Relative Stranger: Piecing Together A Life Plagued By Madness


Recalling Jeanette Walls's A Glass Castle, Relative Stranger is an emotionally honest, gripping memoir of one woman’s attempt to piece together a humane portrait of her dead sister and the struggle of mental illness. After learning that her older sister Catherine, who had vanished long ago, had been “inhabiting the identity” of a man called “Stevie,” Mary Loudon plunges into a kind of post-mortem investigation to understand who her sister was. Interviewing doctors, nurses, social services representatives, nuns, ...

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Recalling Jeanette Walls's A Glass Castle, Relative Stranger is an emotionally honest, gripping memoir of one woman’s attempt to piece together a humane portrait of her dead sister and the struggle of mental illness. After learning that her older sister Catherine, who had vanished long ago, had been “inhabiting the identity” of a man called “Stevie,” Mary Loudon plunges into a kind of post-mortem investigation to understand who her sister was. Interviewing doctors, nurses, social services representatives, nuns, cafe owners, grocers and ministers, Loudon paints an explicit, clear account of how schizophrenia affected a promising young life while exploring the assumptions people make about mental illness. Relative Stranger stands as an honest and uncompromising challenge to the ways in which we think about one another and what it means to love, to lose, to die and above all to belong.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A gifted writer grapples with her dead sister's mental illness. British journalist Loudon (Secrets and Lives, 2000, etc.) has dedicated a fair amount of her writing life to analyzing people on society's fringe, including characters from her hometown and members of the clergy. One cannot help but wonder if that interest in strayers from the norm is due to her present account's subject, older sister Catherine Morag Loudon. Thirteen years the author's senior, Catherine died at age 47 from breast cancer in 2001, but paranoid schizophrenia had estranged her from the family years before. With great passion, Loudon attempts in spare, incisive prose to reconstruct the life to which her sister painfully denied her access. Holding Catherine's frozen hand in the morgue, scouring her private notebooks ("as definitive an expression of a broken mind as I could ask for"), the author hoped for glimpses of sanity. She interviewed the few individuals permitted relative intimacy by Catherine-or Stevie, the male persona she often assumed. Loudon traces the progression of her sister's affliction and her own relation to it. Psychosis takes center stage in many memoirs of family life, but Loudon's work is distinguished-and, ironically, made powerfully personal-by her objectivity in addressing the emotional, philosophical and poetic conclusions she draws concerning grief, mental illness and the difference between telling your own and another's story. The author begins her quest to recoup loss by stating, "I did not want to claim her, only to locate her. I wanted to know who and where she had been." But in the end, Loudon realizes, "I will never know [Catherine] from the inside out, only from the outsidein."Smart, affecting and self-critically probing: a balm for anyone who has lost a loved one long before death.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781841957845
  • Publisher: Canongate Books
  • Publication date: 6/28/2007
  • Pages: 335
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Mary Loudon is the author of Secrets and Lives: Middle England Revealed; Revelations: The Clergy Questioned; and Unveiled: Nuns Talking. All three were published to enormous critical acclaim. She has won several writing prizes in the UK, appeared frequently on radio and television, reviewed for The Times (UK), chaired many public discussions and been a Whitbread Prize judge. Mary Loudon lives in Oxfordshire and the Wye Valley with her husband and children.
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Read an Excerpt

Part One: END

Same Time, Different Place

On the twenty-seventh of January 2001, while I was skiing fast down a mountain in France, my sister, Catherine, was dying slowly in England; in a hospital I didn’t know she had been admitted to, from a cancer I didn’t know she had, under an identity I had no idea existed.

Catherine was my eldest sister, the third of five children. I am the fifth and youngest. When she died, she was forty-seven and I was thirty-four.

Born into a well-off family, we five were an undoubtedly privileged lot. On paper, we could look pretty obnoxious. We grew up in a beautiful house with parents who loved us well. We were broadly educated, widely travelled and generally encouraged. When I left home, I had a good life. I went to university, made friends, went to parties, and travelled with a backpack. I began writing books, bought a house and had a fair number of nice boyfriends. Then I married a lovely man and had a baby. Certainly, minor things went wrong from time to time, and I suffered one fairly serious bout of depression in my early twenties, but apart from that I enjoyed great good fortune.

When Catherine left home she went to India for a year where she became seriously ill, suffered the breakdown from which she never fully recovered, and then vanished. After a fraught search by the Foreign Office and our father she was found but vanished for a second time. Some time later, she finally returned home to England, broken.

After that, she went to Oxford, first to a bedsit, then to Oxford prison and then to Oxford’s psychiatric hospital, the Warneford. After a brief ensuing stint in Hollowayjail and a spell in Guy’s hospital, London, she went to live quietly in a council flat in Bristol. There she kept a private home. In the beginning, it was open only to the homeless and the vagrant; in the end, to no one. After she turned twenty she appears to have had no lovers and we, her family, were not encouraged to visit her. There were no holidays, no parties, no steady job and no children. Once, for a time, she owned and loved a dog.

During the last eleven years of Catherine’s life, the few requests she made for visits from us were invariably rescinded by her, and we never saw her alive again.

It looks as if Catherine and I began our lives in the same place but we didn’t. She had schizophrenia and I did not.

The Sort Of Phone Call Everybody Dreads

My mother was due to visit us at our house in Wales the next day. So when she rang I assumed it was to discuss the usual details like whether she would be bringing her dog, why she wouldn’t be driving through the centre of Hereford and what food she was leaving for my father.

Instead, she said, ‘I’ve got some sad news. It’s about Catherine.’


My mother is a woman who always gets straight to the point.

‘Catherine died.’

‘Oh, no. Oh, Mummy.’

My husband, Andrew, was at our neighbours’ house. I phoned them and asked for him.

‘Hey,’ he said, ‘what’s up?’

‘Please come home now.’

There was merriment in the background. Andrew was chuckling at something someone was saying.

He was distracted.

‘What’s the problem, darling?’

‘It’s okay, it’s not the baby. My sister’s dead. Catherine died.’

Catherine had been admitted to the Bristol Royal Infirmary over Christmas with advanced, inoperable cancer and she had stated, very firmly, that she had no next of kin.

Two parents, four brothers and sisters, each with spouses and children. No next of kin?

So, not surprisingly, the hospital never contacted us, she was forty-seven years old after all, not four; and there she died on 27th January surrounded by no flowers, no grapes, no cards and no relatives, which was clearly exactly what she wanted. Afterwards, the authorities went into her flat. Someone found some unopened post. Someone else opened it and found an address. Someone else put two and two together, although not terribly quickly, and eleven days later a Bristol City Council Registrar telephoned my parents.

Lucky, really. It doesn’t have to work out that way. She might have vanished altogether that last time. And there were some mercies, I suppose. At least there was still a body and a body means a funeral. And a funeral means a meeting of sorts, albeit one-sided.


Think of a wall made of tissue paper and a giant fist punching through it, without warning.

It felt a bit like that, if you can imagine such a thing.

Anger (and not a little admiration)

‘No next of kin?’ says a close family friend. ‘Wow. It might just as well be suicide, as far as the aggression of that denial goes.’

Someone else adds: ‘You’ve got to hand it to her. She always was a stubborn bastard.’


The world turned dark grey. It didn’t help that it was February.


What is there not to accept? You can’t rewind a death.


Relief was almost universally expressed when people outside the family learned that my dead sister was Catherine and not my other sister or me. Gratitude was expressed too, when people learnt that she had died of natural causes. Everybody thinks that schizophrenics commit suicide, if they don’t kill other people.

Some Things People Said When They Found Out

A neighbour: ‘You should look at it this way. At least you won’t have to look after her when she’s old.’

An old boyfriend: ‘Darling, I’m so sorry, it’s absolutely terrible, but you know what? Some people are made for this world, some people aren’t.’

A family friend: ‘At least it was only cancer. Just think how much worse it could have been with her being — well, you know.’

Various others: ‘Thank God she didn’t commit suicide.’

‘At least she’s in peace now.’

‘It must be a merciful release in a way.’

‘Well, you weren’t really that close to her, were you.’

‘How terrible for your parents. But it’s better in a way they know what’s happened to her, than that they die wondering.’

‘Oh, I’m terribly sorry. I thought she was dead already."

From the Hardcover edition.
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Reading Group Guide

When Catherine Loudon died in 2001, the author and journalist Mary Loudon had not seen her sister in over a dozen years. Shocked, feeling an unaccountable sense of loss, Mary began to explore the traces Catherine left behind, trying to discover the truth about her sister – trying to discover who she was. The result of her search is this riveting, moving, and deeply thought-provoking book.

Catherine was always an unsettled personality: when still a child she had threatened her family with violence; when she travelled to India as a young woman, her disturbing behaviour led to her father being summoned to return her to England. She refused to join him, but then reappeared, unannounced, at home a year later. Caring and passionate, but also unstable and paranoid, she was finally diagnosed as schizophrenic. As far as her family knew – Catherine kept in contact with them intermittently, and only on her own terms – her life was a cycle of flats, prisons, and psychiatric hospitals.

Mary Loudon’s quest for her sister begins when she touches Catherine’s cold hands in the harsh calm of a hospital morgue. She visits Catherine’s overpoweringly cluttered flat, and finds herself struggling to choose which of the piled up paintings and clothes she should take to remember Catherine by. Then, over time, Mary tracks down the men and women who inhabited Catherine’s life and the people she affected: the caring nurses who tended to her in her last weeks; the grocer she knew for almost twenty years; the social worker who clashed with her; the minister and nun she prayed with.

Mary Loudon captures each conversation perfectly, with a brilliantear for spoken language and a telling eye for detail. And though the task seems overwhelming at first, gradually, with each encounter, a more nuanced picture of Catherine emerges. It includes facts that tally with the idolized older sister Mary remembers as well as disturbing revelations, such as Catherine’s self-identification as a man, named Stevie.

In this book Mary Loudon unpicks our preconceived definitions of sanity, belonging, and familial responsibility. Over the course of Mary’s search, we cease to define Catherine by her illness; instead she becomes a human being, full of compassion for the world and possessed of a lively, personal wit. Relative Stranger challenges our most deeply held notions of what makes a life full and valuable – but even though reading it is an education, this is also an undeniably personal and elegiac story, coloured on each page by Catherine’s suffering and the distance that existed between the sisters.

A deeply honest family memoir, a compelling detective story, and a test of our prejudices, Relative Stranger is both a vitally important book and an unforgettable one.
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