email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
"Are You There Alone?""How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?""My Madness Saved Me"10% Happier365 Days49 Up56 UpA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Book of ReasonsA Can of MadnessA Child's Life and Other StoriesA Dangerous LiaisonA Fight to BeA First-Rate MadnessA Good Enough DaughterA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Lethal InheritanceA Lethal InheritanceA Life ShakenA Life Worth LivingA Little PregnantA Message from JakieA Million Little PiecesA Numerate LifeA Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth CenturyA Slant of SunA Special EducationA Tribe ApartAbout FaceAddicted Like MeADHD & MeAEIOUAgainst Medical AdviceAgents in My BrainAileen - Life and Death of a Serial KillerAlgernon, Charlie and IAll Out!All Seasons PassAlphavilleAlways Too Much And Never EnoughAlzheimer'sAn Anthropologist on MarsAn EducationAn Unquiet MindAngela's AshesAngelheadAnna Freud: A BiographyAnnie's GhostsAnother Bullshit Night in Suck CityAnthology of a Crazy LadyApples and OrangesApproaching NeverlandAre You There, Vodka? It's Me, ChelseaAs I Live and BreatheAs Nature Made HimAt Home in the Heart of AppalachiaAt the End of WordsAvalancheBad BoyBad GirlBeautiful BodiesBeautiful BoyBeautiful WreckBecause We Are BadBecoming AnnaBecoming MyselfBen Behind His VoicesBequest and BetrayalBereftBertrand RussellBlackoutBlanketsBloodlettingBodies in Motion and at RestBoneBorn on a Blue DayBoyBoy AloneBoyleBrain on FireBreaking ApartBreaking the SilenceBrokenBulimics on BulimiaBuzzCamus and SartreCharles DarwinChasing the HighCheeverCherryCity of OneCluesClumsyComfortComplications Compulsive ActsConfessions of a Cereal EaterConfessions of a Former ChildConfessions of a Grieving ChristianConfessions of the Other MotherConfidingConquering the Beast WithinContesting ChildhoodCrackedCrazyCry Depression, Celebrate RecoveryDamned to EternityDancing at the Shame PromDante's CureDaughter of the Queen of ShebaDavid Sedaris Live at Carnegie HallDays With My FatherDefeating the VoicesDementia Caregivers Share Their StoriesDepression and NarrativeDescartesDetourDevil in the DetailsDiagnosis: SchizophreniaDirty DetailsDirty SecretDivided MindsDivine MadnessDon't Get Too ComfortableDown Came the RainDress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimDrinkingDriving My FatherDrunkardDryEarly Embraces IIIEarly ExposuresEinsteinEinstein and OppenheimerElectroboyElegy for IrisElijah's CupElliott Smith and the Big NothingElsewhereEnough About YouEpilepticEvery Girl Tells a StoryEverything In Its PlaceExamined LivesExiting NirvanaFaces of Huntington'sFamily BoundFast GirlFearless ConfessionsFind MeFinding Iris ChangFirst Person Accounts of Mental Illness and RecoveryFirst Person PluralFixing My GazeFlanneryFolie a DeuxFor the Love of ItFortress of My YouthFrank Ramsey (1903-1930)Franz KafkaFraudFree RefillsFreudFreudFreudFriedrich NietzscheFrom Joy Division to New OrderFumblingFun HomeFuriously HappyGalileo Get Me Out of HereGetting OffGirl in Need of a TourniquetGirl Walking BackwardsGirl, InterruptedGirl, InterruptedGirls on the VergeGoing BlindGoing Through Hell Without Help From AboveGraysonGrowing Up JungGuttedHalf a Brain Is EnoughHardcore from the HeartHead CasesHeal & ForgiveHeal & Forgive IIHeavier than HeavenHeinz KohutHeinz KohutHello from Heaven!Hello to All ThatHer HusbandHer Last DeathHigh PriceHole in My LifeHolidays On IceHolidays on IceHope's BoyHouse of Happy EndingsHouse of Happy EndingsHow I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill MeHow to Lose Friends & Alienate PeopleHow to Make Love Like a Porn Starhow to stop timeHumeHunger Makes Me a Modern GirlHurry Down SunshineI Am Dynamite!I Am I Am I AmI Feel Bad About My NeckI Never Promised You a Rose GardenI Remain in DarknessI'd Rather Eat ChocolateI'd Rather LaughIf I Die Before I WakeImagining RobertIn Search of FatimaIn the Realms of the UnrealIn the Wake of SuicideInside TherapyInternInvisible