The Green Bell by Paula Keogh

Sometimes when I’m reading a book I find that a particular element of the story resonates very deeply. It’s usually an element that isn’t the main theme of the story and therefore catches me off-guard.

Such was the case with Paula Keogh’s memoir, The Green Bell. It’s essentially a story about Keogh’s experience in a psychiatric unit of the Canberra Hospital in the 1970s. The events leading up to her admission (notably the death of a very close friend), what happens when she is there (she meets and falls in love with poet, Michael Dransfield who is being treated for drug addiction), and her life after hospital is the guts of Keogh’s story.

There’s no way out after all. I turn around and make my way back to M Ward. I’m worthless, pared down to nothing. I’ve come to the very end of possibility.

Various reviews of this book have focused on the unprecedented glimpse into Dransfield’s life and his poetry, and on mental health care in the seventies. I enjoyed these elements (I use ‘enjoyed’ loosely given that there is nothing enjoyable about electroshock therapy), however, other aspects of the book stood out.

Firstly, for all his faults, Dransfield clearly ‘heard’ Keogh at a critical time in her life, a time when no one else was listening in a way that was meaningful for her. Most of her references to this are oblique but as someone who is attuned to how people listen, be heard, and understand silence, it was Keogh’s words that were poetic –

Michael listens in the way you always hope you’ll be listened to when it matters. A rhythmic listening, an ear in the heart.

Keogh paints a picture of Dransfield as someone who makes no judgement, has no preconceptions on the things that mattered to her (I emphasis that because Dransfield was politically active and loved deep discussion, so I’m assuming that in some respects he was opinionated).

‘I’m dead,’ I say.
‘What does that feel like?’
I look sideways, my mind a blank. ‘Ash,’ I say at last. ‘It feels like ash.’
‘Sounds bleak,’ he replies…

Secondly, there’s a mention of Keogh’s mother at the end of the book and her diagnosis of dementia.

As her Alzheimer’s disease progresses and her memory fades, she loses herself, her family, her past. Every morning she looks blankly at Irene: ‘Who am I?’ she asks. ‘Who are you?’
My sister gives her a few facts, some vivid paint strokes, an outline of a person: ‘I’m your daughter, Irene. you’re Pat Keogh. You were married to Ron for fifty-three years.’
‘Did he love me?’ Mum asks.
This is the question that, for more than a year, has been her obsession. At the end of her life, my mother wants to know if she was loved.

It broke me. Not just because it tied together all the things I’ve been thinking about and feeling lately as part of my palliative care work, my counselling studies, and my short course on understanding dementia, but because it returns to the what I see as the fundamental theme of this book – that we all just want to be heard.

Lastly, Keogh writes beautifully. Nothing about her story is over-written – it’s clear, compact and yet, strikes deeply.

The afternoon drifts, and I fall easily, inevitably, into love.

Identity is, above all else, a pattern that enables you to have coherent responses to other people and the world around you. Without this pattern, I have to think myself together at every moment.

…I realise the commonplace nature of my heartbreak and turn to the wall, unable to face the day.

Like all memoirs, I’m left with the nagging feeling that things aren’t quite resolved in the way that final chapters and epilogues suggest. But that’s okay because in this book, and by this reader, Keogh was heard.

4/5 I feel like I’ll be quoting Keogh for years to come.

My friends from Mann Terrace visit with flowers and freshly baked caramel slices.


16 responses

    • I highlighted dozens of passages. For the first time in years, I was moved enough to write to the author to thank them for their book. (Paula wrote back 🙂 telling me how pleased she was that I’d picked out certain parts of her text, bits that she had taken particular care over).

    • It made the Stella Prize longlist so it was probably popping up in your Goodreads feed because of that. It didn’t make the shortlist which I think is a great shame.

  1. When you first started describing the book, my thoughts were of The Bell Jar. Then I thought about the folks I used to care for in a group home. I remember none of them had teeth, as they had all been pulled because that’s what they used to do to people who would never leave a mental institution. How long does Keogh stay in a mental health facility?

  2. I can see the book affected you, but the review too is beautifully written (5/5). Electroshock was a horror. Indefensible. I have seen the after effects of mild applications and my favourite author Eve Langley had her brain fried on her estranged husband’s say so (NZ, around 1942).

    • In the book, Keogh returns to the fact a number of times that she hated the therapy and yet gave permission for it to happen… Obviously when she was admitted to hospital she was in no mental state to make decisions but of course that was exactly when they were getting her to sign agreements. Very distressing. There is a postscript at the end of the book regarding mental health care in the seventies and while a lot may have changed, I do wonder about consent.

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