Hazel McHaffie

Tragic deaths

It’s hard for healthy busy contented people to understand the mind of a youngster who will go to any lengths to be extremely thin; almost impossible to comprehend the anguish of their parents, powerless to halt the deadly progress. But that’s what I’ve been trying to do for my latest novel, so perhaps it’s not surprising that news of youngsters who die as a result of this craving hits me foursquare.

Memorial to a young life lostSerious eating disorders have a profound and devastating effect on both patient and family, and it’s well known that the death rate among young people with anorexia is frighteningly high. So exploitation of such vulnerable people seems particularly heinous.

This week saw the inquest into the death of 21-year-old Eloise Parry who, after years of bulimia, sent away for diet pills online to hasten the slimming process by speeding up her metabolism. They contained an industrial chemical, DNP (dinitrophenol) a dangerous toxic substance which is commonly used in explosives and dyes and pesticides. Online marketing describes it innocuously as ‘fat-burning'; experts agree it is not fit for human consumption.

So what persuades an intelligent person to acquire this unlicensed ‘medication’ in the first place, and what drives them to even exceed the recommended dose? Real desperation, distorted thinking, and perhaps too a level of naivety about the dangers of unlicensed drugs acquired online from companies with no scruples as to legality, purity, cleanliness or even authenticity.

Things certainly went catastrophically wrong for Eloise when she took 4 pills at 4am in the morning of April 12, (2 represents a fatal dose) and a further 4 when she woke up later that same morning. Shortly afterwards she drove herself to hospital, aware that she was in big trouble. She even sent a text message to one of her college lecturers at 11.31 saying she was afraid she was going to die, apologising for her stupidity. Her prediction sadly came true at 3.25 that same afternoon. Eloise is the sixth Briton to die in this horrible way – the body’s metabolism speeds up so violently that they burn up inside; nothing can be done to reverse it. What an appalling tragedy.

Eloise’s mother has appealed to others not to buy anything containing DNP. The coroner says he will write to the Government to recommend such products are not accessible. The Department of Health put out an urgent warning to the public. Interpol has issued a global warning. And yet there is clear evidence that some companies are still fraudulently importing this deadly substance under various guises heedless of the consequences.

Bad enough when the mental state of the young person drives them to starve themselves slowly. To have their susceptibility and fragility exploited so shamelessly is nothing short of evil.

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Editing editing editing … and more editing

To Kill a MockingbirdIn all the recent hype about Harper Lee‘s second (or was it actually her first?) novel, Go Set a Watchman, one issue keeps recurring: who was really the inspiration behind the bestselling To Kill a Mocking Bird? Was its success down to her editor? Or was it in fact her own genius?

I’m particularly sensitive to the influences which shape novels at the moment. Comments from my own raft of experts are flooding back to me about my own latest story and the book is changing daily as a result – plot strands are being recreated, dialogue changing subtly, language and emphasis reflecting new thinking, characters adopting new habits and voices. Is it any less my baby? I don’t think so. Other people shine a light on areas which don’t quite work for them; the author decides how to respond to those comments.

I ask everyone to be brutally honest at this stage; that after all is the whole point of the exercise. And believe me, it can be daunting – even traumatic – to have masses of red pen highlighting potential flaws, but I’m hugely grateful for all this input. Yes, it represents a lot of extra work now, but the end result should be a richer, tighter, more authentic and plausible story. I take comfort from the comment by Ian Rankin recently that even after decades writing and countless bestsellers under his belt, his editor sent back a draft requiring him to go back to the drawing board and re-write it. Which he did.

Hey, enough of this reflection … head down. Every character must be revisited, every narrative thread tugged tight and re-tied, every page of dialogue re-analysed. Right now I’m inside the head of a teenager with an eating disorder who’s searching for her lost father. Not a comfortable place to be. It takes me a while each day to re-enter the real world so approach with caution if you try to speak to me during writing hours. Writing hours? That’s pretty much any hour these days!

Harper Lee maintained a dignified silence in the face of huge public criticism; she has remained an intriguing enigma. Sounds like a good idea to me!

