'Other People': A Family Portrait Of Depression When Alan Bennett checks his mother into a hospital for depression, he uncovers more than a few skeletons in the family closet. The British playwright's memoir dismantles the myth of the normal family in a resentful but tender tale of hardship and enduring love.
NPR logo 'Other People': A Family Portrait Of Depression


'Other People': A Family Portrait Of Depression

A Life Like Other People's
A Life Like Other People's
By Alan Bennett
Hardcover, 243 pages
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
List Price: $22

Read An Excerpt

"Every family has a secret and the secret is that it's not like other families," Alan Bennett writes in A Life Like Other People's.  This family memoir, extracted from his 2006 autobiographical volume, Untold Stories, is at once a touching portrait of his parents, "the tenderest and most self-sufficient couple," and a sobering tale of depression and dementia.

Bennett, the British dramatist best known on this side of the Atlantic for the satirical revue Beyond the Fringe, and his stage and screenplay versions of The History Boys and The Madness of King George, first uncovered a deep family secret in 1966, when he was 32.  He and his father were checking his mother into a mental hospital for depression, the first of what would be many hospitalizations.  When asked if there was other mental illness in the family, Bennett unhesitatingly answered no. "After all, I'm the educated one in the family. I've been to Oxford. If there had been 'anything like this' I should have known about it."

He was wrong. What he learned was that his maternal grandfather, William Peel, had not died of a heart attack in 1925, at 55, as he'd been told, but had drowned himself in the local canal.

His mother's paranoia and despair first emerged after his parents moved from Leeds, where they'd raised Alan and his older brother, to a house with a garden in a small village in the Dales. It was a promised land for his father, at long last retired from butchering, an occupation he'd been pushed into at 11 by his nasty stepmother. Yet if Walt Bennett resented the intrusion on his idyll by his wife's illness and being thrown into the role of caretaker, he never complained.

Dramatist Alan Bennett is the author of the play The History Boys and most recently The Habit of Art. The Uncommon Reader is his latest novel. Hugo Glendinning hide caption

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Hugo Glendinning

Dramatist Alan Bennett is the author of the play The History Boys and most recently The Habit of Art. The Uncommon Reader is his latest novel.

Hugo Glendinning

His son complains, however. Thirty-five years after his father's death from heart failure in 1974, Bennett repeatedly remarks that "it was conscientiousness and devotion to duty that killed him," especially driving 50 miles to and from the hospital every single day for visits. With his father gone, Bennett is left "saddled with" his mother, until his brother, "always more decent with my mother than I am," steps in to "eventually shoulder the burden." She ends up in a nursing home with dementia, where she lingers until 1995, "waiting without thought or feeling until the decay of the body catches up with the decay of the mind and they can cross the finishing line together."

Bleak? A bit. But leavened, too, by Bennett's ability to set a scene, and hints of the sly humor that made his last novel, The Uncommon Reader -- a satire about the queen getting caught up in the joys of literature -- so beguiling. Lively portraits of his unconventional aunties are classic Bennett, as is this description of seeing his grandmother in her coffin when he was 16: "[I remember] feeling that with the quilted surround and the wimpled face she'd somehow found her way into a chocolate box."

Excerpt: 'A Life Like Other People's'

A Life Like Other People's
A Life Like Other People's
By Alan Bennett
Hardcover, 243 pages
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
List Price: $22

There is a wood, the canal, the river, and above the river the railway and the road. It's the first proper country that you get to as you come north out of Leeds, and going home on the train I pass the place quite often. Only these days I look. I've been passing the place for years without looking because I didn't know it was a place; that anything had happened there to make it a place, let alone a place that had something to do with me. Below the wood the water is deep and dark and sometimes there's a boy fishing or a couple walking a dog. I suppose it's a beauty spot now. It probably was then.

'Has there been any other mental illness in your family?' Mr. Parr's pen hovers over the Yes/No box on the form and my father, who is letting me answer the questions, looks down at his trilby and says nothing.

'No,' I say confidently, and Dad turns the trilby in his hands.

