Reading 'The Fragments of My Father' by Sam Mills -- A Review by Peter Leyland
'People need to become the authors as well as the subjects of their own stories'
I read this comment in a book by Ben Knights called The Listening Reader as I was completing this month's blog and I thought it summed up my own thoughts on the writing of memoir, a mode which I have used in previous posts. This blog is about a memoir I have read recently by Sam Mills and is called 'The Fragments of my Father'. It also relates to my ideas on The Companionship of Books from last month.
‘The Fragments of My Father’ is a compelling autobiographical memoir by author, Sam Mills, who became the chief carer for her father after her mother’s death at 65. In this memoir the author tells of the schizophrenic illness that afflicted her father from an early age, and how it affected both her and her family during the long years from her childhood, through her growing up, and to her present life as an author and publisher. I read the book in three days without stopping, and it left me feeling tremendously uplifted.
Many of us will have experience of being carers, or will know someone who is, and as we get older it will most likely become something that we will all have experience of, either as a giver or a recipient. My own experience is that I watched my mother care for my father during the years of his decline from MS and this is one of the reasons why the book resonated with me; another was that the author connected the story of her life as her father's carer with the literary partnerships of Virginia and Leonard Woolf and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Both couples had to confront the problems caused by one of the partner’s mental illness. As a student of literature who had read the work of these authors, I was curious to know how mental illnesses affected their work.
We do not need to know, however, the full story of how Leonard cared for Virginia or how Scott felt that Zelda’s schizophrenia had jeopardised his career in order to enjoy the book. Sam Mills has done a great deal of excellent research to tell us about them and to help us to understand how their predicaments fit into her own story and this becomes more important as the book proceeds. She begins her memoir by telling us that she was a lover of reading from an early age and how she read Roald Dahl, particularly Matilda, a girl who sought relief from her unhappiness in reading library books. Sam Mills later goes on to Oxford where she studies English Literature and she has now written a number of novels and non-fiction books, one of which is called Chauvo-Feminism about the MeToo movement. The book about her father is infused with references to other authors and literary works and yet her story moves seamlessly between these references and what she is telling us about her life. One of my favourites is when she quotes the last few sentences of Middlemarch, where George Eliot reflects on Dorothea’s performance of ‘unhistoric acts’. Middlemarch, as you may remember, is a novel which I referred to reading in a previous blog.
Caring is one of those 'unhistoric acts' which can often define a woman's role in society. The first part of Sam Mills's story about her father is her memory of him going into hospital, at the start of her primary school year, how she felt different from everyone else and how she found a solution in her childhood reading. Her story then moves forward many years to a time when her father is about to be discharged from another hospital and after visiting him, she sits in the café reading Mrs Dalloway and she reflects on how Woolf’s husband, Leonard, had supported her during ‘the wild winds’ of her mental illness and how he had in effect become her carer.
In today’s world the caring role is largely carried out by women, a tradition passed down by mothers and daughters, and in those days it was unusual for the carer to be a man. Sam Mills looks at the word ‘Carer’ and considers it. It appears to be a new word, she says, and yet it is something we have known about for years. She spends a chapter describing Leonard’s care of Virginia, referring to Septimus in Mrs Dalloway who is suffering from shell shock and who eventually takes his own life. It is clear that for her there is an important connection between literary creation and caring for those with mental illnesses, in a positive rather than a negative way. She senses, for example, that unlike her own parents’ marriage, Leonard and Virginia grew together through the affliction rather than apart. This first section of the book ends with an account of her extensive research into the schizophrenia that had affected her father.
In Part Two of the book Sam Mills describes her parents’ meeting and their relationship. She goes on to tell us about her own relationship with her mother: a holiday they took together, an affair her mother had to help her hold on to her sanity, and her increased coughing as her cancer took hold. She also describes a holiday that she herself took in Switzerland, where she met ‘tall, dark, handsome’ Antonio, a relationship which began promisingly but which ended after she discovered that he had another girlfriend and was continuing to see both of them at the same time.
In Part Three she tells us more about how the caring role affects her life and her ability to maintain her finances and close relationships. In a very moving passage, she describes visualising a fortress around herself:
There’s a big white wall around the room, I told myself. And all the problems of money, and Thom and Dad and Dodo and Summerfields are outside it. (Dodo is the publishing company that Sam Mills runs with Thom, and Summerfields is the hospital to which her father has had to return.)
More time passes and yet the family holds itself together. Sam has taken on the main duty of carer since her mother's death. Her brother marries and her father is able to be there as a witness. She uses the story of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s life as re-imagined in Tender is the Night to undercut her own story: ‘I am fighting for my life,’ Dick tells his sick wife. ‘I can’t do anything for you anymore. I’m trying to save myself.’
Exhaustion strikes and, like Leonard Woolf, who goes to stay with Lytton Strachey in Wiltshire as a respite from his caring role with Virginia, Sam says she needs to escape the burden of her caring duties. Eventually, after her father’s return from hospital and some improvement in his health, she receives a Society of Authors grant which will just keep her financially afloat. She next sees a doctor who prescribes rest, but owing to her work demands, she doesn’t fully take this up. Christmas intervenes and she has a temporal haemorrhage in her left eye. Something is telling her that she has to stop and rest.
I recognised this. When I was aged 11 my mother was so exhausted from looking after my father that she took my brother and sister to stay with Auntie Joan for a week. Dad went to stay at Gateacre Grange in Liverpool which was a care home run by nuns. I stayed with my grandma in Aintree and visited him there, taking the bus to The Grange and pushing him around the grounds in his wheelchair.
And it is what I was reminded of as I reached this point in the book. The writer, Sam Mills, had taken me on a journey through her life as a carer of someone who had been diagnosed with a severe mental illness. In the book she had raised all sorts of questions about the connection between mental illness and creativity and whether caring is primarily a feminine thing that society expects to be performed by women.
Although I have to conclude that it this is the case, the book ends on a really positive note regarding the caring role. While Sam is on a trip to Romania to have a break from her caring duties, a friend of hers, Dylan, stays with her father for a night. It turns out that the friend is suffering from severe depression and during his stay her father takes on the duty of caring which allows Dylan to begin to recover. It made me think that men too can make a contribution to care from wherever they are.
Peter Leyland 26/05/2021
The Listening Reader (1995) by Ben Knights
Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf
Tender is the Night (1934 & 1986) by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Middlemarch (1871-2) by George Eliot
Chauvo-Feminism (2021) by Sam Mills
Matilda (1988) by Roald Dahl