’There is much in these pages to inspire students of today to speak out on behalf of what is right. And there is much to encourage nurses to do the right thing.’
Title: Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union
Author: Elizabeth Anionwu
Reviewer: Jenni Middleton, Nursing Times editor
What was it like?
I’ve read many nurses’ memoirs, and they usually involve a cosy anecdote about what inspired them to become a nurse – a sick relative cared for beautifully by a nurse or a family member who, as a nurse, provided a superb role model. Usually there are funny, heartwarming tales along the route to becoming a registrant, and then equally hilarious stories of caring for patients.
Mixed Blessings is less than cosy, and at times it is downright uncomfortable. The product of an affair between her Irish Catholic mother and her Nigerian father while they were both studying at Cambridge University in the 1950s, Dame Elizabeth’s early life was at times harsh and unhappy.
So difficult was it to have an illegitimate child at that time, that at finding herself pregnant, Elizabeth’s mother considered killing herself rather than reveal the truth.
Many pages of Elizabeth’s book reveal a raw sadness. After growing up in an orphanage, with nuns who were not always so kind, she returned to live with her mother and stepfather and their children, and was subjected to abuse from her violent, alcoholic stepfather.
Strengths and weaknesses
Its strengths and weaknesses are the same – this is an emotional and engaging read, and bits of it will feel unpalatable.
As a mixed race child brought up in an orphanage full of white children, and then as a nurse where she was again among white faces, finding her own identity was a challenge for Elizabeth. This book documents how she managed to achieve so much despite her feelings of difference – and at times isolation.
There are interesting characters in the book. It was a white nun who inspired Elizabeth to become a nurse because she tended to Elizabeth’s painful eczema as a child, with humour and compassion. And the reunion with her father and his family feels joyous – although spoiler alert – it is shortlived.
Who should read it?
These memoirs raise some interesting points about what it means to be black and trying to rise through the nursing ranks – some of which are still pertinent today for black, minority and ethnic nurses. There are quotes throughout the book from friends, family and colleagues sharing their perspectives on this extraordinary woman, and a particularly poignant one from a fellow nursing student who reveals how at the time, despite Elizabeth’s intelligence, people believed she would never progress to ward sister just because she was not white.
Elizabeth talks about her life as a disruptor, and her political awareness, even from an early age, shines through. There is much in these pages to inspire students of today to speak out on behalf of what is right. And there is much to encourage nurses to do the right thing.
However, the book is mainly focused on Elizabeth’s personal life.
Finding her father and his family is a seminal moment for her, and her difficult relationship with her mother is also revealed with stunning candour. There’s something rather serene and circumspect about the writing at times, and one gets a sense that the act of writing it has been therapeutic.
Most people will know Elizabeth because of the fame and success she achieved that is documented in the final few chapters of the book – her pioneering work with sickle cell anaemia services in this country, and her fight to erect the Mary Seacole statue.
But what is more interesting for me is what I did not know beforehand, the journey that led her there.
The campaign to erect a symbol of black female pride makes even more sense when you find out more about the early life of the woman fighting hard to raise the cash to build i
Dame Elizabeth is also speaking at Nursing Times Careers Live on May 25 in Leeds and June 8 in London, where she will also be signing copies of the book