Life after Stephen

 

While others around Stephen Hawking were benefiting from his genius, his wife felt exploited as his carer. Jane Hawking tells Kate Holmquistabout his fame, their open marriage and the years since their divorce.

It's probably fair to say that without Jane Hawking, Stephen Hawking is unlikely to have survived to discover black holes, think in 11 dimensions, become the most famous physicist after Einstein and play himself in The Simpsons. When she married him in 1965 at the age of 21 - he was 23 - the young couple had already been told that Stephen, who has motor neurone disease, had perhaps three years to live and that there was no treatment possible.

"I was optimistic, energetic and perhaps a bit naive," says Jane of her determination that their love would conquer all. Forty-five years and a marital scandal or two later, Stephen has recently become the first paraplegic to float in zero gravity - typical of the man's stubbornness and heroic reputation.

Yet the reputation of Jane, who sacrificed 28 years of her life to keeping Stephen alive and nurturing his career, has been maligned following revelations around the time of their divorce in 1985 that she had an affair with a family friend who joined the household as one of Stephen's carers. The fact that Stephen wanted an open marriage and encouraged the relationship between Jane and Jonathan - whom Jane married to the swells of Handel's The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba in 1997 - hasn't counted with those inclined to judge. Nor has Stephen - who had been having an affair with one of his nurses, Elaine Mason, whom he married in 1986 and divorced last year - been judged in the same harsh light as Jane.

On the eve of publication of a new, revised version of her autobiography, first published in 1997, Jane now believes that what people really can't handle is accepting the way she was exploited as Stephen's carer, while all around him others were benefiting from his genius.

"Some people don't want to know about it. The carer of the disabled person is always in the background. People don't want to hear about the sleaze and the nitty-gritty and the hardship. They want to think he did it all himself." Jane's partnership with Stephen began to be eroded when - ironically - her 20 years' worth of calls for nursing assistance in the home were finally heeded by the Cambridge hierarchy, assistance enhanced when Stephen became wealthy.

"It was an unusual marriage and in exceptional circumstances," Jane says now. "You only need a few wild-cards thrown into the mix. We were surrounded by influences and interests that came between Stephen and me. The nurse who became his wife was seeking to undermine me and there were wider influences too, following the runaway success of A Brief History of Time."

Stephen's second divorce was acrimonious to say the least, with Elaine Mason accused of physically assaulting and neglecting him - charges that were later withdrawn.

"He's been in a frightful situation for a very long time. One wants to be able to give the benefit of the doubt . . . [ and] I don't want my book to be overshadowed by salacious stories of Stephen's second marriage. I'm really happy he's survived," she says.

While Jane refuses to comment on these events, they do indicate the extraordinary tensions around Stephen as he became an icon with a competitive court of assistants and nurses around him, some of whom appear to have behaved like groupies fighting amongst themselves for the intimacy of the king.

Jane thinks the analogy is correct. She tells how, after the initial 20 years of marriage in which the young couple struggled to survive with scant outside help, Stephen's sudden celebrity changed everything. After caring for him single-handedly for decades, Jane found herself surrounded by a staff of nurses 24/7 who turned their home into a hospital-like institution.

They treated Stephen's family as an inconvenience, traumatising the couple's two elder teenage children - Lucy and Robert - and, most especially their youngest son, Tim (who was fathered by Stephen in the midst of Jane and Jonathan's affair). Stephen's needs were paramount to the group of professional carers and others around him, so she and her children were eclipsed and felt snubbed within their own home, Jane says.

An exception was a nurse from Co Sligo, Pam Benson, whose loyalty and humanity helped Jane to keep her life in perspective. "It was nightmarish in the end. I lost all control of what went on in my own home," she says.

She recalls when the couple's daughter Lucy, then a teenager, was sitting at the kitchen table reading a newspaper. Without a word of apology, a nurse snatched the newspaper away from her and presented it for her father, Stephen to read. It may seem like a small thing, but it was "eloquent in its own way", says Jane.

Being belittled was a constant source of stress for Lucy, who has since become a novelist and has spoken of turning to alcohol in her attempt to deal with her feelings of rejection.

Robert, the eldest - now an employee of Microsoft in Seattle - told his mother from the age of seven that despite his intelligence, "He knew there was no way he could compete with his father who was a genius," Jane says.

"It was a very, very painful and difficult time. Stephen was being manipulated by outside forces and I was reduced to a frazzle. I'm not sure I could have gone on living in the way we did. I had probably got to the end of my tether," she says.

Stephen and Jane had, for several years, lived in an open ménage à trois with Jonathan - until Elaine arrived on the scene. It was Elaine, says Jane, who fomented bitterness about the situation and convinced Stephen to ask for a divorce. To paraphrase her book, Jane's perception at this time was that Stephen wasn't thinking straight about his emotional life.

For Jane, a practising Christian with a deep faith, there was no shame in being involved with Jonathan. After many years of giving her all, emotionally and physically, to Stephen - whose condescending and entirely self-absorbed nature were qualities that Jane has never griped about - she was like a thirsty plant. The arrival of a man who not only loved but also nurtured her was almost a miracle in her eyes.

Today, she thinks of her relationship with Jonathan - a musician a few years younger than she - as a gift she deserves after so many years of hardship and neglect. "Without him I would have been at the bottom of the river . . . I'm really grateful I have a very happy contented life." It's rarely talked about, but marriages in which one person is the "carer" soon become unbalanced, so that all the power and influence is with the spouse being cared for. Jane's own needs were utterly neglected by everyone except her parents, both of whom have died in the past year. Throughout her marriage, she kept the quintessentially English stiff upper lip. She was a fighter, continually confronting Cambridge intelligentsia with the reality of Stephen's needs.

It was a trip to California in 1974, where the family were accommodated in what sounds like a typical American house - but was luxurious by Cambridge standards - that Jane learned that wheelchair accessibility, washing machines and dishwashers were not luxuries, but necessities when caring for young children and a husband with a disability. Before that, she and Stephen had been forced to live like poor students. "I don't know how we did it; how we coped."

Carers are as neglected today as they were in the 1970s, she believes. "People can be blinkered. The [ British] government is blinkered and that's why the health service is in such a bad state. There are 50,000 carers who are children under the age of 18 and that is a terrible indictment of our society. Carers are invisible people." These days Jane and Stephen Hawking are good friends, meeting twice a week and always for Sunday lunch. He attended her parents' funerals and has healed his relationship with Lucy, working with her on a children's book. "I'm delighted that he's back in the bosom of his family," Jane says. Stephen went on his recent anti-gravity joy-ride against Jane's advice - giving her only "an enigmatic smile" when she objected. And he plans, in 2009, to go into space and Jane knows she can't stop him.

They're also united by their desire to find a cure for autism, following the diagnosis in 1997 of Lucy's son, William. Jane's main project, currently, is the charity she runs, neurofeedback.org, which is dedicated to an innovative neurofeedback treatment programme for children with autism, ADHD and other neurological behavioural and learning disorders.

Created by doctors in Russia and Cambridge, the programme uses brain-mapping to find the part of the brain that is malfunctioning, then introduces mental exercises and mild electrical stimulation to regenerate that part of the brain.

So far, the treatment has brought about a remarkable improvement in her grandson William's mental capacities and behaviour and, Jane hopes, it will one day be widely available.

It's in her personality, she realises, to care for others and, while submerging herself in nurturing Stephen cost her and her children dearly, caring is not a role she will ever give up - though she seems to have learned to keep it in perspective. "I never sacrificed myself, I did what I did out of love," she says.

A newly revised edition of Jane Hawking's autobiography, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen is published by Alma Books, £18.99