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When The Roller Coaster Stops

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WHEN THE ROLLER COASTER STOPS  by Susan Tarr

Susan Tarr

Susan Tarr

I normally shy away from books with a storyline around terminal illness; the emotional trauma, the suffering the illness causes and the despair of friends and family.  However, Susan Tarr, with her exquisite writing skills, manages to make ‘When The Roller Coaster Stops’ into an adventure full of life, hope and quirkiness.

The two main characters, Bethany and Kate, although from very different backgrounds, manage to bring the very best out in each other. Well maybe not in the early stages of their relationship, but certainly towards the end. Frumpy Kate meets stylish, perfectly coiffured Bethany when she is employed by Bethany to clean her luxury apartment.  There are so many ‘truths’ here, about personal interactions, ulterior motives, and co-dependency that I marvelled at how expertly the author managed to stay on track to keep the reader transfixed right to the last few words written.

Weaving in and out of the two women’s lives, are gay friends, Bethany’s ex husband, and other friends who are not always welcome. There are plenty of tranquil days when the two friends can relax at a beachfront holiday house or lie together in bed talking and sleeping. Contrasted with these days, are the never ending bitchy tiffs between Bethany and Kate, and gay friends, Simon and George.  During the different stages of her illness Bethany suffers episodes of depression and self pity which she takes out on soft targets Kate and George. Bethany could be manipulative and positively cruel to those who genuinely cared about her.

Even allowing for the subject matter, I thoroughly enjoyed this book from beginning to end. It is essentially a book about the brutal honesty of shared intimacy, human failings, and the untimely interruption of fate. Then again it could very well be interpreted as a story of loyalties in which sacrifices are made for another’s well being, or not.   But you know, I think it’s more about a vibrant, once selfish young woman’s terminal illness slowly shrinking her privileged, dazzling world into the confines of her apartment with a handful of people who she finally realises mean everything to her. Like all Susan Tarr’s books, you never know what to expect from one chapter to the next.

Anne Frandi-Coory  8 October 2015

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TEN *****  Book Reviews for  …

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ISHTAR? – A Passionate Quest To Find Answers For Generations of Defeated Mothers

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This review originally posted here on AMAZON BOOKS 28 March 2017

New Zealand’s Elena Ferrante?…

I don’t write many book reviews, I don’t usually have the time,  but I felt compelled to write this one. I’ve read both of Anne Frandi-Coory’s books; her memoir Whatever Happened To Ishtar? (2010) and her latest publication Dragons, Deserts and Dreams (2016) and it seems to me both are the kinds of books that you keep in order to read again and again. I also follow her book reviews on Facebook closely because she reads the genres I enjoy and she writes great, honest  book reviews.

The honesty with which Anne Frandi-Coory has written her memoir makes me think of her as New Zealand’s Elena Ferrante. The author is a virtual recluse who writes about her childhood living in Catholic institutions and whose existence is violently shaken up periodically when she is taken by her father into his Lebanese immigrant family’s household not far from the institutions she has lived in for most of her formative years. There she endures what she calls the hypocrisy and brutality the women of the household direct toward her and her absent Italian mother who has long since been banished from the home of her in-laws.  The reasons are complex and include the sexual harassment of the author’s mother, an innocent ex Catholic nun. Frandi-Coory’s story is set in a slightly later era than Ferrante’s and dolls eerily feature in her childhood as well. I felt the need to check Frandi-Coory’s book reviews to ascertain whether she had been influenced at all by the Italian author in any way.  Yes, she had reviewed the Neapolitan Quartet Novels by Ferrante, but she had only read and reviewed those books in 2016 six years after she wrote her memoir.  I am amazed at the similarities in writing style as well as in the content and minutiae of the lives of mothers and daughters, even allowing for the authors living on opposite ends of the world. I suppose at the end of the day, women’s lot is universal.

Frandi-Coory embarks on years of research into the lives of her mother and Italian extended family which she was never permitted to have contact with even though the Coory family didn’t want her living with them after her father’s marriage to her mother broke down when she was an infant. She finds that many women in both the Lebanese and Italian extended families lived in patriarchal cultures reinforced by devotion to the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church. Too many children, brutal husbands and a blind faith in a god who never seemed to answer any of their prayers.

