By Cat Robson.
The film Poppy Shakespeare, based on Clare Allen’s novel, takes us down a cinematic rabbit hole into north London’s fictional Dorothy Fish day hospital where the clearly ‘sane’ Poppy, played by Naomie Harris, has been mysteriously committed to a compulsory day-program for the mentally ill.
In a psychiatric Catch 22, she must prove herself insane in order to be eligible for the government funding (‘madness money’) she needs to pay a lawyer to prove in court that she is not insane.
Reminiscent of the Marshalsea in Dickens’ Little Dorrit, where debtors are imprisoned while their more guilty creditors walk free, the film’s hospital is a satire of an ineffectual mental health system, and a personal tribute to the patients Clare Allan came to know.
In the following excerpts from a Mail Online interview, Clare Allan tells how she ‘wrote’ herself out of an asylum.
“Now she thinks she’s an author!”
She broke down in her 20s and spent a decade bobbing in and out of the mental health system, her head only just above water.
Her psychiatrists thought her writing was proof of delusional tendencies (“Now she thinks she’s an author!”), and it took the encouragement of an astute social worker to propel her out of hospital and on to the 2007 bestseller lists with her first novel, Poppy Shakespeare – a black comedy set in the psychiatric ward of a day hospital, which has been likened to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Questioning ‘mental illness’
“What I’ve learnt from being in the system is that there’s a seed of mental illness in everyone,” says Clare, 39…”It made me question this divide between mental health and mental illness. Actually, I think there’s just a scale and you’re somewhere on it…
An elusive sense of self
“I’d never had a strong sense of self. My father died six months ago and, while sorting through his stuff, I found a story I wrote when I was really young, about a horse which went everywhere looking for a field to live in.
“It seemed significant because that’s something I still struggle with. Even now, I kind of feel, well, do I exist?”
Drugs and neglect
The NHS [Britain’s National Health Service] offered her little hope of recovery. She is scathing about the lack of therapy offered, and dubious about the increasing doses of drugs she was prescribed by psychiatrists who barely knew her.
Clare herself felt written off, written out of her own narrative, perhaps, especially in light of the professionals’ scornful reaction to her writing ambitions.
“I began to see a future”
Her social worker, Bernadette, to whom she has dedicated Poppy Shakespeare, was the only one of them to provide the encouragement that shored her up. She recognised Clare’s very real talents. “And I began to see a future,” says Clare.
In 1999, buoyed by the confidence that Bernadette had instilled in her, Clare applied for and was accepted on to an MA course in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, a brave new world where the people she met trailed self-confidence.
“That was a shock,” she adds, dryly.
Writing on the ward
There were ups and downs, none more so than when she sold Poppy Shakespeare to Bloomsbury, though she doesn’t know why good luck precipitated a major setback. “I was in hospital for five months after that. I edited large sections of the book on the ward.”
She thinks she is “more integrated, a much more solid person” today, and her assessment seems justified.
She has certainly taken the screening of the TV film in her stride. “I’m fascinated to see it, but it’s not my baby.”
She even took a bit part as one of the doctors. “I had to wrestle Anna Maxwell Martin to the ground. For 50 takes.”
She believes the great divide lies not between sanity and insanity, but functioning and not functioning, between those who can hack it in the modern world and those who, temporarily or permanently, cannot.
A writers life
Living alone, she has learnt how to shepherd herself through. She takes a mood-stabilising drug and sees her social worker regularly. She writes fiction for a maximum of five hours a day – she also has a column in The Guardian and is finishing the first draft of her next book.
“I’m well, but I certainly don’t rule out that I might be in hospital again,” she says. “However, I think it very unlikely that my life would stop in the same way. I have an existence now.” She has a staffordshire bull terrier puppy – a focus outside herself and a bounding conduit to enjoying the outside world. She has reconnected with some of the old friends from Durham who fell away when she failed to return their calls, has maintained some from UEA and others from the wards.
She says her parents helped her practically throughout, “but I didn’t involve them in an emotionally close way. I felt I needed that separateness and independence.”‘
She has never had a serious relationship.
“Open to offers!” she quips. And with similar facetiousness, she quotes Alan Bennett on her sexual preference, “That’s like asking a man dying of thirst whether he’d prefer Badoit or Perrier.”
But somehow that sounds wistful, giving the impression that her personal history might deter potential partners.
“It’s hard to know, isn’t it? I haven’t really given people the opportunity to decide.
“I give out very clear signals of not wanting to go there. Relationships are a problematic area for me. I can’t deny it. I’ve just got to learn.”
She once said she wanted a child.
“Did I?” She sounds amazed.
“If I had two lives, I’d want a child in one. But I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want a child on my own.
“A lot of the pleasure would be sharing the experience with someone else.
“So as I’ve got one life, I’ll take whatever happens. I’d love to meet the right person, for sure, but I’m quite happy on my own, too.”
Reality and fiction
She says she doesn’t want to be defined by her mental illness, and anticipates a future in which it is no longer the prime focus of her interviews.
Her next book concerns a journalist who fabricates a story, is sacked, and then sets about trying to prove that what he invented was true.
“You know, every book I’ve written (including two that are unpublished) is to do with reality and what happens when you mess around with it.
“I think that when people lie they often reveal more than when they tell the truth. Reality is really quite boring,” Clare Allan adds with a slightly shamefaced guffaw.
Article: Mariel Hemingway and Barbara Kopple on their documentary Running From Crazy – Mariel Hemingway: “If we look at the way we live then we have a real chance of reversing the devastation of mental illness.”
Article publié pour la première fois le 15/10/2015