Hazel McHaffie

child abduction

When children vanish …

It’s hard to imagine anything more devastating than a child being abducted, not knowing where they are, if they are even alive. Didn’t we all shudder in our beds when Madeleine McCann vanished while on holiday in Portugal back in 2007? Imagining … Fearing … Would you ever stop searching every face, every place?

But … imagine finding out that your kidnapped child has been systematically abused, tortured, degraded … Doesn’t bear thinking about, does it? I could only approach this topic from the safe distance of a writer’s analytical perspective. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have the courage to let myself creep inside the head of such a parent in order to write from their point of view, so I’m intrigued by authors who do dare such a thing.

SB Caves is one such.

In his debut publication, I know Where She Is, Francine Cooper’s daughter Autumn has been missing for ten years. Francine has been bombarded with crank calls and cruel bogus contacts, and has eventually moved house to escape, putting herself beyond the reach of all except her ex-husband and work colleagues. Or so she hoped. Then, out of the blue, she gets an anonymous note containing just five words ‘scrawled in jagged chicken scratch’: I KNOW WHERE SHE IS. She’s ready to dismiss it as yet another cruel hoax by a twisted mind, a sick creep who gets a thrill out of torturing vulnerable people. But then a young girl appears, encrusted in dirt, stinking, claiming to have sent it, and knowing things that only Autumn would know – a favourite lullaby, family names, a photo.

If you thought entering the world of Francine’s grief would be harrowing, you might well baulk at the prospect of hearing the full horror of what this ragamuffin child has to tell her. Behind the expansive opulence of wildly expensive mansions and gated communities and celebrity adulation, the truth is laden with such depths of human depravity it’s nauseating to read, never mind consider possible.

Without delivering spoilers, it’s fair to say this shocking tale falls somewhere between the reality of Jimmy Savile‘s reign of terror and the dystopian horrors of the Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale And the ending leaves so many questions unanswered. Definitely not a book for the faint-hearted or insomniacs. And not a scenario I’ll be including in any of my own books, I’m quite sure of that.

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Children in trouble

Eh dear, why did I decide to write about pathological parenting? It’s causing me a fair few troubled nights, I can tell you. I’m currently trying to get inside the skin of children … parents … professionals … involved in these disturbing situations. And boy, is it harrowing!i There’s a heavy cloud hanging over me just reading about these traumatic experiences.

With all this in mind I was instantly drawn to three novels by Susan Lewis which I discovered in a charity shop quite by chance on my way to a hospital appointment. I zipped through the first two chapters while I waited to be called.

I’ve always marvelled at the ability of social workers to bear the burden of troubled families where parents may not be the best people to look after their offspring. Deciding when that line is crossed, taking them away … dealing with criticism whichever way they go, threats, physical harm … I’m not made of that kind of courage and stamina, that’s for sure. So it was profoundly disturbing to walk alongside overworked and under-appreciated Alex Lake as she lurches from problem family to problem family in No Child of Mine.

Alex is a social worker, passionate about protecting children from those who mean them harm. In No Child of Mine, there’s a veritable A-Z of toxic situations: abandonment, alcoholism, broken relationships, desertion, drug addiction, Fabricated or Induced Illness by Carers, mental illness, murder, paedophilia, physical abuse, sexual violation …! Yoiks! How do social workers ever manage to switch off? How do they preserve professional barriers? If they don’t care, are they in the right job? If they do care, what price do they pay for emotional connection? How do they cope with being principal scapegoats for the press and public? If, on top of that, they carry the additional burden of an horrific history of their own, as Alex does, what then?

Challenging tales to say the least. Taut, sinister, intense. I wanted to wrap Alex herself up in a comfort blanket and smuggle her away to a safe place, never mind the children! Small wonder that Susan Lewis found this one of the hardest stories to tell (… caution there for me!). And we’re left wondering if the fragile solution at the end can possibly hold. Which is why the author chose to continue the story in a sequel: Don’t Let Me Go. Since both books are a door-stopping 580+ pages long, I guess it’s lucky for us she split the story into two parts!

