3.1.8 Diseases

Was childhood disease common or uncommon in the 40s and 50s?

[maw,jp] Young adults today cannot really comprehend how much more common disease and illness were, then, compared to today, and how much harder it was to get over sickness. Antibiotics were not as available or as effective. Respiratory ailments were common and exacerbated by smoggy conditions--Christchurch was smokey and smoggy in the winter from too many coal fires. [London was the same. jp] I suffered from asthma on and on in the winter, just wheezing away until I got sick, because there was nothing readily available that would help. My hearing is under par because of all the earaches I had as a kid; again, very common childhood experiences for the times. [maw]

Childhood disease was very much more a fact of life up into the 50s and even on into the 60s than it is today, and it had an impact on public consciousness of health and well-being. Polio was the big scare when I was small, and it affected the way people lived. Over the years, my immediate family dealt with serious health problems and even death from birth defects, mumps, meningitis, whooping cough, scarlet fever and measles and our experience was not unrepresentative. The list would grow to include polio and respiratory diseases if I were to include cousins. Children's health and fitness were very much on the public's mind throughout the period between WW II and Vietnam. [jp]

What caused the long scar on Pauline's leg?

[jp] Pauline said she suffered from osteomyelitis as a young child, and was confined to bed for an extended period. She said "it turns your bones to chalk." The Concise Oxford Dictionary says it is an inflammation of the bone marrow. Explaining the scar, she said "it took them two years to drain all the muck out." Possibly she also suffered from secondary infections. In "Heavenly Creatures" Pauline limped when she ran, and she was excused from PhysEd (gym). Juliet commented about Pauline's scar: "That's so impressive!"

Was Pauline's illness really that serious?

[jp] Yes. In real life, Pauline came close to death. It was also extremely painful for her over many years, and Pauline still had pain associated with her leg throughout the period covered in the film. Medlicott determined that her illness and the pain associated with it and her lengthy treatment were Pauline's earliest clear memories (see 7.8.1). There is no doubt that this experience was traumatic for her family, and for her parents especially, so "Heavenly Creatures" presented the information correctly, though in a slightly flippant manner. Pauline wasn't exaggerating, although we may have been tempted to dismiss her tale as being a little self-indulgent.

Where were Juliet's scars?

[jp] Juliet said she has scars on her lungs from unspecified respiratory illnesses she contracted as a young child. Juliet was excused from PhysEd (gym) because of bad respiration.

Were Juliet's illnesses really that serious?

[jp] Yes. Although we may be tempted to dismiss Juliet's childhood illnesses as ploys for attention, and Jackson puts a few clues and indications to that effect in "Heavenly Creatures," in real life Juliet was a very sickly young child and she almost died at the age of six.

In fact, the real Juliet's medical history was more involved than was shown in "Heavenly Creatures."

What did Juliet tell Pauline her mother had promised?

[jp] After discussing their diseases in the schoolyard, she said: "Mummy promises they'll never leave me again."

What did Juliet have to say about their diseases?

[jp,sb] "All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases. It's all frightfully romantic!"

How would Juliet's illness have been viewed in the arts?

[jp] Juliet was right on the money: her illnesses were, quite literally, very Romantic. Literary figures from the classical romantic period often suffered vague, consumptive illnesses that made them waste away and become closer to death, more aethereal, more spiritual and more alluring.

For examples, see Shelley's "Frankenstein," Bronte's "Wuthering Heights," Poe's stories and poetry, especially his sublime, alliterative "Annabel Lee," Collins' "The Woman in White," or Stoker's "Dracula." Or, for that matter, some of Anne Perry's Victorian crime novels (see 7.11).

There are connections between Juliet's diseases and the music used in the film, too (see 3.1.19). Romantic, tragic illness figures prominently in the operas "La Boheme" and "La Traviata."

How would Pauline's illness have been viewed in the arts?

[jp] Traditionally, Pauline's illness would have been a darker reference, because physical handicap or deformity was often reserved as a symbol of evil, or it was viewed as a 'punishment' meted out on those who had sinned, or it could be a manifestation of a hidden spiritual defect. More rarely, deformity could be an unjust burden, the selfless bearing of which resulting in spiritual elevation.

Examples are rife throughout classical literature: Shakespeare was particularly fond of this device and "Richard III" springs to mind as a prominent example of deformity linked to evil, with Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and Stevenson's "Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde." Melville's Ahab in "Moby Dick," Hugo's Quasimodo in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and Shelley's monster in "Frankenstein" are examples of more spiritually complex deformities.

What disease did Juliet contract?

[jp] Juliet was diagnosed with the most 'romantic' disease of all, 'Consumption.' Tuberculosis (TB) is an infectious bacterial disease characterized by the formation of tubercles, especially in the lungs. Tubercles are small, rounded swellings on the body or in organs. TB is highly contagious, capable of being spread by coughing or even breathing, especially in the confined quarters of schools or prisons, two 'public' institutions traditionally sensitive to the disease. Both institutions are relevant to this story, of course.

Sufferers are quarantined while they undergo treatment, often in specialized TB sanatoria. Patients are normally released when they are no longer infectious (no live bacteria in sputum cultures) or, more conservatively, once they have returned to good health, i.e. once they have been 'cured.' In real life, Juliet was released before being declared medically 'cured.'

