The Brackenwood Memoirs – Episode 1

Note to Reader – This is the first episode of what is to be a series of writing forming the fictional account of a young woman training to be a Nurse at a Hospital for People with a Mental Handicap, in the mid-seventies. Such places, thankfully, no longer exist. There were many around then. Institutions where those society didn’t know how to cope with were locked away from the world. I know, because I trained in one. The story is based on my own experiences, but is a work of fiction and any resemblance to any place, person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Madeleine Johnson is not me – this is not my autobiography – but her story resonates with mine and we share some experiences. Please note, the language in the story, is the language of the time – 1975. It was a time for change in the Disability field and heralded massive transformation of service delivery. Nowadays, most disabled people live in the local community – quite rightly. We accept that all humans have equal value and should be afforded dignity and respect. This was not the case then! Madeleine’s story tells some of this and is also about her, as a young woman, away from home for the first time, and how she grows and changes – her relationships and the way she navigates a sometimes complex life.

August 2nd 1975

Journal entries of Madeline Johnson (an 18-yr old, about to begin her Nursing Career)

Hoorah! I finally got my confirmation letter today! Whew, despite being right on the last second – thanks to Mum dallying over sorting out my paperwork (what kind of mother loses her favourite child’s birth certificate?) – they are letting me start on the next intake. September 16th – I am out of here and beginning my new life!

Sorry, I should start from the beginning as this will not make sense to anyone reading this in later years But who will read this in later years, Maddy asks herself? Oh, who knows but Pepys got heaps and thousands of people reading his diary and, to be frank, they were really pretty boring – apart from the bits about the plague and the fire that is.

So, I had better start again and be clear for the benefit of my future readers. Hee hee!!

Here beginneth the Diary of Madeleine Johnson, soon to be Student Nurse at Brackenwood Hospital for the Mentally Subnormal!!

My name is Maddy Johnson and I am just 18 years old and have literally – this very morning – been given the wonderful, liberating news that I am about to embark on my REAL LIFE!! For months – at least over a year – I have been living a shadow of a life. Not knowing what direction I should be taking or where I would end up.

I scraped thought my O levels, thanks to a disastrous break-up with an absolute plonker of a boyfriend, Jason Minshull, who thought he was God’s gift to the universe (and let me tell you, he truly was not!!) and was stressing out completely over my As in the first year. It was such hard work, although I loved English – French and History were killing me! I was desperate to become a Social Worker, having gone right off the idea of teaching when it struck me that I actually didn’t like children all that much, which I suppose, as I would have had to have spent all day with the miserable wretches, is something of a drawback. (Although loads of my teachers at Harden Hall Grammar clearly despise teenagers – especially greasy, grumpy Mr Hunter and the vile, ugly and odorous Miss Brownlow!!).

But A levels were proving to be a pain in the neck and were literally stopping me reaching my goals. I want to put the world to rights – because frankly it is in a terrible mess and I kn ow I have so much to offer it. I can stand up for the underdog – I know injustice when I see it – and I intend to fight the good fight for those who can’t fight themselves. I was in despair at the thought of going back to do another year of studying with dreary old Miss Rathbone – who makes History sound so DIRE!! And whimsical Monsier Bertillon endeavouring to impart his superior knowledge of French literature to us – looking down his nose at us constantly (What is it with the French that makes them so arrogant? It’s not like they have that much going for them – apart from wine, cheese and sunshine, is it? Oh yes and fit French boys, I suppose)

Anyway, in the depths of my despair, after dropping out of 6th form and trying 2 courses at College, both of which were absolute rubbish, came a voice speaking – as if from on high! Actually it was in the Watering Hole, our local pub. Brian Kirkby, he of the Sunshine Centre for Mentally Handicapped Young People, suggested that I might be good at Nursing the Mentally Handicapped. Well, I’d never heard such of such a career and of course mummy dearest was sceptical about it. I mean, what would a professional like Brian Kirkby know that my mum hadn’t previously had knowledge of? She of the superior wisdom of the whole world (in her opinion and hers alone!)

