The Green Bell by Paula Keogh

‘In the process of remembering, I discovered that memories draw on both reality and imagination to recreate the dramas that make up what remains of our past.’

In 1972, Paula Keogh meets Michael Dransfield while both are patients in the psychiatric ward (known as M Ward) of the Canberra Hospital. Paula is both delusional and grief-stricken. Her close friend Julianne Gilroy had died in a Sydney psychiatric institution in 1968. Michael is being treated for drug addiction. Michael and Paula fall in love. They find a safe space, hidden from the world, under one of the willow trees lining Lake Burley Griffin near the hospital. This is the ‘Green Bell’ of the title.

‘When I was a small child, I knew that another world existed beyond the one I was familiar with.’

Paula finds a less fractured self, while Michael is inspired to write more of his poetry. Together, in the comparative safety of the Canberra Hospital’s M Ward, they plan for a future together.
This memoir is an account of the brief period (less than two years) that Paula and Michael had together. It’s an account of madness, from the perspective of someone diagnosed with schizophrenia, suffering from hallucination, lost in delusion, revisited some forty years later. It’s an account of optimism, of two vulnerable but kindred spirits briefly sharing a path.

I found this memoir unsettling: I have my own recollections of psychiatric institutions during the 1970s, my own ghosts to settle. I also found this memoir uplifting: Paula Keogh has survived and made a life for herself. It must have been difficult for her to return to 1972, to these memories and the associated pain. I moved to Canberra in 1974 and am familiar with the Canberra Ms Keogh describes, and some of the poets named. I can visualise ‘The Green Bell’ and remember M Ward. And as I move through those memories, I think I need to revisit some of Michael Dransfield’s poetry, now that I have a deeper understanding of the circumstances in which it was written.

‘Listening to this concerto, I come to understand madness in a new way. In one of its guises, madness is bondage to a reality that’s insular and personal. It offers you the kind of truth you see when you’re in pieces: a broken, defeated sort of truth.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018