Frances Earnsahw ©, Before it happened, Cynotype print
Frances Earnsahw ©, Before it happened, Cynotype print

A woman who harms is difficult to look at, as though something shadowy can be blinding. I had a phase of depression about six years ago, characterised by looking at bad stuff on the internet. The internet can be a funnel, leading you down to dark things, if you are not careful. I became entranced and horrified by stories of murder involving women. It is a horror which goes against the grain. The nurturing sex turning, causing harm. I feel rather ashamed of my researches now. I tried to put it into an art piece, where an image of Susan Atkins, caught in a moment of abandoned, drugged dancing, before it happened, was flanked by abandoned women who had channelled their wildness into love, sex and creativity. A crude attempt at a healing, portable talisman, like the Wilton diptych, a religious picture, crowded with people standing in for a kind of political representation to redemption. A messy idea, hard to describe or realise.

There is a dark story in our family, which has shadowed the lives of my mother and her brothers and sisters, and those of my sister and me. My grandmother, Edith, attempted to murder my mother and my uncle David. It was a sprawling, Catholic family in two parts. The elder siblings were my uncles Patrick and Alan, and my aunt Mary. They were much older. Their experience was of survival as the children of a mother who was unpredictable and violent, and a passive aggressive father, who kept out of it. Edith was intensely creative. She could make beautiful dolls, which she would then give away to the children of neighbours, not to her own children. She would also exhibit strange behaviour in their street. The home was in a terrace in a working class district. Grandfather was of Yorkshire stock. He was a foreman in a factory. He had been to war. The two eldest sons enlisted very young for the army, at the outbreak of the Second World War, one of them lying about his age. They saw service which brought them home with prematurely aged faces, and a lifelong hardened attitude. My mother remembers seeing lines on their foreheads and their sunken eyes.

The three much younger siblings, my mother, my aunt Frances and my uncle David were born after an interlude of some years during which my grandmother was taken away to psychiatric hospital. My grandmother was diagnosed as schizophrenic. The tearing of childhood was something my mother has never shaken off, her early life in that hard society, the cold, uncared-for house. The house and her mother unkempt, dirty, un-predictable. She remembers buying penny chicks at Leeds Market, her and her sister Frances. They would run around the kitchen floor, and if a kettle was placed on the floor, they would rush up to it to get warm. She remembers trying to play on the floor, as a tiny child, and the huge feet of her brothers treading round, a roomful of big men. A lack of safety. A sense of danger. Most of all, from the mother.

What she did one time was to try to gas Monica and David. For some reason, maybe she dragged it there, their cot was in the kitchen. She placed a rubber pipe from the gas stove under a blanket over their cot. My mother’s next memory is of being tramped up and down the street by the family doctor, for what seemed like an interminable time. Clearly the priority was to hush things up, although my mother does remember this incident preceding another disappearance into hospital, her mother gone again. Her very young brother, David, screaming and crying for the loss of his mother. There was something about one of the elder brothers insisting on hospital, because of resentment over a girlfriend being scared off. You might describe my mother as hardened, by these experiences but life was hard and bitter. She developed a shell which was easily broken, and which never protected her. Poverty, the war, injustice left their marks. She was conversely more vulnerable, left un-prepared for handling love and marriage. She was wounded.

The long reach of a these family histories goes on effecting changes, marking us all. I spent some time working through the family stories. My writings consist of diaries and fragments, sadly. I would love to claim the draft of a novel, but my own relationship with the feelings engendered by what happened make it difficult to sit down and take a look for the long periods of time it takes to shape something… am I talking about healing through creativity? I suppose so. I have attempted this.

Other attempts at healing have led me to try working with groups of people in arcane ways. A group is always a “family manqué”. For some months during pregnancy and when my daughter was a baby, I took part in a group which was led by a woman who had developed her own form of “family constellation” work. Her practice was to seek healing through the channel or channelling of the group. The subject would stand in the centre of the group, and choose quickly and intuitively group members to stand in place and position, and they were to represent for the subject family members and other elements of the presenting problem; partner, mother, sister, father… house… and so on. After this, each person would describe their initial sense of their position in this “constellation”, “I feel awkward, facing away from brother, and a bit cold,” or “I feel puzzled and fearful”. The group was then permitted to move and change positions. This would go on as a sort of chess game, disclosing more, going deeper.

When it was my turn, I held a fearfulness concerning the potential for destruction in motherhood, and this is what I intended to address. What came out was a dark figure, planted deep in the past. A man, sitting on a chair, directing a community. A dangerous man, who dealt with his own kind and the others, trading children and women for sexual use.

What I have not mentioned so far is the gypsy element in my family. I almost “forgot”. This destructive mother, grandmother, Edith, came from a family of Romany gypsies. Her parents had been the first in a house, probably a new build, offered to them just after the First World War. That mother, Great-grandmother, had wanted the house. My mother remembers her grandfather as very angry, silent and morose, sitting in a corner armchair. Was he this figure? He had not wanted to leave his gypsy way of life. Edith’s mother retained some of those ways, nevertheless, and Edith was offered as a medium for friends and neighbours. This little girl was dressed in her best, and made to stand on the table, and remembers going off into a haze, and “talking to the dead”. An abusive or at best, frightening treatment, and possibly an element of her future illness.

Much more recently I have had some healings with a local woman. She sometimes draws out images of family past. She too asserted, separately, that there was at the root this dark figure of a man, and “children running around… a fire in the open, and dealings between this community and others which related to the selling of children.”

It does not matter to me whether this imagery comes out of the psychic ether or through parts of our minds which we do not readily use, or are simply images and stories: they are opportunities for psychological healing. I needed to embark on a journey in order to eventually, at the eleventh hour, become capable of trying motherhood. I have experienced living rather like a gypsy in an encampment I visited every year for over a decade. I have cooked for over a hundred people and children, over a single campfire. This brings one into the moment. Being in the open, feeling the changes in the air, sleeping with a thin membrane between the self and nature, these were the first experiences I sought in healing my own childhood, directing my creative energies and my journey to motherhood.

About Frances Earnshaw

Frances Earnshaw graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1985 with a Master of Arts degree.

She had a solo show at Gallery 286, Earls Court, London in November 2012. She has shown work at The Freud Museum, London, The V&A Museum of Childhood, London and at the Museum of Folk and Fai…Read more

3 Responses to “When a Mother Murders”

  1. Helen Sargeant

    Beautiful image and this is an incredibly fascinating and moving story. Thanks so so much for sharing. I was entranced reading your words. It sounds like the opening of a book that I would love to read.

  2. Alison Burrows

    Motherhood seems to bring out heartfelt emotions not only in the new mother, but also in her relatives.
    The times when I clashed most frequently with my family were around the births and first year of my children’s lives. I think we relive some of the dark periods in our families’ histories. In some families, it could be a theme of mental illness, in mine it was of starvation. A very evocative piece of writing.

  3. Frances Earnshaw

    “Forgot” to mention too, (meaning that stress erases some information, or drops it below the surface at times…) Susan Atkins, the woman dancing so crazily in the image, was guilty of the heartrending murder of the heavily pregnant Sharon Tate… another “unthinkable” thing. Best not to dwell on these things. She too suffered.


Leave a Reply