How Hampstead-born writer Tara Lal drew meaning from her brother’s suicide

A new memoir, Standing On My Brother’s Shoulders, details how a traumatic childhood has helped Lal to spread awareness about mental health problems, says Alex Bellotti.

It’s an awkward thing for a newspaper to admit, but the last time Tara Lal appeared in the Ham&High, we got her name wrong. Back in 1986, while living in Hampstead’s Constantine Road, the athletic schoolgirl won a high jump competition with the Highgate Harriers, but upon reading about her achievement was devastated to find her last name reported as Hall.

More affecting to hear, however, is how Tara mentioned this to her father, Shivaji. It was not so much a complaint, she says, as a way to make conversation when she visited him at the Royal Free hospital, where he was regularly admitted on account of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression.

In her new memoir, Standing on my Brother’s Shoulders, the writer explains the impact these visits and the early loss of her mother, Bridget, had on her family, particularly her older brother, Adam. At the age of 18, during his first term at Oxford University, the former UCS head boy jumped from the window of his dormitory and died soon after in hospital, leaving his two shell-shocked sisters and father behind.

“For me, everything was just normal because that was my life,” Tara explains. “But when I wrote it down I went, ‘Well you know what, that wasn’t really that normal and there was quite a lot of trauma in there’. It helped me to process it and to maybe re-script some of the things that I wish had been different.”

By the time Tara was 13, her mother had been battling breast cancer for five years. On her deathbed, Bridget left notes to the family, with Adam’s suggesting he could become the first in the family to attend Oxford.

As a straight-A student, there was no doubt he was capable. Yet for Adam, his mother’s loving words of encouragement were in fact a poisoned chalice, adding to overwhelming pressures he placed on himself to never fail.

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Two years apart, Tara was especially close with her brother, but he often chose to internalise his pain, and any sense of unhappiness only came through in his letters to her or in his diary, which were used to inform the new memoir.

“When I read his writing, there was a clear mismatch that my brother had between what was going on inside him and what the outside world saw,” says Tara. “They were so vastly different and I think that contributes towards and feeds a lot of mental illness. The more authentic you are and the more you show that to the world, the more likely you are to be healthy mentally.”

Shortly after graduating from university herself, Tara moved to Australia – training first as a physiotherapist, then for her current career as a fire fighter in Sydney. For her, the country provided a fresh start; a place where she wasn’t “defined by the past”.

Yet history soon caught up. At the start of the book, she recalls one night in 2009 when, as a fire fighter, she was called to help deal with a ‘jumper’. “I stand there frozen, holding the hose,” she writes. “I am taken back to another time, another country, another body… Adam.”

The experience led Tara to not just revisit ghosts of the past and start writing the book, but also to train in suicide prevention. The goal, she explains, is to continue to lessen the stigma around mental health; to help those in need by showing care, and breaking down barriers to the point where they crucially allow themselves to seek help.

She points to the example of how one intervention she was involved with gave meaning to her own struggles with grief.

“Somebody rang me up six months later and said, ‘I don’t know how you knew, Tara, but you knew. I’d spoken to many psychologists, but you knew’. And she’s now healthy and well.

“For me, that was really testament to the fact that I had brought meaning to my brother’s life through what I’d learnt, to be able to take that to somebody else’s life and help them. That was just so validating and meaningful, that it hadn’t all been a waste really.

“I couldn’t know what I know now had I not had those experiences, and I think that was a turning point in being able to see what Adam gave me, not what he took from me.”

Standing on my Brother’s Shoulders: Making Peace with Grief and Suicide by Tara J Lal is published by Watkins for £8.99.