An ‘Unsound Mind’ – bringing a family history into the open.

I have, over the past two or three years, been unlocking metaphorical cupboards to find metaphorical skeletons falling at me from all sides. Inspired less by ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ than by an indecent fascination with the minutiae of other people’s lives (nosiness I believe is an alternative word, an inability to mind my own business) I have been looking into my family history.  Not  all of it you understand. More thorough members of my family have done a terrific job of listing the details of most key branches, and have found that on the whole my background is dull and singularly uninteresting, on paper at least. However, there has always been some mystery over my maternal line. My mother has recreated for me a shadowy late Victorian, Edwardian and post Great War North London past, populated with stories of aunts reputed to be Vera Drake-like back street abortionists, shiftless uncles, haunted houses and a silversmithing grandfather who engraved the trowel that laid the first brick of the Albert Hall. With a fascination for Victorian London already well established, how could I resist the opportunity to delve a little further? What I found in fact, was a story ten times more interesting than anticipated, with a vein of deep sadness running through it, and not a little sheer horror.   Digging into my family history has in fact uncovered years of unrecognised, or hidden, struggles with mental health issues. A denial that left my closest relations vulnerable and resulted in at least two fatalities.

The cutting reproduced above relates to my Great Uncle Alfred Hardiman, who at the   end of 1922 murdered his ex-girlfriend, Ellen Street, with a cut-throat razor and then turned the weapon on himself and committed suicide by slitting his own throat. Horrific. The amount of blood is unimaginable. What was somehow as shocking though was that Bessie Hardiman, identified in the cutting as present at the time of the deaths, gave evidence at the inquest. She is my Grandma. She had never mentioned this incident to my mother, even when as an adult she would surely have been more understanding than shocked. I found the cutting purely by chance, in an online newspaper archive. It uncovered a mystery that explained many whispered conversations she had half heard, half understood as a child. ‘Poor Alf’ her family would say, ‘it was the war you know’. I checked his WW1 records, expecting to find years in the trenches of the Somme. Instead I saw that he had spent less than a year in the army in 1917, based in Mill Hill, North London. I can’t find any detail, but he was discharged as unfit. Whatever had affected my great uncle, it was not the trauma of the front line. Whatever it was, and I suspect it was his mental state, almost certainly went untreated.

When faced with this story, one that I was afraid to discuss with her for a while, my mother was surprised of course, but not astonished, as I thought she would be. Recalling her childhood in the same house, the same kitchen (a small thing worries me still – who mopped up all the blood? My Grandma?), in which the murder and suicide occurred, it was clear that her other Uncle, Alf’s brother, was also fragile in some ill-defined way, finding steady employment difficult. A sister too suffered with depression later in life. But the family had moved from overcrowded Victorian Clerkenwell out to the newly built suburbs of Hornsey and Holloway and mental health issues were something of a taboo as they painstakingly worked their way up a perceived social ladder. It was a time of judgmental curtain twitching, when society’s view was very ‘stiff upper lip’ and  ‘pull yourself together’, or risk being locked away in any number of institutions that I still remember from my childhood – Colney Hatch, Shenley – and much suffering and injustice must have been caused by this widespread attitude.

I looked back further, at Census returns from 1881. Alf’s mother was there described in classic late Victorian terms as a ‘lunatic’. His father, my mother’s silversmith grandfather, had children both with his wife, and with the family servant alternately in the same decade. It was clearly not a straightforward upbringing.

This was all news to my Mum, and it set us thinking, and talking, about how this might in some way explain the breakdown my Uncle, mum’s brother, had in his forties when he achieved a promotion he simply couldn’t cope with. I remember, as a teenager, the much-loved Uncle that my siblings and I treated almost as an older brother, turning up on our doorstep.  He had got on his train as usual, but something had snapped and he found himself simply unable to get to work. I can picture myself as a child standing at the kitchen window, watching as he stood in our garden in tears talking to my mum. How accurate this recollection is I can’t say, but my mother’s explanation that his lifelong anxiety had all stemmed from their being evacuated at the start of WW2 may have been a little simplistic. With her care he recovered, but was never really well again.

I am like my uncle in some ways. I am able and well-qualified. I perform well at interviews. But somehow, whatever it is that drives others onwards, to levels of stress on which they thrive, for my Uncle and I it would drive us downwards, into episodes of depression and anxiety that meant, and means for me, that life can be difficult to deal with. My uncle died of a heart attack, aged just 49.