 

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Berlin: Imagine a City

The iconic Brandenburg gate

The iconic Brandenburg Gate

Berlin is a ‘haunted, ecstatic, volatile city': so says Rory Maclean, in Berlin: Imagine a City. Its identity is based not on stability but on change. No other city has repeatedly been so powerful, and fallen so low. No other capital has been so hated, so feared, so loved. No other place has been so twisted and torn across five centuries of conflict, from religious wars to Cold War, at the hub of Europe’s ideological struggle. Berlin is a city that is forever in the process of becoming, never being, and so lives more powerfully in the imagination.’

I’ve just this evening returned from a six day visit to this amazing city, having read Maclean’s book in preparation for my trip. It’s no ordinary tourists’ guide, no street map trekking across town and noting historic sites, principal attractions, beautiful buildings, interesting facts. Rather it reads more like a novel as it weaves together portraits of 21 of its former inhabitants who shaped its various incarnations over five centuries; artists, leaders, thinkers, activists. Harrowing tales from the inside of atrocities sit side by side with evocative imaginings of lives lived behind glittering facades and forbidding walls, stark facts about divided loyalties and brutality beyond belief merge with heart-warming touches of human compassion and love, invention cohabiting with reality.

It gave me a tantalising glimpse into the background behind the seen and the unseen, the beautiful and the ugly, the conflicts and the peace. A little chaotic at times maybe, embellished history, creative reporting, but it didn’t matter; it brought everything to life in a most engaging way. And for more present-day practicalities we had my son as personal guide – he loves the city which he has visited many times, he was living in Germany and travelled to Berlin within weeks of the Wall coming down, he studied there for his PhD, he revisited for the 25th anniversary of reunification of East and West, he writes about Berlin today.

So did real life 21st Century Berlin match up to the one conjured up through the lives and passions of those myth makers and historical figures? Indeed it did; more than. Yesterday really does echo along today’s alleyways and streets. There was a pervading sense that had I asked, ‘Where is the real Berlin?‘ the answer would have been, ‘Just walk down this street and turn right at 1933.

Films, exhibitions, museums, books, statues, monuments … the city abounds with vivid portrayals to give us an insight into Berlin’s dark history. Wandering its streets the imagination goes into overdrive.

‘So much of it has been lost or reinvented that the mind rushes to fill the vacuum, fleshing out the invisible, linking facts with fiction’ much as the book does. One can feel ‘its aching absences as much as its brazen presence: the sense of lives lived, dreams realised and evils executed with an intensity so shocking that they rent the air and shook its fabric.’

Naturally enough the most powerful messages relate to the Holocaust and the Berlin Wall. It was overwhelmingly sad to see the railway station where thousands of Jews were deported to the concentration camps with the numbers despatched each day (anything from 90 to 1780 plus) etched into the edge of the line, to stand beside a water sculpture dedicated to the huge numbers of Romani people similarly annihilated, or to see the individual names of the murdered set into monuments and Stumbling stones in the cobbles.

Stumbling stones in the pavement commemorating the Jews from that house who were deported and murdered

Stumbling stones in the pavement commemorate Jews who were deported from that house to concentration camps

And the horrors around the East/West divide are indelibly captured by plaques and pavers, monuments and memorials, even remaining sections of the Wall.

The remains of the Berlin Wall

The remains of the Berlin Wall

Memorial to those who were killed trying to get over the Berlin Wall

Memorial to those who were killed trying to get over the Berlin Wall

But as Maclean says, ‘In a courageous, humane and moving manner modern Germany is subjecting itself to national psychoanalysis‘ to deal with the memory of historical suffering. So many reminders must surely be some measure of their determination to learn from the lessons of the past.

Monument to children who were taken to concentration camps or to places of safety

Monument to children who were selected for either concentration camps or Kindertransport: trains to death or a new life

However, a painter (of the fine art variety not Dulux) challenges the rest of us to take stock too: ‘I do not want to say that they – the SS officers, the camp guards, even the soldiers by the Wall – are like us. It is different, worse I guess. They are us – and we would have been them, in our respective times. It does not mean that I think we – the Germans – are likely to ever become Nazis or Communists again. Germany is a profoundly different land now, its identity reshaped for ever by cataclysmic events. But it is the potential for us, them, me, to have been part of such events that is the horror of today.