I wonder if these families had not left their home countries to settle in such a raw and young country as New Zealand would their lives ever have come under such scrutiny?  As another reviewer of Frandi-Coory’s memoir stated, this is a mammoth book and well worth reading. I also recommend the author’s latest book which, although it contains short stories and poems as well as some of her artworks, cleverly connects the reader to many of the topics she writes about in her memoir.

-Zita Barna, Australia.  28 March 2017

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Hi Anne, I expect you are thinking what on earth I am on about when I said I would e mail you.

Rita Roberts 2

Rita Roberts-Archaeologist

Well, I watched a film called  ‘Not Without My Daughter’.  For some reason it made me think about your book  ‘Whatever Happened to Ishtar?’  documenting your traumatic childhood and I had to begin reading it again, because this film helped me understand my confusion with regard to your extended family. I honestly don’t know how you coped with all that hassle You were so brave and I admire you tremendously. I am also so pleased you have Paul and your lovely children making your life now happy. If you haven’t already seen this film you can see it on U tube, and it is a true story. Take care, Rita Roberts (Crete)

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*Anne Frandi-Coory’s reply to Rita Roberts  30 November 2016:

Dear Rita

I finally located a copy of the dvd ‘Not Without My Daughter’ (1990) starring Sally Field. Thank you for recommending it to me. I can see why the Iranian family in the movie reminded you of my immigrant Lebanese family that I wrote about in my memoir ‘Whatever Happened To Ishtar?’ and why it gave you a better insight into what my childhood, and my mother’s life,  must have been like.

The movie brought so much of my childhood flooding back to me. First of all, the women wearing black burqas evoked images of the nuns in the Catholic Mercy orphanage where I spent my infancy and early childhood. I always get a strong visceral reaction whenever I see women dressed like this, or nuns in black habits, and not because the Mercy nuns were especially cruel; in fact the sister who ran the orphanage nursery was very kind to me. But because I was traumatised by being abandoned at the nursery by my mother, I always feel the same distress all these years later.

The hateful looks directed at the American mother, by the Iranian women in the movie also reminded me of my aunts. My paternal Lebanese family, (grandparents and their 11 children),  all lived, and later,  often visited,  in the same three storey house, so that whenever my father took me to visit his family, I not only had one or two adults abusing or yelling and screaming at me, there were several, all at once. My father rarely intervened, and he was born in that Dunedin house, living there most of his life along with his brother and unmarried sister.  A couple of times I sat on my father’s knee when I was a little girl, and the look my aunts gave me frightened me so much, I never hugged him, or sat on my his knee ever again! They didn’t like me or my Italian mother, and I can only imagine what it was like for her, living with them all. Of course, you will remember that my mother’s severe bipolar disorder took hold while she lived with her in-laws, after she married my father. The family screamed abuse at me often, and reminded me every other day that my mother was a ‘sharmuta’ (prostitute) because she had an illegitimate son, and her Italian culture was also demonised. The family’s racism was something I remember vividly.

My aunts often attacked me in the streets of Dunedin if they thought my clothing was in any way ‘revealing’; once when I was a teenager, two of my aunts attacked me because I was wearing a dress with a skirt that fell below my knees, had a high neckline, but the long sleeves were made of a see-through flimsy fabric. They were so enraged they almost ripped the sleeves off my arms. In the end, I was afraid to walk down the street in case I met them and all I could think of was moving to another New Zealand city to escape them, which I eventually did.

While my father’s family weren’t Muslim like the family in the movie, they brought their very strict Catholic Maronite religion and culture with them. They went to church every Sunday and often during the week. My grandmother, Eva Arida, had an altar in her bedroom dedicated to the Virgin Mary with a lighted candle 24/7. She prayed constantly from a little Aramaic prayer book and was habitually fingering rosary beads. My grandfather, Jacob Fahkrey, of devout priestly lineage, prayed aloud early every morning while walking around the rear yard of the family home. I can honestly say that it was the women of the family who were the most physically and verbally brutal.

I did a bit more research into the true story behind the movie and book Not Without My Daughter, and that was also very interesting. The little American girl who so loved her Iranian father when they lived in the USA, had such a traumatic experience living with her father’s family in Iran, that she refused to ever see him again after she and her mother barely managed to escape to the States. Her father eventually travelled to Finland, a neutral country, with a documentary team hoping to film a reunion with his adult daughter, but she declined.   

