Thumbing through Peter Greave’s 1976 memoir, The Seventh Gate, in preparation for my short video piece on five neglected memoirs, I was reminded what a wonderful writer he was, and decided to locate a copy of his first book and give it a try. The Second Miracle, published in 1955, is Greave’s account of his time as a patient in a small clinic in England run by Anglican nuns–the Community of the Sacred Passion–for the treatment of leprosy, now usually referred to as Hansen’s disease. The clinic, St. Giles Home for British Lepers, located in East Hunningfield, near Chelmsford, Essex, was the last institution in England dedicated for the treatment of the disease.
Greave earned a place in the home while hiding away in a room in a decrepit boarding house in Calcutta, an experience he describes in The Seventh Gate. An unexpected windfall from his father allowed him to book a passage to England on a merchant freighter. For Greave, leaving India and gaining a hope of proper treatment was his first miracle. The second, he hoped, would be for him to walk out of the clinic cured, a healthy man.
The book opens with his long ride in the back of a cab from a Liverpool dockside to the home. His nerves worn raw from eight years of painful and lonely existence in India, he finds himself contemplating suicide even as the cab nears his destination:
I was in a state not far removed from insanity; it would not have been correct to describe me as a youngish [he was 38 when he arrived at the hospital in 1947] man who was sick. I was sick, but I was more than that; I was a perambulating mass of fear. Because of my fate I felt that I had lost the status of human being, that I stood outside the bounds of human pity; and the fear of something unimaginably horrible happening to me, once my condition was known, had become part of my mental make-up. And yet in a way this fear was my own choice; I had deliberately accepted it as the price of freedom. For eight years I had clung to the outskirts of life; crouching in my corner I had feasted my eyes on its radiance and gaiety; and though it had meant hiding like a criminal I had managed to retain my identity.
I dreaded beyond words the possibility of being shut away, of becoming a number in a hospital ward, of forfeiting even the nominal rights of a human being. To be shut up was a death sentence, and yet it was worse than that; it was a sentence of life without any of the ingredients that make life bearable.
It takes Greave some weeks to adapt to his new circumstances and begin to feel safe. The physical comforts–a room of his own, a comfortable chair to sit in, a soft bed to sleep in, windows from which to look out to the surrounding fields, three warm, nourishing meals a day–break down his resistance first. Then the genuine concern of the sisters and physicians for his care, and the companionship of his fellow patients helped him lose his sense of isolation. And after suffering years of painful and pointless injections into his scars, his disease began to respond to treatments with the new drug, dapsone.
The most difficult part of his recovery, though, is spiritual. In the time that he hid away from the world in his room in Calcutta, Greave had come to see his disease as a mark of “the guilt of a thousand generations of twisted minds, and of bodies thirsting for decay.” At the home, among other sufferers, he felt a release–”one of the the main ingredients in that shining peace I had prized so much.” With the successful treatment of his leprosy, “… all this was to be taken from me. I was to be flung back into the world of ordinary men, my body healed but bearing the taint of my guilt-haunted mind.” “I stood like a diver on a high springboard,” he writes, “looking down into the dark, greedy waters into which I soon must plunge, and knew that I was terrified.”
In the end, it is the Sisters who guide him to the cure for his soul as well as his disease. In a moving closing scene, in which he watches three of the novices he’s come to know take their voes and prepare themselves to leave on their missions to Africa, he finds a way to let go of his fears and entrust his fate to God.
The dust jacket copy sets up The Second Miracle as a story of Christian redemption, but there are few direct religious references or scenes in the book. What there are, instead, are many passages of beautifully written, closely observed, and sympathetic prose. This is some of the best writing I’ve come across, and I will be excerpting a least a couple of passages in succeeding posts. Here is a short one, recalling the last days of one of the elderly patients:
But although the gap left by that massive, bent figure with the wheezing chuckle and shoulders draped in a faded green shawl was a real one, it was surprising how quickly he seemed to slip out of the general mind. For a day or two there were comments on his absence and inquiries as to his progress, and then he appeared to be lost sight of in the space of gossip and small personal spites and ambitions. It struck me as extraordinary that a man could so rapidly drop out of the circle and be forgotten by the rest, vanish and be as though he had never existed; but it struck me that perhaps this apparent callousness was due not so much to heartlessness as to an unconscious instinct for self-preservation. It was necessary for us to forget, to put out of our minds and utterly discard, anything that could remind us of the tenuous uncertainty of our hold on life. We all knew, though probably we scarcely admitted the thought even to ourselves, that we were little more than a hair’s breadth away from a similar defeat, and consequently we focused all our powers upon the struggle for survival, without a backward glance for those who were unable to keep their foothold upon the uneasy tightrope of existence.
While staying at the home, Greave began to write and publish for the first time, and for this we all owe the sisters a debt of gratitude. After leaving the home, he married and was able to make a living as a writer. He published articles in various magazines, wrote The Second Miracle and several novels–all out of print–and a further memoir, The Seventh Gate, in 1976. He died in 1977 at the age of 68.
The Second Miracle, by Peter Greave
New York: Henry Holt, 1955