Page 1: Biography
Brew, Helen Jean
Speech therapist, birth campaigner and educator, actor, documentary filmmaker
This biography, written by Elizabeth Cox, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2020.
Helen Brew was an indefatigable campaigner for the rights of women and children. She fought for women to have control over the process of giving birth, founded the Parents Centre movement, undertook political campaigns and made documentary films. She also raised five children and had a career in theatre and television. Charismatic, complex and determined, she worked throughout her life to make the world a better place.
Early life and education
Helen Jean Butler was born in New Brighton on 11 November 1922. She was the second of three daughters of Grace Ellen Cumming and her husband Guy Butler, a solicitor. Grace Butler was a well-known landscape artist, and the family spent a great deal of time outdoors, particularly at Arthur’s Pass where they owned a historic hut.
Helen attended New Brighton School and Avonside Girls’ High School, where she excelled in sport, and from 1941 studied at Christchurch Teachers’ Training College. She also studied at the newly established Christchurch speech therapy training centre, which was developing theories of correcting speech defects in children by treating the whole child. She had life-long interests in the teachings of the Indian spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti and alternative health practices. At teachers’ college she was particularly influenced by the psychologist Maurice Bevan-Brown, who urged teachers to focus on the emotional needs of children.
Helen was a member of the Christchurch Psychological Society, established by Bevan-Brown, along with her sister Grace and her future husband Quentin Brew. Bevan-Brown’s significant book Sources of love and fear (1950) later included Helen’s accounts of the births of her children.
During this time she also acted in amateur Canterbury Repertory Theatre productions. After graduating, she worked in Napier for 18 months as a speech therapist for the Education Department.
Marriage and family
Helen became engaged to Quentin Brew by letter while he was on active service in the Royal Navy, and they married in Christchurch on 30 April 1945. Quentin was appointed as a child psychologist in the Education Department in Wellington in 1948, and the couple settled in Miramar, where they raised their two daughters and three sons until the dissolution of their marriage in 1969.
The births of Helen’s first two children were deeply traumatic; she was shocked at how little information was provided to pregnant women, and the lack of kindness and care given during labour in hospitals. At her second delivery she tried to have a more natural birth after reading a book by British obstetrician and natural childbirth advocate Grantly Dick-Read. She was left to labour alone, then anaesthetised against her wishes and the birth deliberately delayed until a doctor arrived.
Her birth experiences, together with her earlier work with children with speech difficulties, affected the course of her life. She became interested in psychology, and came to believe that much of the dysfunction in Western society stemmed from the suffering and stress women, babies and their extended families faced during birth and early childhood.
Helen gave birth to her third child at home; this was a ‘profoundly different experience’.1 She was asked to talk about it at a Family Planning Association meeting in 1951, and her reputation as an advocate for natural childbirth quickly grew. She had a flair for public speaking and a warmth and empathy that engaged her audience. Pregnant women begged her to teach them how to have a more natural birth, and she taught informal antenatal classes in her home. With Christine Cole Catley and others she began organising classes for expectant mothers. In 1952 they established the Natural Childbirth Group in Wellington, which later grew into the Parents Centre movement.
Focusing at first on natural childbirth classes, Parents Centre branches were established around the country during the 1950s and 1960s. As the movement developed it fought prolonged campaigns on many issues, opposing harsh hospital practices that traumatised mothers and babies and separated hospitalised children from their parents, and Plunket’s programmatic method of ‘training’ babies. Helen lectured, wrote submissions and lobbied Parliament, doctors and hospital boards. Helen dedicated years of effort to the movement, serving as president of the Wellington centre in the 1950s, president of the nationwide federation from 1957 to 1962, then Dominion Adviser until 1975.
Her work, and that of the wider movement, was doubly controversial: the conservative medical world bridled at the perceived slights and interference from lay people, while some feminists feared that the movement’s focus on the relationship between mother and child would force women back into the home. Nevertheless, slow change began to occur. Fathers were allowed to remain with their wives during labour from the early 1970s, and in 1975, when Helen gave a paper at the first New Zealand Early Childhood Care and Development Convention, she was able to report that many of Parents Centre’s early aspirations had since become Health Department policy.
