In My Mother’s Hands by Biff Ward

I have fiddled around with this review for weeks and it’s only today that I realised what was bothering me – other reviews (settle down, I won’t name names).

Biff Ward’s memoir, In My Mother’s Hands, describes her life growing up in the 40s and 50s. Biff has a younger brother, Mark, but there was also baby Alison, who drowned in her bath before Biff was born. The drowning occurred because Biff’s mother was ‘distracted’  – it was an event that would have a deep effect on their lives in many ways and would continue to haunt Biff for decades. Biff’s father, historian Russel Ward, was charismatic, strong and outspoken. He was also short-tempered and frequently unfaithful to his wife.

We may not have had ideas we could voice but we breathed it in, the irrational in her, the grief in him and the unpredictability all around.

Biff and Mark grew up living in fear of their mother’s erratic and paranoid behaviour. Although they knew no different, they were acutely aware that she was not like other mothers – her ”…strangeness roared soundlessly through our house.” The siblings entered a conspiratorial relationship with their father, maintaining the façade of a functioning family while their mother’s mental state deteriorated.

…in spite of his strength and resilience, he was powerless in the face of what was unfolding. We were all crumpling into shapes determined by the impact of my mother’s state, a state which had no words outside the doctor’s rooms…

My problem with other reviews is simple – there is a lot of judgement regarding how Biff’s father treated her mother. Seriously, it’s as if some people got up on the morning they were writing their review, went to the wardrobe, and selected the largest pair of judgey pants they owned. And in regards to their judgements, I say three things –

  1. It was the 1950s. There was far less understanding about mental health problems than there is today. Oddly, I think in some ways with an increased understanding there has also been an increased stigma. The people around Biff’s family were curious about Margaret but also dismissive – as long as Russel was holding court and Margaret was out of the way, life carried on.
  2. We will never walk a day in Russel Ward’s shoes. My impression is that Biff thinks he did a pretty marvellous job at keeping her family together. That’s what matters.
  3. It’s Biff’s story and she tells it with the full range of emotions that any ordinary person would feel over decades in her circumstances. So Judgey Reviewers, if you’ve lived forty years without having times where you’ve felt angry, disappointed, exasperated, jealous, sad, furious or fed-up, then sure, I guess you’re qualified to pass judgement. If not, show some compassion.

In My Mother’s Hands wobbled a little toward the end when Biff delved into her own story, unrelated to that of her mother’s – the loss of context was a shame, given that it had been so carefully constructed throughout the majority of the memoir. Nevertheless, there are moments in this book that will stay with me – Biff writes with the clarity of an historian but the emotion of a daughter and it makes for compelling reading.

3.5/5 This book is honest, confronting and sad.

I love odd family traditions like this –

Sometimes all four of us were happy together. On birthdays and at Christmas we were allowed to cavort on Mum and Dad’s bed while they sat sipping cups of tea. A bowl, a basin really, full of sweets – humbugs, Fantales, raspberries, freckles, jellybeans, licorice allsorts and jubes – sat in the middle of the bed where we could all reach it. Dad believed that lollies were indispensable to any occasion involving presents and it wasn’t until I grew up that I realised it wasn’t just for us – he liked them too.


18 responses

  1. Oh Kate, why would you even read or give the time of day to judgey reviews. As soon as I see those sorts of reviews I run a mile. To my mind they are not reviews – they are rants!

    I reviewed this book a couple of years ago and made pretty much the points you made – ie that so little was known then about mental illness, and that for all his failings Ward did good things too. My reading group did this book, and we had Biff Ward there, which may have tempered some who may have thought of being judgemental, but overall I think our members were more considered in their responses than the reviews you’ve read seem to be.

    • To be honest, the reviews were from some bloggers and Goodreaders whose opinion I respect and value – I think that was why I struggled with it (because, as you would know having read the book, an opinion could be interpreted as ‘condoning’ her father’s treatment of her mother. It took me a while to sort out the fact that I was not condoning but simply understanding – perhaps that’s too fine a distinction but in the context of the book, it works).

      How lucky for you to have Biff at your book group. (I’m sure people would have tempered their opinions slightly – hard not to when you have the author there!).

      • I understand what you are saying. I had this difficulty with Joe Cinque’s consolation. Of course you can’t condone Anu Singh’s behaviour. It was horrible. But I was cross with Garner for not really addressing, except very superficially, Anu Singh’s issues. She was so tied up with Maria Cinque that she didn’t explore Anu Singh. After all, this was a young woman whose parents had expressed their concern to the university about but had been told – and it’s understandable – that Anu was an adult. Universities aren’t schools in that sense. But, oh dear. And yet, because a young man had died I felt really guilty about even raising this issue.

  2. Great review! I’ve read a few reviews of this book, including some judgey pants ones, so that I feel like I’ve already read the book, but reviews mostly just wash over me until I can see for myself, this one I’m sure will stick with me.

    • It’s worth getting a hold of Bill – I think you would particularly enjoy it for the bits about Russel as he was writing The Australian Legend – it’s fascinating stuff.

  3. I’ve not heard of this book, but I do concur with your thoughts on the judgments that many place on events and people from past times. Sometimes I wonder whether people realize why knowing history is important – we learn from it. And, hopefully, improve. Many things were different and widespread knowledge of many topics and conditions was scarce. People mostly just did the best they could. Or they lived how they were taught to live. Anyway, I say – learn from history, but don’t judge until you’ve ‘walked a mile in their shoes’. I’ll watch for the book. LOL

    • Yes, and I find that many people have very strong opinions about mental health and anyone who knows much about mental health issues also understands that every situation is unique.

  4. A fantastic review that sent me straight to the book. It is beautifully written and very important. I never understand why reviewers cannot raise questions of context without the ‘judges’. Much appreciated.

  5. Pingback: Reading Challenges 2018 | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  6. Pingback: My Best Books for 2018 | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.