No MoreIt Happened to NancyIt Takes a Worried ManJack Cole and Plastic ManJean-Paul SartreJohn Stuart MillJourneys with the Black DogJust CheckingKafkaKantLa SierraLab GirlLast Flight OutLearning to FallLet Me Make It GoodLife As We Know ItLife InterruptedLife ReimaginedLimboLincoln's MelancholyListening in the Silence, Seeing in the DarkLittle PeopleLive For Your Listening PleasureLive Through ThisLiving in the Shadow of the Freud FamilyLiving With SchizophreniaLiving with SchizophreniaLockeLonelyLong ShotLook Me in the EyeLooking for The StrangerLoose GirlLosing Mum and PupLosing My MindLove Is a Mix TapeLove SickLove Times ThreeLove Works Like ThisLove You, Mean ItLuckyLudwig WittgensteinLyingMad HouseMad PrideMadame ProustMadnessMagical ThinkingMalignant SadnessManicMarcel ProustMarcus AureliusMary BarnesMaverick MindMaybe You Should Talk to SomeoneMe Talk Pretty One DayMeaningMelanie KleinMemoirMemoirs of an Addicted BrainMemoirs of My Nervous IllnessMen-ipulationMisconceptionsMiss American PieMockingbird YearsMomma and the Meaning of LifeMommies Who DrinkMonkey MindMore, Now, AgainMortificationMy Age of AnxietyMy Body PoliticMy Brain Tumour AdventuresMy DepressionMy Father's HeartMy First Cousin Once RemovedMy Flesh and BloodMy Horizontal LifeMy Life Among the Serial KillersMy Sister LifeMy Stroke of InsightName All the AnimalsNeural MisfireNietzscheNietzsche: The Man and His PhilosophyNinety DaysNo Apparent DistressNo Hurry to Get HomeNo Impact ManNo More ShavesNo One Cares About Crazy PeopleNolaNotebooks 1951-1959NothingOdd Girl Speaks OutOedipus WreckedOf Spirits & MadnessOn Being RapedOn the Edge of DarknessOn the MoveOne Hour in ParisOne Hundred DaysOphelia SpeaksPagan TimePassing for NormalPeople Who Eat DarknessPerfect ChaosPerfect ExamplePermanent Present TensePersepolisPlanet of the BlindPlaying with FirePlease Don't Kill the FreshmanPoisoned LovePollockPOPismPortraits of Huntington'sPoster ChildProzac DiaryPsychiatrist on the RoadPsychosis in the FamilyPuppy Chow Is Better Than ProzacQuitting the Nairobi TrioRaising BlazeReasons to Stay AliveRebuiltRecovered, Not CuredRelative StrangerRescuing JeffreyRestricted AccessRevengeRewind, Replay, RepeatRichard RortyRiding the Bus With My SisterRobert Lowell, Setting the River on FireRoom For JRosemaryRough MagicRunning After AntelopeRunning with ScissorsRXScattershotSchizophreniaSchopenhauerSecond OpinionsSectionedSeeing EzraSeeing the CrabServing the ServantSet the Boy FreeSex & Single GirlsSex ObjectShakespeareShe Bets Her LifeShe Got Up Off the CouchShut the DoorSickenedSilencing the VoicesSimone de BeauvoirSinging in the FireSkin GameSlackjawSlut!SmashedSome Assembly RequiredSome Kind of GeniusSometimes Amazing Things HappenSometimes Madness Is WisdomSongs from the Black ChairSongs of the Gorilla NationSoren KierkegaardSpeak to MeSpeaking Our Minds: Revised EditionSpecial SiblingsSpentStandbyStick FigureStill LivesStretchSunset StorySurviving OpheliaSwing LowTales from Both Sides of the BrainTales of PsychotherapyTalk to HerTell Me Everything You Don't RememberTellingTelling Tales About DementiaThe Accidental BillionairesThe AddictThe Anatomy of HopeThe Anti-Romantic ChildThe Art of MisdiagnosisThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe BeastThe Bell JarThe Best Seat in the HouseThe Big FixThe Body SilentThe Boy on the Green BicycleThe Boy Who Loved Too MuchThe Boy Who Loved WindowsThe Bright HourThe Buddha & The BorderlineThe Burn JournalsThe Camera My Mother Gave MeThe Cancer Monologue ProjectThe Center Cannot HoldThe Chelsea WhistleThe Churkendoose AnthologyThe Day the Voices StoppedThe Devil WithinThe DisappearanceThe Discomfort ZoneThe Doctor Is InThe Eden ExpressThe Family GeneThe Family SilverThe Farm Colonies: Caring for New York City's Mentally Ill In Long Island's State HospitalsThe Fasting GirlThe First Man-Made ManThe First TimeThe Geography of BlissThe Glass CastleThe Good DoctorsThe Hillside Diary and Other WritingsThe Incantations of Daniel JohnstonThe Infidel