Biography and autobiography of Valerie Argent

Just one thing well

The Life of Valerie Argent

by Andrew Roberts 17.1.1992

Valerie Argent died peacefully in her sleep in the early morning of 26th September 1991.

She was born in 1948. When most of her classmates were taking their GCE's, Valerie received a vivid education about life in a series of mental hospitals. At fourteen she was in a subnormality hospital, Essex Hall; at fifteen she was in a mental illness hospital, Belmont; and until she was eighteen she was a patient in a therapeutic community, The Ingrebourne Centre. Essex Hall and Belmont did her a great deal of harm. Ingrebourne did her a great deal of good.

Valerie's two month stay on the back ward of a subnormality hospital is difficult to explain as she had previously passed her eleven plus and her school reports speak of her as a conscientious and able student. A psychiatrist's letter says she was sent to Essex Hall because no other hospital was willing to admit her. Whilst there she behaved very much like the other patients, many of whom were described as "vegetables".

In Belmont she was treated with Electro Convulsive Therapy and drugs, and it was suggested to her that the only way she would escape from her depressions would be a brain operation (Leucotomy?). She was very tempted to accept this suggestion, but eventually decided to escape from the hospital instead.

When Valerie was seventeen she married another patient in the therapeutic community. They had a daughter and by the time Valerie died they had three grandchildren.

Between 1966 and 1969 Valerie and her husband ran bookshops and beach bookstalls in Swanage and Bournemouth. This was almost certainly the happiest period of her life. She loved the sea and the countryside. Caring for her growing child and working in the bookshops helped her to regain confidence in herself. Her home became a centre for people to meet in the evenings and somewhere that young people on holiday without money would often spend the night.

In 1970 Valerie joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and although never a regular attender at the silent meetings, she always valued her membership. Valerie's views were unconventional, and it was often a surprise to her that Quakers accepted her, but Quakers, like her, were willing to accept and value people for what they are.

After Swanage, Valerie studied for a Social Science degree at Middlesex Polytechnic, and graduated with an upper second honours degree in 1978. She began this course in 1970 by unofficially attending lectures and seminars. She had no academic qualifications, but tutors, struck by her perceptiveness and intelligence, helped her to gain the two A levels which were then necessary to enter for the degree officially.

Valerie's placement on her degree course was with the Mental Patients Union, an organisation that she had helped to found in 1973. She and her family started the first MPU house, in Hackney. Her warmth and work helped to hold the community together for almost three years, but the experience, for her, was traumatic.

After the collapse of the Mental Patients Union, Valerie took part in a series of community care courses, run by Hackney Workers Educational Association. Her experience as an inmate of a mental handicap hospital, left her with strong feelings about the way people with learning difficulties are treated, and she was an active member of Hackney Action on Learning Difficulties when it started in 1982, as a result of one of the WEA classes. She also belonged to Hackney Mental Patients' Association and, as representative of this and the WEA, she was an active member of the City and Hackney Community Health Council from 1982 to 1988. Amongst the many issues that she raised at CHC meetings was the fact that, in Hackney, adolescents were admitted into the adult psychiatric wards.

In May 1982 Valerie was assaulted in the street and, as a result, lost the full use of her eyes for two or three years. That autumn she started a postgraduate course in the Sociology of Medicine at Bedford College. She graduated MSc in 1984, with a dissertation on the sociology of pain.

There was a great deal of pain in Valerie's life, but even in the midst of pain there was beauty and laughter. After a suicide attempt in January 1982 she wrote a poem about "the sparkle of laughter amid tears". Such an experience, she said, would outlast depression and emerge in memory like a diamond sparkling in darkness. Her diaries suggest that the stimulus for this poem was a nurse in the intensive care unit who made her and the other patients laugh.

For three years, from 1985 to 1987, Valerie was a part time lecturer in Social Sciences at Middlesex Polytechnic. Students at her funeral remembered her as a gentle teacher with infinite patience who would spend as much time with them as they needed. Many of them remained friends with her afterwards. The day before she died was spent, very happily, with two of her ex-students.

Valerie worked as a lecturer some days and attended a psychiatric day hospital on others. She was a patient at Hackney Hospital from 1984 to 1987, and then attended Shoreditch Day Centre from 1987 to her death. At both the hospital and the centre she learnt new skills and created useful and beautiful things.

Throughout her life Valerie had to cope with voices and visions that other people did not see or hear. The same perceptive passion that enabled her to draw a vase of poppies when she was virtually blind, meant that her hallucinations were horribly real. In the beginning of 1991 she believed that she was responsible for the Gulf War, and her voices told her that unless she killed herself it would never end.

A friend said that she always felt awed by the hugeness of Valerie's sense of her own destructiveness, and the suffering and horror that it caused her. If courage is conscious struggle in the face of known horror, she added, I think Valerie is perhaps the most courageous person I have known.

In one of her many moments of despair, Valerie wrote that she did not want to die broken, "a bitter thought" in people's memories. She wanted to do "just one thing well" to be remembered by. I think that one thing was her life.

