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Review of "Relative Stranger"

By Mary Loudon
Canongate U.S., 2006
Review by Marnina Norys on Oct 20th 2008
Relative Stranger

At first glance, one might get the impression that this book will read a bit like a mystery novel with the author recovering and recounting the experience of lifelong madness. Indeed, as the insert states "Loudon paints a portrait that lays bare the pain of schizophrenia as well as its vexing complexities." The level of intrigue the book might hold, moreover, can only be heightened by the fact that the subject of this biography also lived as a man for the latter part of her life. If a reader, however, is looking to Loudon to somehow plumb the mystery of schizophrenia from the inside, she will find herself disappointed. Loudon is writing about her estranged sister Catherine, after Catherine, who failed to inform her family she had breast cancer, went into a London hospital to die. While Loudon shies away from attempts to convey her sister's subjectivity, readers can expect to learn about Loudon's own experience of discovering and grieving a mysterious sister she hardly knew. 

This is not to say that we do not learn about Catherine, but readers hear of her life from the outside as seen through the eyes people who knew her. Such people are uncovered by Loudon and interviewed in an effort to learn who Catherine was. What we get from this is that although Catherine was a fixture in many people's communities, and a valued one at that, no one, not even her family doctor, knew her all that well. In effect, the book is Catherine's eulogy and is largely a response to those who would presume that due to the severity of her illness, her death might have been a blessing.

As it turns out, there was a 13-year age difference between the author and her sister, with Catherine leaving home when Mary was nine. Before this, Catherine, who had had an intense interest in Eastern thought, suffered her first psychotic break while in India. Catherine later would exhibit the classic picture of schizophrenia including auditory and visual hallucinations, paranoia, delusions and odd and disturbing behaviour such as repetitive rocking, laughing out loud for no reason or stripping in the street. When Mary was a child, moreover, her sister threatened her with a knife outside the family home. This, together with the symptoms and Catherine's own reluctance to maintain close ties with her family, made contact infrequent at best. In fact for the last eleven years of her life, Catherine did not see a single family member and only occasionally sent letters or requests for money during this time. As Loudon writes (perhaps a little melodramatically) regarding the prospect of visiting her sister: "I worried that if I arrived at her flat bearing homemade stew and a bunch of flowers I would be found dead later, in a stew of my own blood" (p. 207).

          Understanding Catherine's life comes through interviews with her social worker, doctor, local grocer, and other community figures who knew her including priests and nuns. Catherine's tremendously cluttered apartment is described in great detail, along with the shocking effect it has on Mary. We are to learn, however, that in public Catherine always appeared tidily dressed, she rose early to make her rounds, chain-smoked, had regular social contacts, frequently joked with those she knew, was known to some as Stevie, others as Catherine and kept everyone at arm's length.

          Where descriptions of Catherine are fairly superficial, it is Mary's subjective experience that gets mined. Catherine's journals are dismissed after being described "as definitive an expression of a broken mind as I could ask for" (328), and her artwork is presented as largely baffling. Catherine, as it turns out, produced a great deal of art and in this reviewers opinion, a major oversight was the failure to reproduce any of her work in the book, if only to give some sense of the artist's inner world. Readers are perhaps too often reminded that Catherine did not want contact. This seems to be meant to justify the fact that Mary did not have much of a relationship with her sister. In all fairness, however, it is probably due to the fact that Catherine's life story was so patchy, that we end up learning so much about Mary, even to the point of having Loudon write about the experience of writing about her dead sister.

          There is an old writer's adage that is "write what you know," and Loudon has certainly stuck to that credo here by focusing largely on her own internal states while refusing to speculate on those of her sister. The writing itself, moreover, is highly accessible, with a simple, readable and coherent narrative structure. Loudon, moreover, succeeds in challenging certain assumptions we might be prone to make when we find ourselves pitying the visibly insane people we encounter on buses, or in the street. Namely, Loudon has us take seriously the possibility that in spite of all appearances such individuals may have, as Catherine did, a life worth living.

© 2008 Marnina Norys

Marnina Norys is a PhD student in Social and Political Thought at York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Her work is in philosophy of psychiatry and psychiatric ethics.