Family Affair: Could we have saved Simon?

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The Independent Culture
Peter Dally, 76, a psychiatrist and author, lives in Petworth, Sussex. His daughter Emma Dally, 45, who is a novelist and the editorial director of book publishing at the National Magazine Company, is married with two children. In April 1989, Emma's brother Simon committed suicide aged 38


Simon was the eldest of six children. He was a brilliantly clever chap, a successful publisher, and was also very popular. At dinner parties, you could count on him to be erudite. He knew about Italian art and spoke lots of languages. Out of all my other brothers and sisters, I think myself and Simon were most alike.

He did have this element of wanting to beat the system, and started getting a bit odd at about 30. He began drinking and getting more and more isolated. Three years later he lost his job. At first we didn't recognise he was ill. It took a while for him to be diagnosed as a manic depressive. It was weird for me, as both my parents were psychiatrists; we had grown up knowing about manic depression, so it seemed strange that one of us had it. Because of the strong genetic associations, you immediately start worrying about yourself and your own children.

My parents found Simon a psychiatrist, who turned out to be useless. It was very sad, since they were psychiatrists themselves; it would have been bad enough, if they were not connected to the medical world.

Simon had a great girlfriend, who was good at keeping him stable. His condition got worse when they split up. Simon looked to the family for support, but saw us all getting married, having children and moving away, and he didn't like it. It got to the stage where we weren't so close emotionally. He didn't come to dinner any more; he would embarrass people when he was manic, and behave very badly.

It was Easter 1989. I remember him calling, and asking for a lift down to the family house in Sussex. I was travelling down with my husband and children. I remember Simon being very quiet. After Easter lunch, I went up the road with my husband and two children, who were three and 18 months, to see my grandmother. On the way back, I saw Simon lying on the grass. I knew straightaway that he had killed himself; he had shot himself in the head. I had to tell my mother and brother what had happened. I couldn't even get the words out. I said "Simon's done something." My mother was in complete shock and leapt up. She was thinking that, as a doctor, there must be something she could do.

My parents are divorced and my father lives nearby. When I phoned him, he was in shock and asked if he should come over. I remember being really angry, thinking he should know how to make a decision.

The atmosphere in the house was kind of weepy. The house has large french windows and we were all sitting in the garden while the police carried out their questioning, looking at Simon lying on the lawn. It was awful.

It was a weird feeling, knowing that he had gone. It was terrible; the whole family was smashed apart. When someone dies it's completely silent, incredibly boring. There was so little one could do or say. I went back to work as soon as I could, to organise the obituaries. It was great that people remembered him as being fun and witty. I coped by throwing myself into work, and my family and I started writing novels.

My father was always quite aloof. it was only after Simon's death that I ever heard him talk about his feelings. I think he felt he had really let Simon down. Both my parents felt they should have done more to help. But the coroner said that there was no way that anyone could be blamed. It had got so bad, that even if we had managed to avert it on this occasion, it probably would have ended the same way later.

My relationship with my father also changed; it was almost as if we became linked by such a ghastly tragedy. I can always talk about Simon's death. My husband took a photograph of me pushing the pushchair just before we found Simon. It captures the moment just before it all began; the last minute of my old world. I feel the loss most at Easter time and when I see old mutual friends who come out with anecdotes about Simon.


I have always had a difficult relationship with my children. I had polio when Emma was one and Simon was four. This stopped me from taking part in physical exercise and left me madly ambitious to make up for it. I tended to work extremely hard, determined to succeed; it was only when they became teenagers that I found I could talk to them and liked talking to them. Both were extremely competitive. They had similar minds and would fly up and down in mood, but Simon's mood swings were obviously much greater. They both went to Oxford and both went into publishing.

Even while Simon was at Oxford, I noticed he got pretty depressed. But I saw it as a reaction to life's problems. It was only when he had to leave his job as a result of his outrageous manic behaviour that I started to see it in terms of an illness.

When his behaviour changed, I really didn't do anything. If he had been a patient it would have been so simple. It's difficult to see behaviour in your own family; you see things as reactions to what you are doing yourself. At the time, I was splitting up with my wife and saw Simon's behaviour as a reaction to this.

The day that Simon killed himself, all the kids were meant to be coming to supper with me. I had been feeling very worried about Simon for a while. In retrospect, I can see he had made up his mind to kill himself. He had become much happier - this is always a worrying sign in a manic depressive.

It's very common for relatives to put their grief and blame on someone else. I still feel aggrieved that Simon's psychiatrist wasn't the right man for him. It was silly of me to choose him; a parent is never the right person to do that.

It sounds dreadful to say, but my relationship with Emma improved after Simon's death. I became much closer to her and more aware of her as a personality in her own right. We don't have flaming rows any more. I'm much more aware of her life and how creatively she has organised it compared to Simon, who had such great ability, but was unable to use it constructively.

Simon's death made me feel partly guilty. I hadn't been what you might call a good father. We had a close relationship, and spent evenings playing chess together. But I felt as if I should have intervened and acted much sooner than I did. Maybe Simon would still be alive if something had been done earlier on. He needed a strong support with whom he could be controlled, to stop his excessive and absurd ideas. If he had had someone he trusted to keep an eye on him and maybe some drugs such as lithium, he might still be alive today.

Interviews by Daisy Price

`Virginia Woolf: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by Peter Dally (Robson Books) is out now. `Remembered Dreams' by Emma Dally (Little, Brown) is due in October