and the ProfessorThe Last AsylumThe Last Good FreudianThe Last Time I Wore a DressThe Liars' ClubThe Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet HiltonThe Lives They Left BehindThe LobotomistThe Long GoodbyeThe Looked After Kid: Memoirs from a Children's HomeThe Loony-Bin TripThe Madness of Our LivesThe Making of a PhilosopherThe Making of Friedrich NietzscheThe Man Who Couldn't EatThe Man Who Shocked the WorldThe Man Who Tasted ShapesThe Marvelous Hairy GirlsThe Maximum Security Book ClubThe Me in the MirrorThe Memory PalaceThe Mercy PapersThe Mistress's DaughterThe Mother of Black HollywoodThe Naked Bird WatcherThe Naked Lady Who Stood on Her HeadThe Neuroscientist Who Lost Her MindThe Night of the GunThe Noonday DemonThe Notebook GirlsThe NursesThe Only Girl in the CarThe Only Girl in the WorldThe Orchid ThiefThe Other HollywoodThe OutsiderThe Philosopher's Autobiography The Philosophical Breakfast ClubThe Philosophical IThe Pits and the PendulumThe Pornographer's GriefThe Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner The Professor and the MadmanThe Psychopath TestThe Quiet RoomThe RecoveringThe Red DevilThe Rescue of Belle and SundanceThe Ride TogetherThe Rules of the TunnelThe Secret of LifeThe Shaking Woman or A History of My NervesThe Shared HeartThe Shiniest JewelThe Siren's DanceThe Statistical Life of MeThe Story of My FatherThe Strange Case of Hellish NellThe Summer of a DormouseThe SurrenderThe Talking CureThe Thought that CountsThe Three of UsThe Undoing ProjectThe Vagina MonologuesThe Velveteen FatherThe Winter of Our DisconnectThe Woman Who Walked into the SeaThe Years of Silence are PastThe Yellow HouseThe Yipping TigerThick As ThievesThinThis Close to HappyThomas S. SzaszTiger, TigerTits, Ass, and Real EstateTo Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the WorldTo Walk on EggshellsTransforming MadnessTrue CompassTruth & BeautyTruth Comes in BlowsTuesdays with MorrieTweakTwitch and ShoutUltimate JudgementUndercurrentsUnholy GhostUnlikelyVoices of AlcoholismVoices Of Alzheimer'sVoices of CaregivingVoices of RecoveryVoluntary MadnessWaiting for DaisyWar FareWashing My Life AwayWastedWaveWe're Going to Need More WineWe're Not MonstersWeather Reports from the Autism FrontWeekends at BellevueWhat Did I Do Last Night?What Goes UpWhat I Learned in Medical SchoolWhat's Normal?When a Crocodile Eats the SunWhen Breath Becomes AirWhen Do I Get My Shoelaces Back?.....When It Gets DarkWhen the Piano StopsWhen You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhere Did It All Go Right?Where is the Mango Princess?Where the Roots Reach for WaterWhile the City SleptWhile They SleptWho Was Jacques Derrida?Why I Left, Why I StayedWhy I'm Like ThisWildWill's ChoiceWinnicottWinnieWish I Could Be ThereWith Their EyesWomen Living with Self-InjuryWomen, Body, IllnessWrestling with the AngelYou All Grow Up and Leave MeYou Must Be DreamingYour Voice in My HeadZeldaZor
The case of Helen Duncan is a strange one indeed. Duncan was a practicing Spiritualist who held regular séances during which she channeled the spirits of the dead. She fell foul of English wartime security officials when she appeared to have used her clairvoyant powers to reveal military secrets, even to foretell events of strategic importance. She was tried and imprisoned under the archaic Witchcraft Act of 1735 in what must have been one of the more bizarre distractions from the blitzkrieg and the D Day landings. Psychologist Nina Shandler's account sets out a narrative of the events, with some intriguing background about Duncan's development and family life. Shandler draws sharp portraits of the key players, finally revealing Duncan as a rather sad, if charismatic con artist, caught up in a complex web of events and personalities she was poorly equipped to handle. The case of Helen Duncan was the subject of a previous account (Hellish Nell: The last of Britain's witches, by Malcolm Gaskill, 2001) and Shandler's book makes frequent reference to that earlier work.
