Casehistory: Alison (head injury)

Casehistory: Alison (head injury)
• Imagine you
were looking
at a
of yourself,
perhaps as a
small child,
what sort of
words would
you use to
I would like to have known
My husband's wife, my mother's only daughter.
A bright girl she was.
Enmeshed in comforting
Fat, I wonder at her delicate angles.
Her autocratic knee
Like a Degas dancer's
Adjusts to the observer with airy poise,
That now lugs me upstairs
Hardly. Her face, broken
By nothing sharper than smiles, holds in its smiles
What I have forgotten.
She knows my father's dead,
And grieves for it, and smiles. She has digested
Mourning. Her smile shows it.
I, who need reminding
Every morning, shall never get over what
I do not remember.
Consistency matters.
I should like to keep faith with her lack of faith,
But forget her reasons.
Proud of this younger self,
I assert her achievements, her A levels,
Her job with a future.
Poor clever girl! I know,
For all my damaged brain, something she
I am her future.
A bright girl she was.
The poem is about Alison, a woman who has
suffered brain damage after an accident. Her memory
has been badly affected. Alison looks at a photograph
of her younger self and talks about the person in it as if
she were someone else. Although her memory has
been affected, her vocabulary and understanding are
still impressive. However, the narrator is far removed
from the woman in the photograph taken before the
accident. The Alison of today has one advantage over
the Alison of the past: today's brain-damaged woman
knows what lies ahead for the woman in the
• This poem is a dramatic monologue; the poet chooses a
character, Alison, to be the narrator. Alison has suffered
brain damage after an accident.
• The poem is set out as nine, three-line stanza and closes
with a single line. The middle line of each stanza is always
noticeably longer than the other two.
• Although at first the poem might sound like a conversation,
it becomes clear that Alison is talking to herself. There are a
lot of short sentences that show how Alison is taking her
time, either because she chooses to or because of her
condition. This poem lends itself to a slow reading with
plenty of pauses.
• Ursula Askham Fanthorpe (1929-2009) was a very successful
student and gained a first class honours degree in English
Language and Literature at Oxford University. She then
became a teacher, working for 16 years at Cheltenham Ladies'
• Fanthorpe left teaching and tried a job as a clerk at a Bristol
hospital. The hospital used to specialise in problems with the
brain, spine and nervous system. It was around this time, in
1974, that Fanthorpe began writing poetry seriously. She was
responsible for keeping patients' records and used some of
the material from these as inspiration for her poems.
Fanthorpe became very interested in how hospitals could
reduce people and their experiences to a few notes, known by
doctors as 'case histories'.
• Although she started to write for publication quite late (her
first volume Side Effects was published in 1978), Fanthorpe
produced several more volumes up to her death at the age of
Look at the pronouns.
• How does the poet separate the girl in the
photograph from the women who has
suffered brain damage even though they are
the same person?
• The reader has to separate the poet's attitude from the
attitude(s) of Alison. Fanthorpe was motivated to write
these poems because she felt that the patients were more
than a set of doctor's notes or a "casehistory". They each
had a story to tell, even if neither Fanthorpe or the patient
could fully describe that story.
• The present Alison has a mixture of attitudes. She is fond
of the past Alison and admires her, "I would like to have
known... A bright girl she was". But she also feels sorry for
her, "Poor clever girl! I know,/For all my damaged brain,
something she doesn't:/I am her future".
• The present Alison is also - understandably - bitter and
confused about what she has become, "I, who need
reminding/Every morning, shall never get over what/I do
not remember".
Key Themes (remember to include evidence to
support each one)
• Loss: the present Alison has lost her ability to function
properly both physically ("fat... lugs me upstairs") and
mentally. And she has lost her father, who has died. Alison
has also lost her future and all the good things that could have
• Life is fragile: the past Alison seemed to have everything
going for her. She certainly had intelligence (as she shows
even in her present state) and was also physically agile ("Her
autocratic knee/Like a Degas dancer's/Adjusts to the observer
with airy poise"). Her accident could have happened to
• We should not judge people on what they appear to be: the
doctors will have produced a case history about Alison that
only partially describes who she actually is. She was once
very different in all sorts of ways.
• People should not judge others merely on their
situation. Society might even abandon some
people for this reason. People often have far
more to offer than we might realise.
• Plus, there is something universal (affecting
everyone) suggested in this poem (even though
Alison’s situation is extreme): one day we will all
look back on an earlier photograph of ourselves
and realise that we were a very different person
then... though hopefully not because of traumatic
circumstances like those that affected Alison.
The poet wants to show the contrast between
the two Alisons of past and present and make
clear how the injury has affected her life.
Annotate the juxtaposition in the poem.
enmeshed in comforting fat... delicate angles
airy poise... lugs me upstairs
Her face, broken... Smiles
clever girl... Damaged brain
Now circle the words that are used to reflect loss.
When lots of words with similar connotations or
a theme are used throughout a text it is called a
semantic field.