Hidden Wounds of War


The author is anonymous to protect the sensitivities of family and friends.

My brother Jamie died two months before his 70th birthday. It was suicide.

He’d been born in 1942 – a bad year to start life, especially living in central London. He was such a sweet baby, two years younger than me, but luck was not on his side. With the war raging all around us, he was subjected to constant alarms, loud noise, a tense atmosphere and far too many challenges for such a little child. Our mother writes in the Family History:

One day when the all-clear siren went off I rushed out to get provisions, pushing the two younger ones in the pram with A.… holding on to the side. I wasn’t halfway up the road when a doodlebug came over and a man came running out of a house, dragged us in and pushed us under the stairs. After the next all-clear sounded we continued on to the greengrocer’s under the railway bridge. Suddenly there was another big rumble; I didn’t know whether it was a train going overhead or a doodlebug but as we rounded the corner there was such a blast I thought that pram and everybody would be pushed into the plate glass window.

These doodlebugs were so treacherous that our father arranged for us to be evacuated to a farm right away from London. So we all had to move out, travel for ages packed like sardines in a train, settle into new accommodation, adjust to a completely different environment and I had to go to a different school. Jamie and I had one consolation in that we would hang over the farm gate and wave to the passing US soldiers who would throw Hershey bars down for us! But even in the peacefulness of the countryside, the air raid sirens reached us and as soon as they started up Jamie and I would flee into the house where we hid under the bed. But at least we weren’t separated from our mother during this time; I forget who looked after our beloved cat, Blackie.

The many separations from mum were the worst for Jamie: at 13 months after a very long train-ride to Edinburgh, our parents handed him to very good friends of theirs to look after as they took a last walking holiday in the Scottish Highlands before our father entered the British Navy. Eight months later Jamie was billeted with a (somewhat reluctant) 82 year old family friend for a month whilst mum had a very difficult delivery of her third child, our sister. When he was nearly three years old the family was split up again. Our mother had to have complicated surgery, so baby sister went to a residential nursery while Jamie and I were taken by the Navy’s social worker to a residential hostel for three weeks somewhere in Wales. I do not have one single memory of this, although I was four and a half years old, and Jamie came back home with nightmares. Then, not so long afterwards, when Jamie was three years old, both he and I went into separate wards in isolation hospital with the dreaded scarlet fever and NO contact with either parent. I came home after four weeks but Jamie stayed in having subsequently contracted chicken pox. He had been incarcerated in a cot for so many weeks that he had to learn how to walk again.

After the war things settled down somewhat and Jamie developed into our ‘little funny man’ – always playing tricks, making jokes, pulling faces and laughing. However this new-found security was shattered when our father’s contract to a top position in British Guiana was cancelled by the US; it was the McCarthy era and he’d been a member of the Communist Party way back in the early 1930s, along with considerable numbers of the English intelligentsia. As our house had gone with the job from which he had resigned in the UK, we found ourselves homeless. Our mother was German and the only solution was to graft ourselves on various friends and relatives of hers, all in war-torn Germany. So the family was split again, now in a foreign country with the children at the ages of eleven, nine and seven for a period of six whole months. Although this was challenging for all three of us, Jamie was the one who came out worst – emotionally he was verging on a breakdown and his hosts asked our mother to keep him with her (difficult, as she was working!)

As he grew older it became apparent that Jamie did not make friends easily. He told me that he was 15 years old when he experienced his first depression. He did very well academically, played the violin well, acted in school plays, sang in choirs, played Rugby for the school. Then he went to Oxford University’s elite Balliol College where, again, he did well, rowed for his college eight and proceeded to a PhD and career in academia. But Jamie never felt happy with his achievements, nothing was ever good enough. Approaching middle-age his depressions increased, his relationships both socially and at work suffered and his own family split up when his rages became unendurable. The wider family became deeply concerned about his mental health, all his personal difficulties and low self-esteem; he had started to talk about ways to end his misery. I once took him to task with how abusive he was towards his beloved and faithful dog and his response was, “Well, I’ve got to have something to kick!”

Then came the time when I went to help him with some jobs around his house, about ten years before he died. We got talking about his fearsome rages, which he acknowledged, but didn’t know what to do about them. I asked him, “Jamie, what’s your worst fear?” He paused, thought for a while, and then said, “Being abandoned …. again!’’ Having known him all his life and worried about him for the last 15 years or so, the penny dropped loudly and clearly for me with the word ‘again’ – he was referring to all those periods of ‘abandonment’ that he’d experienced in those first three years of his life. These three years are when the developing personality has to realise its own ego, the sense of self, and detach gently and gradually from its dependence on the ‘primary carer’, usually the mother. I had already noticed that the adult Jamie seemed inexplicably ambivalent towards our mother and our family had already realised that his emotional problems spoke of Narcissism, the condition where an individual draws on the resources of those close to them to provide those attributes that are missing in their own inner selves. It now became crystal clear to me that his personality had been damaged by those early wartime separations from his mother, which the toddler could only experience as abandonment.

One of Jamie’s daughters raises the possibility that Jamie had a genetic vulnerability to mental problems, which was then compounded by his early childhood experiences and this may well have been the case. All those families that lose a member to suicide are invariably left with the all-consuming need to get an answer to the burning question, ‘Why did this happen?’ My own ‘Why?’ question has been largely answered by Jamie’s “being abandoned …. again!’’ statement. Apart from that, all I can sadly say is that we lost a very gifted, interesting, lovable, knowledgeable and precious person as a result of those hidden wounds of warfare inflicted at too tender an age.