Relative Stranger: A Sister's Story by Mary LoudonRelative Stranger: A Sister's Story by Mary Loudon

Relative Stranger: A Sister's Story

byMary Loudon

Paperback | March 6, 2007

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When Catherine Loudon died in 2001, the author and journalist Mary Loudon had not seen her sister in over a dozen years. Shocked, feeling an unaccountable sense of loss, Mary began to explore the traces Catherine left behind, trying to discover the truth about her sister – trying to discover who she was. The result of her search is this riveting, moving, and deeply thought-provoking book.

Catherine was always an unsettled personality: when still a child she had threatened her family with violence; when she travelled to India as a young woman, her disturbing behaviour led to her father being summoned to return her to England. She refused to join him, but then reappeared, unannounced, at home a year later. Caring and passionate, but also unstable and paranoid, she was finally diagnosed as schizophrenic. As far as her family knew – Catherine kept in contact with them intermittently, and only on her own terms – her life was a cycle of flats, prisons, and psychiatric hospitals.

Mary Loudon’s quest for her sister begins when she touches Catherine’s cold hands in the harsh calm of a hospital morgue. She visits Catherine’s overpoweringly cluttered flat, and finds herself struggling to choose which of the piled up paintings and clothes she should take to remember Catherine by. Then, over time, Mary tracks down the men and women who inhabited Catherine’s life and the people she affected: the caring nurses who tended to her in her last weeks; the grocer she knew for almost twenty years; the social worker who clashed with her; the minister and nun she prayed with.

Mary Loudon captures each conversation perfectly, with a brilliant ear for spoken language and a telling eye for detail. And though the task seems overwhelming at first, gradually, with each encounter, a more nuanced picture of Catherine emerges. It includes facts that tally with the idolized older sister Mary remembers as well as disturbing revelations, such as Catherine’s self-identification as a man, named Stevie.

In this book Mary Loudon unpicks our preconceived definitions of sanity, belonging, and familial responsibility. Over the course of Mary’s search, we cease to define Catherine by her illness; instead she becomes a human being, full of compassion for the world and possessed of a lively, personal wit. Relative Stranger challenges our most deeply held notions of what makes a life full and valuable – but even though reading it is an education, this is also an undeniably personal and elegiac story, coloured on each page by Catherine’s suffering and the distance that existed between the sisters.

A deeply honest family memoir, a compelling detective story, and a test of our prejudices, Relative Stranger is both a vitally important book and an unforgettable one.
Mary Loudon is the author of Secrets and Lives: Middle England Revealed; Revelations: The Clergy Questioned; and Unveiled: Nuns Talking. All three were published to enormous critical acclaim. She has won several writing prizes in the UK, appeared frequently on radio and television, reviewed for The Times (UK), chaired many public discu...
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Title:Relative Stranger: A Sister's StoryFormat:PaperbackDimensions:352 pages, 8.27 × 5.6 × 0.94 inPublished:March 6, 2007Publisher:Doubleday CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0385661282

