During the writing of Lucia’s War, I have a scene where Lucia, reunited with her brother, Reginald, is attempting to dissuade him from taking part in a mutiny at his barracks. Reginald, furiously resenting his English commanding officer, longs to withhold a salute from him. This alarms Lucia, who knows all too well what the consequences will be if he does that. She tells him of what happened when a salute was withheld (a series of events readers of White Feathers will recognise.)
In the original dialogue, I had her tell Reginald that this other person “went mad”. Lyeanne Beckford-Jones, who was sensitivity-reading the dialogue with particular focus because it was informal, between the two siblings, suggested replacing it with “im a did twis’ up ina im head”. I was immediately struck by how vivid, violent and cruel that imagery was, and how transitive compared to the anodyne phrase I had started off with. He twisted up in his head. *They* twisted him up in his head. It’s such an accurate description of what, according to my research, PTSD after war does to you. Permanently. Physiologically.
I was chatting to my dad the other day and he told me in his opinion the real strength of White Feathers was how accurately and horribly it portrayed mental breakdown and disintegration after the greater madness of war. As Ellen, a colleague and reader of White Feathers, once said to me. “He had changed too much” 💔
It’s my belief, based on a storyteller’s hunch rather than a historian’s data, that mental illness stigma ramped up seriously during the recruitment process for WWI, where accusations of malingering and emotional weakness got thrown around when men broke down after weeks and months of battle strain. It was in the interests of the top brass to stigmatise, pour encourager les autres, that was for sure. Spirits and souls were being broken and the unpalatable truth that repair would not be easy was an inconvenient one.
Today I want to hold some space for everyone who has twisted up in their heads because of externally imposed injustice, whether through war, social inequity, racism or calamity. Mental ill-health has always been a topic of interest to me and I don’t believe in shying away from reality.
I promise that I will continue to write about these injustices. And it will take more than the Irish Times clutching their pearls and saying with a sniff that I’m being MEANNN to British High Command to stop me.
Wishing you peace of mind and health today.