Thursday, March 28, 2013

Book Review - The Dark Threads by Jean Davison


I haven't done a book review in a while, so I decided that this one was incredibly worthy of a post. I've had a strange fascination with old hospitals from a young age - I've always been intrigued by them. A while back, I came across a website devoted to High Royds, a former psychiatric hospital in West Yorkshire. I desperately wanted to read an account from someone who had been a patient there - I found this book and immediately ordered it on amazon.

The true story of how a bright teenager was transformed into a zombie thanks to a cocktail of drugs and electric shock treatment for an illness she never had.

Jean Davison lost years of her life when doctors misdiagnosed her mental state as chronic schizophrenia.

Sucked into the psychiatric system, she lost her job, her boyfriend, and all self-esteem. But eventually she managed to break free.

Told with humour and insight, using extracts from her medical case notes, Jean's memoir raises disturbing questions about psychiatric treatment in the sixties and seventies, which are still relevant today. Her story offers hope to others.

Jean Davison was voluntarily admitted to High Royds in 1968 at the age of seventeen. She had been questioning her faith, her life, her environment, found it hard to deal with her lack of confidence in making friends, and questioned what direction her life was going in. Having spoken to a psychologist, she agreed to his suggestion that "a week of rest and observation" in High Royds would do her no harm.

Nine days later, Jean was receiving ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy) and had been heavily drugged for supposed schizophrenia since she had been admitted. The months passed, and Jean became increasingly disillusioned with the treatment she was being given and the psychologists who supposedly knew best. She entered the hospital a bright, pretty, albeit very shy, girl, three days after attending a disco with her friends. She left it as a day patient months later, almost two sizes heavier, covered in boils, and drugged up to her eyeballs. It took another 3 and a half years for her to finally break free of the treatment for an illness she never suffered with. 

The book contains some notes from Jean's doctors at the time - information not revealed to her at the time of her treatment. It's an absolutely fascinating account - it's just unbelievable how Jean was treated without any actual diagnosis. If anything, her brother appeared to be in need of some kind of therapy. Her family life wasn't ideal by anyone's standards, but at the back of it we do get the sense that for all the hassle they caused her, her parents did care in their own way. What is amazing is that her family life wasn't considered as a potential cause for some of her problems in any way until years down the line.

Jean's accounts of trying to adjust to life outside the hospital are at times heartbreaking - her crippling shyness made it hard for her to endear herself to others, often being mistaken for being snobbish. One of the most touching conversations in the book was only a couple of lines long - between Jean and Arnold, a patient at the hospital.

On my first day back at the day hospital I sat in the armchair next to Arnold who immediately made the effort to turn and speak to me.

"Are you feeling better now, Jean?" His words came out laboured but clear.

"Yes, thank you, Arnold."

"Good. I am pleased."

Arnold, who spent his time sitting mutely staring into space. Arnold, who had great difficulty in speech and movement. Arnold, who had more reason for despair than I had ever known, had remembered my name, noticed my absence and shown concern for my welfare. Dear Arnold.

As we can tell from the fact that she has written this account, Jean did manage to regain control of her life and finally began to live it. From her own words at the end: 

The most frightening thing about what happened to me is that most of it could still happen to a young person, or indeed anyone, today. I was a casualty of the narrow medical perspective of conventional psychiatry. With almost no knowledge of me or the context of my life, psychiatrists swiftly began treatment for what their training told them was an illness requiring brain-changing drugs and ECT. 

That's a scary thought - have we all not, at one time or another, sat down and wondered what we were doing? Where we are going? Who we really are? I know it's unlikely now that someone presenting to a GP or psychologist with a crisis of faith or identity will be admitted to a psychiatric ward, but it is the case that more and more people are being prescribed drugs to deal with different situations. It would make you wonder if sometimes the pills are doled out as a first response rather than a last resort  (and without full disclosure of side effects).

Jean doesn't dismiss the use of modern medicine in the book, nor do I, but I was genuinely shocked to discover (statistic from a different source, not the book) that over 300,000 people in Ireland are currently taking a form of anti-depressant tablet. ECT is also still used. 

An extremely thought-provoking read.


  1. I love first hand accounts. Of course they can be biased towards one mindset or another but it's always helpful to get the perspective of someone who has actually gone through the events they are talking about.

  2. Thanks for the book review. I might have to try this one, it sounds really interesting!


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