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Submitted Literature

The Pilgrim State

By Jacqueline Wilson


The Pilgrim State is a deeply moving, unique text. The book begins in 1951 with a harrowing interview between the American Department of Justice and Dorothy, the author’s mother, who is a patient in the `Pilgrim State' mental institute in New York. Forcibly sectioned at her husband’s request and separated from her children Dorothy is determined to work her way out of the system and eventually does so – taking all but her eldest daughter first to Jamaica and then to a somewhat unwelcoming London where the core of the book is set in the nineteen sixties. The book then continues through the lives of Dorothy and her children as they are taken in and out of care during her illness and demise until the near present when Jackie, Dorothy's daughter (and the author), is talking to her own daughter Eleanor.


One of the main reasons for recommending this unusual book is the way in which it chooses to narrate difficult, often harrowing themes – e.g. treatment of female patients diagnosed with mental health issues in the 50s and 60s, racism in London in the 60s, children’s homes in the 60s – without apportioning blame or venting bitterness. Throughout the book, for example, the question of whether or not Dorothy was actually mentally unstable is left open. The narrative is structured to help the reader consider and reflect on what has gone right and wrong  - not to make judgements or take sides. There is lots of evidence to consider  -- social care records, historical vignettes, loving personal memoirs and photographs – but underlying it all only one thing is clear  -- that through and despite everything Dorothy loved her children..


A secondary and related reason for recommending The Pilgrim State is that it is a compelling book for anyone wishing to discuss empathy and engagement with social policy and social work students. Jacqueline is also a teacher and at a recent service user focused conference (‘Rebuilding social work - sharing good practice in service user involvement in social work education') talked about her experience of using the book to engender empathy amongst a group of students training to be social workers. Invited to express responses to Dorothy’s behaviour the students initially wanted Jacqueline to close the question of whether Dorothy was really mentally unstable – to make it clear one way or the other. Resolutely keeping the question open – helped them to think more creatively about their response to the situation. Refused confirmation of a diagnosis, their questions about Dorothy’s behaviour were more informed by the other narratives in the book – the children’s perspectives and the  historical vignettes. Encouraging the students to think creatively, Jacqueline’s aim was to leave them with the belief that intervention could and can be effective.


A book like The Pilgrim State only comes along once in a blue moon. It doesn’t fit any single genre and is nether fully fact, biography, fiction or theory. Yet in many ways it is all of these things and that is what makes it such a unique and compellingly human text with a message for anyone who knows or has known someone ‘diagnosed’ with mental health issues.


Key Themes:

  • Autobiography

Reference: Jacqueline, Wilson. 2008. The Pilgrim State. Sceptre, paperback 2009


Dr Rebecca Johnson
Date Review Submitted: Wednesday 29th July 2009