I can’t say that I have inherited a gene, or developed depression and anxiety through any family trait that stems from a one-sided family history. Others could better describe the likelihood of a genetic link, or what life was  like for those with mental illness of any kind in the first half of the 20th century. I had a loving and supportive upbringing, with parents who doted on me, and my sister and brother. But for some reason I have developed a mental illness that, with the support of my GP, my family and a little medication I am at last finding a way to cope with. My poor mum still feels it must have been something she did when I was a child, or failed to do that has caused my distress, and I cannot dissuade her from those thoughts.

This is why, for me, it is desperately important to raise awareness of mental health issues. Honesty and openness are vital if we are to end stigma and discrimination. I am fortunate that I live in more enlightened times than Alfred Hardiman, whose crime of passion was terrible, but whose ‘unsound mind’ was probably one desperately in need of the help that should be available to anyone experiencing the effects of mental distress.

56 Replies to “An ‘Unsound Mind’ – bringing a family history into the open.”

  1. A really brilliant and courageous post. It’s frightening how such things were treated in the past – I’m glad that sufferers get better treatment nowadays but I think we do have a long way to go when it comes to people’s attitudes towards mental illness.

    1. You are right – I worked for the mental health charity Mind for two years and now services are being cut once more, when they were barely sufficient in the first place. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Oh my this is totally facinating. How amazing. I am not sure about depression and genes, but I do feel there is something inmy blood. My mum suffers tooi, as did my grandmother and other people in the family. peoples would say my mum was suffering with her “nerves” in the beginning and it facinated me. We all have skeletons in the closet, more so in past generations, my family has sme shockers, but they are not my story to tell

    1. Yes – I thought long and hard about publishing the stories of people I never met, however closely related they may be. There are not many left on these lines, my mum has very few close blood relatives alive now.

  3. This a really interesting blog Suzie. I too am not sure if genes have anything to do with depression, but it goes to show that so many people are affected by it.

  4. Such a brilliant blog, thank you for being so open about your family with all of us. The genetic links with depression is something I find very interesting with my Grandmother, Mother and myself all being sufferers. I wouldn’t wish those dark times of self-loathing and hopelessness on my worst enemy and I sometimes worry terribly for my daughter. So far she is happy and confident and displays none of the shyness and awkwardness that I had as a child. Fingers crossed I was the last in the line for this destructive gene – if that’s what it is.
    Thank you again.

  5. This is an excellent post, and I completely agree that there needs to be more understanding about mental health. I think many still have a ‘Pull yourself together’ attitude when it comes to depression and anxiety, and this post is particularly interesting to me as I found out not so long ago that there is a history of anxiety on my mum’s side of the family. I don’t know whether or not it is something you inherit, although perhaps the characteristics you might possess as a result of genetics might make someone more likely to develop a similar condition. Not for me to say really. It also really makes you think when you hear of shocking events in your family history; I had an ancestor from many years ago who was a pirate and was brutally murdered in a church because of it.

    1. Our ancestry is interesting for a lot of reasons, but how we become who we are is the most fascinating. I suppose that is why genealogy programmes are so popular. Perhaps you should write the tale of your pirate ancestor?

  6. What a truly fascinating blog! I have heard of genetic links for mental health issues, and it certainly makes sense. In my brother’s paternal line there’s a great-uncle who was locked away for mental health issies and then killed by the Nazis (I’m German). On our mum’s side I know that most of them came from the Czech Republic, and seeing that I just moved there I’m hoping to do some genealogy work 🙂

    1. Thank you! Yes – I think the stories behind the trees are the most interesting part of genealogy. I would love to travel to further my research. Good luck with yours, sounds really fascinating.

  7. A truly excellent and moving blog Suzie thank you for posting it. I agree with Dave when he says that many have a ‘Pull yourself together’ attitude when they encounter depression or anxiety. There is still a lot of work to be done to further enlighten the more enlightened society of today. Your title says a lot about our legal system, to be found to be ‘of unsound mind’ or ‘mentally unstable at the time’, are both verdicts of being wise after the event.

    1. Yes – the legal system’s insistance on looking at ‘the balance of ‘ our minds at the time a crime was committed. What it is to have a ‘balanced’ mind has always confused me – how can it possibly be defined?

