A Secret Madness by Elaine Bass
|A Secret Madness by Elaine Bass|
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: Although not medically qualified Elaine Bass' story of her marriage to a man with OCD will provide more insight than most medical books and should be essential reading for anyone with a friend or relative with the illness. It's very well written and can also be read as a good story. It's highly recommended by Bookbag.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 272||Date: January 2007|
|Publisher: Profile Books Ltd|
It was nineteen fifties London and two friends lived in nearby bed sits. Helen met and married Alan and they went on to lead a prosperous, secure and seemingly happy life. Elaine, on the other hand, met Gerald. His courtship of Elaine was unusual and there were even some hints that all was not as it should be, but husbands were in short supply after the end of the Second World War and Elaine and Gerald married. At first Elaine was able to manage some of Gerald's curious ways, his constant references to dictionaries, making notes about everything, storing old newspapers and going over and over something which happened as he had a feeling that there was something which he had forgotten. It was annoying and occasionally tedious, but not really a problem.
The couple moved to Devon where the living was cheaper and for a time Elaine supported them both with her secretarial work, but their life was lived only a little above the poverty line. As a picture of nineteen fifties life when rationing had only just ended the book is superb. The social mores of the time are captured perfectly too: even a man who had been at home all day whilst his wife was at work would not think of clearing out the fireplace and laying a fresh fire for her return. The picture of the attitude to mental illness is fascinating: Elaine found it more acceptable to tell people that she was leaving a husband who was mentally sick than to explain that he was violent.
Gerald didn't have a job because he couldn't bear to expose himself to any situation where he might be seen writing and it was with great patience and a little trickery that Elaine managed to help him though this. Once Gerald was in work life became financially easier until Elaine's pregnancy forced her to give up work. When Melanie was born Gerald suffered a complete breakdown and could neither look at nor speak to his wife or daughter. He became violent and eventually the marriage ended.
For nearly half a century I lived in the shadow of someone else's mental illness and Elaine Bass captures perfectly the feeling of constantly wondering what is going to happen next, whether a word, or even the ill-timed lift of an eyebrow, will provoke an argument or even violence. So perfect was her description of feeling alone, without any help or support, that you were the victim suffering as much as the person with the illness, that I felt the physical stab of memories which I thought time had dulled.
I couldn't put this book down. It's so compelling that I was still reading at three o'clock in the morning. I had to find out what happened to Elaine and Melanie, even Gerald himself. He isn't portrayed as a monster, but as a charming, well-educated man at the mercy of an illness which neither he nor anyone else could control. You can read the book as a story: there's real dramatic tension and a sense of bleak honesty. Elaine is perfectly open about her affair with the village doctor, which would have been frowned on in any age, but it gave a little comfort in a life where it was otherwise lacking.
It's quite easy to get information about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but what isn't readily available is an insight into how it feels to live with the problem. Elaine Bass isn't medically qualified but when Gerald was moved to comment that his daughter was 'just like him' she knew that she had to get to the bottom of the causes of his mental illness if only for her daughter's sake. Her attempts to get Gerald to talk about his problem and the details he reluctantly provided give an amazing insight into how frightening the symptoms must be. I've read superficial descriptions about people with OCD constantly washing their hands, remaking beds, but this book goes far deeper and provides some insight into how the sufferer feels and what drives them. If a friend or relative suffers from OCD this book should be essential reading.
My thanks to the publishers, Profile Books, for sending me this wonderful book.
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