The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs

a book review

 

image of The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs book cover

 

When I was seventeen, there was a Guggenheim exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I went there with my art class, and returned, time and again. It was a window into the world of my art text books. Here they were. I stood as close as I could to Brancusi’s, Calder’s, Dali’s, Moore’s and Mondrian’s. I breathed the air next to them like I might catch some ions of genius leaking from the very spirit of each work. I stood back and squinted at them, turned my head and observed them in their minutae. It seemed to me, a spotty gangly teenager in a distant antipodean gallery, that these foreign artists were the master race; their works a gift from the greatest muse of creative expression. The soul of life itself.

The Joyce Girl is Annabel Abbs’ inspired story of an Irish girl in the 1930’s. She lives in Paris, right in the midst of the bohemian art world of my Guggenheim heroes. A dancer, dreamer and artist, Lucia lives in a straightjacket world of obligation and overwhelm. She is the daughter of James Joyce, celebrated writer.  She is known historically as integral to the production of Joyce’s lengthy work, Finnegan’s Wake. She is caught in the undertow of her father’s work, sublimated by her roles as dependent daughter and co-dependent muse. Her own genius, obscured first by the narcissism of her father, despised by her mother and brother and later destroyed by the inept machinations of mental asylums, is explored first hand. She is finally given voice by the author Annabel Abbs in this novel. Heavily based in the facts of Lucia Joyce’s life, we see first hand the struggles of a troubled girl trying to make sense of herself.

“An ephemeral arch of colour, swaying and dissolving. Flashes of imprisoned light. Trembling loops of movement. A wind washed rainbow, my bands of colour shivering and melting. I crouched and twisted. Needles of rain, spiked and hard. I stretched and spread my fingers, soft rays of warm sunlight. I was a swathe of luminous colour. I was the gold-skinned weaver of the wind. Sun-spangled sovereign of the cosmos”  -Annabel Abbs ‘The Joyce Girl’

I loved many things about this book. But, oh, Abbs’ descriptive passages of dancing! She is expert in describing this artform with a keen sense of the visceral experience of dance. I realised that my legs and feet were flexing and moving as I read, and I do love a book that transcends the brain barrier.  I enjoyed Abbs’ turn of phrase; sometimes, I felt she was touched by a Joyce-ian way with words which added depth and relevance to the experience of reading this book. It was immersive.

I so loved the characterisations of some of the artists I had studied as a teenager. That world of Bohemian Paris, where artists came for freedom and connection, was painted with a vivid hand. I felt like I had stepped inside my Guggenheim exhibition. That I could walk alongside Alexander Calder and listen to him expound on shape, form and movement. It was transporting.  And when the time came to explore the deeper psyche of Lucia, Abb’s sensitive writing captured the child Lucia with care. It was emotionally difficult to read, but a necessary and bittersweet journey with Lucia through the dark travails of her mind.

Most of all, I loved that Abbs gave Lucia’s story an audience. I doubt that before reading this novel, I would have read Carol Loeb Schloss’ biography of Lucia Joyce’s life, To Dance in the Wake. But now, I will. Lucia is a woman of history, of art, of feminism, whose story should be told. Abbs’ story of Lucia; childhood trauma, repressed memory, subjugation, dysfunctional family relationships, unrequited love, unfulfilled ambition and incarceration… I am certain is an echo of the many women whose independence and freedom were stolen during times when mental institutions were dangerous places and Psychology a fledgling discipline.

My own Great Grandmother was institutionalised when her children were very small. Now we assume she had undiagnosed postnatal depression. But I wonder who she really was, and now there is no way of knowing. These stories should be told. These voices should be heard.

I recommend The Joyce Girl. Thank you Annabel Abbs for writing this important novel.  I will take it with me on my own metaphorical dance of independence and freedom.

 

Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/07/Lucia_Joyce_dancing_at_Bullier_Ball_-_Paris%2C_May_1929.jpg
Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/07/Lucia_Joyce_dancing_at_Bullier_Ball_-_Paris%2C_May_1929.jpg

 

Jess Cochran: Mind and Body

Two weeks ago, another patient from the Dysautonomia community in the USA took her own life. Suicide is so hard to talk about, as is the mental illness that can make it appear like a good solution. Today in my Meet My Peeps guest series, Jess Cochran talks about her own battles with mental health.  I applaud her willingness to discuss such a difficult aspect of life with chronic illness.  Patients who suffer with long term illness may not always address their mental wellbeing in addition to their physical.  Some may be trying and not able to access the help they need.  It’s an area for vigilance, for patients, their friends and their families.  In this piece, Jess discusses the frustrations she experiences with mental health services where she lives in Melbourne Australia. Please find her helpful list of links at the bottom of the page.  If you are also in Australia, and you or someone you know is struggling, the links Jess has provided may just make the difference.