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Another 5***** Book Review by Linnea Tanner…

Whatever Happened To Ishtar?  by Anne Frandi-Coory is a well-written and haunting memoir of a woman who finds herself by exploring her family’s heritage that contributed to her growing up without the love and nurture of a mother she most desperately wanted. What first attracted me to this book was the title, Whatever Happened To Ishtar?. She is the Ancient Sumerian Mother Goddess who celebrates love, fertility, and sexuality. This title haunted me as I read the memoir because Anne’s mother, like many woman of her generation and previous generations, was harshly judged for her sexuality and had limited options to treat her mental illness and to fulfill her potential. The first part of the memoir is Anne’s account of her childhood while the second part provides a historical account of her Lebanese (father’s side) and Italian heritage (mother’s side).

Anne was institutionalized at the Mercy Orphanage of the Poor at South Dunedin in her early childhood. At the time, her father could not adequately care for Anne after he divorced her mother for infidelity. At the age of eight, Anne was removed from the orphanage and introduced to the real world under the care of her father’s family. However, they shamed Anne and associated her with her mentally ill mother they considered a whore. This part of the memoir is gut-wrenching and haunting because Anne had to overcome loneliness and self-doubt to find her full potential after marrying, having four children, and finding her life partner after a divorce.

However, what is most fascinating is the rich heritage and ancestral genealogy of both her father and mother to understand what nineteenth century immigrants to Australia faced. With no access to birth control, women faced multiple pregnancies or secretly resorted to self-induced abortions with crude knitting needles. The historical accounts that Anne researched help explain why her father and her mother were compelled to make their choices. I recommend this memoir because the story will stay in your memory as it covers universal issues of female sexuality, women’s roles and options, mental illness, and society’s harsh judgment that has defeated mothers for generations.

-Linnea Tanner 25 April 2016

Linnea Tanner

Linnea Tanner

-More about Linnea Tanner here: http://www.linneatanner.com/blog/

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Book Review by FLAXROOTS  14 July 2015

Whatever Happened To Ishtar?  by author Anne Frandi-Coory

Anne.

Anne Frandi-Coory –  7 years old

This book is a memoir of the life of Anne Frandi-Coory the daughter of an Italian mother and a Lebanese father.

Having spent a childhood, peppered with abuse and harassment, between a Dunedin orphanage for the poor and her father’s Lebanese family Anne was regarded as a backward child. She describes the panic she felt as a toddler as her father departed after one of his visits, and goes on to relate episodes from her strict upbringing in the orphanage where she was segregated from her two brothers once the boys turned five years old. Memory of the order of happenings in her early life is sketchy and this is aptly conveyed in her narrative.

She was not well received by her father’s family though she lived with her father at his family’s house intermittently, but never feeling at ease there and alleging various kinds of abuse.
Married in her teens Anne gave birth to four children and devoted herself to nurturing them during which time her marriage failed and she struggled to avoid a mental breakdown.

Later in life Anne devoted herself to researching the Lebanese history of her father’s family and the Italian forebears on her mother’s side, hoping to understand her relationship with her Italian mother who was shunned by Anne’s father’s family and who couldn’t look after her children except for very short periods.
The account of the arrival of the Frandi family as assisted immigrants to New Zealand in 1876, as opposed to those arriving in a self funding capacity, makes interesting reading.
The poems and quotations at the beginning of each chapter have obviously been chosen with care and sensitivity and give an added dimension to the book. The same can be said for the inclusion of family photographs mostly lent by other family members. There is a certain poignancy here as Anne had few, if any, family photos while she was growing up; thus emphasising what she refers to as ‘her paper-thin sense of identity’
There is a freshness about the author’s style and she succeeds in conveying emotion about the lack of emotion and caring shown to her in her formative years.

Having, as a child, lived in fear of dire consequences if she didn’t follow strict rules and try to emulate the saints she may have developed the discipline to achieve a good education which, no doubt, helped in her later endeavours to track her forebears and learn the history of their migration to New Zealand.
The bibliography includes useful references and illuminates the paths she travelled.

With regard to the publication the title is apt and the cover is eye-catching. The paper edition is perfect bound but the biggest drawback is the lack of an adequate gutter making the book difficult to hold open for any length of time. There are three very minor identical grammatical inconsistencies plus an odd discrepancy about two rivers.