Journals and Doctors

Autographical writings of Valerie Argent annotated by her doctors

2.5.1962 Valerie "actively contemplating killing herself with an overdose of tablets" (Charing Cross Registrar)

June 1962 Valerie's school report said that "Valerie's attitude to her studies and her behaviour remain impeccable". She had no absences. But she got surprisingly low marks in subjects like English and Religious Instruction where she normally did well. In English she came 12th. Her "relatively low examination mark was due to mis-reading of a question". In Art, however, she came first. In the autumn of 1962, Valerie was absent for the second half of the term.

31.10.1962 Valerie seen in the Out Patient's department of Charing Cross Hospital by a Registrar to a Consultant in Psychological Medicine. The Registrar wrote that she suffered from "endogenous depression of suicidal proportions".

"The patient initially took ill some two and a half years ago while away on holiday with friends of the family. She was seen at that time by a local psychiatric service. On return home she took an overdose of tablets prescribed by her G.P. and was admitted to a Unit at Colchester for November and December 1962. From there she was transferred to the ingrebourne Centre and remained a patient until so 10 weeks prior to admission to this hospital. There have been frequent suicidal attempts." (Belmont Case Summary May 1964)

November? 1962, Valerie was admitted as an inpatient to a Colchester Hospital. Her own account of her admission differs from that in the following medical record, written by a doctor in the therapeutic community that rescued her [as she saw it] from Essex Hall:

    "She has been an in-patient of the Royal Eastern Counties Hospital, Essex Hall, Colchester, which is a hospital for mental defectives. She was sent there as other suitable accommodation was not available, following an attempt at suicide by holding her head in a basin of water. She is an intelligent girl with an IQ of 120 and has been attending Hornchurch Grammar School" (DB/KM 22.1.1963)

Valerie re-lived cruelty and kindness in Essex Hall in a long entry in her journal on 24.3.1982:

    Spoons and tin plates. The cold. Chapped sore thighs and buttocks, and the skin sloughing when they washed the shit off. Soreness there, and on my wrists, where I'd scratched and bitten them. And bruises everywhere. The casual way they slapped you. The way no one, dad, the doctors, the chaplain, ever protested about them hitting us. The doses of laxatives for punishment [,] the ones that thought it funny, or got annoyed if you protested about scalding bath water, shampoo rubbed in your eyes as well as hair, pushing me over when I was doing dirty linen in the sluice so it went all over me, and then wouldn't open the washroom for me. The shame of doctors rounds, and all the students being taught on you. The times I couldn't keep the tension in, even knowing they'd tie me up or even worse...

    And I didn't really want or dare to respond to the young doctor, because it would have meant acknowledging how horrible the rest was. But he still used to come sometimes, and bring me sweets, and sit and hold my hand and talk about things he'd done and seen, a physical hurt treated, a walk in the park, why he wanted to put a shelf up in his room. I could usually say hello, and smile, but I don't think much more.

    No glasses, no paper or pencils, no way of not thinking, except looking at the other women. Most of them couldn't speak. It was one of the lowest grade wards, where they all needed lots of attention - not that they got it... Some of them did things with their hands, some made noises, some were like vegetables..

    They didn't even bother to decorate the ward at Christmas. There was a party at OT though, with balloons and cake, and a present for each of us, I think of sweets. The young doctor gave me a jar of face cream. I scarcely ever used it but I kept it for years. I don't know what happened to it, I can't imagine throwing it away.

26.12.1962 to 6.3.1963 The big freeze. Valerie thought an ice-age was returning.

"1963: 14 Transferred to Ingrebourne Centre, started receiving benefit, met Andrew and started relationship"

    "We really took her because it seemed so terrible to leave her in this environment" (Ingrebourne Doctor 17.3.1964)

Tuesday 22.1.1963 Letter from "Dr D. Barker MB-BS Psychiatric Registrar" to Valerie's GP (The Dr G.A.K. Steen) "I saw this young girl for Dr Crocket on Monday, 21st January 1963". "we propose to begin therapy here by bringing her in to the hospital for a weekend in the first instance"

Saturday 26.1.1963 and Sunday 27.1.1963 were the first weekend after Valerie's interview with Dr Barker.

25.3.1963 Letter from Ronald St Blaize Moloney to Dr Bartlett, Education Department, County Hall. He was trying to get a place for her in a boarding school.

21.4.1963 Valerie 15.

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January 1978, Counter Revolutionary Panic and the Treatment of the Insane: 1800. An Enquiry into the Enactment of the 1800 Criminal Lunatics Act

1979 London Madhouses Manuscript Books summarising records in 19th century. Based on lists from 1815 to 1870 and visiting records in 1839/1830. See Table of London Madhouses

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Index to Journals (red)

Blue links to biography

October 1962
Left school

Winter 1962
Essex Hall

January 1963

Valerie Argent's Young Eve



This lonely night

I celebrate your life



Just one long lonely night

To celebrate our life



Celebrating life with

Jos stick for sacrament



Our smoking sacrifice

Love and your ashes



Love and your memory

Pansies and Rosemary