In My Mother’s Hands

By Biff Ward Allen & Unwin

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.

Biff Ward

Biff Ward has worked in radical secondary education, equal opportunity, Indigenous adult education, human resource development and mental illness education. Her poetry and essays appeared in anthologies in the ’80s and ’90s. Her memoir In My Mother’s Hands was longlisted for the 2015 Stella Prize. She lives on the Monaro, in Canberra.

Judges' report

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.

Further reading


‘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