The author is to be congratulated on her enterprise in producing a valuable resource for her family and an interesting and instructive read for the rest of us.

It seems Ishtar has risen from the ashes!

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WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ISHTAR? by Anne Frandi-Coory – Book Review by Pauline Csuba published in issue no. 387 The Australian Writer March 2015

Anne Marie Coory 1958

Anne Frandi-Coory – 10 years old

Haunted by her mother’s restless spirit filtering through every thought and dream, this book was written not only for the appeasement of her mother but for her children and grandchildren.  Anne Frandi-Coory has embarked on a journey of genealogy taking on a rich history, research, and unpleasant memories.

Distressed at the hands of her Lebanese father’s extended family and The Mercy orphanage for the poor – this story of lost generations, abandonment, abuse and gross neglect by those who should have known better – is a story of a personal account and the connection with the Catholic Church and its institutions. Brutality, emotional deprivation and lack of nurturing all culminated in a dark side of two families unable to communicate with one another. With the history of these Lebanese and Italian families and how they settled in New Zealand, this makes for an interesting read.

It is a mammoth book and I felt by removing some areas of repetitions may have freed the flow of emotion that could allow the reader to connect much sooner with the powerful experience being shared. I congratulate Anne for taking on this traumatic journey of her past and the long process of research, writing and editing of her work. It is wonderful to see she now has a loving partner and family who have supported her in this passionate quest. I recommend this book to those who are or have embarked on a similar journey.

-Pauline Csuba

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WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ISHTAR? by Anne Frandi-Coory – 5 star

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1165480328

When I started reading this book, I expected to finish it quite quick but in truth, it took time to digest the words and their significance. It is a journey, both biographical and autobiographical in approach. The author seeks to find her place not only in society but who she is. This is an extraordinary search which uncovers the history of her maternal and paternal lineage.

What is revealed is both heart-rending and powerful, a personal narrative. Ms. Frandi-Coory’s pursuit as to why her mother abandoned her while a baby is a difficult journey of self-discovery. How could a mother leave her children is the driving question behind the author’s plight. That, and trying to understand who she is and to identify with the family nexus and her place within it.

Her father, ill equipped mentally and economically to rear his daughter and son, placed them in an orphanage run by catholic nuns. It was not a pleasant time for either and the author gives vivid descriptions of her time incarcerated. Her father’s family weren’t the most pleasant people, abusive both verbally and physically. Why? Her mother was considered a harlot and mentally unstable, therefore she was of the same ilk. The cultural mix of Italian and Lebanese blood, the author is driven to learn more about both sides of the family and why they behaved in such a contrary manner.

I admire Ms. Frandi-Coory for writing this book. She revealed secrets most families would prefer to remain hidden to detriment of those who were and are victims. This is a brave expository, which shows the cycles of abuse can be stopped with determination and strength of character.

-Luciana Cavallaro 11 January 2015

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Luciana Cavallaro

More About Luciana Cavallaro here: https://www.amazon.com/Luciana-Cavallaro/e/B009QHIKN2

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Gerald Gentz

Gerald Gentz

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ISHTAR? by Anne Frandi-Coory – AMAZON BOOK REVIEW by Gerald Gentz USA 30 December 2014   

http://www.amazon.com/Anne-Frandi-Coory/e/B00MN03HQY

‘Whatever Happened To Ishtar?’ is more than a book and more than a story. It is the telling of a remarkable journey of discovery of one person’s difficult life. Anne Frandi-Coory spent much of her life trying to find a place and the love of a family. Book ended between a caring but weak father and mentally ill mother unable to care for her financially or emotionally, Anne and her brother, Kevin, suffered childhoods that no child deserves to experience. In the end, even the scars would not prevent them from making stable and successful lives.

Anne’s long research into both the paternal and maternal sides of her family is remarkable for it’s depth and acceptance. In doing so, she exposed her demons and the dysfunctions of her maternal and paternal families. The result is a culmination of her difficult journey to understand herself. Her greatest victory is her coming to understand the love of her mother and the realization of her love for her mother. Anne’s was a journey of discovery and healing.

This can be a difficult book to read at times because of the emotions it elicits. It was particularly emotional for me because of my realization that Anne is actually my cousin that I was not aware I had, her mother being my mother’s older sister. Anne’s book gave me a deeper awareness of my maternal family, and thus my mother, than I had before. So Anne Frandi-Coory’s journey of discovery was also mine in 373 pages.

Gerald Gentz

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WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ISHTAR? by Anne Frandi-Coory – 5 star *****GOODREADS BOOK REVIEW by Susan Tarr 

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11168865-whatever-happened-to-ishtar

“WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ISHTAR? By Anne Frandi-Coory is a remarkable portrayal of New Zealand’s earlier Lebanese and Italian Catholic families. Although I was raised in the various vicinities this book covers, I had no idea there were established Lebanese families in New Zealand. And, for me, the whole Catholic religion was shrouded in mystique, so I had very little understanding of what was involved in being a part of the Catholic faith.

Set in New Zealand, the spartan buildings of the Catholic St Vincent’s orphanage mirrored in some part those of Seacliff Mental Asylum (Otago, NZ) in both outlook and care of those in their charge. Both would seem to have lacked a close affection for those who needed it most: the vulnerable and unloved.

This work is an amazing testimony for all mothers, a testimony we can probably all relate to. How many times do we feel inadequate, or feel we could have done better? We should never have such constraints placed on us as a mother to feel either of these. Whatever a mother is capable of at that time, for her child, is sufficient for that time.

As Frandi-Coory bears out, it is always possible to break mindsets, or break the mould, as it is said. I.e. the sins of the father… All it takes is an invincible will, which clearly she had and has.

Frandi-Coory recounts the histories of both her Lebanese and Italian families. She explains how the various mindsets occurred and how they were passed down through the generations.

I found I kept referring to the photographs as I formed opinions on the various players in this tapestry of life.

What is astonishing here, is that Anne Frandi-Coory and I never made a connection until after our respective books were published, in separate countries. It was through reading each others work that we realised our lives were very closely linked. In fact we may well have known each other through a mutual friend (Italian) during our college years in Dunedin, NZ. That is why I can vouch for the events, scenery, time frames and cultures in this amazing work.

It’s absolutely raw in its honesty.

Very well written, it’s a compelling read, from start to finish.

Kudos to Anne Frandi-Coory.

-Susan Tarr 14 October 2014

Susan Tarr

Susan Tarr

More about Susan Tarr here:http://www.amazon.com/Susan-Tarr/e/B00I0I3M9U

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MOMO Photo ABC ‘Let’s Read’…

 I am a member of a photo group where we get a prompt for every day and have to take an appropriate picture. Because we had the alphabet one month, I decided to do a book theme. I always added either the link to my blog or to the books. I have decided to post a picture every week so my booky friends can enjoy them, as well.
A is for … Autobiography.  Two biographies by some very strong women:

Anne Frandi-Coory  Whatever Happened To Ishtar? 
Immaculée Ilibagiza  Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust
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Momo 2014

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‘Whatever Happened To Ishtar?’ is

“An amazing journey – challenging, painful, and ultimately unforgettable”  – Tanith Jane McNabb, Owner of Tan’s Bookshop Marlborough NZ, 27 October 2014 on

Whatever Happened To Ishtar?‘ Anne Frandi-Coory Author’s  facebook page: 

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See here *MORE reviews for ‘Whatever Happened To Ishtar?‘ and where to buy this book

**Please VISIT and LIKE Anne Frandi-Coory Author Facebook Page** 

BOOK REVIEW:

 MIRANDA BAY   by Susan Tarr  

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Well, what a book! From start to finish, reeling with every twist and turn, the reader never knows how Miranda Poole’s day to day running of her ‘resort’ is going to end, for her or her guests (poor fools)!  Resort-savvy guests wisely leave very quickly without so much as a backward glance after taking one look at the ramshackle ex-sanatorium Miranda has invested her life savings in.

I love author Susan Tarr’s characterisations. She obviously has an in-depth knowledge of what makes people tick in any given situation, without being over emotive or too over the top to be believable.  In other words, the author has a genuine understanding of the width and breadth of human nature.

I particularly relished New Zealand flavours throughout the saga: Auckland’s Queen Street, Pohutukawa trees, sandy beaches, and flax stands to name but a few. They paint a vibrant background canvas for characters like Neville Sykes, Jack the wavering priest, Hamilton Sofbotham, the colourful staff, all who conspire to make Miranda’s venture more like a roller coaster ride than a prime of life experience.  And then there are the paying guests. Enough said!

