Chronicling Eve

Joan Molloy on exploring postpartum psychosis in Unravelling Eve.

by Jennie Kermode

Joan Molloy
Joan Molloy Photo: Joan Molloy

These days we like to think of ourselves as living in a society that has lost most of its prejudices about illness, where conditions that drastically affect people’s lives can be openly discussed – yet in reality, there are still conditions affecting a great many people which we rarely hear about at all. Postpartum psychosis affects three in every 2,000 new mothers – around 1,200 people a year in Britain – yet Joan Molloy has broken new ground by exploring it in film. We asked her how the idea for Unravelling Eve came about.

“Essentially all of my work has always been about families and resemblances in families,” says Joan, explaining how it was actually the suspected genetic element to the condition that first grabbed her attention. In Cardiff university Neuropsychiatric Centre she found “fridges and fridges” full of blood samples from affected women and their families. Researchers hoped to be able to identify at-risk women so they could make informed decisions about how to approach having children and so that, if things did go wrong, early intervention could reduce the risk of lasting harm. Joan felt that this would be a useful area in which to do some educational work, and sought funding to put a film together, envisaging a group of ten women coming together to talk about their experiences.

Finding the women was remarkably easy. She worked with Cardiff University geneticist Professor Ian Jones and went through a charity that supports people with bipolar disorder. “They did an article about me and my work and then asked women to come forward.” Ian made sure that they were all well enough to participate, but for most of them their experience was firmly in the past, in some cases by as much as 30 years.

“They all had incredible enthusiasm for the project,” Joan recalls. “I met them all together for the first time in Blackheath. What we found was that no-one had been in the same room as someone who had had this illness before. Two of the women had had an intense online relationship but had never met in person. So they immediately started talking.”

The discussion was intense, she says. “One of them talked about how in her darkest hours she was knitting little hats for her son’s head so that in the playground no-one would see his horns. I have no real comprehension of what it feels like to go through what they went through. I’m a mother of two and have hung out in mother and baby units where I’ve seen some very ill women but it was a shock to realise that was where they’d been.”

At a screening of the film at a conference in Marseilles, some of the women went onstage with Ian to talk further about their experiences. Being part of the project has really boosted their confidence, Joan says, and they are keen to raise awareness of the condition – of how “it can come totally out of the blue. One minute you’re picking out colours for the nursery and the next you’re in the back of a police van.”

It’s surprising to hear that some of the women are now talking openly about their experiences, as the film carefully maintains their anonymity. Joan is still wary about this.

Unravelling Eve
Unravelling Eve

“One of girls, Tracy, had one of the most obviously dramatic stories to tell, and a male freelancer wrote it all down. He thought all his Christmases had come at once and he sold to a syndicate of newspapers. This girl lives in a small mining town in Wales and the media just went for her. She had to get rid of her landline because there were people ringing her up constantly. I went up to see her to let her see the end cut of the film – all the girls had input right up until the end of the process, I said if anything makes you feel uncomfortable it will go. It was her daughter’s birthday and she was going to do a party for her and all her friends but not one of the parents would just drop off their children and leave them with her, because of those stories.”

It’s probably worth noting here that postpartum psychosis is a temporary condition and there is no reason to think somebody who has experienced it in the past is any more a danger to children than the average person, but this is something the newspapers did not make clear.

Protecting the women meant that Joan faced some stark challenges when putting the film together, especially as a first-timer.

“This is my first film. I’ve got an MA from the Royal College but have never made a film as such... I wanted to make a beautiful film about a very ugly illness. At the beginning I felt very, very protective of the women so what I didn’t want was to put the women’s faces on camera. I’m pleased I made the decision I did. There is a poster that some of them made with their faces on but I didn’t want that responsibility. “One thing I’m certainly not is a documentary film maker. I didn’t want to make a standard documentary. When we met that first day the soundtrack was really just going to be memory aide for me, nothing was scripted. I really didn’t want slightly out of focus woman in shadow. If you ever see me photographing an empty swing in a park, take me out and shoot me!”

As an alternative, she focused on finding images that would suit the different voices in the film, something that invites us to focus on the stories rather than the people telling them.

“The funding I got from the Wellcome Trust was really about removing the stigma. I didn’t think it was really going to help those facing postpartum psychosis but it really has made the women more confident and it helps that they’ve got this thing visually to show in places that isn’t scary, that kind of says look, this is sane. I hope it can start us talking about the illness a lot more. I didn’t know what postpartum psychosis was before and it’s way more prevalent than you’d actually think. I wasn’t on any major campaign but the girls were so brilliant.

“I know most people would kill to have this project. I kept backing away, even with the last edit. The girls came to talk to each other in the studio in the middle to hear what my ideas were then for the edit If they had said, do you know what, I don’t like that bit, I’d never have finished the project. All the way through I really felt I couldn’t take advantage. I didn’t want be really melodramatic; I didn’t want to dine out on their experiences... I had to give an accurate impression of what it is to go through postpartum psychosis.” She need not have worried, however; the women remained supportive throughout, and the attention the film has been getting shows that it is reaching out to people effectively.

Joan is excited about her film appearing in the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival but admits it almost didn’t happen. “I was being really pushed by woman who runs the charity to make that deadline but it was very close to the finishing of the film. If it was just me I would possibly have gone, well, maybe next year, but she had me in an arm lock and I’m really pleased she did. This is good for numbers for the Wellcome Trust - I have to prove what I’ve done with the money – and of course it’s good to reach as many audiences as possible.”

For her next project, Joan will be returning to the art world with which she’s more familiar, but it seems likely that there will be other film projects in her future.

“Just last week I got a commission to do an installation at Bethlem [Royal Hospital, in London] - that’s where we did the original filming in the mother and baby unit. All my work is about time and they want me to do an installation in the Museum of the Mind based on an original grandfather clock that was in the museum but it’s only the casing so it’s to do something with that casing and a painting that’s in their collection. I think I was very, very lucky to work with Arnold Borgerth, the cinematographer, and Chico Dall’Inha, the editor, on Unravelling Eve, because film is all about collaboration and I’ve never collaborated with anyone, so it took a lot to find someone with whom I thought Yeah, I trust you, and to have found two key people I really could work with again is great, so if another project came around I might be interested in that. I just applied for the London Short Film Festival... it will be interesting see what happens next.”

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