2005: Insight into an archive…

Craig Fees, “Insight into an archive specialising in records devoted to work with disturbed, delinquent and distressing people”, ARC (the newsletter of the Society of Archivists) 196 (December 2005), pp. 4-5

Several years ago, a lady in America phoned. Her British-born husband of 20 years had suddenly disappeared from their apparently happy marriage. In going through his things in a desperate attempt to find something which made sense, she stumbled onto a dimension of his life about which she had known nothing – his childhood – and more specifically, his time in a particular therapeutic community, which was mentioned on our Web site. What was a therapeutic community? Why would a child be sent there?

Our presence on the Internet also brought an e-mail from a man who had spent time during the Second World War in a therapeutic camp for troubled and troublesome children. His son had found us and encouraged him to get in touch. Following a phone conversation with him, he arrived at the centre to record his memories for the oral history collection, and to gather information from the archives to try to make sense of his still-fragmented childhood. He had been evacuated from the south coast with his younger brother, who was enuretic, leading to multiple placements in homes in the UK. He was a lovely man, with a successful marriage, family and career, and felt he owed much to the therapeutic camp in which he spent part of his teenage years. What could the archives tell him?

The telephone rings. It is a young man who has to find someone or some way to prove that he was in a particular therapeutic school, now closed. He is emigrating, and he needs the information to get a job in the new country.

A middle-aged daughter rings for her mother who, in her 90s, is trying to settle the story of her brother, who disappeared into the pre-war mental health system wreathed with unsatisfactory family stories. The daughter’s distress at an infinite hall of blank walls evaporates when we share what we have; and it is clear that something more than the uncle or mother’s lives have fallen into place.

As archivists, we sometimes speak of archives as ‘forms of social memory’, as if archives fulfilled the role within society that memory does within an individual. To some extent, that is the case. A group or society that distorts, neglects or loses its records becomes like the person who is straightjacketed in their own narrow and self-confirming story of the world, growing increasingly irrelevant, or destructive, or incapable of creative change, and determined by external forces; or who ceases – like an Alzheimer’s patient, or a person with dementia – to be, except by the grace and definition of others. But memory is a very particular and dynamic aspect of a human being’s presence and belonging in the world. Its richness, its definition, its accuracy, depth and accessibility determine who, as well as how, we are. Archives are different. They are not memory in and of themselves, but substitutes and adjuncts to memory. Where memory fails, where it is absent, or where it has been distorted or dismembered by experience, archives can step in. A disturbed childhood, an obscuring family narrative, an apparently meaningless act, a moment of time with no foundation can acquire, through archives, something of order, of meaning, of grounding, even of healing.

The stillness of things falling into place does not last long. The new or renewed capacity for curiosity and moving-on kicks in almost immediately. ‘Getting there’ with the enquirer can be an emotional roller coaster for the archivist – perhaps a subject for another article. What can prove more difficult is not getting there. But the rewards of being an archivist in a charity which holds records of broken and disrupted lives, when that noise starts up – of the past falling into its place and new things growing – are immense.

Craig Fees

Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre