Book Review: Before I Forget

By Carroll du Chateau

Before I Forget by Jacqueline Fahey
Auckland University Press $45

Book cover of Before I Forget. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of Before I Forget. Photo / Supplied

Unusual, creative, intellectual, funny, wise and true, Jacqueline Fahey takes her readers through a fascinating set of memories. Wife of the famous psychiatrist, Dr Fraser McDonald, who saw the curtain come down on New Zealand's psychiatric hospitals and the rise of halfway houses, avowed party girl, lover of children and dogs, feminist, writer and mother, Fahey has a great deal to remember.

More important, though thrust into the background by the pressures of her family, is Fahey's own career as a painter. As she writes, "I only remember the past in brilliantly illuminated pictures. I'm in the picture like everyone else, but there is another self who is looking at the picture and sees it all clearly."

Many of these scenes she painted too. As she has with this memoir, Fahey carved out her own, self-styled territory as a painter. First she painted her life: her daughters, her ageing mother, her dogs, herself - often in states of minor chaos. And she painted them with a vibrant, colourful beauty, that earned her a distinguished place near the top in New Zealand's artistic history.

Later she escaped what she describes as the "put-down label of 'domestic painter'" by documenting the harsher side of being a woman in New Zealand. Her "K' Rd" paintings of drug dealers, prostitutes and their clients are tough but beautiful.

The book is peppered with the famous artists, writers and intellectuals of the day, who she and McDonald entertained and partied with. They drank up a storm. Her friendships with Rita Angus and Eric McCormack were deep and instructive.

A good slab of the book is devoted to the three months Fahey spent in New York's legendary Chelsea Hotel on a QEII Arts Council grant. This section is written in her 1980 diary entries. Ironically she had been awarded the grant for the 70s paintings she was trying to escape - and she ended up on her own in New York in one of its scarier periods, in one of its scarier hotels.

She left after months living next door to a drug dealer who spent his evenings spying on her lying in the bath through the one tiny pane of non-shattered glass between their rooms - and with the promise of an exhibition in New York any time she cared to send the paintings.

The offer was from Max Hutchison, who owned a gallery in Greenwich Village and was soon to become the director of Moma, New York's Museum of Modern Art. "Hutchinson viewed my slides and he particularly liked Mother and Daughter Quarrelling and My Skirt's In Your F***ing Room, also Requiem," writes Fahey. "Anything," he said, "along these lines I will show. Do them in canvas, roll them and I will show them."

Amazingly, the offer is dismissed in the diary entry for the day with, "That made for a really good night out. Thank you Joe [DiGiorgio, her friend who took her along to meet Hutchison], thank you Helene [DiGiorgio's partner]."

Then there is the other side to Fahey's memoirs, most of them around her life as the superintendant's wife, when they lived in the grounds of various psychiatric hospitals in New Zealand and Australia.

Most riveting, for me, was her insider's version of the rise to power of Titewhai Harawira, as the head of the Whare Pai or Maori mental health unit at Carrington Hospital. While those on the outside watched this experiment in Maori treatment for psychiatric illness with mounting concern, Fahey saw it from the point of view of a woman living in the grounds of the hospital.

She recognised the sense in treating Maori psychiatric patients with Maori methods, but she could also see that Harawira was using her position to create chaos in a Pakeha institution, attacking McDonald, who'd given her the job in the first place, as a "lily-livered, liberal lackey of the establishment". And she could not condone her so-called Maori method for getting male patients to behave: hitting them.

As with everything else in this book that I can verify, Fahey gets it right. And she gets it right with courage and wit.

The death of McDonald, who'd suffered TB as a child and was forever weakened by the experience, is dealt with matter-of-fact precision, humour and grace. He had two heart attacks, the first of which went undiagnosed until the second, followed by six years of relatively frail health. By then the couple were living in Titirangi, readjusting to McDonald's altered personality, brought about by the heart attack, she living alongside the death sentence that had been delivered by his doctor.

By the time he died, in his sleep, still with his book propped up when they found him in the morning, Fahey was in America for the birth of their daughter Augusta's first baby.

She ends that chapter, Old Age Is Not For Sissies, by comforting her husband, herself and her many similar-aged fans with straight shoulders and wit: "Before Fraser died, I comforted him with a joke he loved. It was Woody Allen's quip, 'I'm not afraid of death; I just don't want to be there when it happens.' Now that joke comforts me. It would seem he wasn't there when it happened."

Carroll du Chateau is an Auckland reviewer.

- NZ Herald

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