Helen Duncan's life was a drama on many levels. She experienced a harsh, impoverished childhood in Collander, Scotland, and was and early protégé in matters of the occult, causing her mother to predict her imprisonment and trial for witchcraft. Banished from her family for having a child out of wedlock, Helen married the scheming and manipulative Henry Duncan. The couple had more children than they could provide for, and Henry Duncan proved a ruthless exploiter of his wife's talents. There was money to be made in communicating with the dead, and the Duncans had mouths to feed. Had her path not crossed with the war time security services, Duncan might have lived a relatively prosperous life on the proceeds of her séances. But her reputation, and some of her specific claims, brought unwanted attention, and the jealousy of the Society for Psychical Research. It was this combination of enemies that brought Duncan low, and ended with her incarceration in Holloway Prison. In her Old Bailey trial Helen Duncan became a media star. Even a public preoccupied with war in Europe and daily bombing of their cities could find time for such a sensational scandal.
Shandler does a good job of weaving together the diverse strands of Duncan's extraordinary life. If Duncan's spiritualist practices are not bizarre enough, the spectacle of this uncultured, coarse-mannered, shabby figure entertaining audiences of reserved English ladies by producing strands of "ectoplasm" (believed to be the spirits of departed loved ones) seems little short of fantastic. Duncan had an appetite for whisky, loved a cigarette, and, especially during her periods of entrancement, was capable of lewd and vulgar language. Spiritualism provided a cloak of respectability for activities that otherwise would have brought deep public opprobrium, and perhaps the unwanted interest of the police.
The book is written in the racy manner of an expose. Shandler has unearthed a large amount of detail on wartime England, and on the life of Portsmouth's Chief Constable Arthur West and the other major players. The climactic courthouse scenes at the Old Bailey make for compelling reading, with theatrical defense lawyer Charles Loseby and prosecutor John Maude performing for Judge Sir Gerald Gordon like amateur thespians at an audition. Aspects of Duncan's personal life are interposed with the broader narrative, so that as readers' knowledge of her Spiritualist activities increases, so does their understanding of Duncan as a person.
Shandler is at times, somewhat over eager to impress with evidence of her research. The Prologue to her book recounts her visit to the English Public Records Office, where she was given access to a file marked "Closed until 2046". The most revealing document in that file was a note penned by Churchill, in which he complained about the "obsolete tomfoolery" of Duncan's trial. That note was reproduced in full in Gaskill's 2001 publication. Shandler also provides an excess of footnotes, including one for this comment, related to the above note: "The red ink dripped with disdain". There is another for this direction from Chief Constable West to Detective Fred Ford: "...Take him to a pub. Take him out on your fishing boat." Shandler must be given credit for providing details, but the extent of these footnotes is a little unnecessary. At times, too, Shandler mixes American and British colloquial language, for example in the sentence: "At any séance, a zealous band of coppers might march in, wielding nightsticks."
Shandler pulls off some deceptions of her own. Duncan was rarely referred to as "Hellish Nell". The term was used in her childhood, but not during the period of her notoriety and trial. And although she was tried under the Witchcraft Act, she wasn't accused, as the book's title implies' of witchcraft, but of fraud. If she could have "proved" that the dead really did speak through her she would have got off scot-free.
Considering Shandler's professional background there is a disappointing lack of psychological analysis. Shandler is dismissive of Duncan's status as a spirit medium but without really discussing the remarkable credulity of its many adherents, or the popularity of occult practices in the first half of the twentieth century. She refers to Duncan's testimony as "heretical drivel" and there are references to Spiritualists as "goblin chasers". Such dismissive comments do not inform readers of the complex psychology of Spiritualism. Helen Duncan was not an isolated maverick. She practiced a form of Spiritualism that enjoyed wide public acceptance.
In particular, an examination of the case of Helen Duncan offers an opportunity to explore the appeal of Spiritualism to the likes of the Duncan, a downtrodden victimized woman who was an outcast fro her own family. It is not that the spiritualism of war time Britain was a working class affair popularized by outcasts: as Shandler's reconstruction of the Old Bailey trial shows, its supporters were often very influential and well placed members of society. How does such a diverse group come to share a common credulity that flies in the face of reason? These issues are left unexplored by Shandler. Similarly, there is no discussion of what we would now call the phenomenon of dissociation, clearly evident in Duncan's manifesting different personas that gave expression to a remarkable range of personality traits. Shandler's comment that the term "multiple personality" was used during the trial to refer to Duncan is odd, as the term had very limited currency at that time.
The Strange Case of Hellish Nell is a compelling read. The atmosphere of wartime England is well evoked; the events and characters make for a lively narrative. While I would like to have seen at least some analysis of Spiritualism, the book does paint a memorable portrait of Helen Duncan, and the various individuals who played a part in her life. The 1735 Witchcraft Act was repealed in the 1950s, although contemporary legislation leaves one in no doubt as to the powers of the State if its interests are perceived as threatened.
© 2007 Tony O'Brien
Tony O'Brien is a lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: firstname.lastname@example.org