Each weekday between now and the announcement of the 2015 Stella Prize shortlist on March 12, we’ll be turning the Stella spotlight on a different longlisted author and their book. Today is day twelve, and our featured book is…
In My Mother’s Hands by Biff Ward (Allen & Unwin)
What the Stella Prize judges said:
In 1950s Sydney, at the height of the Cold War, Biff Ward was the pre-teenage daughter of unusual parents: her mother was an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and her father a prominent member of the Communist Party. In subsequent years, her historian father Russel Ward would become well known as the author of The Australian Legend, while her mother descended deeper into the mental illness whose first manifestation had been the mysterious death of her first child Alison, who had drowned, as an infant, in the bath.
This memoir is a moving and disquieting account of life in a family where silence ruled and nobody felt safe, but where everyone remained as loyal, and even as loving, as they could. Ward’s story of her family, and especially of her mother, is full of insight and frank intelligence, and shows what terrible stress and struggle sometimes went on behind closed doors in an era that stigmatised mental illness and idealised traditional family life.
There are secrets in this family. Before Biff and her younger brother, Mark, there was baby Alison, who drowned in her bath because, it was said, her mother was distracted. Biff too, lives in fear of her mother’s irrational behaviour and paranoia, and she is always on guard and fears for the safety of her brother. As Biff grows into teenage hood, there develops a conspiratorial relationship between her and her father, who is a famous and gregarious man, trying to keep his wife’s problems a family secret. This was a time when the insane were committed and locked up in Dickensian institutions; whatever his problems her father was desperate to save his wife from that fate. But also to protect his children from the effects of living with a tragically disturbed mother.
In My Mother’s Hands is a beautifully written and emotionally perplexing coming-of-age true story about growing up in an unusual family.
About the author:
Biff has worked in radical secondary education, equal opportunity, Indigenous adult education, human resource development and mental illness education. She has had a peripatetic writing career, including writing Father-Daughter Rape, a feminist analysis of the literature from Freud to the early 80s about child sexual abuse (csa) before that term was invented. It was published by The Women’s Press in London in 1984. Her poetry and essays appeared in anthologies in the 80s and 90s. Her memoir, In My Mother’s Hands, is about her family’s experience of her mother’s mental illness at the same time that her father, Russel Ward, was writing The Australian Legend. Biff has three children and four grandchildren. She lives on the Monaro, in Canberra.
What the critics said:
‘For anyone who has ever complained about a difficult mother, or written a memoir about one, this is a humbling book … I found it difficult to get out of my head days after reading it.’ – Sheila Fitzpatrick, Australian Book Review
‘In My Mother’s Hands is an extraordinary memoir. Ward hides nothing from her readers, neither her own seesawing emotions nor her mother’s increasingly frustrating and dangerous temperament and her father’s sense of self-preservation. Sympathy, pity, confusion, anger and love radiate from her prose, as fresh and raw as they must have been 60 years ago.’ – Kylie Mason, Newtown Review of Books
‘Captures without artifice the social mores of the times and that peculiar Australian tone which was this country’s take on the 1950s and 1960s.’ – Helen Crompton, the West Australian
- Biff’s website
- Read an edited extract from In My Mother’s Hands in the Australian
- Biff discusses In My Mother’s Hands with Karen Hardy for the Sydney Morning Herald
Click below to see Biff read from In My Mother’s Hands during the Stella longlist readings event at the Digital Writers’ Festival: