Hazel McHaffie

homosexuality

The Crying Tree

Daniel Robbins has been on death row for nineteen years (half of his life) when the execution warrant arrives.

29 October 2004. One minute after midnight.

29 October is my birthday, so the date instantly hooked me in. When we’re young we count down the days – or sleeps! – to such dates; imagine counting down to your own death, or that of someone you love.

Robbins had a troubled upbringing, in and out of care, and there’s now no one in the outside world who’s in contact with him. But he remembers one thing his real mother taught him: Truth is not necessarily what people want to hear, and now he’s in prison because he failed to tell the truth – the truth about how, in 1985, he came to shoot dead 15-year-old Shep Stanley. Shep’s father is Deputy Sheriff Nathaniel Stanley (Nate), and it was he who found the fatally wounded boy. He cradled Shep while he bled to death, and his testimony helped put the 19-year-old shooter in the state penitentiary, and on death row.

Shep’s mother, Irene, is beside herself, depressed and suffocated by pain. Shep was the apple of her eye, her world. Even her daughter, Bliss, feels left out. Believing she couldn’t cope with hearing the truth about what really happened on the night of her son’s murder, Nate keeps the secret for nineteen years. Until, that is, he discovers his wife has been secretly writing to the condemned man for years … that she’s forgiven him. Incensed beyond control he blurts out the truth. The revelation catapults Irene into a frenzy of activity which takes her all the way to the window opposite her son’s killer.

The book, The Crying Tree ( a perfect title) is cleverly structured. The first section flips between the years leading up to the murder and its aftermath (1983-1990) – and the days immediately after the death warrant comes through (the first two days of October 2004). The second part picks up at 1995 and takes us up to 7 October 2004. The third and fourth sections inch us ominously through the remaining days of October 2004 as the condemned man counts down the rest of his mortal life.

I didn’t see the twist at the end of section 3 coming – always a thrill! – and Irene’s reaction to the truth Nate reveals is powerfully captured in some brilliant passages describing her whole life disintegrating (P247-8), beginning with ‘Irene drove south on Highway 3, speeding past river towns like Neunert and Grand Tower. Headlights made her squint, trains made her stop, and the words her husband had said made her shake with fury … she had no idea what to do with Nate’s confession.’

Alongside the story of the Stanleys’ life and tragedies, we walk beside the man responsible for masterminding the actual execution, Superintendent Tab Mason. He’s a damaged soul himself after years of terrible abuse. He feels the weight of his responsibility acutely – it’s not a job, it’s an ‘ordeal’ – and he has real issues with the notion of forgiveness. Execution is a rare occurrence in Oregon; the last one was seven years earlier, and this is Mason’s first case being ‘in the driving seat’. ‘We’re talking about a man’s life, and I won’t be tolerating any talk that may lead someone to believe we are in any way eager to take on this job.’  He’s determined that every man jack involved in any way, is prepared for this. ‘There are thresholds on the road to killing someone … everyone, from officer to cleanup crew, had to figure out whether or not he had it in him to cross over that line.’

But his careful planning and preparation is thrown into chaos when the murdered man’s mother writes to him … when she arrives seeking mercy … when her daughter supports her – a woman who is herself a criminal prosecutor who’s ‘probably put more men to death than he had sitting in his entire unit‘! It’s a ‘compellingly outrageous‘ situation to be in.

The author of this superb book, Naseem Rakha, an acclaimed journalist, doesn’t shirk the big questions either. The rightness of capital punishment. The Biblical understanding of Do Not Kill. Religion and homosexuality. The meaning and consequences of forgiveness. How grief affects people. Punishment and imprisonment. Nature versus nurture. Weighty questions all.

And her command of language is fabulous. I Iove the idea of
– a face ‘buttered with sympathy’ or ‘buffed of expression and the eyes drained of color’, of – a man running to ‘get as far away from himself as possible’.
 – the women in a backwater, ‘their long flannel shirts covering up what gravity had claimed’.
– the people in the tavern ‘strung out on a line waiting for life to turn better’.

Her masterly handling of suspense and conflict, particularly in the chambers where the deed will be/is done, chills the spine. I experienced a CT procedure recently which necessitated everyone else leaving the room leaving me alone in the tunnel with an IV infusion to automatically shoot dye into my veins and thence into my heart, while a robotic disembodied voice warned me it was coming, and my body reacted strangely to the substance. It felt weirdly isolating. And I could see parallels. Only, in my case, I lived to recall the experience!

