Ada Louise had a strong Huguenot jaw, the long family face. She looked like my two dark-haired brothers. She looked like me. She looked like my son. There are a few black-and-white photographs of Ada Louise in her twenties—striking, mournful, and laced up to the neck—and then photographs of her in her sixties, white-haired, blank-eyed, smiling, propped up by others. In those forty or so in-between years she lived in an asylum where they didn't take photographs.
My great-grandfather Hugh Wasson, the man who'd run away from his home in Northern Ireland to take a boat to Australia at the age of thirteen, sent his beautiful, troublesome wife away to an asylum soon after his two daughters started school. She wasn't mad, she had epilepsy. Grand mal seizures. And she was willful. Medical experts thought this was the best place for her.
Epileptics were considered loose, untrustworthy, and maniacal in Australia around the turn of the century. In 1901 the country's most eminent epileptic specialist decided to gather all of Australia's epileptic women together in an asylum at Ballarat where they could look after one another and not breed or infect others. One third of those women died in the first seventeen years of the experiment.
When my grandmother talked about her mother, she usually described her as dressed in white. She remembered her mother having a seizure at the school gates wearing that white dress. A male stranger lifted her unconscious body up in his arms and carried her home, daughters in tow clutching schoolbooks. My grandmother remembered her mother disappearing to Ballarat, then brief visits to the grand asylum building. She remembered the upset and shame, the fear and grief of it all. She remembered seeing her mother in a white straitjacket in a padded cell.
"My mother was willful," my grandmother would say when I was ten or so, the two of us in the kitchen cutting those cross shapes into the stalks of brussels sprouts. Not just ill, but willful. And if there were other Brethren women around the kitchen table they'd nod when my grandmother told that story. Willful women needed locking up. Willful women had husbands who signed papers, doctors who prescribed lobotomies and ECT. They got sent away and they didn't return for forty years.
You didn't want anyone to be using the word "willful" about you.
In 1948, Ada Louise was finally released from Ballarat Asylum. Now that new drugs were controlling her epileptic fits, Brethren relatives told my great-grandfather, Hugh Wasson, it was un-Christian to keep her there. Ada Louise, sixty-nine years old, finally came out of the asylum to live in her husband's house in Adelaide, and my great-grandfather's nomadic, studious, independent life came to an end. After forty years in an asylum, Ada Louise was difficult; she talked incessantly and sang hymns at the top of her voice. It was impossible for my great-grandfather to read the Bible quietly as he had been used to doing. His health began to suffer.
His English daughters read his many airmailed letters and decided it was time they "shared the burden" of their mother. They persuaded their father to sell the house in Adelaide and buy a large house in Brighton where he could live with my grandparents and their three children. It would be big enough for him and Ada Louise to have their own wing but connected enough for Kathleen to help look after her mother.
When the unhappy couple arrived at Tilbury Docks, London, in mid-July 1953, having been cooped up for weeks reading their Bibles on the SS Orcades, their two daughters and their families were on the quay to meet them. Ada Louise had not seen Kathleen or Betty for nearly forty years, nor had she met her grandchildren, though she'd already memorized their names and life histories. My father, then fourteen years old, was fascinated and embarrassed by his grandmother's emotional intemperance. They all were.
"She seemed to be in a kind of ecstasy," he wrote. "She kept murmuring and sighing and stroking our faces." Then, grandly, she introduced them all to her husband, forgetting that he'd been to stay in England many times.
"Rather you than us," my father's cousin hissed at my father from behind her gloved hand.
In my mind's eye my bespectacled, snow-white-haired great-grandmother, in a black dress and matching jacket with silver embroidery, stands on the quay in a new country, surrounded by strangers, looking like a Russian dowager in exile. She is sixty-nine but looks ten years older. Her face, strikingly beautiful in pre-asylum photographs, is now deeply lined, but she still looks willful. Her face is still a little like mine.
Ada Louise's face had come to stand for all those women who'd been shut up or locked up, not just Brethren women but those bullied or belted by men who were allowed too much power in their homes.
What had she been doing all those years? What had she been allowed to read or see in that grand asylum? I like to think there might have been a garden, or at best a pretty view from her window, and a piano and someone to listen to her sing hymns sometimes without mocking her. I try not to think of her in that padded cell. I like to think that, had I been standing on the quay that day, I might have stroked her face or kissed her hand. But I'd probably just have been embarrassed too.
Hugh bought Ada Louise a secondhand pedal organ that they assembled in the rear drawing room of the huge Brighton house my grandparents bought with joint funds. For four hours or more every day she played and sang the hymns she'd been taught as a child—most often "Nearer My God to Thee" and "Almost Persuaded." She sang slowly and with deep feeling, my father remembered, her voice wavering and breaking from time to time as the words and music overwhelmed her. She'd tip her head back like a wolf and aim the hymn toward the ceiling. She insisted on having the door open so that the rest of the house could hear her perform. My father and his siblings would try to shut it without her hearing. But she always opened it again.
