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John O'Donoghue's splendid account of his decade and a half involved with various mental health and social agencies is a rare thing, combining as it does a novelistic narrative with a factual description of his many episodes of acute distress and social turmoil. An English national of Irish parentage, O'Donoghue faced the death of his father as a young child, and his mother's subsequent emotional collapse. From age fourteen he spent his life in the care of one statutory authority or another. The period covers mainly the 1980s, and in addition to O'Donoghue's achievement in recounting his own life, he provides a portrait of England under Thatcher, at times using the loss of hope under Thatcher as a metaphor for his own decline. Sectioned. A life interrupted follows the traditions of English social realism; it brings to mind the characters of Alan Bennett, and the films of Ken Loach. Late in the book O'Donoghue describes the election of 1987, when the defeat of the last traditional Labour leader Neil Kinnock is portrayed as a social disaster mirroring O'Donoghue's personal experience: England faces another period of eroding optimism and social disintegration.
The book is written in three parts, with individual chapters named according to the institution or service charged with helping O'Donoghue get his life on track. There are sixteen chapters, so that's a lot of agencies. They vary from charitable organizations to prison, taking in churches, housing and accommodation services, psychiatric hospitals, police and many counselors and social workers. O'Donoghue describes each with candor, in particular other clients, who range from alcoholics and drug addicts to small time crooks and people with disabling mental illness. He also provides canny commentary on the staff charged with his care, their motivations, degree of empathy for their charges, and their readiness to make quick decisions that had far reaching implications. In the case of the roguish but likeable Robbie the consequences are tragic.
The chapters are dovetailed together, and within each the narrative shifts between present and past, so that the reader at times arrives in a new situation without the background, something O'Donoghue provides later in the chapter. The effect is that the narrative is driven forward creating for the reader questions about how the latest development came about. Many of O'Donoghue's hospitalizations are under 'section', or civil commitment under mental health legislation. It's not always clear why compulsion is used, especially as O'Donoghue was, on at least some occasions, seeking the sense of community and fraternity found in hospital that he could not find, or sustain, outside it. In one case he is picked up by the police, apparently for no other reason than that he is walking down a country road and agrees with their question about whether he would like a stay in the country. O'Donoghue hints that there may have been more to this, but as he isn't told, readers are left with the experience of a young man simply being picked up and dropped off, under section, at the local hospital. In this way readers are placed in precisely O'Donoghue's situation, detained and confined without explanation. There are other occasions when the services he wants and needs, such as accommodation, are denied for what seem trivial reasons.
Over the years, O'Donoghue sustained himself by writing poetry, although without the confidence to follow this interest with any involvement in writing classes. Several acquaintances, professional and personal, praised his work, and when he did get to read some poems at a public event he won a prize. His poetry eventually won him a place at university, and a chance for the life he sought. Interestingly, there is little about particular poets, or even about O'Donoghue reading poetry, but in the one full poem included is perceptive and lyrical, showing the skilful use language evident throughout the book. There are various love affairs, some of which seem promising, but are finally doomed. Sectioned recounts some difficult and distressing experiences against a grim social backdrop. It might have been harrowing reading, but O'Donoghue's assured writing means that what could easily be merely a chronicle of injustice and hardship is a truly human and engaging story and a literary accomplishment of some note.
By the end of Sectioned O'Donoghue is both philosophical about his past, and optimistic about his future. Weighing up the contributions of personal circumstance, Thatchersism and mental illness to his life, he leaves the question open, commenting, "Let's just say I'm lucky to be here and leave it at that." He has done such a fine job of weaving the various elements of his life together that readers can make their own judgment. Sectioned stands out among memoirs of mental distress and illness for its nicely struck balance between recording particular events and their context and engaging readers in a fine piece of writing.
© 2010 Tony O'Brien
Tony O'Brien RN, MPhil, Senior Lecturer, Mental Health Nursing, University of Auckland, [email protected]