Descent into “madness” – tale of an unquiet mind

Tale of an Unquiet Mind

Previously published in the April 2012 issue of Tui Motu – InterIslands magazine

Her name was Mary. The old woman lived a few doors away from us in Ash Street in the west Auckland suburb of Avondale. They said she was mad. As little children we weren’t entirely sure what it meant to be mad but when we heard her swearing or saw her shouting at passers-by, we thought that had something to do with it.

The year was 1958. As a five-year-old boy whose parents didn’t own a motorcar, my world was that long stretch of Ash Street, miles from any shops and bordered by the racecourse at one end and  the mangroved tidal estuary of the Whau River at the other. With the freedom to explore within the boundaries of this little backwater, I knew all the names of my immediate neighbours – a mainly adult world that, with the odd exception, displayed a benign tolerance towards me and my three brothers and sister.

Mary’s little bungalow needed to be negotiated with care whenever I marched off in the direction of the Whau River mudbanks. Her unpredictable behaviour at times added to the aura of her reputation as a madwoman. She had a pony and gig and had once given me a short ride up the street under the watchful eye of my mother. But apart from that brief personal encounter, I was wary of her and preferred to creep past her open gate whenever I passed that way.

One day Mary took me by surprise. As I plodded home with wet hair, caught unawares by a sudden downpour, Mary met me at her front gate and before I could run away, took me into her home. After vigorously drying my blonde hair with a large towel she proceeded to make me a chunky Marmite sandwich. This seemed to take forever.  I watched the slow motion of her gnarled knuckles as they guided the bone-handled breadsaw through the loaf of white bread. Then home  . . .  safely.

I was never frightened of Mary after that. But later, an encounter that involved her did ‘scare the living daylights out of me.’  One day, as my four-year-old sister Maggie and I pulled our homemade trolley along the Ash Street footpath, a black police car pulled up outside Mary’s place. Soon after, two officers firmly escorted her from her home – she struggled and wailed in protest – and they drove her away. We were carrying a large kerosene tin on our trolley and its vibration sounded like the frenetic beat of a kettledrum. As Maggie and I scuttled home, I promptly removed the large tin can, fearing that its loud racket would attract the attention of the police who might take us away too.

I never did see Mary again. In all probability she would have been committed to what was known at the time as the Auckland Mental Hospital, just over four kilometres from her home in Avondale. Built in the 1860’s, this large Victorian brick building and its surrounding villas and farm served as a mental hospital under various names such as the Whau Lunatic Asylum, Avondale Hospital, Oakley Mental Hospital and more recently, Carrington Psychiatric Hospital.

In respect of psychiatric care, the word ‘asylum’ – meaning a place of protection and sanctuary – has long gone out of fashion. In fact, in modern times the word has taken on more sinister connotations whenever the history of mental health care has come under the spotlight. Much has been revealed about the brutality of psychiatric institutions of the past that stripped patients of their human dignity through overcrowded, cold and unsanitary conditions; that practised inhumane ‘treatments’ such as electro convulsive therapy, insulin coma therapy and leucotomy surgery; and used solitary confinement and other punishments to control and humiliate patients.     

In the early 1970’s I became a regular visitor to Oakley Mental Hospital. Armed with sweets and cigarettes, a couple of friends and I would visit the patients of M3 – a male security ward for the dangerously violent or ‘criminally insane’ – to provide some sort of variation to the monotony of their dayroom routine. After getting over our initial anxiety of being locked in with the patients, we soon adjusted to being surrounded each time we entered.

Oakley Hospital 2 by Laura Eyre.docx

The former Oakley Mental Hospital, Auckland. [Photo: Laura Eyre]

Some men in that M3 dayroom left enduring images on my memory. One called Ferg was naked except for a loin cloth – he reminded me of the crucified Christ. He was very tall, sunken-eyed and dribbled constantly; a withered arm lay across his chest as he would limp towards me, eager for the offer of a cigarette. Others would invite an inward chuckle. One patient, holding an open book close to his face, would turn its pages rapidly, repeating to himself, “Rice pudding, rice pudding.” Another would each week share his good news with me, “Going home today, going home today.”

There was always a sense of gratitude when, at the end of an hour or so, the attendants would unlock the double doors to allow us to leave behind the smells of disinfectant and body odour and step into the fresh air of the hospital grounds. There was also a sense of freedom in walking or cycling through the wooded lanes of Oakley Hospital. With our long hair, typical of the 1970’s, my male friends and I would blend into the surroundings, no longer easily distinguishable between patient and visitor. I remember my father telling me of the time he dropped into the grounds of Oakley hospital and rested a while under one of the many established trees on the property. Mistaken for a patient, he was asked, “How long have you been here?” “About ten minutes,” he replied.

On a couple of occasions we visited the female ward F7. It was to this ward that one of New Zealand’s greatest writers, Janet Frame, was committed for a short time in 1951. She described F7 as “an oasis with its park and willowtree” in contrast to her time in the Park House ward, “where human beings became or were quickly transformed into living as animals.” Frame’s 1961 fictional novel, Faces in the Water about life in mental institutions draws heavily on her stay at Oakley which at the time was known as Auckland Mental Hospital.

Janet Frame was not the only literary figure associated with Oakley as a patient. Robin Hyde, author of The Godwits Fly and Passport to Hell was admitted there as a voluntary patient in the early 1930’s. Also, Maurice Duggan, one of New Zealand’s best known short-story writers, was committed there for a time in 1973 when his struggle with ‘drinking’ caused him to be detained under the Alcoholism and Drug Addiction Act. On his return to the hospital after an earlier release, he was escorted by police to M3, the ward my friends and I regularly visited. According to his biography, To Bed at Noon, Duggan was left secluded for twenty-four hours, “in a small cell, empty except for a mattress and a chamberpot.”

Today, the imposing Victorian brick building with its spacious grounds is no longer a psychiatric hospital. It is now the home of Unitec Institute of Technology where students of all ages seek to realise their creative potential. Rumours of ghost sightings in the main building of the original asylum – attributed to the many deaths of patients over the 130 years of its history – are part of student folklore. What stories and secrets lie within those brick walls? Which makes me think again of Mary, the ‘mad’ woman of my childhood. What of her creative potential? What brought her to the point of ‘madness’ that saw her wrenched from her Avondale home and disappear into obscurity? We can only wonder. But for me, she is remembered for her little act of kindness to a five-year-old boy over 50 years ago.


A recently obtained copy of Mary’s death certificate has confirmed that she was in fact committed to Oakley Mental Hospital and died there four years later in 1962. By today’s standards, she was not old – Mary was aged 64 at date of death. While pneumonia and degenerative heart disease were given for the causes of death, her death certificate lists the delusional disorder paraphrenia  –  a diagnostic term rarely used today  –  which gives a clue to the reasons for her committal.      



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