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Postnatal Depression Testimonies, and ‘Reluctance’ in the British Library Oral History Collections

My strand of the project explores the ways in which mothers narrated their personal experiences of postnatal mental illness and how the 'public' responded throughout twentieth-century Britain. As such, I spent a few months this year (2022) evaluating the invaluable oral histories held at the British Library (BL). When I first typed in ‘postnatal depression’ (PND) and related search terms in the catalogue, I was surprised to find references to more than sixty oral history interviews. Yet not one collection title linked directly to PND. Instead, alongside the ‘Mental Health Testimony’ collection, very short recollections – several only a few seconds to several minutes in length – on the topic appeared in collections that had no connection to mental health, including the ‘British Empire and Commonwealth’ and the ‘Potters of the Bernard Leach Legacy’ collections. [1] Nor were the interviews restricted to the actual ‘sufferer’; many interviewees were the sufferer’s partners, parents, siblings(-in-law), children or grandchildren, neighbours, the media, and, of course, healthcare professionals (midwives, health visitors, nurses, physiotherapists and psychiatrists) or healthcare providers (i.e., The International Women’s Public Health Group). A couple of the interviewees also spoke coldly and were unsupportive of the sufferers. Several ‘abandoned’ children, later speaking as adults, were raised by their grandparents or their father, and in these cases, both the children and guardians never forgave the suffering mother. This aftermath, however, was more typical before World War Two. Nonetheless, one woman, even in the 1990s, was still shocked when she learned that other mothers had developed PND, arguing ‘you [‘re supposed to] fall in love with [your child] as soon as they are handed to you’. [2]

The BL interviews took place between the 1980s and 2010s. This coincided with the rapid expansion in PND narrative accounts from the 1980s onwards, published as books or in magazines, which illustrated the growing acceptability of both recounting personal experiences and destigmatising PND in Britain. Many of the interviewees reported family histories and spoke about their mothers or grandmothers experiencing PND as far back as the 1930s, which coincide with the earliest mentions of PND within the BL catalogue. [3] Several of the interviewed ‘sufferers’ had physical disabilities, including deafness, or pre-existing mental health diagnoses (i.e., bipolar, psychosis and depression). Interestingly a wide variety of religions were represented among the women experiencing PND, including Judaism, Christianity, Rastafarianism, Wicca, and Paganism. Across the late twentieth century, most interviewees were British, with a few Europeans (e.g., Swedish) one first generation Indian, and Jamaican. [4] By the 2010s, more mothers were interviewed from different nationalities and ethnicities, including Armenians, Nigerians, North Americans, and Canadians. Fathers suffering from postnatal depression were also interviewed for the first time in the 2010s. [5] However, most of the people recounting memories of postnatal depression originated from or were based in the UK; largely London and Birmingham in England, but also Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, though a few women experienced PND when they were visiting or temporarily living overseas. The often-buried testimonies within decades of interviews illustrate how postnatal depression was ubiquitous. Yet there were wide-ranging differences in experiences and reflections and intersectional differences no doubt heightened negative experiences. For example, working-class women were more likely to be institutionalised. Nonetheless, postnatal depression was not restricted by class, ethnicity, race, sexuality, education level, or age.

Image credit: Sifis, oral history icon. In this blog, I want to focus on two different expressions of ‘reluctance’ within the interviews, and how they prompt reflections on the motivations behind interviews, and shape new considerations on the part of the interviewers. My first example looks at dismissal and irritability within one interview, and the second reflects heartbreak and an unwillingness to speak about certain topics.

Dismissal

When I read about interviews of ‘everyday’ women, or when I’ve conducted oral histories myself, interviewees are often eager to share their family history. [6] This was not the case for some of the BL interviews I listened to. M.H. was born in 1934 and in 2000, aged 66, she withstood a four-hour interview across one day as part of the ‘Mental Health Testimony Archive’. The archive holds 50 ‘life story video interviews’ with mental health survivors. The project was initiated by Mental Health Media (now a part of MIND) and funded by the Department of Health. [7] M.H. had an illness where she became ‘aggressive’, ‘nasty’ and had ‘blackouts’. She argued that this was a ‘physical’ illness as she ‘wasn’t really mentally ill’. She had developed whooping cough as a child, and she claimed that the lack of medical resources and instabilities of World War Two prevented a full recovery. She believed this caused her life-long illness. M.H. was isolated most of her life and said that she could not secure a job because of the stigma of mental illness. From start to finish, and before most interview breaks, M.H. was reluctant to talk about her past. She agitatedly emphasised that there was no need for her to be interviewed because she was ‘ordinary’. As a child, she was an ‘ordinary pupil’ and had ‘ordinary friends’, there was ‘nothing special’ about school life. Throughout her life, however, she was in and out of psychiatric hospitals, such as Belmont, Maudsley and later Graylingwell in the mid-1950s, where her condition worsened, ‘possibly … due to postnatal depression’. When in hospital, M.H.’s mother looked after her baby. She spoke briefly about her experience at Graylingwell, but did not expand on her postnatal depression, explaining that regular electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) had caused memory loss around that time period. When the interviewer repeatedly asked M.H. about her children across different time periods, M.H. dismissively changed the subject. Towards the end of the interview, M.H. became even more annoyed, arguing that she had a normal life and that it was not worth documenting; she even rolled her eyes and placed her head in her hands. [8] In contrast, the other PND sufferers also interviewed for the Mental Health Testimony Archive were happy to expand when talking about their lives in general. [9]