The Reichstag

The Reichstag (where the German Parliament meets)

For all its ghosts, though, today Berlin is vibrantly alive. And we, the living, are privileged to walk alongside the dead, remembering, but appreciating and imagining a better world. (Ironic that the very day I visited the Reichstag we picked up a copy of DasParlament – reporting the politicians’ activities – and what should be the headline article on the front page but the issue of assisted suicide!)

 

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7/7 remembered

Commemorative roseYou’d need to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the commemorative events on Tuesday, ten years on from the 7/7 bombings in London. The ‘ocean of pain’, the quiet grace and dignity of those who lost loved ones, the abiding friendships forged in the face of tragedy, the powerful silences – all eloquent in different ways. The nearest I personally came to the horror back in 2005 was fear for medical colleagues attending a conference nearby in Tavistock Square – all of whom survived, many rushing out to help the injured. The effect of this devastation on those at the heart of it we can only begin to imagine.

But for me one of the most amazing tributes came in the form of a drama. A Song for Jenny, based on the memoir with the same name, was shown on Sunday, two days ahead of the tenth anniversary, and dedicated to the 52 people who lost their lives in the explosions. It didn’t attempt to capture the full scale of the atrocity, focusing instead on one family and the unravelling horror that took place in their lives. Emily Watson is brilliant as mum Julie Nicholson, a Bristol Church of England priest whose 24 year old daughter was killed in the Edgeware Road tube station blast, her own faith shredded in the process. Frank McGuiness‘ screenplay is incredibly powerful and the supporting cast excellent.

Sharing the dawning realisation that Jenny is unaccounted for; listening to the police telling Julie it’s inadvisable to see her daughter’s mutilated body; standing with her beside the coffin as she strokes the familiar hand and struggles to find the words for the anointing of the dead; hearing the cabbie declining payment for running her from London to Reading because he wants her to know ‘there are still good people left in the world'; looking over her shoulder as she dares to view the horrific photos of her daughter’s ‘stations of the cross’ … I defy anyone to remain dry-eyed. The utter futility and bewilderment are embedded in the detail: the fault on the Picadilly line which meant Jenny was on a train taking her in the wrong direction for work; the underground official describing the scene as ‘hell on earth'; Lizzie scribbling all over the photo of her sister’s murderer; the policeman sharing his thoughts about his sleeping sons. The isolation and numbness that both protects and excludes are also sensitively portrayed – my heart bled for Jenny’s father sidelined so often by his strong managing wife (the couple parted after the funeral).

It’s harrowing but it’s also a story of love triumphing over evil, with those left behind determined not to let the bombers ‘win’. And as good art can, it creeps behind the instinctive protective barriers and touches the rest of us deeply, forcing us to reflect on issues which affect us all. Which is why I chose to devote today’s blog to this topic.

 

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Down memory lane

Picture postcard HolcombeThis is the life! This week I’m rediscovering my childhood haunts – this time with grandchildren in tow.

Sand and sea on the doorstepWestcountry numbers amongst its famous writerly offspring: Agatha Christie, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Golding. Hoping a little of their magic will rub off on me!Agatha Christie's holiday home

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Masterclass

OK, as you now know, my latest book, Inside of Me, includes three missing teenagers and a middle aged man who vanishes without trace, so when I picked up Not in the Flesh by Ruth Rendell and read the back cover, I thought, ahah! this is about several missing persons, I’ll see how she handles it. She died just a few weeks ago, so it seems fitting to linger a while on her writing.

Rendell was, of course, a queen of crime writing, massively decorated and feted; a household name indeed. And her policemen, Reg Wexford and Mike Burden, and the admirable Dora Wexford, are widely known and loved from the TV adaptations. George Baker IS the chief inspector! But that potential for distortion notwithstanding, several interesting facets jumped out at me as I read.