'Anyway,' says Mr. Parr kindly but with what the three of us know is more tact than truth, 'depression isn't really mental illness. I see it all the time.'

Mr. Parr sees it all the time because he is the Mental Health Welfare Officer for the Craven district, and late this September evening in 1966 Dad and I are sitting in his bare linoleum-floored office above Settle police station while he takes a history of my mother.

'So there's never been anything like this before?'

'No,' I say, and without doubt or hesitation. After all, I'm the educated one in the family. I've been to Oxford. If there had been 'anything like this' I should have known about it. 'No, there's never been anything like this.'

'Well,' Dad says, and the information is meant for me as much as for Mr. Parr, 'she did have something once. Just before we were married.' And he looks at me apologetically. 'Only it was nerves more. It wasn't like this.'

The 'this' that it wasn't like was a change in my mother's personality that had come about with startling suddenness. Over a matter of weeks she had lost all her fun and vitality, turning fretful and apprehensive and inaccessible to reason or reassurance. A s the days passed the mood deepened, bringing with it fantasy and delusion; the house was watched, my father made to speak in a whisper because there was someone on the landing, and the lavatory (always central to Mam's scheme of things) was being monitored every time it was flushed. She started to sleep with her handbag under her pillow as if she were in a strange and dangerous hotel, and finally one night she fled the house in her nightgown, and Dad found her wandering in the street, whence she could only be fetched back into the house after some resistance.

Occurring in Leeds, where they had always lived, conduct like this might just have got by unnoticed, but the onset of the depression coincided with my parents' retirement to a village in the Dales, a place so small and closeknit that such bizarre behaviour could not be hidden. Indeed it was partly the knowledge that they were about to leave the relative anonymity of the city for a small community where 'folks knew all your business' and that she would henceforth be socially much more visible than she was used to ("I'm the centrepiece here") that might have brought on the depression in the first place. Or so Mr. Parr is saying.

My parents had always wanted to be in the country and have a garden. Living in Leeds all his life Dad looked back on the childhood holidays he had spent holidays on a farm at Bielby in the East Riding as a lost paradise. The village they were moving to was very pretty, too pretty for Mam in her depressed mood: 'You'll see,' she said, 'we'll be inundated with folk visiting.'

The cottage faced onto the village street but had a long garden at the back, and it seemed like the place they had always dreamed of. This was in 1966. A few years later I wrote a television play, Sunset Across the Bay, in which a retired couple not unlike my parents leave Leeds to go and live in Morecambe. As the coach hits the M62, bearing them away to a new life, the wife calls out, `Bye bye, mucky Leeds!' And so it had seemed. Now Dad was being told that it was this longed-for escape that had brought down this crushing visitation on his wife. Not surprisingly he would not believe it.

In their last weeks in Leeds Dad had put Mam's low spirits down to the stress of the impending upheaval. Once the move had been accomplished, though, the depression persisted so now he fell back on the state of the house, blaming its bare unfurnished rooms, still with all the decorating to be done.

'Your Mam'll be better when we've got the place straight,' he said. 'She can't do with it being all upset.' So, while she sat fearfully on a hard chair in the passage, he got down to the decorating.

My brother, who had come up from Bristol to help with the move, also thought the state of the house was to blame, fastening particularly on an item that seemed to be top of her list of complaints, the absence of stair-carpet. I think I knew then that stair-carpet was only the beginning of it, and indeed when my brother galvanised a local firm into supplying and fitting the carpet in a couple of days Mam seemed scarcely to notice, the clouds did not lift, and in due course my brother went back to Bristol and I to London.

Over the next ten years this came to be the pattern. The onset of a bout of depression would fetch us home for a while, but when no immediate recovery was forthcoming we would take ourselves off again while Dad was left to cope. Or to care, as the phrase is nowadays. Dad was the carer. We cared, of course, but we still had lives to lead: Dad was retired -- he had all the time in the world to care.

Excerpted from A Life Like Other People's by Alan Bennett Copyright 2010 by Alan Bennett. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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