Invisible Ink: No 174 - Jennifer Dawson

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The Independent Culture

Call it the Marcel Proust Syndrome; there are plenty of writers who managed to carve out brilliant careers despite suffering poor health. In particular, mental problems crop up so frequently that they sometimes seem almost a prerequisite for producing literature. Jennifer Dawson was a Londoner, born into a family of Fabian socialists in 1929, whose illness first made itself apparent during her time at Oxford, where she was reading modern English. The privilege and patriarchy of her college surroundings triggered a profound sense of alienation and loneliness, causing a breakdown that saw her placed in a hospital.

Although there was soon to be better understanding of the treatment of mental health because of the war, Dawson fell into the gap that existed between the realisation that it was needed and the passing of the Mental Health Act of 1959. She emerged to spend time as a social worker in a mental health hospital and wrote The Ha-Ha, a novel that explored schizophrenia, drawing on her own experiences. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1961 and was adapted for stage, radio and television. The Ha-Ha reveals how a smart, intelligent girl, who is oblivious to societal norms, could be helped by a few kind words and thoughtful gestures, instead of being passed through a preset system of physical therapies and restraints. The idea of fighting the entitlement of the state to force treatment on those unwilling and unable to conform, and instead being treated with respect and kindness, was gathering force in the early 1960s. Indeed, the book was written in the same year as Janet Frame's Faces in the Water, about the horrific conditions that mental patients faced in New Zealand, and just before Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest appeared in 1962.

Although an excellent novel in its own right, The Ha-Ha allowed others in a similar position to gain insights into their own state of mind, and it became widely read by social workers. Dawson had an unusual way with words, that made conversation with her tricky. Like many outsiders who viewed the world through an altered mental prism, she discovered an outlet for her creativity that allowed her to manage her condition and press it into usefulness. After she married, she became active in the peace movement and continued to write novels exploring similar themes, as well as children's books. She died in October 2000. With the exception of The Ha-Ha, her novels are out of print.