BEFORE I FORGET
Auckland University Press
I enjoy reading memoirs, but had no great expectations
when I started this one, having never heard of Jacqueline
Looking inside the fly-cover I saw that she had written a
previous memoir called Something For the Birds, was
well-known in the art world and had been married to
psychiatrist Fraser McDonald, whose name I recalled from the
'70s when he was a familiar face on television. But from
initial hesitation, once I started to read on it did not take
long before I was intrigued and amused.
As its title suggests, Fahey is writing this at an age when
many memories can be foggy, but she states at the beginning
''Somehow I had not noticed that I had grown old'', and when
you continue reading you realise why. Immersed in her art,
her family, mixing with a range of interesting people - she
comes across as a splendid advocate of living life to the
full, with ageing of little concern.
As I read further, my ignorance of women in the art world
became distressingly obvious, with Rita Angus the only female
artist she writes about whose name and work was familiar to
me. Angus was friend and inspiration to the author, giving
her the courage to integrate painting into her life.
Her paintings interspersed throughout the book are stridently
colourful depictions of themes dear to her heart and many
include domestic settings. Some paintings feature hydrangeas,
which she describes as being ''emblematic of mental
hospitals'', as they were prominent in the gardens of
institutions such as Kingseat and Carrington.
As the wife of the superintendent, she lived in or near their
grounds and witnessed 30 years of momentous changes in the
history of the mentally ill.
Her descriptions of the reforms carried out by her husband,
the opposition he often encountered, how his plans for more
community care for patients were distorted by the politics of
the day [and resulted in wholesale shutting of institutions
without the provision of good alternatives] are fascinating -
especially since readers have the privilege of seeing at
first hand a policy statement written by Fraser McDonald,
drafting his policy for the future of Carrington [then a huge
psychiatric institution which housed 2000 patients] and being
graphically reminded of the controversial methods used by
As well as the disbanding of psychiatric institutions, the
book mentions topics which will provide nostalgic moments for
those who were around a few decades ago - and might provide
insights for the present generation into radical social
changes effected by people like Jacqueline Fahey and fellow
committed individuals. One of her strongest personal themes
is the way women were perceived then and now.
In Melbourne in the '60s, as part of a group of young
doctors' wives, she felt as though they were ''a reflection
of the lives lived by our husbands'' and realised she had to
get back into the art world. Later, in the '70s, she was
involved in feminist politics but the overall impression she
leaves is of someone who believes passionately in equality
for all, regardless of gender or race. And she echoes what
many are feeling these days about the increasing gap between
rich and poor.
Serious topics are covered, but you are not left with the
impression of the author as a proselytising bore. She is
anything but. Before I Forget is honest, witty and
vividly descriptive, and it is heartening to see that her
strongly held views have not faded with age.
- Patricia Thwaites is a retired