What is the treatment for TB?

[jp,lam] The classical treatment for TB involves isolation, treatment of symptoms and general attention to improving overall health and well-being through diet and mild exercise. And, of course, a course of drugs to combat the bacterial infection.

The classical drug treatment involves three drugs: isoniazid (classed as an inhibitor of cell function), streptomycin (an antibiotic) and rifampin. All drugs are still in very common use and are prescribed widely for TB and for many other diseases. Cautions or side effects listed for isoniazid are mostly concerned with depression of liver function.

In real life, Juliet's TB was treated with the drugs isoniazid and streptomycin, according to Medlicott (see 7.8.1) and the treatment continued after Juliet's release from the sanatorium. Also, according to Medlicott, there was no evidence that these drugs had adverse psychological effects on Juliet. Neither drug has been removed from use since that time.

In her recent statements to the press, Anne Perry insists that she was treated with an experimental drug, since removed from use, which affected her judgement (see 4.9).

What are the lingering effects and consequences of TB?

[jp] A TB infection often results in the formation of scar tissue in the lungs, which shows up as shadowing (denser tissue) in chest X-rays. Lung capacity is often diminished permanently and patients can weaken and waste away.

A 'positive' TB skin test shows the presence of antibodies for the TB bacterium, meaning the person has been exposed to the bacterium, although they may never have contracted the disease.

Many countries restrict the entry of people who exhibit positive TB skin tests or X-rays, and most forbid the entry of people with active TB. Juliet's health could have affected her immediate travel plans.

What were Juliet's fears related to her diseases?

[jp] A recurring theme in Juliet's life was her parents sending her away from them "for the good of her health." She saw this as an excuse to get rid of her, and she feared this rejection and abandonment by them more than she feared disease.

In real life, this rejection of Juliet by her parents, under the guise of concerns over Juliet's ill health, was considerably more systematic and extensive than was portrayed in the film (see 7.3). In real life, it was probably a very real factor in defining the course of events and every bit as important, if not moreso, than was depicted in "Heavenly Creatures."

Who said "for the good of your health?"

[jp] Juliet first said the phrase to Pauline when she described her childhood illness in the schoolyard.

Hilda Hulme told Juliet her confinement in the sanatorium was for the good of her health, darling, before she and Dr Hulme left for England. Juliet made a little cough.

Honora Rieper mentioned to Juliet at the end of the first visit that Juliet's stay in hospital was for the good of her health. Juliet flew off the handle a little, shocking Honora with the intensity of her anger.

Finally, Hilda had her little bedside chat with Juliet after the subject of divorce had been broached. "You're not ... going ... to England, darling." At that point, Dr Hulme interjected with the final "It's for the good of your health." Juliet screamed.

Where was Juliet sent "for the good of her health?"

[jp,sb,mw] According to Juliet, to the Bahamas (a British possession off the Atlantic coast of Florida) during World War II, and to "the Bay of bloody Islands." She said the Bahamas were "bloody awful!" Most people would probably view them as an idyllic tropical paradise.

The Bay of Islands is a similar environment, in many ways, and it is a site with great historical significance to New Zealanders, one reason why Honora looked so taken aback at Juliet's comment. It is located near the northern tip of the North Island, on the east coast, around 35 deg N, 174 deg E. You can go on a virtual tour of the Bay of Islands at:


This 'exile' to the Bahamas is true, though Juliet was eight at the time, not five, and it happened after WW II. And, in real life, as a child, Juliet was also sent several other places, away from her family, "for the good of her health."

Did Juliet use her illnesses for attention?

[jp] Yes, though not all that successfully, judging by her parents' responses. In the sanatorium, where her parents are trying to convince Juliet she might actually enjoy a spell in there ("It's very tranquil...") Juliet makes a few well-timed little coughs to act as pleas and exclamation marks. They fall on deaf ears.

What did Hilda say to Juliet before leaving for England?

[jp] Hilda made two important statements. First, she said, almost in passing, that she would speak to the Matron to make sure "she takes extra special care of you." This line was exchoed later by Juliet in a very poignant and telling line, when Pauline and Honora came to visit. Juliet informed them proudly that the Matron had shown Juliet the Matron's 'special stitch' and "I'm her favourite." We are led to believe that the Matron's lavishing attention on Juliet is simply the result of her following the orders of an important patron. Juliet seems to have been completely deceived, rather naively--she is that starved for adult affection.

Hilda's second statement is actually a reference to an extremely poignant and tragic event that occurred in real life. She said to Juliet (and wasn't Diana Kent's delivery wonderful?) "We can always ... cancel ... our arrangements, if that's what you want." A tearful Juliet simply shook her head. She had been offered the opportunity to stop her parents from abandoning her and she passed it up in an act of noble self-sacrifice, exactly as she had been maneuvered into doing. How could she complain when she herself had sent them away? In real life, there was a similar scene played out not by Hilda but by Dr Hulme and Juliet in Paparua Prison soon after Juliet's arrest. See 7.3.

Did Pauline use her illness for attention?

[jp] No, she didn't. In fact, she seemed to resent any attention given her because of her handicap. At Christmas, 1953, her mother asks her if she has pain, and Pauline brushes her mother off with a shake of her head.
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