But it turned out to be absolutely spot on. You can indeed do a Nursing Course and train to become a Registered Nurse for the Mentally Subnormal. A gross title! But Brian reckons that some new laws are being passed soon that will change the title. He recommended two places I could apply for and off I went. Within a few days I was offered an interview at Brackenwood – a huge institution close to an obscure (but actually very pretty) village in Lancashire called Tarpley. Turns out that a bus runs there three times a day from Manchester city centre. I trundled off there – all my little own-some, like a regular grown-up person. Nearly didn’t make it though, as I set from the village on the wrong road, but anyway, to cut a long, but rather brilliant though I say so myself, story short – I got there in one piece with ten minutes to spare before my interview time.

When I say huge I do mean HUGE!! It’s in these amazing grounds, which are like forests of trees and rhodedendrum bushes – the drive is a good 10-minute walk from the gates. And that opens out to these lawns and flower-beds. All very beautifully manicured in matching colours. I had to put my bag down and just stop and take it all in. Because it was nothing like any hospital I had ever seen before. It was more like a stately home or grand county council offices or something. These flower beds and lawns formed a sort of central island round which there were red-brick buildings. The main ones were incredibly grand. That must be where the top brass are, I thought. There was this fancy clock tower rising from it and the time displayed there declared that I had two minutes to leg it to the School of Nursing, which, according to my letter, was on the far side of these central gardens.

There were paths dissecting the gardens, with green-painted seats placed at intervals, so I hurriedly made my way across the one that led across the middle. As I set off, it was with much relief that I noticed the sign for the School so I knew I was almost there. I then noticed an elderly man, limping along the path to my left, coming towards where it would meet mine in the centre – his tongue lolling from his mouth, saliva drooling down his chin, he looked pretty determined to reach me. Shame on me, I felt myself break into a trot, but I gave him what I thought was a kind smile.

“Good morning!” he called to me. Well, I could hardly just bolt off now, could I? So I returned the greeting and slowed a little. Next thing I know, a bellowing voice rang out across these gardens.

“Barry Battersby, you get back here now, you f******g toad! You’re meant to have taken the slops, you lazy good for nothing b******d!”

Charming, I thought! I looked and saw a much younger man, couldn’t have been more than twenty, running towards this old man. When I say old, he could actually have been anything between 40 and 60, it was really hard to tell. His clothes were really old-fashioned. It was weird; he was wearing a suit but with a pullover under the jacket and a shirt, even though it was a really hot day – and the collar was really frayed. Plus there was food all down his front – porridge or something, I think. And the suit was made from that cheap material that my mum likes making dresses from – crimplene – really nasty stuff.

Anyway, this foul-mouthed chap doing the shouting was wearing a white coat and he obviously had Brylcremed his thick black hair – it was gross! I hate oily hair – and it matched his oily voice when he spoke to me – in a VERY different voice to the one he had used on the old gentleman.

“Sorry, miss, he shouldn’t be out. I won’t let him bother you any more” Yuk, this white-coated fool was leering at me! Made me feel totally creeped out.

“What’s a beautiful young lady like yourself doing in a loony bin like this then?” What a sleazy chat-up line!

Before I could answer, the old fellow, who was right next to me now, touched my hair and started to say something. He was holding on to my arm – he wasn’t hurting me – he just seemed to need to steady himself. It was apparently difficult for him to speak, as he seemed to be making excess saliva and his tongue was acting like a barrier to him forming words properly, but I did just about understand him.

 “I like your curly hair”, and he smiled, slurping up as much saliva as he could and wiping the rest that was dripping down his chin on to his pullover, with his suit sleeve.

I couldn’t quite take in what happened next. White-coat man (was he a doctor?) grabbed both his arms and hoisted him backwards, so that his feet came off the ground.

“Get your filthy hands off that nice lady, you scum-bag idiot!” He was red in the face and really angry, but he still managed to leer in my direction.

“Get off me, Sh***face!” yelled the poor man as he wriggled to try and get free, with his feet dangling off the ground. Before I knew what was happening, another white coat with a bald head and fat as Billy Bunter had arrived along with a ferocious looking red-haired woman in a blue nurse’s uniform.

