The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills
(4th Estate, 2020)

The Fragments of My Father

by Sam Mills

There were holes in Sam’s life when she was growing up – times when her dad was just absent, for reasons she didn’t understand. As she grew older, she began to make up stories about the periods when he wasn’t around: that he’d been abducted, spirited away and held captive by a mysterious tribe who lived at the bottom of the garden. The truth – that he suffers from a rare form of catatonic schizophrenia, and was hospitalised intermittently – slowly came into focus, and that focus became pin-sharp in 2012, when Sam’s mother died and Sam was left as his primary carer.

The Fragments of My Father is a powerful memoir about being a carer; about how hard it can become to sustain relationships and keep promises and construct the story of your own life when someone else is relying entirely on you for their wellbeing. “It was as though my life were suspended – as though, when my father had first fallen sick, I had inhaled, and I was still waiting to let out that gasp of breath.”

There have been lots of books by doctors and surgeons about medicine in recent years, but far fewer by those who have to deal long term with the people they treat. At a time when one in ten in the UK provide care for a relative, there is little support available in the public sector (you might have heard the current series of interviews on Radio 4 with children who have become the primary carers for their parents). Money, as Sam says, lies behind all the conversations about provision – she grew up in a working class family, got by on benefits, and is deeply interested in the relationship between poverty and mental health.

Sam triangulates her own experience with the stories of three carers she admires: Leonard Woolf, husband to Virginia, who faced a series of terrible decisions about the balance between freedom and control that many carers have to face; Emily Dickinson, who cared for her mother in the final months of her life and wrote eloquently about the way it changed her perception of time; and John Bayley, who looked after Iris Murdoch once she had fallen under “the dark escort” of dementia.