Miranda’s binge drinking increases as her debts pile up. But everything is exasperated by Hamilton’s obsession with her and his constant demeaning of her ability to run the resort.  Depression causes her to withdraw suppressing her once bubbly personality. Her cousin and best friend, Pansy Poole, gradually takes over most of the management of guests and staff. Unfortunately, easy going Pansy is fast losing patience with her cousin, and their friendship is being thoroughly tested. Both miss romance, cafés and the excitement of Auckland city.

I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that it surprised me.  As the story progresses, I was beginning to think Miranda’s quickening downward spiral was going to take her to the nearest psychiatric ward, never mind dilapidated sanatorium!

What a fabulous Peter Jackson movie this fabulous book could be made into…

By the way, I wouldn’t class this as a Chick Lit novel, it’s way too smart and knowing for that (sorry chick lit fans).  To my mind it’s more of a 30-something’s catapult into maturity.

– Anne Frandi-Coory 17 October 2014

BOOK REVIEW –

Susan Tarr

 

 

by Susan Tarr – Author, Editor and Proof Reader

 

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“WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ISHTAR? by Anne Frandi-Coory is a remarkable portrayal of New Zealand’s earlier Lebanese and Italian Catholic families. Although I was raised in the various vicinities this book covers, I had no idea there were established Lebanese families in New Zealand. And, for me, the whole Catholic religion was shrouded in mystique, so I had very little understanding of what was involved in being a part of the Catholic faith.

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ishtar-front-cover

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Set in New Zealand, the spartan buildings of the Catholic St Vincent’s orphanage mirrored in some part those of Seacliff Mental Asylum (Otago, NZ) in both outlook and care of those in their charge. Both would seem to have lacked a close affection for those who needed it most: the vulnerable and unloved.

This work is an amazing testimony for all mothers, a testimony we can probably all relate to. How many times do we feel inadequate, or feel we could have done better? We should never have such constraints placed on us as a mother to feel either of these. Whatever a mother is capable of at that time, for her child, is sufficient for that time.

As Frandi-Coory bears out, it is always possible to break mindsets, or break the mould, as it is said. I.e. the sins of the father… All it takes is an invincible will, which clearly she had and has.

Frandi-Coory recounts the histories of both her Lebanese and Italian families. She explains how the various mindsets occurred and how they were passed down through the generations.

I found I kept referring to the photographs as I formed opinions on the various players in this tapestry of life.

What is astonishing here, is that Anne Frandi-Coory and I never made a connection until after our respective books were published, in separate countries. It was through reading each others work that we realised our lives were very closely linked. In fact we may well have known each other through a mutual friend (Italian) during our college years in Dunedin, NZ. That is why I can vouch for the events, scenery, time frames and cultures in this amazing work.

It’s absolutely raw in its honesty.

Very well written, it’s a compelling read, from start to finish.

Kudos to Anne Frandi-Coory.

-Susan Tarr 8 October 2014

More REVIEWS for Anne Frandi-Coory’s Memoir/Family History: 

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ISHTAR?;

A Passionate Quest To Find Answers For Generation of Defeated Mothers

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SEE BOOK REVIEW FOR Susan Tarr’s

PHENOMENA; The Lost And Forgotten Children 

phenomena susan tarr

 

 

PHENOMENA: The Lost And Forgotten Children

 by Susan Tarr.

 

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At the heart of this book is the story of a disabled little boy whose journey through life is narrated with empathy and compassion by author, Susan Tarr. Not long after the tragic death of his baby brother, followed closely by the death of his beloved mother, he is abandoned by his father at a railway station. When this severely traumatised little boy is picked up by authorities he can’t or won’t give his name.  In fact, he refuses to speak at all. The decision is made to admit him to the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, a common practise in the 19th and early 20th centuries in New Zealand. Upon admission into Seacliff he is given the name, Malcolm, and there he withdraws completely into himself. He is subsequently diagnosed as being of below normal intelligence as well as having some kind of mental illness. He is incarcerated in the Asylum with other traumatised children; some with their mothers and others, like Malcolm, alone.

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Seacliff Lunatic Asylum in Dunedin, New Zealand. Demolished in 1959.

