A psychiatrist remembers

Many friends and former colleagues of my husband Brian are already reading A Partly Anglicised Kiwi: a psychiatrist remembers, the newly published memoir about the first 32 years of his life. The main focus is on Brian’s experience of the psychiatric training programme at London’s Maudsley Hospital in the 1960s. There are shorter sections on miscellaneous topics such as being a patient in a TB ward, and tramping in the southern alps of New Zealand.

To quote from Brian’s Introduction:

“In 1962, aged 28, I left my home in New Zealand and sailed to England as a ship’s surgeon. I was on my way to apply for the world’s foremost training programme in psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital in London. 

“Part I of my memoir describes growing up in Auckland, studying at Otago University Medical School, and practising as a doctor in New Zealand. Part II is about my three years at the Maudsley, where I worked in general psychiatry and some subspecialties. Given my modest beginnings, the intellectual and cultural life of London came as a revelation. I received a liberal education from my peers, took holidays in Europe, had a psychoanalysis, and a bad trip with LSD.”

The book was mainly compiled from the essays Brian has written over the years, originally for his own satisfaction rather than intended for publication. My role as editor was to arrange them in a logical order, check for consistency of style and grammar, and discuss with Brian how much material needed to be removed as potentially offensive or libellous. In my experience, writing or editing books is easier done alone than in collaboration with others, and we didn’t always agree. However we are both happy with the finished product, and hope readers will enjoy it.

A Partly Anglicised Kiwi (ISBN 9798623114792) can be purchased from Amazon websites including Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.au. Shipping restrictions at the time of writing may prevent readers in some countries from buying the paperback version, but the Kindle ebook is available worldwide.


Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest one You Yet Shall Die, a novel about family secrets and a long-ago crime set in southern England, is available from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukSmashwords.com and other online retailers, or can be ordered from bookshops and libraries.

Writing as therapy

Anyone who ever kept a secret diary as a teenager, or indeed in later life, can attest to the cathartic and healing effects of putting distress into words. Research studies have shown that “expressive writing”, as described below, can be of benefit to patients with a wide range of medical and psychiatric conditions.

Most published autobiographies include some account of the more upsetting aspects of their subjects’ lives. The authors of so-called “misery memoirs” carry this to an extreme, taking the adversity they have suffered – for example being abused by parents or partners, suffering illness or injury, or born into a disadvantaged minority group – as their main theme. Some books in this class are authentic and moving, have an educational function and even help to bring about social change. Some are so full of self-pity as to make their readers cringe, and might have been better left unpublished. Some distort the truth for dramatic effect, and a few have been exposed as entirely fraudulent.

Many writers of fiction draw on the more challenging aspects of their own life experience for their plots and themes – whether directly or indirectly, and whether consciously or not. This is certainly true of myself though I hope that readers of my latest novel Overdose – a tragicomedy about the misadventures of a lovesick psychiatrist – will not take it as literally autobiographical.

Besides including fictionalised versions of real events, novelists may use writing as a means of expressing their “shadow side” – perhaps this would explain why so many highly respectable middle-aged women are good at writing murder mysteries.

For the record, here is a brief description of the usual methodology for the expressive writing research. Patients in the study group are asked to write either by hand or on a computer every day for 3 – 5 days, for 15-20 minutes per session, about the most traumatic experience or emotional issue that has affected their lives. This does not have to be directly related to the medical or psychiatric condition they are suffering from. They are advised to write as freely as possible, without regard for spelling or grammar. Patients in the control group are asked to write for the same amount of time, but about some factual objective topic. The material is confidential and need not be shown to the researchers. Some subjects choose to destroy what they have written.

Like any other therapy, this technique does not suit everyone, and responses vary widely. In the main, studies report that those who did the expressive writing, compared to the controls, became more distressed immediately afterwards and that their physical symptoms sometimes temporarily worsened. But in the longer term they reported improved health, mood, and social function. Many of them said that the expressive writing, though upsetting at the time, had been valuable and meaningful.

Why write a bio?

Several people I know have recently written their life stories, and they all say it was a rewarding experience.

I would suggest that there are three main motives for writing an autobiography. First is to provide family and friends with a record of a life which, whether because of old age or serious illness, seems likely to be nearing its end. Some hospices offer programmes to help their patients with this, and there are commercial firms which provide a paid service. Such accounts may not be ‘well written’, or contain anything out of the ordinary, or hold much interest for anyone who did not know the writer. But they are usually much appreciated by the relatives for whom they are mainly intended – though some have the effect of reviving old conflicts, or exposing family secrets. These documents may also prove valuable to any social historians who happen to come across them in the future.

A second motive is to describe achievements or experiences of an unusual kind – surviving an ordeal such as abuse or serious illness, or becoming a celebrity in a certain field. Autobiographies of this type, some of which are ghostwritten, are more likely to be published and can sell very well. They often focus on just one period or aspect of the person’s life, rather than providing a complete chronological account. My late uncle’s book Geoffrey Guy’s War: Memoirs of a Spitfire Pilot 1941-46, which I had the privilege of editing after he died, comes into this category and I did eventually find a publisher for it. 

I don’t have any children myself, and have never done anything particularly remarkable, so none of the above would apply to me and if I ever did write my autobiography it would be from a third motive, which is to review my life in the hope of finding some meaning and purpose in it all. What have I learned from my experiences, including the mistakes I have made? What difference, for better or worse, have I made to the world? Are there any recurring patterns or themes weaving through the different threads?

At present I have no plans for such a book. I think it would be difficult to write, and the end result could seem embarrassing and pretentious. There would be some things – perhaps the most significant ones – which I would rather not put on record, whether for my own sake or that of other people. And, not having kept a regular diary all my life, there is a lot which I don’t remember – though friends tell me they were surprised to find how easily old memories did come back once they started to write.

Books in other genres, including fiction, are usually autobiographical to some extent whether their authors realise it or not. This is certainly true of my own forthcoming novel, in which the characters and events can fairly be called imaginary and yet were no doubt partly inspired by material from my own past.