Insanity in the Ward

Biff Ward reveals she believes her mother suffered from continual pregnancy-related psychosis.

It is profound irony that the first scholar who worked hard to shed light on the elements that created "the great Australian character" concealed the forces which shaped himself.

Historian Russel Braddock Ward's seminal work The Australian Legend was first published in 1958 and since reprinted 18 times. It is still, says author David Malouf, the text most often quoted as we endlessly fuss and fret over our identity.

Ward, who taught at Geelong and Sydney Grammar schools and later became the deputy chancellor of the University of New England, was known for his scholarly rigour, his association with the Communist Party for eight years in the 1940s and for his book, which remains a classic reference.

What has never been made public until now was the historian's chaotic home life, his marriage to a woman who appeared to be an incurable, and sometimes violent, schizophrenic and his own personal demon, sex addiction. And then there was the question of a dead infant, his first child.

In My Mother's Hands is daughter Biff (Elizabeth) Ward's account of her childhood growing up with her brother Mark, the ever-present ghost of a dead sister and a mother who descended into insanity.

The strength of this disturbing family memoir lies in the first half of the 268 pages where the bright, fragmented pictures of childhood are shadowed by her mother's strange and threatening behaviour. It captures without artifice the social mores of the times and that peculiar Australian tone which was this country's take on the 1950s and 1960s. But overlaying everything is the palpable fear that "Mother" would dramatically and irreversibly blight the rest of the family's lives.

Numerous gatherings at the family home, where Biff's gregarious father celebrated the pursuit of political debate with friends, were always overshadowed by the silent presence of a woman who could not join them in their world but, in introducing them to hers, was liable to force a sudden and violent schism.

Then always, overarching Biff's formative years, there remained the spectre of a small infant buried under a pathetic, one-word epitaph, "Alison".

If everyone has at least one story to tell, it would surely be the telling of childhood. The beauty of capturing the state of young life, the time when small events are monoliths, where colours make a lasting imprint on the retina and when parents are Sun and Moon, speaks of the ephemeral.

The less successful elements of memoir usually appear when the adult voice interjects, or when a form of catharsis is added to justify, or to explain or - at worst - to make a tidy ending. This is partially the case here.

What Ward does deftly is honour her childhood horrors and come to some state of peace about her mother and the crippling effects of the shame society then placed on mental illness - including the lack of support for her father, whom she describes as "my rock".

In her adult voice she also shares some understanding of how her father's compulsive womanising scarred her own sense of self.

The most irresistible thread in the latter part of this memoir is Ward's unearthing, as she believes, the mystery of both her mother's "madness" and her dead sibling's fate.

Ward reports the coroner's finding was that baby Alison, born in 1941, "died from asphyxia from drowning, accidentally caused when her mother (Mrs Margaret Ward), who was bathing the deceased in a baby's bath tub at the time, fainted and became unconscious, at the same time and place".

Further to this unfinished explanation, Ward believes her mother suffered from postpartum psychosis - a state she never recovered from.

Today based in Canberra, Biff Ward is a poet and the author of Father-Daughter Rape (1984), a feminist analysis of child sexual abuse.

· Puerperal (postpartum) psychosis is a very rare but severe mental health condition that is experienced by one or two in 1000 women in the weeks after having a baby. It is very serious as the mother may be at risk of self-harm and there is risk of potential harm to the baby and/or other children. If you, or someone you know, may be at risk from puerperal psychosis, phone 1300 224 636.