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Although a work of fiction, Malcolm’s story is based on a true story. In actual fact, the author knows ‘Malcolm’ personally and she has made his story a composite of the lives of many children who grew up in the Gothic styled Seacliff Lunatic Asylum. This is partly to protect his true identity and partly to weave into the book the lives of other ‘lost and forgotten children’ in psychiatric institutions.

Susan Tarr lived in a small East Otago coastal settlement near the mouth of the Waikouaiti River, situated approximately 20 miles north of Dunedin city. Seacliff Village relied on Seacliff Lunatic Asylum nestled on the hill above it for its commercial existence. Many residents of the village worked at the asylum as attendants, nurses, cleaners, cooks, gardeners and tradespeople. Susan Tarr had relatives and friends who were employed as staff, and she has herself  previously worked at  Seacliff Asylum and other psychiatric hospitals.

I grew up in Dunedin and knew of Seacliff  the asylum although I knew of no-one who had been a patient there. Whenever anyone spoke of Seacliff, it conjured up for me, images of raving, salivating lunatics. However, I did have a school friend my own age who attended St Dominic’s College at the top of Rattray Street in the city at the same time I was there. She travelled by train to and fro between Waikouaiti train station and the College every school day.  On occasion I was invited to her home where I met her parents and siblings. Her father was a psychiatric nurse at Seacliff. It transpired that Susan Tarr also knew my  school friend and her family very well; they were near neighbours in the residential settlement at Seacliff/Waikouaiti.

I had never communicated with the author before I saw her post on Twitter with a link to information about Phenomena. So it was very much a chance connection. I bought and downloaded the book immediately onto my tablet and I couldn’t put it down. Not only because it is so well written, but also because it evoked memories of Dunedin which I had left behind many years ago.  Susan Tarr writes in detail about the parks and streets in and around Dunedin. She has accessed personal diaries, old letters, and interviewed ex-staff and former patients for the book. Personal and shared experiences with the author’s workmates, family and friends have added to the depth of this work.

To accompany Malcolm on his journey through the pages of Phenomena is to gain a remarkable insight into the thoughts and feelings of sufferers at a time when mental illness was little understood. The harsh treatment of children at Seacliff, an institution completely devoid of love and understanding, is heartrending. Most of the children suffered from nothing more than emotional trauma, or epilepsy. Some patients, admitted as children, spent their whole lives incarcerated at Seacliff, and died there. Women who succumbed to misdiagnosed post-natal depression were declared ‘insane’ and locked away from family support and their children which often deepened their depression, developed into psychotic states or far worse.  Ex-soldiers suffering battle fatigue and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, (not properly diagnosed at the time) were also among patients at Seacliff.  There were also many ‘criminally insane’ inmates but they were locked up in a secure section of the hospital.

At the forefront of institutional care for the ‘insane’ in New Zealand in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries was Dr Frederic Truby King, known as Truby King. Malcolm’s story brings to vivid life the day to day existence for patients at Seacliff  under the radical ideas instituted by Dr King. The doctor was well qualified at the time, having gained a Bachelor of Medicine and Science, and Master of Surgery at Edinburgh University. In 1894 he returned to Edinburgh to study Brain Pathology, nervous and mental disorders. He became a Member of Psychological Association of Great Britain. During Dr King’s tenure as Medical Superintendent of Seacliff between 1889 and 1920, his energy and compassion towards patients earned him a ‘solid reputation’. But he ran the Asylum with the authoritarian and disciplinarian attitudes of the era. Concurrently, Dr King held the lectureship of mental diseases at Otago University and consultancies in Public Health and Medical Jurisprudence. As if that wasn’t enough, he was also responsible for the overall management of auxiliary institutions at Waitati, and The Camp on the Otago Peninsula.  In terms of the horror stories recorded at other lunatic asylums around the world, there is no doubt Dr King began a benign revolution in the care of the mentally ill.

Susan Tarr cleverly weaves the changes Dr King brought to institutional care through Malcolm’s eyes. The detail of his and other children’s lives growing up in the Asylum among severely disturbed and mentally ill adults is harrowing. More so because they were intelligent but had no idea why they were there or of life outside of Seacliff.  The treatments and bullying Malcolm endured are frightening and he eventually suppressed any curiosity about life, closing himself off from everybody and everything around him.  Because he had been institutionalised since childhood, his perceptions of life outside were incomplete, mystifying and alarming. Some attendants could be aggressive and violent and Malcolm felt the constant scrutiny unnerving. He saw events and heard discussions he had little internal resources to process.  In the children’s and adults’ minds, the uniformed staff were wardens, there to be obeyed and to inflict punishments on them when necessary. They were not there to offer comfort or give answers to any questions patients might have.

