Anne Thurston has given us the gift of learning about survivor experience in her memoir about domestic violence, mental illness and recovery. Her story covers many decades, from the formative events and impressions of childhood to marriage, children and life on the family farm as it pitches down from idyll to jeopardy. Then we follow her process of recovery, activated by courage, curiosity, self-analysis and psychotherapy.
Thurston has a great talent for description, honed by the memoir writing course she attended. Her warm depictions of childhood and the farming life are particularly vivid and sensuous.
As a writing technique, the author uses memoir to recreatescenes from her past for the reader to imagine, while building around these scenes a coherent narrative to help make sense of what was happening to her. Through sharing her self-analysis and growth, as well as the struggles and setbacks, she provides insights that will help other women struggling with fearful, dangerous and overwhelming circumstances. One of Thurston’s strengths is the untangling of body-mind dynamics relating to trauma, those puzzling phenomena that operate outside of conscious experience. There is also a brave portrayal of family transmission of trauma and the pitfalls of speaking out to one’s loved ones, which accounts for the author’s choice to use a pseudonym.
Through my work over the years with the Mental Health Foundation and Mental Health Commission and in academic women’s studies I have kept a close eye on – and occasionally contributed in a small way to – discourses around violence against women, mental ill health and recovery.
I have always been convinced of the value of survivor experience which, despite lip service, is often not incorporated as fully as it might be into professional practice. Mental health professionals witness clients at the time of their greatest distress, and while their contributions can range from valuable to lifesaving, they may underestimate the intelligence, creativity, uniqueness and sheer bloody-mindedness of people who forge their way towards recovery. Thurston’s (at times) harrowing account of her experiences shows how she survived and overcame the devastating adversity of violent familial abuse towards women.
I loved the book’s epigraph, quoting from St Augustine: “Hope has two beautiful daughters – their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” Thurston’s account of her journey does indeed epitomise this maxim.
Reviewed by Dr Hilary Lapsley, former Deputy Director of the Mental Health Foundation in the late 1980s. She taught women’s studies at the University of Waikato and was later Research Director of the Mental Health Commission. Currently she is Senior Research Fellow at the James Henare Research Centre, University of Auckland.