.

      Cheers to you,

  3. Thanks for this poignant and thoughtful post, Jennifer. As someone who's lost a brother to suicide and father to dementia, I appreciate your sensitivity to issues of mental illness among family members past and present. Even today, I think we struggle with understanding these issues as much as our ancestors did.

    1. Shelley,

      Thank you for your comments; always very much appreciated. First, I am very sorry for the losses you have personally suffered, of your brother and your father, and hope that your memories of the happy times you spent with each one of them brings you some comfort. Speaking from my own experience I believe, as you have said, families today continue to struggle with issues surrounding mental illness, just as did our ancestors. For many it remains a difficult topic to discuss.

      Cheers to you,

  4. Jennifer,

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

    Have a great weekend!

    1. Jana, thanks so much for the mention. It's very much appreciated.



Comments on this blog are always deeply appreciated; however, in the spirit of true collegiality, I ask that you do not write something you would not say to me in person.

This blog is CAPTCHA free, but because of spammers, comments moderation is in operation for posts older than two days.

Any comments that are mean-spirited, include URLs which are not connected to the post topic, contain misinformation, or in any way resemble advertising, will be removed.

Cheers, Jennifer

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...