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.