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Life on the inside

'Jailbirds' tells the story of incarcerated women; 'I Never Said I Loved You' tells the story of one trapped man. Credit: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

'Jailbirds' tells the story of incarcerated women; 'I Never Said I Loved You' tells the story of one trapped man. Credit: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

August 13, 2019   4 mins

Every summer, bookshops lay out stacks of blockbusters designed to be devoured in an afternoon and forgotten in a week. But at UnHerd we prefer books that leave a lasting impression. In this series of Summer Reads, our contributors recommend overlooked books that will engage and enrich you, not just distract you.


Mental health is having a moment. The mythical British stiff upper lip is long gone, and we are all encouraged, from even as lofty a place as Kensington Palace, to let our vulnerabilities show. And, uncomfortable as it is, this can only be a good thing.

The label ‘mental health’, however, is clinical and abstract. It can feel deserving of an employment policy or hashtag campaign. But it is also offputtingly worthy. Like most, I wouldn’t normally choose to immerse myself in anything with ‘mental health’ as a theme during my holidays.

Two books out this summer have helped change my mind. Far from being misery memoirs or po-faced, finger-pointing tomes about injustice, they are powerful and unexpectedly enjoyable adventures into the lives of others.

I Never Said I Loved You, by Rhik Samadder, is the memoir of a failed actor, born in Lewisham to Indian parents. It traces his journey from skinny, self-harming brown boy in the age of the National Front, to landing a job writing for the Guardian via a comedic round robin email from his temp account, which ended up in Private Eye.

Already receiving plaudits for the beauty of the prose, Rhik’s memoir deals with childhood sexual abuse with a deceptively, and sometimes breathtakingly, light touch (Rhik is best known for his tongue-in-cheek kitchen gadget reviews). He speaks of the way abuse seems to make you susceptible to further abuse, somehow more visible to those who would harm you: “For the rest of my youth I bore violation like a beacon, like a broken window… like a crap Spider-Man whose secret power was being repeatedly molested.”

The section on the long-lasting effects of childhood racism was painful to read – Rhik attempted to sandpaper his skin, searching for “Just a scrap of Cauc beneath the Asian”. I have trouble with the phrase ‘check your privilege’, but Rhik’s straightforward, un-self-pitying narrative did more for my understanding of how being white has shaped my life and outlook than any angry demands that I do so.

Disconcertingly, woven among the traumatic events are some of the funniest passages I have ever read in non-fiction. The description of the Drama Centre acting school (“Drama Centre had earned the nickname Trauma Centre, the first casualty of trauma being rhyme”), which turned out Russell Brand and Gemma Chan, makes it sound like a sadistic madrassa for broken weirdos. His decision to give up acting came after an audition for an unpaid touring show in the Highlands involving a singing vagina puppet. His depression sometimes reads like a supporting character in a farce.

Jailbirds is seemingly a very different book. It brings us the voices of women in prison, via their chaplaincy assistant and art teacher Mim Skinner. Like anything to do with criminal justice, the themes are myriad – housing, welfare, education, gender – but underpinning all of them is mental health. We learn that 46% of women in prison have attempted suicide over their lifetimes (it’s 21% for men in prison); 53% report having experienced sexual, physical or emotional abuse in childhood, and that’s just those willing to talk about it.

Skinner’s book offers insight into the lives behind these statistics. I won’t forget the story of Paige. Plagued by serious mental health problems and addiction, her pregnancy is the longest she gets to spend with her baby. After he is taken by social services for “involuntary adoption” Mim encounters a “death in custody” notice on her way to work. Paige has killed herself.

As with I Never Said I Loved You, these heavy, sometimes heartbreaking stories are interspersed with humour and absurdity. A running theme is the plethora of  obscure rules and regulations, which present challenges for the ingenuity of both inmates and staff. In one memorable section Mim, aghast at food waste, smuggles contraband vegetables from the prison garden in a leek-scented backpack, terrified of causing a lock-down. She veers from desperately trying to secure accommodation for offenders on release (38% do not have accommodation arranged, ending up inevitably back with abusive partners, pimps or on the streets) to vetting young offenders’ self-penned raps: “Does ‘tits’ and ‘fine ass’ count as inappropriate attitudes”?

Both writers wrestle with their own privilege, their ‘right’ to experience depression and anxiety. After witnessing inmates’ own mental health crises for too long, Mim herself ends up in counselling, despite thinking: “Mim, stop being a drama queen, you’ve got a lovely fucking life, and should be grateful so stop whining.” Rhik admits: “For decades, I didn’t feel worthy of saying I had depression. The grandiosity of depression struck me as showing off… I had confused suffering with a packet of Rolos, worried that I might take the last one.”

The two books both offer lessons in the way trauma works, helping explain the common passivity of those who’ve suffered, especially in childhood. Rhik writes:

“After trauma, our brains change, interacting with our nervous system in new patterns. Depressive responses are all but inevitable… Following a situation of extreme helplessness, we can lose our fight or flight instinct: adjusting to the reality that episodes of violation are inevitable, we give up trying to avoid them. Often, we seek them out instead. Repeating dangerous experiences of the past, in an unconscious attempt to fix them.”

For the repeat female prisoners (48% of women in prison committed an offence in order to support the drug use of someone else), that pattern looks familiar. If you’ve ever been slightly frustrated by people who seem, at least from the outside, to be stuck in the victim mentality, it’s humbling to read how difficult it is to escape from.

For those of us who have enjoyed broadly robust mental health, it’s not always clear what we are to do in this moment when the reality of mental health struggles are increasingly visible. I have sometimes felt overwhelmed by the pain presented, and in my worst moments ungraciously repelled by uncontrolled outpourings published elsewhere. What these two self-aware, wry and beautiful pieces of writing do is take the data and discomfort and make the reader connect – actually empathise – while also occasionally snorting with laughter.

One of the truths that the sometimes messy ‘mental health moment’ teaches is that we are all more tender, more fragile than we appear – than, often, we care to admit. Whether an unlikely member of the “metropolitan intelligentsia” with a column in a broadsheet, or a ‘criminal’ going back to prison because you sold yourself to buy drugs for your abuser, every person has more to them than what first meets the eye. And their stories, honestly and skilfully told, have power.

Elizabeth Oldfield is the former head of Theos. Her writing has appeared in the FT, Prospect and The Times. Her Twitter handle is @esoldfield


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