First, an author of Rendell’s standing can get away with a whole lot more than I ever could. For example, she introduces a huge cast of characters in quick succession – almost 40 within the first 30 pages! We lesser mortals are advised to go very cautiously allowing time for characters to embed themselves in the mind of the reader.Master crimewriter

Then there’s the difference between a stand alone book and a series featuring the same characters. Wexford has all the advantages of being an old friend, a rounded person, reliable and constant. We know instantly if his behaviours are consistent, his comments his own. He really would say, A body illicitly interred is a body unlawfully killed. In my stand alone books there’s much more work to be done to establish a three dimensional believable person in a shorter time frame.

Years ago, when I was in search of an agent, one wrote back to me ‘You need to forget your formidable academic background‘. I was reminded of this each time I encountered erudite references in Not in the Flesh. But of course, Rendell uses them judiciously. A brain-box character can drop in a comment about the word ‘lady‘ coming from the Anglo-Saxon ‘lafdig’ meaning ‘she who makes bread’, leaving an ardent feminist policewoman to register strong objections to the use of this title – and it’s perfectly plausible and appropriate to include. It’s not what you know, it’s how you use that knowledge that matters. And clearly I didn’t get this right when I sent out my early work.

It gave me a lovely warm feeling to find an unusual shared moment in Rendell’s work and my own writing. She uses a quote (often attributed to King Louis XVII) which I used a few weeks ago in my story for the grandchildren from the mouth of a Duke who was always quoting other people to make his own points: Punctuality is the politeness of kings. Strange coincidence. Only in Rendell’s case she deliberately misquotes it: Unpunctuality is the impoliteness of policemen. I simply Googled ‘quotes about punctuality’ and up it came. I wonder if she did too.

Happily, as a result of my little masterclass with Baroness Rendell of Barberg, I don’t feel the need to change or add anything to Inside of Me. But that will all change I’m sure when my expert critics come back to me with their comments.

While I await their feedback I’m running down this interesting checklist: Writers' checklist

Hmmm!

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Inside of Me: a sneak preview

It occurred to me during the week that many of you are people who’ve read some or all of my novels to date. I should therefore do you the courtesy of giving you a priority glimpse into the latest offering, Inside of Me, currently being critiqued by my first raft of advisors.

Inside of Me manuscriptFor your exclusive scrutiny (!) then, an outline of the theme and the plot – never before seen!

The theme: Body image. Several of the characters in Inside of Me struggle to find their own ways of dealing with or escaping from problems related to their perceptions of themselves, sometimes with devastating consequences for their families and friends. Now, I might as well come clean and tell you that I personally have long-standing issues with this topic, so it’s been quite a troubling experience immersing myself in its various manifestations. What’s more, my recent illness (which incapacitated me for six months) added yet another dimension when I realised how much of my own perceived identity is wrapped up in what I do and what I achieve – for part of this time NOTHING!

The plot: Two teenage girls vanish. One is found dead, the other is still missing without trace. Then a Scottish nurse, Victor Grayson, 36, vanishes leaving behind a neat pile of his clothes on the beach, a wife and an 8 year old daughter. The police presume he took his own life; his wife, Tonya, secretly fears he may have been involved in the disappearance of the teenagers; his daughter, India, hangs on ferociously to her picture of her dad as her best friend through the haze of faulty memories and half truths.

Roll forward seven years, and India, now 15, thinks she hears his voice 500 miles away, on King’s Cross station. At the same time a third teenager vanishes. Events – both in the Grayson family and the police department – develop new momentum. India has anorexia and her mother believes she’s hallucinating from hunger. But India’s best friend takes up the case, and when the third missing teenager is seen at the cinema with an unknown person the race is on to find her before anything bad happens to her.

Exactly what is the connection between the missing schoolgirls, a Scottish nurse, a London florist, and two youngsters with eating disorders?

Concentration chez moi is on the next stages of the publishing process but this lovely weather is tempting me out and about as well. How fabulous Scotland is – hard to believe crimes can be committed amidst such beauty; and individuals be swallowed up by their own distorted perceptions.

Glendoick GardensPoppy

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Confessions of a heretic

Yippee! I’ve FINISHED the first full draft of my new novel about body image. Yeaaaaaahhhh!

