Garnethill by Denise Mina
15th May 2014
Maureen O’Donnell wakes up one morning with a pounding hangover and her boyfriend tied to a chair in her living room, covered in blood and with his throat slashed.
Maureen becomes the initial suspect as Douglas, her now ex-boyfriend, was a married man and the media are quick to tag it as a crime of passion.
Her verdict of guilty is almost signed off when her mental health history, schizophrenia triggered by sexual abuse when she was a child, and subsequent breakdown is made public knowledge.
It becomes a race against time as Maureen tries to track down the real murderer and unearths another terrible crime, brushed under the carpet by health service bureaucrats.
Mina’s Garnethill might be firmly located in the last century (pagers make an appearance, along with home movie camcorders) but the themes raised still have echoes today, especially when addressing mental health. Inspiration for this story came from her PhD research into rates of mental illness amongst female offenders.
Maureen O’Donnell is a woman who has been through it all. Disowned by her alcoholic mother and Toryite sisters, who do not believe she was sexually abused by her father, she ploughs through life with a grim sense of humour. The end of a torrid love affair is summed up as “eight long months of emotion turmoil had passed as suddenly as a fart.”
When Maureen is taken in for police questioning, there are a number of parallels with her experiences of moving through the mental health care system.
The interrogating officer’s tactic of long silences echoes with the description of Maureen’s weekly out-patient appointments with her psychiatrist.
Whilst most people would babble to fill the silence, Maureen finds the experience calming. In a new, and quite frankly terrifying situation, she has found a familiar set of rules to follow and uses this to her advantage.
Any one diagnosed with an illness, whether its physical or mental health, faces an intrusion into their lives. Invasive questions are asked about their behaviour and recommendations are given, whether they are asked for or not and sometimes enforced against the patient’s wishes.
The same could be said about Maureen’s experience with the police. She stands her ground when they ask her to relinquish freedoms (such as gaining access to her own property) and points out their method of “co-operation” is akin to blackmail, much to their disgust. Maureen is not someone that plays by the rules.
There is still a stigma surrounding mental health. Maureen perfectly states the divide that people experience: "Most people with no experience of mental illness don't see it as part of the continuum, it's them and us, the nutters and the whole people."There is still a stigma surrounding mental health. Maureen perfectly states the divide that people experience: “Most people with no experience of mental illness don’t see it as part of the continuum, it’s them and us, the nutters and the whole people.”
As Maureen moves between the worlds inhabited by these two groups, she acts as an interpreter. In spite of being classed as “well” by society, she is still tarred by the mental health brush.
When someone becomes ill, limitations are placed on what they can do – according to society. Maureen is constantly told that she’s no match for the “bad” people in this world.
Yet when it comes to a show down with Douglas’s killer, her courage and determination to “get the fucker” ensnares him in a trap that leads to his capture. Maureen has been to hell and back, and she’s lived to tell the tale. Just.
As part of our focus on Mental Health Awareness week 2014 we’ve also got great features on some essential non-fiction titles called Staying Sane and an interesting in-depth look at the history of Women Writers and Asylums.