Patrick McGrath on writing Asylum

Patrick McGrath explains the story behind writing his 1996 novel Asylum


The novel Asylum was conceived in the spring of 1994. I’d been casting around for an idea for a while, and I remembered an incident from my childhood, something unresolved, a story without a proper ending, and lacking in any real depth of detail, remarkable not for what had happened but for what had not.

I remember I entered a room where adults were talking and at once they fell silent. Whatever was going on was not for my ears. But nothing will more reliably provoke a child’s curiosity than being told, in effect, that there’s a secret, and that he’s not to be let in on it.

This occurred in the Medical Superintendent’s house, a large red-brick Victorian villa which stood a hundred yards from the Main Gate of Broadmoor Hospital. Broadmoor is a top security institution for what were once called the criminally insane. My father was the superintendent.

The secret was this. An illicit relationship had been discovered between a doctor’s wife and a patient. Broadmoor doctors were forensic psychiatrists, and the patients, many of them, criminal offenders who’d been found not guilty by reason of insanity. I believe the patient in question lost his parole privileges as a result of the incident, meaning he was confined within the walls of the hospital and could no longer work on the grounds. Later the doctor’s wife left the hospital with her husband and family, one of whom was a boy my own age and a particular friend of mine.

This fragile and certainly flawed scrap of narrative was all I had, but it gave me the germ of Asylum. I would set it in 1959, when it happened. It was a time I remembered as clearly as I remember anything of my childhood. I had not yet been sent away to boarding school, and the long summers in the fields and forest around the hospital were the best of times in this small boy’s secure and untroubled life so far. I knew the look of Broadmoor as it then was, the feel of the place and its people, and I was confident I could bring it to life on the page.

Now I had a story. It would be about the wife. I gave her a name, Stella Raphael. She came alive, I could see her at once. An attractive, sophisticated woman, she missed her life in London and was bored not only with the members and wives of the senior staff common room, but also with her husband. He’s called Max Raphael.

Stella and Max have a child, Charlie, aged ten, and him I knew very well indeed, for he was me. His parents were not mine, but in his fascination with toads, and watery places, and football, and the parole patients who came out every day to look after the grounds of the estate, and whom he treated as benign uncles, this was me. A plump, toothy, precocious child, he was in love with his mother but eager for conversation with his father about all manner of things. I was soon plotting his downfall.

But first, Stella Raphael. It was then about 10 minutes before feminism properly arrived in the south of England. In the late 50s the opportunities for a wife and mother in a rural hospital community were not plentiful. I wanted her to have few outlets, and an unfulfilling marriage, also a ripe disdain for the social possibilities on offer. Only the deputy superintendent amuses Stella. He is Peter Cleave, a worldly, cultivated older man, unmarried, and committed to his own private pleasures. One of Peter Cleave’s patients is Edgar Stark, a sculptor, who works in the Raphaels’ garden.

I remember the ease with which the early part of the story was written. It’s very rare. I counted it as a good sign, in retrospect, although at the time it made me uneasy. Stella at once recognizes in Edgar Stark a kindred spirit, like herself incarcerated unjustly in this place of rigid constraint and numbing routine. The sexual affair begins. It is a thing of recklessness and passion. The lovers form an unholy alliance, and it was clear to me what must happen next. With Stella’s help Edgar escapes from the asylum and flees to London.

It was at around this time in the writing of the book that serendipity occurred. On a visit home, browsing through my father’s bookshelves, among the poetry of Burns and Hopkins, and the novels of Chesterton and John Masters, I found a slim volume about a rare psychiatric disorder. It was called Morbid Jealousy and Murder. I devoured it at once.

Later I lent it to the actor who played Edgar Stark in the movie of Asylum, and never got it back. But serendipity: by pure chance that book gave me all I needed both to establish Edgar Stark’s pathology, and to suggest the gravity of the danger Stella faced. This man was violent, and it was against women that his violence had been directed in the past. I saw all this, and I saw redemption. I saw a scene on Southwark Bridge, the lovers reunited, and their future, although far from easy, assured. For did they not love?

In the early stages of a book a novelist may imagine a hundred endings to his story but rarely does any one of them survive. Lovers on Southwark Bridge, a smoky sunset, this was all a wishful dream. For where can they go? By leaving her family and joining Edgar Stark, Stella has put herself not only beyond the bounds of her marriage and her community, but also beyond the law. But there is nothing beyond the law, there is nowhere to go. Edgar of course had long been beyond the law. Edgar had murdered. Now they were in hiding. It was surely only a matter of time.

A major decision would soon have to be taken. I was writing the novel first-person, from Stella’s point of view. I continued to do so, eager to discover by means of intense imaginative identification all I could about this bold heart. But I became aware that I must soon take the story away from her.

The novel couldn’t allow her full dominion over the meaning of her experience. To Stella the world was well lost for love, but that world contained a child and I needed another voice, a dissident voice, telling her she was wrong, that the world was not well lost for love, that we bear responsibilities to others and that we transgress at our mortal peril. I’d realized whose voice it had to be.

Everything I had assiduously uncovered within Stella’s mind and soul would have to be put at the disposal of this man, and the reader would have to take sides. It was Peter Cleave, the psychiatrist.

I’d hatched a careful plan in regard to my research for Asylum. I had of course my own memories of Broadmoor, and in addition there were mysterious movements of serendipity, but my intention had always been this. I would rough out the book in first draft and get the story down on paper. I would then go into deep conference with my father. He’d been medical superintendent of Broadmoor for twenty-five years. The author of Morbid Jealousy and Murder was a colleague of his. One of my previous novels, Spider, being the first-person account of a man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, had been greatly helped by my father’s wise commentary some years earlier. In those days I’d fly back to the UK from New York whenever I could afford to, bringing with me another sixty or seventy pages. I’d go directly from Heathrow to Broadmoor and hand them over.

Pat McGrath would retire to his study with my pages. I’d have a drink or two with my mother in the kitchen. There’d been a period when nobody in Britain knew more about paranoid schizophrenia than my father. Now, in his retirement, it was still the case, I believed. He would emerge eventually, thoughtful, nodding. He’d point out aspects of Spider’s personality he’d found convincing. He’d remark on this detail or that, saying, for example: What a wealth of pathology is here!

Only once did he correct me. I intended for my character, Spider, to survive his return to the streets of the East End of London, which was also a return to the traumas of his extremely disturbed childhood. But oh no, said Pat McGrath. Men like this don’t survive. So the ending of that novel was darker than I’d anticipated.

Now, with Asylum, I looked forward to another richly pleasurable collaboration with the master. But I’d left it too late. My father was ill. He wasn’t strong enough to give me the benefit of his vast experience in the ways of asylums. Late one autumn morning, in my wife’s house in London, I finished the first draft of the book and then drove down to Berkshire. I missed him by an hour. My mother and my sister were in the house, and my father lay on his bed upstairs. I entered the bedroom and it was as though a faucet in my head had been violently wrenched open, and tears burst from my eyes, brief but intense.

Ten days later I returned to London and resumed work on the novel that I would now have to finish by myself. The work went quickly. Peter Cleave proved a most suitable narrator for Stella’s story. He had access to her account of the affair, and a psychiatric understanding of the man Edgar Stark. His view of what Stella regarded as a love for which the world was worth losing was more prosaic than hers. He saw not love but something else, a kind of madness. It took me a long time to get the ending right.

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