Virginia Woolf posited and then contested the idea, before there was such a thing as oral history to be formally recorded and studied, that history was the lives of great men. Her concept of history, on the other hand, was a less linear, more inclusive understanding of the march of time. In this she anticipates the major move in historical studies of the twentieth and twentyfirst centuries, which has been to move beyond a linear concept of interlinking biographies of the great and the good (largely male), into what Woolf thought of as the gaps inbetween. Her idea was that the skeleton of human history was held together by these great white men, whereas the gaps were filled by women. We might also add now, by minorities, ethnic, religious or sexual, by disabilities, and particularly pertinent to Woolf, by mad people. People defined by a diagnosis of mental ill health, whether formally given to them by a psychiatrist, or in the pre-psychiatric era, by society at large, would certainly fall into these gaps.
But the move of oral historians has been to enfranchise this voice, the voice of the powerless, of the ordinary. Its earliest incarnation in the UK was with the movement Mass Observation, founded in 1937, which was run on a shoestring using 500 volunteers who interviewed their friends and neighbours using interview schedules known as directives. Though it had its critics and was seen by some as the snoopers charter of its day, the guiding principles that it developed have formed the basis of many following oral history projects, on subjects far and wide. In military history, for example, it has seen grassroots movements to record the lives of ordinary soldiers. In the UK, the modern oral history tradition has been to record the voice of the ordinary people, of history from below. Googling ‘oral history mental health’ brings up the University of Leicester’s site as the first hit, with projects from around the UK, largely defined by geographical area. Mind in Bexley’s study on mental health and migration in the area is prominent there. In 1999, Mental Health Media in association with the British Library, recorded the stories of 50 users of the Victorian asylum system. Taking the water tower hospitals as emblems of disempowerment, Testimony, which is now archived, fits squarely into the tradition of modern British oral history, the empowering of the voices of the dispossessed.
There have been studies and commentary on how oral history relates to its written counterpart. In 1997, there was a case in the Supreme Court in Canada of Delgamuukw v British Columbia, where the claim of the native tribe to land in Canada related to submitting their oral history as evidence. Having been ruled out as evidence by the provincial court, the appeal to the Supreme Court by the Delgamuukw saw the astonishing result that the court refused to rule on the land title. However, it did make a ruling on whether oral history was admissible as evidence, which has been widely interpreted as saying that they are just as important as written testimony. In fact the court ran shy of saying precisely that, stating instead of oral histories; ”that they are tangential to the ultimate purpose of the fact-finding process at trial – the determination of the historical truth.” Despite the lack of a ruling on the land based on this admission, this statement sent cultural shockwaves through Canadian history studies and prompted a book, John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country.
So ‘the gaps’ as defined by Virginia Woolf nigh on 100 years ago, are starting to be filled. Projects like Radio 4’s The Listening Project are outworkings of this move to tell stories from all strata in society, and to learn from them. Can we see mental health, as we are starting to see women’s studies, racial studies, disability studies, as part of a whole societal history?
Looking back on the Victorian archives, sepia images of individuals with diagnoses written underneath them, one can see that the history of psychiatry is the history of psychiatrists. If we don’t change the way that records are kept, it possibly always will be. Instead of telling the story of psychiatry, which may be useful to psychiatrists as a closed group, but is not useful to the service user, how much more useful to tell the story of mental health. We can tell that in society, in our recording, imaging and representations of mental health. We can also tell it on the official health records. And that requires the individual and collective voice of the mental health service user to document their own story with the same status as the psychiatrist. On the same ledger. Not as an alternative stream. But using the same accounting book.
I very much hope that this is the way that history is going. I even more hope that this is the way that mental health is going. When I first was diagnosed, I became aware in the day room of an alternative culture, like a secret society, with its jokes (‘Only Smarties have the Answer’) and its codes. I hope that this secret society, which I discovered in the early 90’s, feels less secret now. I hope that that oral history and that subculture can be documented, tell its own story, and we can move from a secret society to a written history that we can all be proud of. Like colonial countries having to rediscover their oral tradition after the white man has told them their history, and then write their history going forward, the mental health movement can I hope discover its pre-history, deal with its written records, and develop a post history, a written and oral culture that we can all be proud of. Let’s write history that is future orientated, that coming generations will be affected by our togetherness and collaboration across and beyond the gaps. Then maybe, as Virginia Woolf posited, history will indeed be written by great men and women – us.