By now Alex has reinvented herself as Charlotte Nicholls and moved to the other side of the world. Life in New Zealand in a new family helps to heal deep wounds, but then suddenly, dramatically, her entire world is blown apart. Do pure motives ever excuse illegal actions? Should a vulnerable child become a victim all over again just to ensure the paperwork is all shipshape? What price is too high in the search for justice? I was on tenterhooks to find out the fate of a terrified and traumatised four-year-old. How would she react to being ripped from the heart of a family who loved her so deeply? And handed to a series of strangers, strangers who held none of the keys to the doors that protected her from her own private hell? And how would the law deal with a professional who had knowingly flouted its diktats? I’m relieved that we got to hear how the situation was resolved, although it’s sobering to realise that neither Chloe/Ottilie nor Charlotte/Alex can ever erase the traumas of their early lives.

I might well quibble about some dubious elements of this story – there are issues with time frames and professional boundaries – but such is the compelling nature of the storyline that I found myself well able to suspend disbelief in order to focus on the underlying messages. And as a result I have even more respect for the brave souls who spend their lives working for the good of these vulnerable children, too often unseen and unsung – like our emergency services dealing with this terrible spate of atrocities and tragedies. And for authors like Susan Lewis who help us to understand in our hearts as well as our brains.

NB. The third book, Stolen, didn’t resonate in the same way and I found the story line too far fetched to be plausible. But since the subject matter is less relevant to my own character development or research, nothing lost there.

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Ethics in the news

Every now and then I like to give you a glimpse into the world of medical ethics that continually fires my imagination. Just since I wrote my blog last week we’ve had the following stories in the media – apologies in advance, the list grew and grew as the week went on! See what you think about them? Do you have any simple answers? What would your solution be? Where does your mind travel? I’ll give you links so you can find out more about any of the cases you’re interested in.

Thinking about a solutionA grandmother has given birth to a surrogate child for her single son in his mid-twenties using his sperm with a donor egg. A judge has ruled that, though unusual, the arrangement is entirely lawful. But … is it ethically acceptable? Who is brother … father … mother …? What about sixteen years down the line? My mind goes into overdrive. How about yours?

Zach Parnaby is 20 months old and his family are already working down a bucket list of his favourite things before he dies. He has Krabbe Leukodystrophy. A pinprick screening test could have detected the disease soon after birth, giving them the option of a bone marrow transplant, but his parents were told it isn’t done for cost reasons. Is this reasonable and just? What price would you put on a child’s life? How would you juggle competing demands for limited resources?

Sarah Marquis is a 41 year old lawyer specialising in white collar crime. In 2008 doctors failed to spot that her appendix had burst and she was rendered infertile. The hospital have admitted liability but their lawyers are insisting that she deserves less compensation because she has been free to pursue her career without the breaks necessary for child bearing. Is this appropriate and fair? What if she went on to have a child through IVF … ?

17 years ago Zephany Nurse was stolen from her sleeping mother’s arms. But now, by a coincidence, she has met up with her biological sister and been reunited with her birth mother. Her abductor, whose own child was stillborn, apparently cared for her well, and this week we heard that Zephany refuses to testify against her. Should the woman be allowed to go free? Who do you think should best occupy the parenting role?

QuestioningFrom this week Canadian patients will be allowed to ask their physicians to help them end lives that have become burdensome to them. Their Supreme Court ruling was unanimous. Do you agree with them? Should the UK follow suit, d’you think?

Seven years ago an NHS consultant had a malignant growth removed from her thyroid gland and was discharged home the following morning, even though she was already showing signs of a dangerously low calcium level in her blood. However her medical knowledge told her she was in big trouble and she dialled 999, saving her own life. She has just been awarded a six figure sum by the hospital trust who admitted liability. How would this have all panned out if she’d been your average ordinary Joe Bloggs?

A US study has found that hard physical work damages a man’s sperm. So …? Does this give men the right to refuse to work on the grounds of their human rights? This could get interesting!

A proposal has been made that seriously ill patients could be offered organs from high risk donors (eg. cancer patients, smokers, the elderly or drug users) to help address the chronic shortage of available organs for transplant. Let your mind ramble over the possible scenarios of this in terms of the possible donors … Would you accept second best … for yourself? … for the person you love most in the world?