“Get him back to the ward, now! You’re in the slammer, you are Barry – that was your final warning!” This was the woman barking at him now. She looked me up and down, like something the cat had brought in and declared, “You have to be careful striking up conversations with patients, you know. You shouldn’t be encouraging them.” Then she marched off with the bald-white coat half-dragging poor old Barry along, yelling “All f****g staff are sh**faces!”

To be perfectly honest, I had to agree with Barry – they certainly weren’t behaving very nicely.

Brylcreme loitered – he was still leering at me, “Can I help you find your way, love?”

Yeah right, like I’d trust you with directions, you snake, I thought to myself. But as I was unclear who or what he was, held my tongue and just said, “No thanks, I know exactly where I’m going” and with as much dignity as I could muster, I turned on my heel and walked the rest of the short distance to the School. Thankfully, there were no further incidents on route.

I was met at the door of the School by a tall, anxious-looking grey-haired woman, wearing a lilac-plaid skirt with a cream cashmere looking sweater (This is in July, for goodness sake!) – “Miss Johnson? I was just coming to fetch you. I saw what happened there in the gardens. So very sorry. That sort of thing happens rarely, I can assure you. Most distressing for you.”

I decided there and then that I had no intention of staying in a place where human beings were treated so dreadfully. Spoken to as if they were badly-behaved dogs and dragged off like criminals. And where staff made lecherous comments to young women they didn’t even know. I was about to make this little speech – well, actually, I wasn’t but I was thinking it in my head – and would probably have simply said, “Really sorry, I’ve changed my mind, this place isn’t for me”. I was thinking that Grandad Taylor was right – he’d told me when I said I was applying for Brackenwood that “no-one knows what goes on beyond those walls. Folk aren’t put in those place without good reason”. He was afraid for me – that I’d be attacked – but I realised that morning, it wasn’t the patients I needed to be afraid of – it was the staff! I’d seen three already that personally I wanted to biff on the nose and lock up! The patient I had met had seemed absolutely charming – just a little mucky and not very well turned-out.

Anyway, as I’m churning all this in my mind – and believe me, I’m really shaken by all that’s gone on – this woman said something that stopped me from leaving and set my course for the future.

“I can see you’re quite disturbed by that incident. It’s exactly the sort of thing that we’re trying desperately to stamp out. Sadly, it’s become the culture of institutions. It’s why we need to train people – like yourself – in new ways. Ways that respect the humanity of all – that afford dignity and value to the people who have found themselves incarcerated in these places.”

What!? Was this the boss, I wondered? And was she actually slagging off her own hospital? I hardly noticed, but she had me gently by the arm by now and was steering me up a stone staircase and we emerged onto a wide carpeted corridor – lined with windows along one side and doors along the left-hand side. She opened the first door – couldn’t help but note that it was incredibly wide and it opened outwards on to the corridor – which led into a comfortable looking office; clearly hers, because she went behind the desk and motioned me to sit in an easy chair opposite. She pushed a button on an intercom.

“Sally, could you make some tea, please? Miss Madeleine Johnson is here for interview and she’s had an awful shock”. I heard this Sally say okay then and then this anxious looking lady turned back to me. “I’m Vera Rosthorne – Principal Nursing Tutor. I wrote to you. I saw what happened”’, her office overlooked the gardens. “Most distressing”, she repeated, “Miss Johnson, this is an institution that has been overlooked by time and society. They put away the unfortunates; those who cannot cope with life and those whose life cannot be coped with; the ones whose behaviour shocks and frightens; those who are unable to care for themselves and frankly, embarrass and scare us. Then it conveniently forgets all about them. It’s a disgrace and you may be asking yourself, why would I come here? Why train anyone to work in such a place? Because, Miss Johnson, these places must not be allowed to go on as they are. The ways they have fallen into must be challenged. They must be dragged, kicking and screaming if necessary, into the 20th century. They must be made to accept that the people who live here are not sick; neither are they mad or dangerous. They are people in need of care and support; of rehabilitation and loving attention.”