ISBN - 13:9780385661287

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Reviews

Read from the Book

Part One: ENDSame Time, Different PlaceOn the twenty-seventh of January 2001, while I was skiing fast down a mountain in France, my sister, Catherine, was dying slowly in England; in a hospital I didn’t know she had been admitted to, from a cancer I didn’t know she had, under an identity I had no idea existed. Catherine was my eldest sister, the third of five children. I am the fifth and youngest. When she died, she was forty-seven and I was thirty-four. Born into a well-off family, we five were an undoubtedly privileged lot. On paper, we could look pretty obnoxious. We grew up in a beautiful house with parents who loved us well. We were broadly educated, widely travelled and generally encouraged. When I left home, I had a good life. I went to university, made friends, went to parties, and travelled with a backpack. I began writing books, bought a house and had a fair number of nice boyfriends. Then I married a lovely man and had a baby. Certainly, minor things went wrong from time to time, and I suffered one fairly serious bout of depression in my early twenties, but apart from that I enjoyed great good fortune. When Catherine left home she went to India for a year where she became seriously ill, suffered the breakdown from which she never fully recovered, and then vanished. After a fraught search by the Foreign Office and our father she was found but vanished for a second time. Some time later, she finally returned home to England, broken. After that, she went to Oxford, first to a bedsit, then to Oxford prison and then to Oxford’s psychiatric hospital, the Warneford. After a brief ensuing stint in Holloway jail and a spell in Guy’s hospital, London, she went to live quietly in a council flat in Bristol. There she kept a private home. In the beginning, it was open only to the homeless and the vagrant; in the end, to no one. After she turned twenty she appears to have had no lovers and we, her family, were not encouraged to visit her. There were no holidays, no parties, no steady job and no children. Once, for a time, she owned and loved a dog. During the last eleven years of Catherine’s life, the few requests she made for visits from us were invariably rescinded by her, and we never saw her alive again. It looks as if Catherine and I began our lives in the same place but we didn’t. She had schizophrenia and I did not. The Sort Of Phone Call Everybody DreadsMy mother was due to visit us at our house in Wales the next day. So when she rang I assumed it was to discuss the usual details like whether she would be bringing her dog, why she wouldn’t be driving through the centre of Hereford and what food she was leaving for my father. Instead, she said, ‘I’ve got some sad news. It’s about Catherine.’‘Catherine?’ My mother is a woman who always gets straight to the point.‘Catherine died.’‘Oh, no. Oh, Mummy.’ My husband, Andrew, was at our neighbours’ house. I phoned them and asked for him.‘Hey,’ he said, ‘what’s up?’‘Please come home now.’ There was merriment in the background. Andrew was chuckling at something someone was saying. He was distracted. ‘What’s the problem, darling?’‘It’s okay, it’s not the baby. My sister’s dead. Catherine died.’ Catherine had been admitted to the Bristol Royal Infirmary over Christmas with advanced, inoperable cancer and she had stated, very firmly, that she had no next of kin. Two parents, four brothers and sisters, each with spouses and children. No next of kin? So, not surprisingly, the hospital never contacted us, she was forty-seven years old after all, not four; and there she died on 27th January surrounded by no flowers, no grapes, no cards and no relatives, which was clearly exactly what she wanted. Afterwards, the authorities went into her flat. Someone found some unopened post. Someone else opened it and found an address. Someone else put two and two together, although not terribly quickly, and eleven days later a Bristol City Council Registrar telephoned my parents. Lucky, really. It doesn’t have to work out that way. She might have vanished altogether that last time. And there were some mercies, I suppose. At least there was still a body and a body means a funeral. And a funeral means a meeting of sorts, albeit one-sided.ShockThink of a wall made of tissue paper and a giant fist punching through it, without warning.It felt a bit like that, if you can imagine such a thing. Anger (and not a little admiration)‘No next of kin?’ says a close family friend. ‘Wow. It might just as well be suicide, as far as the aggression of that denial goes.’Someone else adds: ‘You’ve got to hand it to her. She always was a stubborn bastard.’ GriefThe world turned dark grey. It didn’t help that it was February. AcceptanceWhat is there not to accept? You can’t rewind a death. ReliefRelief was almost universally expressed when people outside the family learned that my dead sister was Catherine and not my other sister or me. Gratitude was expressed too, when people learnt that she had died of natural causes. Everybody thinks that schizophrenics commit suicide, if they don’t kill other people. Some Things People Said When They Found OutA neighbour: ‘You should look at it this way. At least you won’t have to look after her when she’s old.’An old boyfriend: ‘Darling, I’m so sorry, it’s absolutely terrible, but you know what? Some people are made for this world, some people aren’t.’A family friend: ‘At least it was only cancer. Just think how much worse it could have been with her being — well, you know.’Various others: ‘Thank God she didn’t commit suicide.’‘At least she’s in peace now.’‘It must be a merciful release in a way.’‘Well, you weren’t really that close to her, were you.’‘How terrible for your parents. But it’s better in a way they know what’s happened to her, than that they die wondering.’‘Oh, I’m terribly sorry. I thought she was dead already."From the Hardcover edition.

Bookclub Guide

1. What did you learn from reading Relative Stranger?2. One of Mary Loudon’s purposes in Relative Stranger is to question the commonplace notion that a life marked by mental illness is of less value than a "normal" one. Do you agree with her when she says her sister did reach her potential, and that "a woman who reaches her potential may yet be one of the most broken examples of humanity that we – those others who consider ourselves more or less whole – know how to describe"? Why, or why not?3. Have you, or has a family member or friend struggled with mental illness? How do Mary Loudon’s reactions and perspectives compare with your own?4. Catherine Loudon chose to be known as Stevie in her last years (though not universally – her doctor and grocer still knew her as Cathy and Cath respectively). At several points Mary Loudon compares her sense of her own femininity with her sister’s. What does Relative Stranger have to say about gender?5. What do you learn about Mary Loudon from Relative Stranger?6. How would you describe the style in which the book is written? What techniques does Mary Loudon use to persuade the reader? You might consider the division of the book into short chapters, and an End, Middle, and Beginning. Or you could analyze the kinds of details of people and places Loudon includes; you could also contrast her style with the excerpt from her father’s diary. Why did Mary Loudon choose her particular approach? Is it successful? How else might she have written the book?7. What are some of the meanings of the title Relative Stranger?8. Would you recommend Relative Stranger to others? Why, or why not?9. On her first appearance in the book, Jo (Catherine’s doctor) is stiff and distant; by the end she is one of the most fully developed characters. Who else changes over the course of Relative Stranger, and how?10. How do you feel about the Loudon family’s treatment of Catherine? Is there anything they could have done differently, or that you feel they should have done differently?11. If you have read other memoirs about or of mental illness, compare them to Relative Stranger.12. Mary Loudon meets several people from Catherine’s life: which encounter struck you the most?13. In Relative Stranger Mary Loudon decides that although the system failed Catherine in some respects, the men and women on its front line did their best to help her. Do you agree?14. How complete a portrait of Catherine Loudon does the book finally paint?15. What are your criticisms of Relative Stranger? What would you have liked to see more of, or less of?16. If you were to meet Mary Loudon, what would you ask her or say to her?

