Wow, close call! I almost didn't read this book. Val loaned it to me last fall and I let it lay on the TBR. Then, while I was packing books, I had a fit of pique about the large job before me, and decided that there were too many books in my apartment and I would return this one. After all, I didn't have the foggiest about who Claire Rayner (1931-2010) was. As I was taking the book upstairs, my conscience smote me and I decided to peek in and read a couple of pages so I could tell Val that I'd tried it and it didn't hold my interest. Instead, I was immediately hooked and couldn't stop reading.
This memoir of Britain's favorite "agony aunt" who was also a journalist (primarily about medical issues) and a novelist is one of the best memoirs I have ever read. Her story, up till the age of 20, is like something out of Dickens, complete with cruel, stupid parents, being evacuated with other children in London during wartime, an extended stay in a psychiatric hospital (for an overactive thyroid!) in Canada, and her repeated, plucky efforts to be independent of the abovementioned parents from the age of 14. Her writing style crackles with intelligence and feels so honest. More than once, she frankly admits that there's "a black hole in my memory" and she couldn't remember exactly what happened. Many other memoir writers would have at least taken a stab at the truth whether they hit or missed it.
Rayner's coming of age and her training to be a nurse coincided with the birth of the National Health Service in England, so her comments and insights were illuminating to an American reader. I was a little surprised at some of her views on medical practices (for example, although she trained as a midwife, she thought women should deliver in hospitals and she spoke out in favor of electric shock as a useful therapy for depression, and felt that "talk therapy" often prolonged depression), but her views, backed with a lifetime of observation and experience, were thoughtful and seemed to come from a place of deep consideration and compassion. If I had been English and ailing in some way, I would have been perfectly comfortable having Claire Rayner as my advocate.
Find a copy of How Did I Get Here From There? and discover this vital and outspoken woman for yourself. A big thank you to Val for loaning me her copy.