The Girl Behind The Gates by Brenda Davies

Home At Last

The Girl Behind The Gates by Brenda Davies is an absolutely heartbreaking novel. It is the true story of Nora who was incarcerated in a mental hospital in 1939, and was still there in 1981 when a new psychiatrist, Janet, began to work there.

 This is a book of two halves. Nora’s early story in the first part, and her story as she interacts with Janet in part two.

This is a story that will shock and horrify the reader because it is true. It happened. This Nora’s story.

Nora had a home, not a particularly loving one, as her father was a bully.

In 1939 Nora fell in love as a seventeen year old and became an expectant unmarried mother. For a Catholic family, ruled with an iron rod, this was an unforgiveable sin. Nora is continually told that she is bad, and it is a lie that she tells herself. “Her mother does still love her, even though she’s wicked.” Nora is incarcerated in order to ‘pay’ for her ‘sin’.

The modern reader is shocked and horrified by the treatment of the patients – six hundred in 1939 in just one institution. This book should make us both justifiably angry, and very sad for the innocent lives locked away. In 1939 we read that “Such people [unmarried expectant mothers], since 1927 termed ‘moral defectives’, include those such as criminals, alcoholics and prostitutes – and also unmarried mothers.” This is beyond horrifying. It is appalling that innocent lives were hidden away for decades. That young girls were seen as infected with sin, and that they could infect others and also pass their ‘sin’ onto their baby. It is truly shocking to read of what happened at the birth of Nora’s baby.

Within the hospital there was much cruelty but also pockets of kindness. “It doesn’t mean you are wicked… This is terrible. I don’t think God wanted any of this to happen just because you made a slip.” Nora is unused to kindness and even “feels abandoned by God.” Her family and the church have let her down. God does not condemn her. God loves Nora.

There is only one way to cope. “Day after day merely trying to survive… She manages to cope by being numb.” Hundreds of women are locked inside themselves. Some, so deep, that they will never emerge again. In order to survive they have done what they are told, when they are told – or they will suffer dreadful inhumane consequences.

Only in 1981, with a new staff member, Janet, is Nora finally ‘seen’ and told “deep inside yourself you have a voice.”

Years of institutionalism cannot be undone in just a few sessions. It will take years of kindness and building up trust, care and compassion.

This is a book that will have you reaching for the tissues, while simultaneously being angry and appalled at the dreadful treatment endured by many for so long.

This is a book that needs to be read in memory of Nora, and the thousands like her, who did nothing wrong – but men locked them away and never looked back.

This is a powerful story of one woman’s belief that she might not be able to save everyone, but she could start by helping one woman at a time.

I received a free copy. A favourable review was not required. All opinions are my own.


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