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Submitted Literature

The Dark Threads

By Jean Davison


Jean Davison’s memoir is poignant, stark, striking and destined – in my view – to become a classic in the genre of psychiatric autobiography alongside the likes of Sylvia Plath, Susanna Kaysen and Janet Frame.

Jean Davison’s memoir is poignant, stark, striking and destined – in my view – to become a classic in the genre of psychiatric autobiography alongside the likes of Sylvia Plath, Susanna Kaysen and Janet Frame. In the midst of a literary explosion into the realms of ‘misery lit’ – autobiographies of dreadful childhoods, often ghost written – Davison’s narrative stands distinct from such works. Hers is an exquisitely constructed text, interwoven with her clinical case notes which provide a (albeit frightening) clinical context.  

Davison was a bright and bubbly teenager when, in a shockingly short space of time and seemingly on the basis of questioning her identity in the context of her confusion around religious beliefs, she is transported into the psychiatric system and systematically developed into a patient – one is reminded here of Goffman’s seminal work Asylums on the manner in which psychiatry as a Total Institution develops individuals into patients rather than persons. Davison’s questioning is exactly what one would expect from a young woman flying into adulthood in the midst of 1960’s paradoxes of femininity and feminine behaviour contrasted with religion and religious expectation – yet this very usual behaviour is transformed into a psychiatric diagnosis (schizophrenia, though Davison never discusses anything vaguely resembling the diagnostic criteria for such a disorder). Once Davison is ‘in the system’ as it were, escaping the drugs, ECT and role of unable-to-cope is a long and upward struggle. Her writing is lucid and engaging, and her depictions of the effects of psychiatric drugs and ECT is unlikely to leave any reader unmoved and/or with insight into the side effects that we, as clinicians, may ‘write off’ as an acceptable trade-off to illness.

Davison’s narrative has great relevance for contemporary practice, as she points out in the Afterword:

‘A lot is said, and written, about psychiatry by professional experts, but there is a crying need for more recipients and survivors of the psychiatric system to be heard. Although the User/Survivor movement, and others aware of the need for change, have bought about significant improvements in the past decade, there is still far to go. It is as imperative as ever to address the questions raised in this book, and for more of us to speak about our experiences.

[…] I was a casualty of the narrow medical perspective of conventional psychiatry. With almost no knowledge of me or the context of my life, psychiatrists swiftly began treatment for what their training told them was an illness requiring brain-changing drugs and ECT. Over thirty years later, how has psychiatry changed?’ (p. 357)


‘How quickly, how easily, and on what flimsy “evidence” diagnostic labels may be affixed and lives torn apart. Yet the serious flaws in the diagnostic process are still seemingly unacknowledged by those with unswerving belief in its scientific validity’ (p. 358)


Davison was, as she acknowledges, one of the ‘lucky’ ones who manages to escape 1960’s and 70’s psychiatric practice without the legacies of drug induced tardive dyskinesia or permanent, life-altering brain damage – indeed, the literariness of this text is a testimony to Davison’s survival, and should also stand as testament to  her success.   

Key Themes:

  • Autobiography
  • History of Psychiatry

Significant Quotes / Pages

54 – ‘I am remembering how, when first admitted, I looked for signs of sickness in other patients behind what I thought was a façade of normality, but now I find it easier, even when watching patient’s displaying bizarre behaviour, to see the “normality” behind the “sickness”. Normality? Sickness? What do these words mean? As I stare at the tiles till their colours blur together, I am coming to believe that the dividing line between “normality” and “sickness” is a very fine one.’


168 – ‘What I didn’t understand was how, merely by confiding in a psychiatrist in my teens that I was confused about religion and disillusioned with life, I had got myself into all this.’


284 – ‘I went outside feeling panicky and walked quickly down the drive. I had  to get away or I might be lost forever. When first admitted to Thornville, I’d been stronger and more stable than now, but still they broke me. I’d never survive experiences like that a second time, especially not in my present vulnerable state.’


305 – ‘I though afterwards about the way Sister Oldroyd had clutched at my hands thinking I wasn’t taking my tablets. And now this. The staff’s attitudes also showed in their words “compliance” and “non-compliance”. It didn’t seem right to me. If we wanted to reduce or stop our medication, why on earth couldn’t we have the opportunity to discuss it, be given honest information, and our decisions be respected?’

Reference: Jean, Davison. 2009. The Dark Threads. Accent Press, 2009


- Charley Baker
Date Review Submitted: Friday 16th April 2010