In Wellington Helen continued her acting career, appearing in productions by the New Zealand Players, Unity and Downstage. She also appeared in film and on television. In 1969 she made a series of Sunday night television programmes called Issues for parents, unscripted discussions with parents of children under seven complemented by a network of discussion groups around the country led by the National Council of Adult Education. She appeared in a number of National Film Unit productions, including a documentary about women’s experiences in the Second World War. From 1975 she played the matriarch Val Hearte in the pioneering soap opera Close to home, the role for which she was best known.
Helen travelled to Europe and Israel from 1972 to 1974, partly funded by a grant from the McKenzie Education Foundation. During these trips she met and interviewed a number of key figures in the early childhood and psychiatric fields, including Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing. On her return, Helen was a founding trustee of the New Zealand Trust for the Foundations of Mental Health, which was influenced by Laing’s teachings and emphasised the importance of parent–child bonding for later mental health.
Helen met Laing again on a visit to New Zealand and urged him to make a film about birth; he replied that she would have to make it herself. She quickly arranged to interview him on camera, set up her own film production business, Media Insights, and left Close to home so she could focus on making the documentary. She filmed many hours of women giving birth in New Zealand hospitals and talking about their experiences. This footage was then cut together with interviews with Laing. The resulting documentary, Birth with R.D. Laing, was released in 1977. It credited Sam Pillsbury as director and Helen as producer; she strongly objected, feeling this demarcation did not fairly represent their respective roles.
The film took aim at the institutionalisation of childbirth practices in Western society, and the damage this had caused to the long-term mental health of the community. The film caused controversy in medical circles, with some claiming it gave a distorted view of hospital births. It was much acclaimed overseas, where it was often shown at special screenings and film festivals, followed by audience discussions, sometimes led by Helen. It was shown on New Zealand television twice and won best documentary at the 1978 Feltex Television Awards.
In the late 1970s Helen completed a film-making course, and began planning a major new documentary series on children’s early lives around the world based on interviews with world authorities in various disciplines. In 1983 she travelled to China to film the first part. The country was still emerging from the Cultural Revolution, and very few Western filmmakers had been given access since 1950. She received practical and logistical assistance from the Chinese Film Co-Production Corporation, recently established by the Chinese government to work with foreign film-makers.
Only a few of the projected documentaries were made, resulting from Helen’s trip to China. The first, The one child family (1983), explored the effect of the recently introduced one-child policy on the Chinese people. Others, collectively titled China in change, examined the life of the Dai community in Yunnan, close to the border with Burma (Myanmar); Chinese health practices; Chinese music; and the life of an extended family in rural China. These documentaries screened on New Zealand television in 1985.
From around 1986 Helen planned an ambitious documentary series to be called Blueprint for survival, which she hoped would include films, television programmes and books. Filming was to take place in China and Tibet and to include a so-called ‘lost tribe’ recently found in the remote Taklamakan Desert.
This project became an all-consuming passion for many years, with Helen securing support from well-known people and the involvement of a top BBC producer. She again received co-operation from the Chinese government, and interviewed Kang Keqing, one of the most senior female politicians in China and head of the All-China Women’s Federation. She was even given permission to film in Tibet, despite the customary reluctance of the Chinese authorities to allow this.
Her intention with these projects was to show that Western civilisation had lost its way as people became disconnected from family and the spiritual world. Ambitious as always, she believed the films could make a difference to all of humanity and ‘close the gap between the cultures of East and West, shedding light on the problems of our violent and disordered world, uplifting the inner spirit of mankind’.2
She self-funded preparatory trips to China, displaying what one journalist described as ‘single-minded vision and never-say-die determination’.3 She mortgaged her home on the strength of her belief she would ultimately secure backing, but was ultimately unable to secure sufficient funding and the project was never completed.
In 1996 Helen was made an MBE for services to the community. In 2000 she was diagnosed with dementia. With her family’s support she remained in her family home until 2005, when she was moved into a specialist dementia care home in Waikanae. She died there on 12 January 2013 at the age of 90. At that time there were 51 Parents Centres around the country, a testament to the strength of her vision.