Books and reading

Sibling trouble: ‘My Father’s Suitcase’ by Mary Garden

I reviewed NZ-born Mary Garden’s biography of her aviator father, Oscar Garden, back in 2021. In it, she referred to the unsettled, troubled family in which she grew up.

My Father’s Suitcase takes this several steps further. It opens with a physical attack on Mary, apparently out of the blue, by her younger sister Anna when they were both in their fifties. We know immediately that things are still not right in the Garden family.

This time the narrative centers on an all-too-common but often overlooked issue: sibling abuse. Another manifestation of the troubling problem of family violence, it has not received the (thankfully increasing) attention that has been directed at intimate partner abuse. But Mary’s story makes clear that the lasting effects of family violence, no matter who is perpetrated by, can be debilitating.

It also raises questions about family inheritances. Are genetics primarily responsible for mental ill health in families? Did a legacy of instability, depression and anxiety originate from Oscar’s bipolar disorder, his emotional repressiveness and oppressive behaviour towards his wife and, to varying degrees, their children?

All of the hallmarks of abuse are outlined in this book: the unpredictability of violent outbursts, gaslighting, a failure to intervene appropriately by those who should do so, scapegoating. And for the victim of the abuse? Shame, depression, guilt.

Having had my own experience of someone who (I’m now certain) suffered from an undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and experiencing many of the hallmarks of an abusive relationship, I felt a great deal of sympathy for the author while reading this book.

There were moments when I was shocked at her own responses to the situations she found herself in, but by her own admission, she too was acting out of a desperate and unstable mental state, the result of an intergenerational trauma that was then (in the mid-twentieth century) unrecognised and rarely, if ever, discussed.

Although much of this story took place in her birthplace of New Zealand, there are striking similarities between that country and Australia in the decades she describes. Conservative, relatively isolated nations, with little understanding and even fewer resources to help people deal with trauma or depression. Mental health services that by the 1990’s relied on programs in the community, leaving many sufferers isolated and uncared for, and their families increasingly desperate. A rejection by the post-war ‘baby boomer’ generation of the values and choices of their elders; a turn towards Eastern spirituality and/or counter culture in a search for something different. Tumultuous times indeed.

This memoir shares questions in common with memoir writing generally: Whose truth is being told? What version of events and people do we receive? Family disputes are always messy and usually damaging. Does it help to air them in public?

I would often answer ‘no’ to this question. But this memoir offers more than one’s person response to events. In her brutal ‘warts and all’ honesty, the author has highlighted some important and timely issues that we all need to understand. And she certainly is not painting an image of herself as a passive victim, acknowledging and questioning as she does her own behaviour and the family legacy of such:

Even though somewhere deep down I knew I was making a fool of myself and behaving erratically, I kept going. In that I was like my father. People had thought he was mad, too, when he flew from England to Australia in his second-hand Gypsy Moth. He did not give up. It was a miracle his little plane did not break down on his 19-day flight. He was determined to survive. Luck was on his shoulder. Luck was on mine also.

My Father’s Suitcase p204

When her sister publishes a book about their father’s career hot on the heels of Mary’s own, very successful biography, it raises issues of plagiarism and copyright law, complicated matters which teams of lawyers deal with regularly. Even so, it made me wonder how much plagiarism goes undetected in published works.

This candid account of the ‘weird, crazy Gardens’ is a gripping story that finishes on a hopeful note: of recovery, of different choices leading to better health and a happier life. As such it offers some insight into what people can do to move on from the legacy of mental ill health and family abuse.

My Father’s Suitcase is published by Justitia Books in May 2024. My thanks to the author for a review copy.

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