Have the discussion.  Make today the day you talk about it.  Life is a precious and valuable thing.

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I often get frustrated and upset, not

I’ve been on this trolley in emergency for so long now, watching the nurses flit backwards and forwards. Feeling a jolt in my stomach every time one passes by, hoping that there is an update…that finally I might get off this hard trolley. I was brought in by the mental health team to be monitored and assessed while they tried to get me a bed somewhere longer term. I’m quite used to processes like this; lying in emergency has become a regular thing over the last few years. Sometimes it is for monitoring physically due to heart trouble, or injuries from falls.  Sometimes for my mental health. I know the drill. But I had never been there for this long before.

Being brought in wasn’t a surprise, I had been struggling quite a lot mentally. There was the body breakdown I had been experiencing, mostly from my POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome) but the pain had been eating away at me too. I have multiple conditions. I am usually an upbeat, chirpy girl. But I was was slipping into a low depression. I had reached out for help and this emergency stay was he first part of getting a mental health admission sorted. However I didn’t expect to be here this long.

That worker bee, whose job it was to seek out hard-to-find beds, had been working hard. But there had been no luck. Difficulty finding a bed wasn’t unexpected, but being in limbo for all this time in the emergency ward was. I’ve been dealing with the psych system from the age of 12; my first admission was in my first year of high school and then things had continued from there. I knew only too well how it all worked. Though I do notice, in the last few years it has become much more difficult.

Since my wheelchair came along my admissions to psych have become very far and few between. First I started to get turned down for admission with the main psych hospital where my treatment has been for 10 years.  That was on the basis that I am disabled and too ill (even at times when my symptoms were not so severe and my physical health stable). Sometimes it seemed like inpatient psychiatric units chose to not take on patients like me, with complex physical illness (even if managed) and in particular, mobility aids. It’s seems that people like me get put in the too-hard-basket. Perhaps they expect that some other place will take on the patient. So far I have only come across two psychiatric hospitals that take on people with mobility aids, both of them being private. This is extremely frustrating and not good news for people with mental health needs who fit in the disability category.

When I have spoken to many fellow sufferers of debilitating chronic illness and/or disability I was initially glad that I wasn’t the only one that experienced a massive fluctuation mentally.  I wasn’t alone and that made me feel a little comforted. I often get frustrated and upset, not just for myself, but for others like me. It’s hard to deal with the fact that sometimes, for some people it all gets too hard. Almost a year ago now I lost a very dear friend who had been battling with debilitating illness in similar circumstances; she found it so tiring and frustrating that nobody out there was able to ‘hear’ her… and most of all help her. She slipped further and further into depression with only a handful of people knowing it was happening. And then, just like that I had a call telling me that she had gone…another life lost to a system that doesn’t always know how to respond to complex cases.

In a society that has been talking about the strong links between mental health, physical health and emotional health I find it very shocking that things are the way they are.  Even with the strong messages out there, to keep an eye on yourself, to ask for help; there doesn’t seem to be accommodation to meet the needs of people with complex conditions who ask for help.

We shouldn’t have to be scared of reaching out for help in fear of being stuck in limbo in a busy Emergency ward, trying desperately to find somewhere to go, or even just to be put on the waiting list. We shouldn’t have to lose friends and fellow sufferers not so much because of the battle they are having with their body but the battle they are having with their mind and complications of a system that isn’t helping. Mental health care is vital for a person who is dealing with chronic illness. Whether that be support from friend, family, fellow sufferers or psychiatric services, it shouldn’t be the case that you have to put on a brave face all the time.

The time for change is now, its all very good for the medical teams to talk about caring for MIND, and body…but can they put this theory into real action?

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If you, like Jess, live in Australia and are worried about yourself or a loved one please contact one of the following for support:

Black Dog Institute
Information on symptoms, treatment and prevention of depression and bipolar disorder.

Carers Australia
1800 242 636
Short-term counselling and emotional and psychological support services for carers and their families in each state and territory.

Headspace
1800 650 890
Free online and telephone service that supports young people aged between 12 and 25 and their families going through a tough time.

Kids Helpline
1800 55 1800
A free, private and confidential, telephone and online counselling service specifically for young people aged between 5 and 25.

MensLine Australia
1300 78 99 78
A telephone and online support, information and referral service, helping men to deal with relationship problems in a practical and effective way.

mindhealthconnect
An innovative website dedicated to providing access to trusted, relevant mental health care services, online programmes and resources.

MindSpot Clinic
1800 61 44 34
An online and telephone clinic providing free assessment and treatment services for Australian adults with anxiety or depression.