Sometimes she was so overcome by her own playing that she'd trot out of the room and grab any passing child or my grandmother or the cleaning lady. "Just come and listen to this," she'd say, forcing her prey into the chair next to the organ. With an audience present she'd weep through the hymn and then, on finishing, stand, bow, and wave royally. "Then," my father wrote, "you had to say the right things and escape as quickly as possible before she started the next one." When visitors began to prepare to leave she'd run to the piano and sing, "God be with you till we meet again."
Family dinners were tense, my father told me. His father sensed disapproval from his father-in-law over domestic and Brethren matters. They'd both been used to absolute authority in their homes. Tensions between them increased when Brethren visitors came to stay. And there was his grandmother's unpredictability. She waited for openings in the conversation and then told long stories that embarrassed everyone. Her two teenage grandsons enraged and disgusted her. She told them they ate too much and too quickly, and grumbled incessantly about their "big feet under the table." When they asked for second helpings, she'd lean her head to one side and intone:
"To bed, to bed," said Sleepy Head,
"Tarry awhile" said Slow,
"Put on the pot" said Greedy Gut,
"We'll sup before we go."
When she was not playing the organ she was listening for the bell at the front door or the side door, the one they called the "tradesmen's entrance." As soon as she heard it, my father recalled, she'd scuttle to the door. Sometimes she got there before anyone could stop her. She began by challenging callers about the state of their souls. Did they know that they were sinners in the sight of God? Had they put their faith in the blood of the lamb? Had they taken the Lord into their heart? Sometimes she'd break out into a hymn.
One Friday she answered the door to the fishmonger. Ada Louise loathed both fish and the Roman Catholic Church in equal measure. In her long years at the Ballarat hospital, they always served fish on Friday, and as she knew this was a Catholic tradition, she considered it idolatrous. My grandmother arrived at the door to hear her mother, in a righteous passion, haranguing the stupefied fishmonger about the Virgin Mary, the Pope, and the Whore-of-Babylon Vatican. My grandmother asked him politely to wait while she steered her hyperventilating mother back to her room and to the organ.
I had a framed portrait of a young Ada Louise on my sitting room wall until a few years ago. Visitors would sometimes say I looked like her, and my daughters would explain she was Mummy's great-grandmother and her name was Ada Louise and she'd been locked up because she had epilepsy. "Ask Mummy," they'd say when the visitors' questions multiplied. Then I'd have to find a way of telling them just enough to satisfy their curiosity without us going into the entire Brethren story again. If we went there, I knew we'd be discussing cults for hours.
But that wasn't the only reason I took down the portrait.
"She just made me feel sad," I told my daughter Hannah when she asked where the picture of her great-great-grandmother had gone.
In truth, Ada Louise's face had come to stand for all those women who'd been shut up or locked up, not just Brethren women but those bullied or belted by men who were allowed too much power in their homes. Her face haunted me. One day when my daughters were a bit older, I told myself, I'd try to talk to them about that, about patriarchy and how dangerous unchecked male power can be. I'd talk to them about Ada Louise.
A decade later a long-running story on a famous BBC radio soap opera called The Archers finally prompted that conversation. Heavily pregnant Helen Archer had stabbed her controlling husband with a kitchen knife after years of isolation and mental abuse. She was arrested. The audience for the show grew to millions. There were chat rooms devoted to the story line, money being raised for support groups for victims of abuse. The whole country, including my daughters, both in their early twenties, seemed to be tuning in. But my daughters didn't need me to do any explaining when the subject came up.
"It's called coercive control, Mum," Kez said. "They've passed a law about it."
"Took them decades to listen to the campaigners, though," Hannah said, her eyes bright with anger. "Did you know that the law didn't recognize rape inside marriage until the 1970s? Un-be-liev-a-ble."
"I know," I said, trying to be positive. "But things are better for women now."
"Mum, you've read Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale," Kez said. "You know we can't ever take feminist progress for granted. They'll take our freedom away again unless we protect it."
"Look at what's happening in Poland over abortion," Hannah said. "Thousands of Polish women had to take to the streets to make the politicians scrap that bill."
I knew. I'd been teaching feminist theory and writing for years. I'd given my daughters each a copy of The Handmaid's Tale as birthday presents during their teens. We groaned together about sexist adverts on television, talked about equal pay and equal rights, and agreed about how important it was to stand up and make a noise when you thought something was unfair. Now they were bringing me articles to read and documentaries to watch written by women of their generation. I was learning from them.
I still haven't put that photo of Ada Louise back on my wall, though, despite the hope that my daughters and their friends give me about a fairer and more just future. My great-grandmother's face still makes me feel sad.
Excerpted from In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott. Copyright © 2017 by Rebecca Stott. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, A Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.