ImaginingThe NHS has just launched a controversial online calculator. It’s said to predict when someone will have a heart attack or stroke. Hello? Would you wish to be told that? Would you alter your lifestyle to prevent it? Would that negate the prediction? A couple of days later we’re told that ‘two families will be the first to receive personalised care based on their DNA as part of a national plan to sequence 1000,000 genomes.’ Is this science fiction coming true? Or a utopian dream? Where will it lead?

Back to the humdrum everyday … A survey of more than 1000 cancer patients has found that 1 in 10 is left unwashed, undressed or untoileted because of a lack of careworkers. And we all thought cancer was high priority; it was the elderly who were neglected. But then we hear that 26% of councils in England failed to properly consider the needs of people with arthritis, and 66% failed to consider back pain – conditions which affect 7 million people in England and account for £5 billion of NHS spending. What do these studies say about the allocation of resources and priorities? Oh, but hey ho, on the same page … scientists have found a class of drugs that dramatically slow ageing … in mice at least. So is this where the money will go? An elixir of youth? Ahhh, wait a wee minute … plans are in hand to build the UK’s first proton beam therapy cancer treatment centres in London and Manchester. Just who is deciding how and where the money is being allocated here? And if you were in charge …?

Still with resources … As from this week 16 very expensive drugs which have been clinically proven to increase the lifespan of terminally ill patients, are to be removed from the approved list of the Cancer Drugs Fund, as announced in January. Imagine your beloved was dying prematurely … Is it possible to reduce the well-being and hope of any family to pounds and pence? Should drug companies be allowed to raise obscene amounts of money from the tragedies of others?

Ex-serviceman Chris Graham is 39. He has a 6 week old baby. He also has early onset dementia. It’s in his genes. His brother has it; he’s 43 and totally incapacitated and dependent on others. Their father, grandfather, aunt and cousin all died of it in their forties too. Chris might have passed it on to his baby son. At what point should a halt be called to this perpetuation of tragedy? Should it ever? What if scientists modified the family germline …?

These news items were all reported in just one week of the year – a mere 7 days. They’re the kind of clippings that find their way into my ideas folders because they set my brain asking, ‘What if …?’. ‘Supposing ….’ ‘Would this be believable?’ Trouble is, my brain has a finite capacity … and shrinking! And there simply isn’t time to turn all these possibilities into stories.

(NB. For the purposes of this blog I’ve made no effort to pursue the facts behind these stories; I’m just sharing what anyone might know from the papers.)

 

 

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Motherhood lost and found

Shutterstock image

Shutterstock image

How did you feel, I wonder, when you heard this past week about the bodies of 800 children in a septic tank in Western Ireland, stumbled upon by a group of teenagers in 1995 and now suspected to be the tip of a much larger iceberg? The site was formerly that of a home for unwed mothers between 1925 and 1961; decades during which illegitimacy carried a serious stigma, abortion was illegal, and infant mortality rates were high.

I’m old enough to distinctly remember the effects of backstreet abortions: the terrible sepsis, the mutilation, the deaths of young women, abandoned babies … I was a practising midwife in Scotland in the 1960s and worked in areas of multiple deprivation as well as a large specialist hospital, so I saw these things firsthand. Even after the Abortion law came into effect here in 1967, Irish girls had no such provision, so they came across the sea secretly for a way out of their dilemma.

This latest news story of the 800 bodies brought back long-buried memories and emotions for me; it was a harsh era riddled with double standards and hypocrisy. But it also reminded me of a book I’ve read much more recently:  A Small Part of Me.

The author is Nöelle Harrison who’s spent the last two decades living and working in Ireland, where part of this story is set. Briefly, the novel tells of a family hedged about by these same harsh realities and customs, at once offering protection and driving them apart. Christina’s mother, Greta, left home without warning when her daughter was just six years old. Her mother’s best friend, Angeline, took over the maternal role and eventually became her stepmother. Now in her early thirties, Christina has reached a crisis in her own marriage, and she goes on the run with her younger son, Cian, to find her lost mother and offer her forgiveness.

Her journey takes her to the west coast of Canada where she meets Luke, a native Canadian with his own sorry tale of family breakdown and guilt. They are instantly attracted to each other, and he helps Christina find the place where her mother now lives, although sadly they arrive one day too late. Angelina follows Christina and Cian from Ireland to Canada, and she reveals a very different story from the one Christina has believed all her life. (I’m deliberately omitting colourful detail so as not to spoil the story if you plan to read it.)

