I watched the Oprah Winfrey interview of Harry and Meghan on 8th March. I’ve never watched one before but this story intrigued me. In the interview Meghan mentioned a low moment when she watched ‘The Little Mermaid’ and she said how resonant it was – the little mermaid fell in love with a prince and in seeking his love, she had to lose her voice. In the Disney version it all ends well. Fortunately Meghan didn’t read the Hans Christian Anderson version.
When Meghan talked about the fact that she’d lost her voice and become silent, Oprah asked ‘do you mean silent or silenced?’ ‘The latter’ Meghan replied.
But being silent was not enough. The ‘firm’ kept telling her to stay mute and they would keep her safe, but they did not. They did not protect her against the press, they did not speak out on her behalf. The way she was treated and the racism that she experienced led her to a deterioration in her mental health and she became suicidal. She told Oprah that when she went for help she was not given the support she needed.
On 9th March, Mind, the Mental Health Charity responded to the above interview and in the article reported: “Our research found that 25 per cent of people said hearing a celebrity talk openly about their own mental health had inspired them to seek help or get support for themselves. (https://www.mind.org.uk/news-campaigns/news/mind-responds-to-the-duchess-of-sussex-meghan-markles-interview/)
Meghan, in finally speaking out, was helping people to find their voice, but there is also something else.
MERMAIDS THAT NEED TO BE ‘FIXED’
‘Too often, feelings of shame and isolation mean people affected by mental health problems go without the help and support they need and deserve.’ (Mind quote)
The Little Mermaid was a mermaid. She belonged to the sea. In order for her to have a chance of finding her prince and true love, not only did she have to lose her glorious voice, she had to lose her beautiful tail and become something else.
It seems so often that people described as ‘mentally ill’ or ‘autistic’ or simply ‘different’ are seen as the ones with the problem. They are the ones with ‘the tail’ and all the effort goes into ‘fixing them,’ making them ‘fit in.’ What if instead, it is the attitudes of those in power that need challenging? What if it is the ‘normal’ ones who need to open their eyes to see and unplug their ears to genuinely listen? And finally to open their hearts to welcome?
Illustration by E.K. Mosley, verse from ‘The Teachers’ by John Bell
My friend Stephen lived his life with ‘difference’ and also struggled with various mental health issues. He tried to lose his mermaid tail and to ‘fit in’. It didn’t work because he couldn’t be anything other than he was.
He spent many years on psychiatric wards.
Instead of the Firm, he had the UK mental health services to ‘keep him safe’. At times he was ‘legally’ restrained and at times sectioned. He also claims he was physically abused by staff. Stephen did not discern between what was ‘legal restraint’ and what was ‘abuse’ – he received both and they both felt the same to him. As far as he was concerned, the institution which was supposed to keep him safe, did not. He was also silenced.Once you have a diagnosis of mental illness, it is difficult to be heard. Everything you say is, of course, a result of your illness.
For me the moral of the mermaid story is that we need another! We need a story of a prince who falls in love with a mermaid and gives up his princedom.
This is the story of Meghan and Harry. By falling in love and marrying Meghan, Harry began to see – he began to see what the world looked like from her perspective, he began to see how the Firm, to which he belonged, was silencing her and crushing her. He chose to do something about it.
He gave up power. He gave her back her voice.
And Stephen? There was no romantic story between me and Stephen but a friendship across a great divide. Perhaps we would need a new version of ‘The Prince and the Pauper,’ a piece of historical fiction by Mark Twain, where the young prince Edward VI of England and Tom, a pauper, discover they are identical and swap places for a time.
When I meet Stephen, I was a middle-class, vicar’s wife and Stephen was under section at a mental hospital. We did not swap places but over a number of years, Stephen did show me what the world looked like from his perspective. He showed me how he was silenced. I began to see how this culture, to which I belong, was systematically silencing and crushing him. He did not need to be another shape.
I chose to do something. He agreed to me writing a book about him and I recorded conversations with him. I wrote chapters of the book and I read them back to him so he could comment. In ‘Stephen from the Inside Out,’ you will hear his voice.
In this book, Stephen wanted to speak out about the injustice he suffered. He also told me on one occasion: ‘I’ve never found peace of mind or achieved peace in this life and I never shall. Only in the next life shall I find peace. You can write that down in your book. Make that the fundamental cornerstone.’
I did not want to accept what he said. However his sentiments find an echo in the original Hans Christian Anderson’s version of the Little Mermaid. In this, the prince marries someone else and despite being given a chance to kill him and so recover her tail, the little mermaid refuses and throws herself into the sea. In the story, she receives the gift of an immortal soul, peace in the next life.
Let us create other stories please. Not ones that are dependent on the mermaid becoming someone different (Disney) or being granted a future life (Hans Christian Anderson). Maybe instead a prince who has been asleep under a curse for five hundred years is woken with the kiss from a pauper. Together with the human who kissed him, together with mermaids and unicorns, with wild trees and the natural world, they create a life that is creative and complex and beautiful.
In this blog, I want to give Stephen the last word, so below are two extracts from poems he wrote.
‘Windy Spring Day‘
Two nonchalant wood pigeons temporarily transfixed
do ascend into the threadbare firmament this vivacious Spring Day.
Why was I never granted an opportunity to recompense let alone to flourish?
‘The beauties of early spring,’
‘Ah the glittering incandescent effervescence of this late February day.
The intricate delicacy of myriads of spring daffodils and crocuses
that on this stoic and threadbare ground do so optimistically lay.
Hope of a rejuvenated season rising like a palpitating phoenix
among such despondency and gloom.’