Creating Mad Ancestries by Suzannah Scott-Moncrieff
In September 2023, Tamsin Walker and Hel Spandler facilitated a madzines workshop at the International Creative Research Methods Conference in Manchester. One of the workshop participants, Suzannah Scott-Moncrieff, explains how zine-making put her in touch with her mad ancestry.
I attended the Creative Research Methods Conference in Manchester with a particular interest in the Madzines research workshop. The workshop gave me some space to think about my own madness, as well as my archival research into my great-great-grandmother Jeannie’s almost two-decade incarceration at the Aberdeen Lunatic Asylum in the early part of the 20th century.
Shown how to create a mini zine out of A4 paper, I saw the beginning and end of a zine in my head — Jeannie’s birth on the front, and her death on the back page, and a lot of empty pages in-between — representing the information that is missing pertaining to Jeannie’s life and experiences.
“Jeannie was born” I write. And then, in a generative way, I see it as my birth, and a zine about me us.
Jeannie was committed to hospital due to hallucinations. She was in her early 50s – I suspect she had menopause-induced psychosis – and she died in the same institution, in her 70s, having never returned home. While she was incarcerated, both her daughter and her granddaughter took their own lives, but she may never have known that. Between her admittance to hospital and her death there is only one piece of information that I found after a thorough search of the hospital’s archives — that she was moved, temporally, to a second asylum location in rural Aberdeenshire, a location near where she was originally from. There were gardens there, greater freedom to move around, and opportunities to work outside on the farm. I like to think of her there.
Aberdeen Lunatic Asylum was the institution that birthed occupational therapy in the U.K., so I imagine that she might have knitted, or made art, or joined a choir, or made friends in group craft classes. (But I fear that she did not do any of these things).
The in-between pages of my mini-zine, rather than stay blank, became dotted with my imaginings and questions.
My story intersects with Jeannie’s where I have my first experience of unreality, at the age of 45. As I’m creating the zine, I have an experience of shame – feeling both protective of Jeannie’s life, and shame that I’m revealing so much about myself in the pages. Inspired by a fellow participant at my table, I glue some doors onto the back of my Zine, covering up Jeannie’s and my own vulnerability. On the doors I write “lock it up”, “close the door”, “don’t mention it!”, “no!” As I do that, I clearly recognise the parallels: she was physically locked up, and I have, in a way, “locked up” my own brushes with madness over my lifetime.
My zine reveals itself to be about my connection with Jeannie – the me in her and the her in me. In 20 mins or so, the process of zine-making made space for the multiplicities of her actual life, the life I imagined for her, and my connection to her through madness, genetics, and place.
When I sat in the archives in Aberdeen, I loved being alone with the dusty old minutes books and patient registers. As I draw a page with Jeannie inside the physical building of the hospital, I was taken back in time to her there, through the objects from that building. As I write the words, “it took me back in time to her”, I realise I mean both my own experience of unreality and the way I felt going through the hospital archives.
And, in this way, I understand how zine-making can be generative; how it is really good at allowing for seemingly illogical and unusual pairings, interesting intersections, and paradoxes. Creating my own zine was a process of discovery – I saw how layers of meaning and story can emerge through word, shapes, colour, collage, and how it allows one to explore and to know many things at once. All at once, I saw the intersecting lives of me and my ancestor.
The workshop presenters discussed the culture of sharing and gifting zines; how zines – especially per-zines (personal experience zines) – should be read with reverence and care; a personal and delicate thing, to be passed around with respect. The presenters were generous with their zines – they carry around a mobile library in an old leather case – and they don’t berate the participants for putting our sticky fingers all over them!
It was this ethics of care that stands out to me now – so that my feelings of shame melt some more. I imagine sharing my zine, and I do – with a friend that evening.
It made me think about research, and care, and generosity, especially the generosity of research participants. In the workshop we learnt that Care and Sharing of Knowledge are two of Peter Willis’ five characteristics of zine-ic research. In making my zine, I felt how vulnerable and generous it might be to share my zine with a researcher. But I also sensed how care for the participant might become embodied and somatic and sensorily alive, as the researcher gently and carefully holds and experiences the zine, with respect, as a thing of beauty.
It was made more beautiful when my friend held and read my zine over dinner that night. I am left with a sense of the profundity of this kind of knowledge-sharing.
Suzannah Scott-Moncrieff is a sometimes mad person, who also works in the mental health profession as a music therapist, and lectures in music therapy at Queen Margaret University in Scotland.