At which point Sally comes in with the tea. I feel like I’ve walked into a TV drama! This is all beyond me. Does she think she’s recruiting Wonder Woman? What can I do? I’m still thinking at this point that I have to get the hell out of here as soon as I can politely escape, get myself home and forget about it. Then, I remember Mum will be there with all the “I told you so” smugness that she can sum up and Grandad will knowingly nod and I’ll be back doing a repeat year of A levels, because I’ve already ditched them, in the hope of finding something better.

Then I remember something else. Something Brian Kirkby told me. “Places like Brackenhall were built in the last century – mostly as workhouses and lunatic asylums or ‘hospitals for mental defectives’”, he held his hand up as I looked horrified at his language. What had this got to do with the fabulous young people who had severe handicaps, lived at home with their parents, and came along to the Youth Club I volunteered at each week? They weren’t ‘defective’! What a horrid word! And they weren’t lunatics either.

“That sort of language was once legal speak,” he told me, “There was the Lunacy Act – then the Mental Deficiency Act – 1913, I think that one was – and in those Acts, by law, people who we now refer to as having a Mental Handicap were called Idiots, Imbeciles and Feeble-minded. Some were called Moral Defectives. It sounds dreadful to us now, but that’s because those terms have been hijacked and are used as words of insult that we hurl at people to make people feel bad. Nowadays the term Mental Subnormality is the legal phrase, but that will soon change, I hear. Mental Handicap will be the modern term. These places owe a lot to the Industrial Revolution. Up till then, if any member of your family needed looking after, if they were disabled in any way, they were cared for in the home; because people worked there and they could be kept an eye on. They were part of society and many worked – did jobs to help out in the community – running errands and so on. But when machinery like looms came along and factories were built – everything became centralised – people had to go out of the home to work. Who was there to care for those who couldn’t take care of themselves? The ‘economically unproductives’? So they built places where they could be gathered together to be cared for enmasse. They probably started with very good intentions. Some had their own farms and were self-sufficient. The ‘inmates’ were well cared for. But, segregation and congregation doesn’t work for people in the long run. Institutions of any type breed a peculiar way of being. The staff can be corrupted and start to behave more like jailers than care givers. There will be good nurses, but for many it becomes a power trip. They start to enjoy belittling those who can’t fight back.”

What he told me then was more or less being repeated now by Vera Rosthorne, who was explaining the history and telling me all about the “new philosophy” of Brackenhall – launched and presided over by the Divisional Nursing Officer – who she clearly revered – Robert Atkinson.

“He is making it his life-work to close this place down” she proudly stated. So where would that leave me? I was coming here for my career – how long would I have a job for?

“Oh, don’t look so alarmed, Miss Johnson”, she must have seen my perplexed face, “Student nurses, training in new methods, with new teaching behind them, are all part of the way changes will come about. This a mission that will take many years. But you are coming into Nursing at the right time. This is an exciting point of the Brackenhall development! Mr Atkinson is ahead of his time. He’s acclaimed by those in the field – he’s written papers about it. He fervently believes in Normalization and in Community Care for all – no matter the level of handicap. The practices you saw played out toward that gentlemen, dear gentle Barry, will be stamped out. We’ll show people, through education, that there is a more humane way to treat people and then they will respond in turn and grow to their full potential!”

The good lady’s eyes were shining as she spoke. I had to give it to her. She’d sold the place to me. I wanted to show the oily-haired twit and his bald-headed fat friend, along with the redheaded harridan, that you can’t go treating people as if they don’t count. Barry has a soul and he matters! I would come here, train as a Nurse, in these new ways she was on about and I would fight for Barry and see he got a better life! I would come here and show kindness and respect to Barry and all his mates.

Well, it’s 1 o’clock in the morning and I can see Nessie stirring – any minute now she is going to start whining that I’ve still got my light on and she’ll wake Mum, who will come in and rant and then the whole flaming house will be up – even though it’s only a tiny lamp – Vanessa can’t bear for me to be awake when she’s asleep or doing anything she can’t do. So I had better put this diary away and shut off the light. More tomorrow when I will write about everything that happened on the day of the Interview – because, honestly there is so much more to say! For now, I am signing off – but want to say – one more time, because I want to absorb this wonderful news – I am leaving home! I am off to be a Nurse!! Yahoo!!

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