Editorial Reviews

“Astonishing. . . . Mary Loudon  sets out to learn the story of her vanished sister, but winds up finding herself.  A haunting, harrowing meditation on the meaning of family, of love, and of madness.  Memorable, lyrical, and unsettling.”–Jennifer Boylan, author of She's Not There“People as empathic as Mary Loudon are rare. Writers as incisive and clean are even rarer. Her loving, sharp, elucidating journey into the mind of madness is a testament to the power of understanding.”–Norah Vincent, author of New York Times Bestseller Self-Made Man"Loudon has "a novelist’s eye for detail – nudging the heartbreaking chaos of her sister’s terrible flat towards the transforming beauty of still life. . . . Vivid, true and moving."–The Times (UK)"One of the most moving and compelling memoirs of the year. . . . Balanced, thoughtful, . . . . a brilliantly clear portrait of the havoc mental illness can wreak in a family’s life."–The Scotsman (UK)"Remarkable and very affecting, and a comfort too. Mary Loudon sees through the dark of insanity to the light of understanding."–Fay Weldon“Written with great flair, clarity, imaginative intensity, and extraordinary confidence and style. Honest and unvarnished and without mawkishness of any kind. Convincing, gripping and moving, it will deserve to be a triumph.”–Jonathan Dimbleby“[Loudon’s] book heaves with emotional involvement: our hackles rise when a man who runs a drop-in centre describes Catherine as a ‘shadowy figure’, precisely the sort of dismissal from which this account succeeds in rescuing her. . . . ‘I see a woman who didn’t lack friends,’ the author concludes, satisfied. Nor did she lack a sister who loved her.”–The Sunday Times (UK)“[A] moving memoir [that] describes how mental illness can break even the strongest bonds. . . . Relative Stranger reads almost like a novel of the well written kind. . . . [A] remarkable and powerful illustration of the value of every human life, no matter how it is lived. . . . [An] extraordinary story of ordinary people.”–Scotland on Sunday “An intelligent work of self-searching, self-reassurance and justification. . . . Loudon’s clear moral tone and determined purpose give her prose a swing and balance.”–The Guardian (UK) “This is a touching and revealing account of a life discovered after death.”–Sunday Herald (Glasgow)“One of the most moving and compelling memoirs of the year. . . . Balanced, thoughtful, and never strains for emotive effect. . . . [A] brilliantly clear portrait of the havoc mental illness can wreak in a family’s life, showing just how much of a personality it can occlude, but also the value of what’s left.”–The Scotsman “A perceptive and sensitive exploration of the judgments that society makes on the value of people's lives. . . . This book will offer balm to many who have loved and lost a person with severe mental illness, and challenges many of the myopic misconceptions and generalizations that are ascribed to those who live with mental illness.”–The Lancet (UK medical journal)“Loudon is always honest, and her internal journey as she faces head-on her older sister’s illness and alter-ego is compelling. . . . Loudon has successfully confronted her demons in this book, and there will be many readers who can empathize. They may even take comfort from the writer’s experiences.”–The Oxford Times Supplement (UK)“Loudon’s accomplishment here seems courageous and large. The world feels more alarming, but somehow wider with this account of an estranged, and strangely vital relative who lived in it, for a while.”–Times Literary Supplement“Move this to the top of your reading list because it’s a gem, in which Loudon tackles the tricky subject of how you grieve for a loved one you barely knew…It’s a book full of questions — because isn’t that what you’re left with when you lose someone? — as well as a vibrantly honest account of raw emotions.” --Glamour “[Loudon’s sister] Catherine was schizophrenic. With that nugget of information, the way opens for a wistful, we-have-recognize-the-devastation-this-disease-wreaks book, but Loudon doesn’t take that route. Relative Stranger: A Life After Death reads more like a travel mystery, undercut with bleak humour. . . . Beneath it all is Loudon’s admiration for the ‘family’ that did look after Catherine. . . . Loudon has written not just a history of the sister she never saw as an adult, but a weird travel book about a place that most of us, if we’re lucky, will escape visiting.”–Toronto StarFrom the Hardcover edition.