Marsha Hunt’s latest book tells of a painful journey into the recesses of her family history. The writer and actress speaks to Ann Donald about the life—changing experience behind Repossessing Ernestine.
When actress and author Marsha Hunt traced her grandmother Ernestine to a squalid old people‘s home in Memphis. she saw a tiny woman sitting blankly in front of a ﬂickering black and white TV screen in a room with rusting chairs and no carpets.
Ernestine alternated between silence and rare vocal outbursts that shed limited light on what had happened to her when she'd been incarcerated in a mental asylum for 50 years and all her teeth had been removed. Hunt took one look and resolved to do something.
That was five complicated and emotionally exhausting years ago. Since then. Hunt has left behind the former media persona of Mick Jagger's- ex-girlfriend-who-once-appeared-naked-in-the- musical-Hair. and reaffirmed her new career as author. The publication of her fourth book Repusses‘sing Ernestine has meant its subject. Hunt's 98-year-old grandmother. has been reunited with her extended family. it has also cast light on.the personal history of a once intelligent and beautiful woman. who for so long was presumed dead or ignored.
Ernestine is Hunt's paternal grandmother. who. it was whispered. had been born with white skin — the
Marsha Hunt: believed her grandmother was dead
legacy of slave traders’ genes. conjectures Hunt. Family lore told of how she had been incarcerated by her husband after giving birth to three children in quick succession. being moved 50 years later to the rundown home Hunt eventually traced her to.
Hunt's disarmineg honest and poignant book traces the forgotten piecemeal history of a woman who. says Hunt . was probably entirely sane but sulicrrng
‘I looked at the conditions my grandmother was mm In and the food she was eating and I had to say: 6‘ ' 5 3, 9 This cant happen. from post-natal depression. It also logs the writer's own fallibilities. frustrations and guilt. Having brought Ernestine to Britain. Hunt recognised her
l.(i(/'\'/)l‘l‘(/. Ladybird. where the children were taken
I away from their mother by the social services'.’ Well.
I remember seeing that film and thinking that despite what they were going through. maybe they were better off with their mother.‘
'l‘herc‘s’ another pause of biblical proportions and then: ‘.-\II I know is that I looked at the conditions she was li\ ing in and the food she was eating and i had to say “This can't happen.’ ()n the other hand.‘ she continues casting around for the right words, “Was her relationship with lissic Mac [the nurse and close companion she left behind in Memphis] and the continuity of a Southern .-\tncrtcan accent. was that tnore important than being in a warm bed'."
The rhetorical answer hangs there. shrouded in a big cloud labelled (ll 'll.'l' before the author finally adds with a note ofoptiinisni: ‘llere's what i know for
inability to cope on her own and fought to convince her uncle — Ernestine‘s son -- to take care of his
mother in Boston.
Asked if she believes she did the right thing. Hunt sighs down the line frotn her borne in Winslow. Eire and pauses. before saying: right analogy. but (lid you see the Ken Loach film
‘l don‘t know ifthis is the
sure. She's with her son Wilson who goes once a week to see her and there are grandchildren and great grandchildren who also see her and are with her at (‘hristtnas and Thanksgiving. And she has a quality of life now'
Rt'pm.vessi/re [intestine Irv .llttrs/iu Him! is published I /i_\' liar/wit‘n/ll'its‘ (1/ [/5. 99.
system on trial
It’s a vision straight out of the grimmest sci-fl dystopla. Imagine a Britain where the justice system is designed to protect the rich from the predations of an alienated underclass consigned to sump pit council estates.
If David Rose Is to be believed, that scenario is an almost inevitable consequence of current trends in Britain’s political and legal system.
‘I believe we are reaching some kind of watershed,’ explains The Observer’s llome Affairs correspondent. ‘The Criminal Justice Bill was incredibly
David Rose: met the Met
authoritarian. If we continue down this road, the criminal iustice system will cease to be a mechanism for fairness and justice.’
Rose’s new book In The Name 0! The law suggests the system isn’t too healthy as it is. His survey of the legal state Britain is in describes an increasingly bureaucratised process where the Crown Prosecution Service (an amazingly secretive, paranoid institution, according to Rose) will only prosecute if it has a watertight case. The few cases that do go to trial are manned by lawyers who exploit the adversarial nature of the situation to get a result. The consequence is a system where the guilty go free and the innocent are often forced to plead guilty, according to Rose.
The only institution to emerge with any credit from Rose’s investigation is the police force. Bose spent six months with the Kilburn division of the
Met and his findings were unexpected.
‘What really surprised me was how liberal they were,’ he says. ‘I expected them to talk about ’scum bags’ and ‘scags’ and to have a completely black and white view - even to be racist. Instead, I found these guys who really thought about crime and the causes of crime. It completely went against my preconceptions. Of course it’s not homogenous, it’s patchy, but I was impressed.’
The other consolation the book offers to readers north of the border is that the Scottish legal system isn’t in such a perilous state as that of England and Wales. ‘My advice to chisis to try to hang on to what you’ve got,’ says Rose. ‘The not proven verdict, the fact that confessions have to be corroborated. These are distinct advantages.’ (Teddy Jamieson)
In The Name 0! The Law is published by Jonathan Cape at £17. 99.
84 The List 9-22 Feb 1996