“The patient has a story that isn’t told and which no one knows of. It is the secret, the rock against which he is shattered.” – Carl Jung
The Great War is over but for Edith Potter an equally devastating conflict is about to begin.
She is unhinged by a secret so terrible her conscious mind doesn’t acknowledge it.
It is 1927 and Dr Stephen Maynard is using the new science of psychoanalysis to restore her sanity.
From his first meeting with her in the lunatic asylum, Dr Stephen Maynard is determined to bring her back to reality. During the long challenge, her disturbed behaviour forces him to confront his limitations – already severely stretched by the presence of someone prepared to use whatever weapons they can to ensure she maintains her silence.
This book simply dives into the conscious and unconscious. It makes you wonder how powerful our sanity and the lack of thereof can be and to what limits it can take us.
To take us deep into the making of this novel, today I have author Ruth Wade here on my blog to tell us the behind the scenes of how she came into writing Walls of Silence.
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BEHIND THE BRICKS IN THE WALL By Ruth Wade
Walls of Silence is the novel that wouldn’t let me alone. I returned to it time and again over a period of twelve years, each revisit seeing me bolder and more experimental as my skills and confidence grew. After a mercifully brief flirtation with calling it The Hand-turned Dobby, I hijacked the title Walls of Silence from a novel I’d written early on in my apprenticeship about a motorcycle stunt show in a travelling fair.
The themes of madness, social isolation, shell-shock, and repression have been consistent throughout this book’s long gestation but I wasn’t a good enough writer in the early days to handle such weighty material; I lacked the skill to construct a plot suitable for exploring the psychological makeup of a damaged mind. It was a murder mystery of sorts when Val McDermid read the first line (I wrote the opening paragraph whilst on an Arvon Crime Writing course) but now I think of it as a psychosocial* novel in which the violence perpetrated is as much institutional as it is vengeful.
As the wall of death drome and fairgrounds of the original story disappeared on the horizon, I had to change my research focus. The file on shell-shock in The Great War was expanded to include the attempts at treatment (primarily in order to get the troops well enough to send them back into war) and this branched out into asylums, the assessment of mental health and psychiatric disorders, and what (if anything) constituted rehabilitation.
The hardest thing of all when writing a historical novel is to assume the viewpoints of the time and to close down the vistas of knowledge from later years. The trick is to use the limits of the research itself to set the boundaries and, once they are established, to remove anything that even pokes a toe up against them. And a lot of rewriting to make the worlds I’ve created feel as real as possible to the reader.
What constitutes identity?
For all its historical setting, Walls of Silence is a book exploring a very current reality. Because here’s the thing: every time we succumb to posting a lie or an exaggeration about ourselves on social media, we fudge ourselves a little. Blur the edges. Alter reality. But what if that false you ended up becoming you? How would you ever realise you had morphed into a construct of your own imagination?
Everyone has multiple facets to their personality and we all have a few highly-polished ones we can call on to enable a smooth transition from one of our life roles to another. If you doubt this then think about whether you wear the same clothes, use the same words or language, talk about the same things, act in the same way, tell the same jokes when you are with . . . your work colleagues / family / old school mates / new boss / friends’ children / strangers / a hated rival / lifelong heroes / love of your life (and here I’ve only scratched the surface of examples). All of us take some care over how we present ourselves to the world but this activity presupposes a central sense of self that we can radiate out from, and return to. Without that we are just an illusion, a tissue of fabrication. And, if that were the case, what would we have to cling onto once the inevitable happened and that false reality began to disintegrate?
Venturing beneath the surface
In the same way as masks reveal our different selves, I like my novels to have hidden meanings; different levels at which they can be read. I enjoy reading books like that, and I enjoy writing them. As a reader, there is something special about the process of discovery where you feel you have traced patterns or guessed links or identified themes. It makes you feel as if you have stumbled across the key to unlock some understanding of the human condition – it does, me, anyway.
So, being a lover of the plunge into layers of meaning, I wrote Walls of Silence with distinct divisions in the storytelling. The shift from one Part to another signifies a plot turning point in the chapters to follow, but also reflects shifts in the battle between the main character’s conscious and unconscious mind.
Each Part starts with a quotation from G. F. Stout’s 1929 book: A Manual of Psychology. This book was one of the mainstays of my research and once I decide I’d use some statements from it, I was astonished at how many of Stout’s observations directly reflected the disintegration of the particular mind I wanted to explore. As an added bonus, they also act as hidden clues to each story twist about to be revealed.
If you like being a literary detective then, if you have read Walls of Silence, see if you can unpick what each quotation tells you about Edith Potter’s state of mind; or if you have yet to read the novel, what hints about events to come can you glean?
It follows from this account that freedom is an ideal which can never be completely realised, and this ideal coincides with that of self-realisation.
Voluntary action is to be sharply discriminated from impulsive action, and deliberation from conflict of impulsive tendencies.
. . . no one can directly observe what is passing in the mind of another. He can only interpret external signs on the analogy of his own experience. These external signs always consist in some kind of bodily action or attitude.
[The psychologist] is concerned with the experiences which make up the life-history of the individual mind.
The play of motives passes through all kinds of vicissitudes as the alternative courses of action and their consequences are more fully apprehended in relation to the self.
Experiences in general involve the presence of objects to the mind. We cannot perceive without perceiving something, we cannot suppose without supposing something to be the case, and even apparently objectless emotions are found in analysis to be directed upon something before the mind.
In spite of the mental assertion that we are not going to perform a certain action, the idea of that action, owing to other conditions, acquires and maintains a dominance in consciousness which ultimately leads to its realisation.
Edith Potter, the main character and victim of Walls of Silence, has haunted me since she emerged from my subconscious over a decade ago and I so hope I have, at last, been able to do her story justice.
* psychosocial: of or involving the influence of social factors or human interactive behaviour. OED
To investigate the research behind Walls of Silence and learn a little about shell-shock and the treatment of mental health after The Great War visit: www.ruthwade.com
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Thank you to Ruth Wade for taking out time from her busy schedule and gracing my blog with her presence.
Ruth Wade was born in Sheffield Park station house on the cusp of the Bluebell Line becoming a heritage steam railway. Her formative years continued to be influenced by the past as she was brought up in the seaside town which can boast England’s first ever motorcar races, and the art deco splendour that is the De La Warr Pavilion.
A part-time lecturer in creative writing for Cambridge colleges and academies, her two great passions are longbow archery and the Argentine Tango. Sadly, she is not nearly as accomplished at either as she’d like.
Ruth Wade also writes the May Keaps series as BK Duncan.
You can find her in the following social media:
Twitter – @RuthWadewriter
Facebook – ruthwadewriter
Instagram – ruthwadewriter
Thank you to Bloodhound Books for providing me with the e-book through NetGalley.
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