Avoidance


Another example of ‘reluctance’ in the interviews was the inability to talk about a sensitive topic. J.L. was born in 1923 and interviewed in 2011, aged 88, as part of the ‘National Life Stories: General Interviews’ collection. [10] From the mid-1940s onwards, J.L. tried to build a family with her husband. Throughout the interview, she spoke cheerily, quickly, with lots of laughter, and long dynamic monologues. The interviewer did not need to prompt her, and they both seemed comfortable and joked together. Although J.L. found motherhood ‘ghastly’ and lost all self-confidence when suffering from PND following the birth of her first child in 1948, she spoke calmly about her miscarriages, and her first-born’s diagnosis of epilepsy, following his ‘frightening’ seizures. Nonetheless, despite five interviews across five months – likely aiming to develop trust – the interviewer had to nudge J.L. into talking about the birth of her second child, her deceased daughter, M. When M was first mentioned, J.L. hesitated and swallowed loudly. After several pauses, J.L. joked ‘I was avoiding that, wasn’t I’. Speaking mournfully and slowly, J.L. explained that her baby, M, had only lived a few hours, and that J.L. was not allowed to see her because she had eclampsia. Following the traumatic childbirth and death of M, J.L. developed permanent deafness. Even though J.L. went into great detail about other heartbreaks across her life span, she did not mention M again after these brief moments. [11]


Image credit: Christos Georghiou, Optical Illusion Mother Woman and Child Tree Faces.

Reflections

Listening to these two interviews, which were conducted roughly one decade apart, made me consider the motivations behind interviewing people who are reluctant to talk about their lives overall, or sensitive topics, and how this has changed over the decades. I wondered if these interviews would become publicly accessible if they were conducted today? I was also curious about who convinced M.H. to talk about her life in the first place – her children or grandchildren? And why did the interviewers press on in both cases? Were there gaps to fill, in terms of the type of disorder or geographic region, in the ‘Mental Health Testimony’ collection? M.H. may have listened to the interview afterwards and still consented to its public access? In regard to J.L., were there considerations about how she felt after the interview, given she had opened up about a harrowing life-changing event of sixty years ago? Was she in the company of close friends or family in sharing her story, or did the interviewer recommend support services after the interview? My conclusion has certainly raised more questions than answers. But in my view, such publicly accessible interviews – in institutions like the British Library – would benefit from additional notes specific to each interview that could help inform researchers about the nature and context of the source they are using. These notes could briefly summarise the collection’s objectives, and the reasons why certain interviewees were selected. A brief comment on the relationship developed by the end of the interviews would also be useful. From my perspective, the interviewers’ continuous prompts, despite the interviewee’s reluctance, seemed almost cruel and unethical. Yet some easily accessible contextual notes on these interviews may have revealed that both participants agreed to try and work together to broach these sensitive topics across the interview process. The inclusion of this contextual information, and perhaps more, would greatly help researchers when they revisit these types of interviews years or decades later. __________________________________________________________________________________

NOTES

[1] UBC034/618, British Empire and Commonwealth Collection, British Library, 1998; C1330/23, Potters of the Bernard Leach Legacy, British Library, 2009.

[2] C900/12563, Millennium Memory Bank, British Library, 1999.

[3] C466/182/01-04, NLSC: Artists' Lives, British Library, 2004.

[4] Ibid.; C900/05003, Millennium Memory Bank, British Library, 1998; C900/04623, Millennium Memory Bank, British Library, 1999.

[5] BNR000137875, ‘Do you welcome more support for new fathers with post-natal depression?’, Broadcast Radio News, British Library, 2018.

[6] Angela Davis, Modern Motherhood: Women and Family in England, 1945-2000 (Manchester University Press, 2012), pp.6-7.

[7] British Library, ‘Mental Health Testimony Archive’, 2000. Accessed 21 November 2022: http://cadensa.bl.uk/uhtbin/cgisirsi/x/0/0/5?searchdata1=CKEY5542415&library=ALL

[8] C905A/39/01, Mental Health Testimony Archive, British Library, 2000.

[9] C905A/42, Mental Health Testimony Archive, British Library, 2000; C905A/28/01, Mental Health Testimony, British Library, 1999; C905A/42/01, Mental Health Testimony Archive, 1999.

[10] National Life Stories and British Library, ‘National Life Stories: A History’, updated 2018. Accessed 21 November 2022: https://www.bl.uk/projects/britishlibrary/~/media/81768d2df53e4a178ee1490c1641b029.ashx

[11] C464/79/01-11, National Life Stories: General Interviews, British Library, 2011.


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