The title has gone through about nine variants but is now set: Inside of Me. Copies are currently winging their way to my first raft of critics. Even yet – yes, after eight published novels – it takes a lot of courage to allow my baby to fly the nest. Perhaps just one more edit …..? Maybe polish up the language a tad more before …? But as the saying goes, perfection is always one more draft away.

Time then to distract my mind with other things. How about literary versus genre fiction?

What’s your view of literary fiction, I wonder? Are you a fan? Or do you secretly find such writing boring and so-what-ish? Someone once said ‘Literary fiction is just clever marketing’. Give that man a cream bun. A valiant attempt at nailing something rather elusive. What exactly is it? There seem to be few rules to define it.

Mother's Milk My mind has been idly juggling this question during the week because Edward St Aubyn‘s Mother’s Milk came to the top of my tbr pile. It’s categorised as literary fiction? But why? Well, I found five core qualifications:

1. It was shortlisted for a major literary prize – in this case the Man Booker Prize in 2006 (see how far behind I am here?!).

2. The author is openly described as amongst the cream of British novelists in the upper echelons of the book world.

3. He has a masterful way with words; a strong and distinctive style of writing, rich, and finely crafted.

4. Mother’s Milk garnered a wealth of superlative quotes from a range of very selective critics: fantastically well-written, profound, humane, brilliant, blackly comic, exhilarating, wonderfully caustic, elegant … the list goes on.

5. It’s very character-driven and precious little actually happens.

I confess it was only the writing that redeemed this book for me personally. Basically the narrative explores the relationships between Patrick and his wife Mary, their respective mothers, and their two infant sons. Apart from Patrick’s adultery, his mother’s declining health and alleged desire for assisted death, and the will-he-won’t-he help her to die element, nothing of any consequence or interest happens in their lives. I didn’t care about any of the characters. What’s more, the two boys are totally unbelievable: analysing life from the moment of birth, using sophisticated adult thinking and language from infancy, precociously psychoanalysing and mimicking adults. I have never met such a child, nor indeed would I ever want to!

BUT – the book is positively littered with literary pearls, gems that made me seriously envious of St Aubyn’s skill with words. I’ll share a few of them here.

After a traumatic delivery, longing to be back securely in the womb, one of the babies wanted ‘the bandage of his mother’s arms to wrap around him’.

Patrick says of his mother who’s passionate about saving the world: ‘Do you know what my mother told me the other day? A child born in a developed nation will consume two hundred and forty times the resources consumed by a child born in Bangladesh. If we’d had the self restraint to have two hundred and thirty-nine Bangladeshi children, she would have given us a warmer welcome, but this gargantuan Westerner, who is going to take up acres of landfill with his disposable nappies, and will soon be clamouring for a personal computer powerful enough to launch a Mars flight while playing tic-tac-toe with a virtual buddy in Dubrovnik, is not likely to win her approval.’

Patrick walks through the corridor of the nursing home and notes ‘a roaring television masked another kind of silence. The crumpled paper-white residents sat in rows. What could be making death take so long?’

When he tells someone about possibly helping his mother to die she replies, ‘There must be some special Furies for children who kill their parents.’ ‘Yeah’ says Patrick, ‘Wormwood Scrubs.’

He ‘hated the very rich, especially since he was never going to be one of them. They were all too often only the shrill pea in the whistle of their possessions.’

Surely the mark of a writer at the top of his game.

So what about genre writing? Well, what d’you know? Disordered MindsThe next book in my pile was Disordered Minds by Minette Walters. Walters has won several prestigious awards (tick) and an impressive raft of reviews (tick), but she’s pigeonholed by her genre; she isn’t accorded the same kind of accolades as St Aubyn. Nor indeed is she a walking masterclass in well turned metaphors.

HOWEVER I was up to page 270 of her book at the end of the first sitting. Here is a psychological thriller that combines believable well drawn characters with a gripping plot; the kind that turns its own pages. Sheer escapism.

It’s a tale of a missing girl, a dead woman, a miscarriage of justice and two academics intrigued by the case thirty years later.  There are no beautiful sentences to pass on, but boy, I raced through it, really wanting to know if the gang rape of a thirteen year old is linked to the murder of a grandmother and the conviction of her grandson and his subsequent suicide.