  8. This is really interesting – thankyou for sharing the story of your family history, it raises some interesting questions and shows that there is still some way to go in explaining how mental health problems originate and develop.
    My mum suffers from depression and there were various “scenes” when my brother and I were small that we didn’t understand at the time but must have been part of this. I know she has attempted suicide at least once but her illness was never talked about and I’m fairly certain that my father had not the first idea how to cope with it.
    It scares me to think that I may develop similar problems later in my own life, but so far I seem to have escaped it, thank goodness.
    Thanks again for writing this, it has also re-affirmed my own decision to get involved with some form of mental health charity, because there is obviously still a lot of work to be done 🙂

    1. Mind is a great mental health charity, in Taunton you can volunteer for the Helpline, Mindline. Your story is interesting and not uncommon. As children we see things that simply don’t make sense to us until later in our lives.

  9. Fascinating post, especially the story of your predecessors.

    I do think there must be some kind of genetics involved, as we have and have had quite a lot of mental health problems in our family. My grandfather was manic depressive and committed suicide, my grandmother spent a lot of time on Valium (though didn’t a lot of women in the 50s?), my mum has been diagnosed as bipolar and had a 2-year manic period a few years back, I have a cousin who is schizophrenic, one aunt and one cousin taking anti-depressants (very successfully) and another aunt who has been told recently she is probably also bipolar. On my dad’s side, my great-grandmother apparently spent almost a year in an asylum, due to (as my Gran puts it) ‘the change’, and my dad also attempted suicide once and suffered from (fairly mild, I think) bouts of depression and dependency issues (alcohol).

    As a result of this, I am always extremely aware of my moods and on the look out for any similar issues, but so far have managed to escape them, apart from a brief dance with stress. My sister is also fine, though she does have stronger mood swings, which lead me to wonder if she might be more inclined toward something herself. And, yes, I worry a lot about whether the girls will inherit any of this. I have strong hopes for medicine improving (it’s already improved a great deal), though, and feel that there’s a good chance that they’ll be fine, even if they do inherit any mental health problems.

    It’s a fascinating, though also quite frightening, issue, I feel.

    1. It can be so frightening. Looking at your family’s experience it really shows how many different ways mental health issues can affect us and what can trigger symptoms. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  10. Your post is fascinating, brave and brilliant. If you haven’t already you may want to think of pitching it to a newspaper or magazine. Please give me a shout if you want any help in that area! 🙂
    I have been considering digging a little into my own family story but am scared to, I’m also scared of how ill I could become when I consider the genetic links in mental illness.

    1. Thank you Linda! I have been thinking of ideas to pitch to magazines, and may contact you about that. Isn’t it strange, on one hand researching and writing about these issues can really help, but on the other it raises so many questions and all the old fears and anxieties can rear up at you. Sometimes I ear peopple say ‘write about what you know’, but in my case that is stuff that causes quite a lot of pain sometimes..

  11. Your story has many resonances for me. Researching my mother’s family history uncovered several generations of mental illness and like you, I often wonder if there is a hereditary component to my anxiety. There is still a huge amount of ignorance and taboo surrounding Mental Illness and too often, those who suffer cannot access support when it is most needed.

    1. It’s odd isn’t it, we know so little about our families and yet if only everyone was open we would feel so much less alone and perhaps be less hard on ourselves knowing that others before us had similar issues. Thanks so much for your post.

  12. Wonderful post, wonderful writing. Really wonderful. And honest. And ugly, when it needed to be. I work as an SLT in neurogenics/mental health, and I hear stories like this so often, of mental health issues hidden away or denied through generations. I’m writing a book full of these lost stories, and my reaction to them. My family history is rife with alcoholism– one of the primary ‘markers’ for depression– and I wonder how different it would be if more talking had happened and less drinking.

    1. Thank you so much for your lovely comments. I wanted so much to do the story justice. There is so much to tell and so little space really, even on the world wide web!

  13. What an thought provoking post. My nan suffered with her nerves, a weak constitution. That was how it was described it was a not to be talked about, situation. So when I foundyself in the mist of despair I was supported with the words pull yourself together don’t be weak like your nan.

    Mental illness should not be a taboo subject yet I still feel ashamed when I discuss my depression. X

    1. It is such a shame – however open we feel we have become, there is always that little niggle that makes you wonder whether someone is judging you harshly. Take care x

  14. Such a brilliant and beautifully written post keatsbabe. I truly think genetics plays a part. My Mum had a breakdown when I was 18 and although I know my depression is worsened greatly by my PMDD, it has always been there. It does scare me as my daughters are so like me at times and I worry for them, but I also like who am I am, and my depression has been part of that. Weird isn’t it.

