WHEN Fionna Barr and her sisters were small their suicidal mother tried to kill them.
Fionna, an award-winning short-story writer from North Chailey, survived the ordeal and nearly 60 years on she has drawn from her harrowing past in a semi-autobiographical novel, ‘The Darkness Within’.
Fionna and her sisters, Ellen and Amy, grew up in Holland in the 1950s but their mother, Gertrude, was a manic depressive who took sleeping pills and had violent mood swings.
Unable to cope, their father left the family home and filed for divorce but he was denied custody of the children because it was unusual in those days for children to be separated from their mother.
Recalling the harrowing events that followed, Fionna said: “We moved away to a new area but my mother was so depressed that one day she wanted to kill herself and take us with her.
“She gave us sleeping pills and switched on the gas and got us all together in her bed but my elder sister, Ellen, who was eight at the time, had the presence of mind to get out of bed to switch off the gas but she couldn’t reach.
“I think she must have pretended to take the sleeping pill and while we were unconscious she was still awake. I don’t know what happened exactly because she was never been able to talk about it but the milkman smelled gas and we survived.”
Gertrude was committed to a mental institution and Fionna and her sisters went to live with their father and his new wife.
Fionna said: “We never saw our mother in the institution but occasionally she was allowed to visit us. I was shocked when I first saw her because she didn’t have her own clothes and her hair had been cut. I was only young and wanted to hug her but I couldn’t because we weren’t allowed to be alone with her.”
Fionna was 10 when Gertrude died. After escaping from the institution, Gertrude’s body was found in a park by a dog-walker.
Fionna said: “She was found three weeks after she went missing. She must have taken pills and gone to lie down in the park. She was 37 and very young.
“Writing the book has been a cathartic experience. Now my sister Ellen has read it she can face up to what happened. What she did to try to save us was remarkable and I have dedicated the book to her.”
Real-life characters’ names and places as well as some of the events have been changed in ‘The Darkness Within’, which is published by AuthorHouse and is available on Amazon as a paperback and e-book.
Fionna has no ill-feelings towards her mother and understands her actions were due to mental illness. She regrets that she missed out on the opportunity to help her later in life when better drugs were developed to treat her condition.
In another extraordinary twist to her life, Fionna came to England when she was 21 to work as an au-pair. She developed a crush on her employer, Alan Barr, and left after a year. She had no contact with him for 37 years but they met up again in 2006 and were married three months later when Fionna was 58.
“He is a lovely man and the love of my life,” she said.
Fionna has been married three times, has five grown-up children and four grand-children and speaks Dutch, English, French, German and Russian.
She has won several prizes for her short stories and used part of ‘The Darknesss Within’ for her dissertation in an MA in Creative Writing at Sussex University.
Now in her sixties, Fionna volunteers for Oxfam and her next book is about volunteers in a charity shop and the stories behind the second-hand garments they prepare for sale.