So, there you have it: my take on the issue. If I want to delight in exquisite language, maybe up my own game, I’ll choose literary fiction. If I want to be entertained and lose myself in a good read I’m much more likely to go for genre fiction.

And as if to highlight the problem I subsequently came across a review of Steve Toltz ‘s new novel, Quicksand (which purports to be literary), but critic, Jon Day, slated it as ‘too pleased with itself to be properly satisfying.’ Ouch! He illustrates:

‘Nor do you feel Toltz is in total control of his figurative language. On the first page we get a lifeguard who looks like “a magnificent sea-Jesus” and a woman “riddled with breasts”. A shaft of sun is described as a “tumour of searing light”. Who is seeing this? Why a tumour? Someone else “looks like a taxidermy fail”; a room has “the quality of the inside of a wet cheek”; a pair of doctors swoop into a room “like a Mongol armies”. (Both of them?) It gets tiring. Sometimes Toltz is so pleased with one of his metaphors he’ll use it twice … There’s a lyrical absurdity and masculine swagger to the prose …’

Ouch, again. But you can sympathise with his quibble, can’t you? The ‘preposterous similes‘ and over-the-top figures of speech alienate the reader, stop you in your tracks, drawing attention more to the author’s  own (perceived) skill with words rather than what he’s writing about. A cautionary tale indeed which makes me feel marginally less heretical about saying what I’ve said. And further confirms my decision to avoid sophisticated similes and mesmerising metaphors myself.

 

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Marathon efforts

This weekend was a big occasion in our family. Four of our own were running in the Edinburgh Marathon Festival: son (full marathon ie. 26.2 miles), son-in-law (10k), grandson (5k and 2k) and granddaughter (2k). We were on the sidelines cheering for all the events, (yes, freezing cold wind and showers notwithstanding) watching them complete their courses with excellent timings. Here they are afterwards (in sunshine!) wearing their finishers shirts and medals. Huge congratulations all round.

Three medal winners  Third marathon safely completed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The EMF is a massive event: over 30,000+ folk taking part in total this year, 7,160 of those running the full 26.2 miles. The atmosphere is amazing. In less than an hour, Holyrood Park goes from this …

Holyrood Park before 10k

to this … !

Mass of runners in the 10KOn the day, the multitudes of runners cruise by with practised strides, often making it look effortless. Some even take the trouble to acknowledge our applause and encouragement. Occasionally we get a glimpse of the cost when cramps strike or energy levels plummet or shock/total exhaustion takes over, although the vast majority stay the course and keep the pain hidden. But behind the scenes, unseen, unsung, is weeks, months, years of gruelling training, building up stamina, perfecting techniques, eating carefully, pushing bodies to the limit.

The 2K  competitors

Writing a novel is a marathon of sorts – albeit a pale shadow of the sporting kind. It’s a long haul, the hard graft and persistence rarely recognised or understood. So it feels appropriate that today I should pay tribute to everyone who took part in the EMF – highlight the effort, the agony, the sacrifices, the determination, as well as the triumphs. I am full of admiration. And utterly amazed that you return year after year to repeat the anguish! I shall try to remember this when my courage quails at the thought of starting yet another novel.

 

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Adoption, AIDS and attitudes

It’s 22 years since homosexual acts were decriminalised in Ireland. Civil partnerships for gay couples have been legal there since 2010. But this Saturday Ireland became the first country in the world to legalise same sex marriage by popular vote. So it seems timely to review a book I read a while ago, which sets a context against which this latest development seems the more extraordinary.

Roll back to 1952 … An unmarried teenager, Philomena Lee, is sent to a convent for ‘fallen women’ – to spare the blushes of her family and society. There she gives birth to a little boy, Anthony. For three years she remains closeted with the nuns and her fellow unwed mothers, caring for him, loving him devotedly, and working like a slave. Life is harsh and the Catholic sisters severe, endlessly reminding the girls of their sinfulness. Those mothers and babies who die aren’t even buried in consecrated ground but in unmarked graves in a nearby field tended by no one. For the ones who survive, part of their endless punishment is to form deep emotional bonds with their child which are destined to be suddenly and irrevocably broken.

