When I first read Catherine Simpson’s memoir, I found myself wanting to send her direct messages on twitter, saying ‘I loved this bit,’ or ‘that is so true,’ or ‘this is just as I remembered!’ Being close in age, I totally ‘got’ the experiences being described in the book. Which is to say, not only is this story universal but also, it’s historically relatable.
Appearing at this year’s Book Festival, Simpson’s first point was that, when people of our age were children, ‘seen but not heard’ was firmly entrenched in society. It made for a culture of silence. Important conversations were not had; families lived under the tyranny of words unspoken. Communication through actions that we now call passive/aggressive was, for some, the norm, and this led to intense tensions that – years later – raised serious questions.
I’m not spoiling the plot by saying this memoir is about Simpson’s younger sister, since that is implicit in the title: When I Had A Little Sister. The important word is ‘when’ because the sister in question died from suicide, so the book focusses on the reaction to this tragedy. But the sub-heading on the front cover speaks of a deeper truth, “The Story of a Farming Family Who Never Spoke.” What led to the sister’s death is explored, but no obvious answers are given.
Was there something wrong with Tricia from an early age? Did something happen to her when she was young? Did her sisters – Catherine, or Elizabeth – fail her in some way? Did the Mental Health services mess up, and miss the warning signs. Were the parents, or the farming lifestyle, to blame?
It’s ironic that, in a book about silences, so many lacunae exist. Serious questions, indeed.
By writing this memoir Simpson has overcome silence with an honest account of family life. Her personal reaction to her up-bringing, her family, and the aftermath of her sister’s death, are laid quite bare. This is done with honesty and – despite the subject matter – humour.
Simpson’s candid attitude (ably assisted by Lee Randall, who caught the mood of the discussion perfectly) made this event so enjoyable. Humour has a therapeutic value, as does writing. This book gave Simpson some closure on the much-amplified grief that follows a suicide, and also allowed reflection on her own mental health issues.
Furthermore, by using, and quoting from, the diaries found after her death, Simpson was able to give a voice to her sister. If Tricia had wanted to be a published writer, now she truly was. But this book also gives generously to others who suffer from the stigma and silences of mental illness who, when reading it, feel seen and heard. As I say, it’s a relevant and relatable story.
With many friends and fellow-writers in the audience, we were lucky that this event turned out to be with only one featured writer. The extra time might have allowed us to hear more than just one passage read from the book. Then again, if you want more, you should buy it.