    1. It is so hard no to worry for your children. I am concerned for mine too, but so far they seem confident and happy so I can only keep my fingers crossed. You are right, it is part of who we are and it can be really creative to feel the lows so intensely

  15. What an amazing post. I have suffered with depression since my teens though it took a long time for me to realize what it was, family would just brush it off as me being a moody teen but I have found out recently that my Mother also suffers from depression and had PND something she never spoke about. We don’t speak but I found out from another member of my family, its strange how it was never spoken about especially as I obviously showed signs. I think my Aunt (my mother’s sister) also suffers with depression, I do worry that it will be passed onto my daughter.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment. Wouldn’t it be great if we could share things with our children without worrying that they will worry, if you see what I mean. If it isn’t genetic it may be something we pick up from the environment we live in which is even more disturbing really..

  16. This is an excellent post and so beautifully written.

    I totally agree with you that openness is the only way to deal with the discrimination but although I am quite open about my depression online I am much more reserved about discussing it with people in real life and I’m not sure how I get over that.

    1. No – it’s often worrying to actually see the reaction on someone’s face when you say you have experienced mental health issues. Although the web is about as open as can be it somehow seems less personal..

  17. I’ve always been a little surprised at how the medical profession (in my experience) seem to downplay the genetic element of depression, when it seems to be one of the strongest factors.


    1. I agree. I think a lot is made of the environment you grow up in rather than the genetic link. I am not a scientist, but to me that doesn’t explain how one child responds one way to the home they grow up in and another will be quite different.

  18. How amazing that there was all this you and your Mum didn’t know. A really thought provoking post. I’ve often wondered if depression and anxiety is in the genes. There are members of my close family who have suffered with it. We had a wonderful, loving upbringing too.
    I always wonder if I am somehow responsible for my son’s problems with social interaction, because of my own social insecurities. It doesn’t seem odd that a child would inherit personality from their parents like they do their hair colour or features.
    I just hope I have the ways and means to guide my children should they have any problems, because I have been there myself.

    1. I think children have a lot more to worry about than I did when I was small, but many of them come out happy and confident. The rise in child and adolescent mental health problems does mean though that the chaotic lives some children lead take their toll.

  19. What an interesting and thought provoking post. What a fascinating if disconcerting story. When you said the bit about the conversations that must have gone on that you weren’t privvy to, that rung a bell for me because there were lots of those conversations in my family. I can’t trace anything back really because of adoption (not mine but the one above). But my mother suffered from depression and I do too and I often think of the genetic link and I’m doing everything in my power so as my children don’t suffer from it too.

    Thanks for a really interesting post.

    1. It is so hard to know what you can do to protect your children though isn’t it? If there is a genetic link then it is easy to see how parents (like my mum) could take the responsibility on themselves when really there was little they could do.

  20. Just popped over from the King and Eye and found this a really interesting read: I love social history anyway and also feel strongly about the stigma attached to mental health issues. They are in my family too, and we find them very difficult to deal with at times: both the stigma and the behaviours associated with the problems that family members would have.

  21. Wow, that was fascinating and enlightening. I know that so many families hide what is essentially an illness (even now!). Thank you for sharing your story with us.

    I came over as part of the Blog Gems 🙂

  22. What an interesting post. It’s such a shame your mum still thinks it’s something to do with her. Depression is more to do with genetics than some realise. It’s got a lot to do with certain neurotransmitters in your brain not being produced in the right amount, or being re-absorbed too quickly for our brains to be able to process them. If that’s not something to do with genetics I don’t know what is.

    It’s amazing what you can find out about our own family histories these days isn’t it?

  23. It is amazing that you happened on that newspaper cutting and great that you could talk to your Mum about it. I do believe that the stigma of mental health issues is in decline and absolutely attributable to the people, like yourself, who stand up and TALK about it. Jen (from Blog Gems)

  24. Hi Suzie,

    A wonderful insightful blog post. Cheers for being so open and honest.

    I used to work in support and even though mental health is being given more time, awareness, support and respect. As a society we have a long way to go. Writing openly as you have helps move us forward.

    What a find that newspaper cutting was! A very interesting story.

    Also thank you again for being an active member of the United Kingdom Genealogy forum. 🙂

    All the best


  25. Very interesting and well written article, thanks for that. I’m so glad your article has been published too.

    I am bipolar and wrote an article about it on my site, and although I didn’t mention familial connections, there are some which I chose not to talk about. I may be the obvious person in my family afflicted with mental health problems, but I know I am not the first and that the condition is rarely that straightforward.

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