And so it is for Philomena: after three years Anthony is taken away by the church and ‘sold’ to an American couple. The authorities condoned the export and sale of Irish children at that time, trading them, choosing them on a whim, like ‘valuable pedigree animals’.  They turned a blind eye to the irregularities within the religious orders. 

PhilomenaThe real life story of Anthony’s experiences growing up in America, as told by TV presenter Martin Sixsmith in Philomena, is both painful and sad. Though reinvented and re-named – Michael Hess – he nevertheless remained full of ‘Catholic guilt’. All his life he believed he jinxed those whom he got close to – even presidents of the USA! And indeed bad luck did seem to follow him, although reading his story with a dispassionate eye, suggests that his own behaviour and innate sense of unworthiness was the cause of much of the unhappiness in his private life and relationships. As one therapist explained to his adopted father (himself a doctor) orphans make up a disproportionate percentage of inmates at treatment centres, detention facilities and special schools: ‘The orphan is always looking for acceptance but always expecting rejection.’ True to form, Michael was dogged by the adoptee’s sense of ‘never going to be good enough’, a belief reinforced by the nuns’ false report that he was abandoned at birth because his mother didn’t want him.

The effect on his relationships was corrosive from a young age, but when he started to have homosexual feelings the problems escalated. This was, after all, an age where same sex relationships were outlawed, hated and punishable. And his strict Roman Catholic upbringing meant that personal guilt was superimposed on inculcated religious guilt. It’s heart-wrenching to read of this naïve young man, while his urges still remained fantasies, researching the indulgences which promised a lessening of his punishment in purgatory, and concluding that ‘he could not hope for a plenary indulgence, a complete remission of his sins, because his offending thoughts were still within him, but he strove as best he could to minimize the retribution he would suffer for them.’

Once he began to actually indulge in gay liaisons his behaviour became increasingly erratic, risky and debauched, his attitudes to those who grew close to him was brutal, and again and again he destroyed the chance of private happiness offered by others. His public persona though, was quite different. There he was debonair, suave, kind, gentle, ambitious, successful. He rose through the ranks of law and politics until he was a right hand man to President Ronald Reagan; moving in the highest circles, respected, listened to, courted. The price he paid was high. In order to pursue the career he wanted he was obliged to join a party which promoted a harshly punitive anti-gay message, suppressing his principles, hiding his real proclivities. A tortured and destructive dual existence, lived on ‘a dreary carousel of recrimination and unspoken resentment’.

And throughout, even though he had risen ‘from illegitimate birth in an obscure Irish convent via the lottery of adoption to a position of influence in the world’s most powerful nation’, the lurking sense of his own unworthiness never left him. He was, he felt, like an imposter just waiting for his secrets to be exposed; both ‘a gay man in a homophobic party’ and ‘a rootless orphan in a world of rooted certainties’. His ‘addiction was secrecy and the rush of being in the wrong – of proving he was the flawed being he always knew he was.’

And what of his biological mother, Philomena? In her teens she was forced to sign official papers relinquishing all rights to contact or to try to trace him, but she never forgot him, and remained convinced that he would try to find her one day. We can only mourn with her that his efforts to do so were thwarted by the nuns, and she could only weep at his grave.

Philomena, then, is a much bigger book than I expected; much more than a story of their search for one another. It’s also an unravelling of attitudes; attitudes to homosexuality in America as well as to illegitimate sex in Ireland. Hypocrisy, double standards, condemnation in both cases. And it particularly resonated with me because as a midwife I cared for unmarried mothers terribly damaged by clandestine treatments and society’s cruelty before the abortion law was passed in this country; and as a university researcher I carried out empirical research into the attitudes and practices of people in relation to HIV and AIDS in the UK during the years when AIDS was incurable and gay men were fighting for equality and fair treatment. I saw at first hand what ignorance and fear and secrecy and a lack of human compassion could drive people to do. And how extraordinary acts of kindness can illuminate the darkness of misunderstanding and guilt.

And reading this haunting story of Philomena and her baby, of Michael’s life as a gay man with AIDS, I was reminded all over again of Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke’s adage: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

 

 

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