It’s not the easiest of reads. It flips about between both the main characters’ points of view and in time, and until I got to know the characters, I confess I found it a trifle confusing. Not surprisingly: both Greta and Christina have mental health issues; both apparently failed as mothers; both ‘lost’ their children; both had troubled childhoods. However Harrison subtly captures the constraints and customs and mores of an earlier time, the prejudice, the naivety, the punitive laws and judgements, which had a very powerful effect on women there – the same ‘decency rules’ which underpin the real life story of that macabre graveyard which is now the subject of a police investigation.

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Shutterstock image

I, for one, would not want to go back to those dark days when life was cheap and appearances were everything … although, it could be argued that today’s permissive attitude to abortion itself cheapens life. What do you think?

 

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Girl Under Pressure

Priority at the moment has to be the promotion of Over my Dead Body, so research on the next book has been relegated to a back seat. Sad but true. However, that doesn’t stop the ideas simmering.

Anorexic booksRemember this row of books about anorexia? Well, so far I’ve read only 7, but already I’ve come to a definite decision: weight loss mustn’t drive my story. Frankly I’m bored out of my skull with it already! Admittedly most of the books have been teen fiction and not really my kind of reading in the first place, but they’ve served a useful function in that they’ve shown me clearly what to rule out of my own writing.

It was Girl under Pressure, an ebook by Michele Corriveau, that clinched it. The only one to date with anything approaching a gripping storyline, which has held my interest, and had no sense of being a cautionary tale. It’s also sufficiently whacky to make me admire the author’s courage in tackling such disturbing themes.

The story begins with the abduction and death of a little girl, Jessie. Not an easy topic but it came as a breath of fresh air after the previous six books, and I was struck by the literary possibilities it offered. The horror for the two main families of discovering Jessie has been snatched offers a potentially powerful hook to create tension and emotional engagement from the outset. I say ‘potentially’ because sadly the author doesn’t fully capitalise on her good idea. The incident is dealt with too quickly and too coldly – a source of considerable frustration for me as a reader; but at least I could appreciate what might have been.

NB. If you’re considering reading this book, I should warn you the rest of this post contains spoilers.

 As a child, the main protagonist, Maggie, uses food to bargain with God to stop bad things happening to those she loves – it’s called magical thinking. But then food becomes an obsession. As the years go on, her OCD escalates and she progresses to stealing in an effort to stop the pressure mounting inside her. She can’t think straight until she’s stopped the voices that demand she carries out this act. Once she’s done it, she can calmly go on living her life. Stealing then gives way to a compulsion to seek out strangers for sex.

 She gets beaten up and raped more than once by the men she goes with and the reader starts to get a real sense of the power of the OCD that has her in its grip. These horrific experiences aren’t enough to stop her continuing to put herself at risk. Maggie’s husband, Alex, becomes increasingly anxious and bewildered by her behaviour; she either conjures up improbable stories, or simply refuses to talk about what’s happened. Then one day, things come to a head. She meets a man on a park bench and accompanies him to his home for sex. He thinks she’s a child because she is so tiny and looks immature, and when he’s unable to dominate her as he wants/needs, he becomes extremely violent. When she sees his face on TV as a man wanted for questioning in relation to the abduction of little Jessie, the only daughter of her friends, Maggie is appalled. He can’t be guilty; at the time in question he was with her.

In spite of her dread of exposing her own sordid behaviour, and the effect of such a revelation on her beloved husband, Maggie’s conscience drives her to go to the police to clear this man’s name. Alex is utterly appalled when he learns the truth. He leaves her, taking the children with him. But in fact her alibi is false because one of her children had changed the clock in the car. This man hadn’t been with her at the critical time. He had killed Jessie just before he picked up Maggie in the park. So she’d risked and lost everything for a murderer and paedophile.

I found the plotting intriguing and the storyline very different, but it was spoiled for me by the litter of typographical errors and the muddled point of view in places. I wanted to give it a good edit and send it out into the world spruced up.

 But, thanks to Corriveau, I’ve been able to turn a negative into a positive and learn a valuable lesson about what not to do in my own writing.

 

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