As Malcolm grew into manhood, life began to evolve even more at Seacliff. The  hospital complex had been run as a 900 acre farm, vegetable garden and orchard within its boundaries, with any produce used by the patients and staff as Dr King had envisaged. He firmly believed that mental illness was the result of the maltreatment and malnourishment of infants. So a healthy diet and plenty of fresh air were essential. Dr King had also established a fishing business at Karitane, a small coastal settlement a few miles north of Seacliff. Patients who enjoyed fishing  hitched rides in the hospital van and it was said that so much fish was caught on these regular trips that it ‘contributed greatly to the fishing industry’ and of course contributed to the patients’ healthy diet.

Malcolm was eventually allowed much more freedom around and outside the Asylum environs and he benefited greatly from his activities in the gardens and on the farm. His memory and speech slowly returned and he befriended members of  staff, particularly the head cook and one of the gardeners, who tried to assist Malcolm with answers to baffling questions which arose out of the return of disturbing memories. These memories were able to surface because Malcolm accumulated the sedative pills he was given daily, after his ‘foggy’ brain slowly realised these were what was befuddling him. He had to be careful though, because if the attendants had found out he would be given ‘the treatment’ again.

The ‘real’ person Malcolm is, for so long buried deeply, becomes evident towards the end of the book after a staff member helps him to recover fully, lost and painful memories, and to research his birth date and his full name. The author skilfully uses Malcolm’s long road to rehabilitation to highlight the later important developments in psychiatric care. Namely the emphasis on the medical classification of patients, the increase in patients’ liberty, the agitation for early and voluntary admission, more highly trained staff, and more female nurses. In the past, drugs, so important today, were used infrequently, mainly to calm patients. And psychoanalysis was seldom in use. One can’t help thinking how psychotherapy could have benefited Malcolm had he had access to this kind of treatment when he was first admitted to the Asylum as a deeply traumatised boy

Some of Dr King’s revolutionary ideas allowed patients to run the farm, orchard and gardens under supervision. Dr King originally replaced the attendant/gardener with a landscape gardener commissioned to develop an attractive bush setting for patients and staff to work and live in, with pleasant views out to sea. The idea was to banish all feelings of imprisonment from the patients’ minds. Dr King also designed and implemented a gravitational system of sewage irrigation which eliminated the foul-smelling gas that permeated the building. But the building itself was erected in 1874, on ‘shifting sands’ so there remained serious structural problems which Malcolm and the other patients had to live with. An ‘add-on’ structure behind the main building was consumed in a horrific fire in which many patients, locked in their rooms, were burned alive. The revivalist Gothic Seacliff Lunatic Asylum was finally demolished in 1959.

With a philosophy of efficiency and economy, Dr King had become actively involved in running the farm at Seacliff. Male patients worked outside on the farm and in the gardens while female patients did sewing and knitting, and worked in the laundry and kitchen although there was a male cook who produced delicious and nourishing meals while Malcolm lived there. Dr King held that farm work was unsuitable for women, but the chief reason for the ‘division of labour’ may have been that there was a concern about intimacy between patients of the opposite sex for various reasons. Of course close relationships between patients did exist, as well as antagonistic ones. Every summer a picnic was held for the patients while recreations and amusements were encouraged.  Dr King had to ‘vigorously defend’ the expense of maintaining a staff band, which continued to play at dances for the patients and other celebrations.

By 1895 Dr King was convinced that healthy diets and the general improvements in ventilation, drainage and other hygienic measures implemented at Seacliff were responsible for the almost entire eradication of erysipelas and ulcerated throats. Other doctors and scientists of the era had also known of the importance of hygiene, good nutrition and healthy environments, but Dr King reinforced his knowledge by putting his ideas to work at Seacliff.  Dr King has since been proven wrong in many of his beliefs about psychiatric illness, of which there was scant knowledge at the time. Environmental and social engineering could not and cannot, cure deep-seated psychological problems.

-Anne Frandi-Coory  5 August 2014

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For More about Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, see previous post

 

 

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