Title: The Girl in the Green Dress
Authors: Jeni Haynes and Dr George Blair-West, with Alley Pascoe
Publisher: Hachette Australia, 2022; RRP: $32.99
The Girl in the Green Dress is the story of Dr Jennifer ‘Jeni’ Haynes, who lives with multiple personality disorder (MPD), a subgroup of dissociative identity disorder (DID) — a psychological state where the mind separates into multiple selves.
Developing MPD was how she protected herself from a horrifying childhood of sexual, physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her father. At six months of age, her sense of self divided and she became Symphony, the girl in the green dress, her new core personality creating multiple other personalities through the years that followed, each giving specific strengths to Jeni to prevent her from being destroyed by her father’s abuse.
Dr George Blair-West is a psychiatrist specialising in relationship therapy and dissociative trauma work, who worked with Dr Haynes for over twenty years from 1998.
Dr Haynes’ father, Richard Haynes, had what she termed ‘built-in respectability’, protected by his good reputation established by being descended from a noted English family and an expert in the field of electronic engineering.
Failing to get help from the medical profession and determined to find justice for herself, Jeni Haynes spent eighteen years at university, struggling and ultimately succeeding in graduating with a degree in psychology and a Masters in legal studies and criminal justice.
The book begins where she ends her educational journey and enters the courtroom where the truth of what happened to her at the hands of her father would finally be tested in the legal system — not by the health system, blind to what was happening to her and consistently failing to address her condition or her social and home environment.
The narrative structure is an interesting mix of biography and autobiography, with the main character and her psychiatrist writing not only their separate roles of patient and psychiatrist but also of the shifting relationship between them over the years they worked together.
According to what is being relayed, chapters (and sections within chapters) alternate between Dr Blair-West providing information about his meetings with Jeni Haynes and expository material defining psychiatric terms and treatments, and Dr Haynes speaking about her MPD and Dr Haynes as Jeni Haynes recreating her experiences in the voice of one of the multiple personalities she created.
The Girl in the Green Dress is a harrowing work and there are warnings to this effect both at the beginning and dotted throughout. Initially I found this intrusive, but as the sheer volume and extent of the abuse was disclosed, I found the warnings helped, certainly preparing me as reader for increasingly distressing information.
When it is Jeni telling her story, and not Dr Jennifer Haynes, her words come from one of many, many different identities, each performing different roles protecting her. A major strength is how the material is presented such that the reader does not get completely lost. Each voice emerges as clearly different in tone and personality. A useful list of them all by name, their place in the hierarchy of protective layers, and the particular function each performs is given at the beginning, providing a useful character-based map to her inner life.
Control of the impact of the material is also held tightly within a framework of chapters and sections where her psychiatrist links what Jeni says to the physical development of the brain from very young and onwards, and to the medical and social environment in which Jeni battles to survive.
Some of the most disturbing material relates to the responses of psychiatrists and psychologists from whom Jeni, now a deeply damaged adult, seeks help. Failing repeatedly to find that help, she decides she must find her own answers, realising her father’s reputation was always going to be a barrier to being believed.
Dr Blair-West also points out that it took a long time before DID was recognised, let alone MPD, which meant few were qualified or accessible to recognise and treat it.
The language of both Dr Haynes and Dr Blair-Smith is aimed at professionals in the world of psychiatry and mental illness, and laymen, moving smoothly between complex concepts explained by Jeni’s doctor and Dr Haynes articulating her experiences through the multiple voices via which we see into Jeni Haynes’ life.
- Lifeline, 13 11 14, http://www.lifeline.org.au/
- White Ribbon, https://www.whiteribbon.org.au/Find-Help/Help-Lines
My only concern is that, given the extent of her husband’s extremely violent and manipulative activities throughout, there is scanty information about the inexplicable failure of Jeni’s mother to know what was happening in her own home over all those years. Undiagnosed autism is offered briefly at the start and in a little more detail at the end, but there is little more than that. Though the abuse ceased when Jeni turned eleven, this response extended to decisions she made after Richard Haynes had left the family home, taking his other daughter with him and abusing her also, and encouraging Jeni to maintain contact with him, so keeping her within his psychological reach.
By not addressing this, the image of her mother lacks the depth her position in the family requires.It would have been a significantly stronger work, and kinder to her mother, if how the undiagnosed autism related to her behaviour had been addressed, both specifically in her case and generally how autism could lead to it. Also of use would be when and how it eventually came to be diagnosed, including what prompted that step, using the same openness and insight as shown in describing her daughter’s experience and her father’s behaviour.
In conclusion, however, I was left more with an overall sense that The Girl in the Green Dress is not only a courageous story about how the brain of one vulnerable baby girl changed to protect her from unspeakable abuse and helped her emerge victorious, but also a story that raises awareness of the role our own brains play in protecting us and how they are doing that right now, more than we might ever know.
Reviewed by: Rhonda Cotsell
Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group
Review copy supplied by the publisher