The Crying Tree is no run-of-the-mill miscarriage of justice story, no who-really-done-it. This is a tale that gets deep inside the heart of a family torn apart by the murder of a beloved and talented son, an act that forever changes the meaning and cohesion of their lives and relationships. Some of the attitudes and language make us cringe today in the UK, but this was the US in the 2000s, and it’s a salutary reminder of how prejudice, ignorance and intolerance can ruin lives. Shep’s mother ends up realising she failed her son, but ‘We all make mistakes … Every one of us. And we all pay. One way or another, we all pay.’

A masterpiece from a hugely talented writer.

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A Place Called Winter

All except one of my trusted readers/critics have now given me their feedback on my latest book, Listen. Exciting times. But before I sit down for a serious edit, I’m immersing myself in some exquisite writing, beautiful language from the pen of a master, that will be a incentive to me to raise my own game – I hope!

The author? Patrick Gale. The book? A Place Called Winter. A sad, tender, compelling tale of Harry Cane’s battle with his own demons, the taboos of his day, and the wild wastelands of a new country. It’s an intensely personal novel inspired by a true story from Gale’s own family history: one gay man reaching out with sympathy and deep feeling to another (his mother’s grandfather) across a century of social change.

Harry Cane is born into privilege, raised to ‘believe that what mattered was to be unmistakably a gentleman’. He rides horses; others muck out their stables. His soft hands remain idle while callouses build up on the palms of his social inferiors. But his childhood is emotionally impoverished, with his mother dead and his father absent, schooldays punctuated by all the trials upper class boys can inflict on those they see as weaker prettier mortals. Consequently his life is centred on his younger brother Jack. It’s Jack who drags his shy insecure brother into society after their father’s death and introduces him to Winifred Wells, his future wife. Theirs is a gentle undemanding relationship which reluctantly produces one daughter before it settles into platonic coexistence.

The time is the early 1900s; apartheid is unchallenged; class distinctions rule; abortion and homosexuality are unlawful, the latter punishable by hard labour and utter disgrace; ‘treatment’ for psychiatric illness and ‘deviance’ is draconian. When his brother-in-law discovers Harry’s guilty secret, Harry – now an exiled ‘unmentionable‘ – signs up for a new start in a new country, Canada, one of 511 passengers on a ship sailing to the unknown.

The vast impossible prairies are simply waiting to be tamed, and after serving his year-and-a-day apprenticeship to a Danish farmer, Harry commits himself to converting 160 acres of wild wasteland into a self-sufficient thriving homestead within three years. Setting out with simply the map coordinates SW 23-43-25-W3, and directions to a place called Winter scribbled on the brown paper the cheese was wrapped in. An English innocent in a harsh unbroken landscape where there is ‘not much call for cash‘, and ‘neighbour is a relative term‘.

His closest neighbours are a brother and sister, Paul and Petra Slaymaker, whose lives become intimately entwined with his own. Beautiful relationships are established which are tested in the cauldron of  gossip, violence, war and illness. But their peace is threatened much more by the reappearance of a common enemy whose actions and knowledge cast a long shadow over their lives.

Gale’s writing is superb. His characters are beautifully realised, their emotions are captured with tenderness and palpable truth, and the abiding fear of loss, disgrace and exile haunts every hour of reading. Much as I revelled in the writing, though, I had a powerful feeling of desolation at times. Harry’s apologetic personality, his sad acceptance of the degrading things that happen to him, his gentle resilience, his innate decency even in the face of extreme provocation, stand in sharp contrast to the militance and ferocity of modern day campaigners for individual and collective rights. I wanted to reach out to him with compassion, understanding and reassurance.

But it’s a novel. I must instead give you a flavour of the lyrical prose:

… hot breakfast rolls as soft and pale as infancy.

… torn rags of sentences.

… they gave the impression of having emerged, fully formed, from eggs, as brittle as the waxy shells they had discarded.

There’s the heir and the spare and the heiress-beware.

A horse is ‘like a sofa with hooves‘.

‘Vaccinated by this cruel loss of his first daughter, he approached fatherhood the second time round with a certain reserve. He did not consciously harden his heart, but he loved with hands metaphorically behind his back.’

… war was declared in August, when harvest preparations were at their height. The news was sown swiftly, shaken from pulpits and scattered by posters and threshing gangs.’

I rarely give a book 5*s – this novel reminds me why. It wholeheartedly merits them. Highly recommended.

*****

 

 

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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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Jodi Picoult as ebook

As you know I have an ambivalent relationship with Jodi Picoult‘s books. House RulesBut I confess I had a bit of a revival of interest when I read House Rules (reviewed on this blog back in February). Super book about autism.

So, when I was deciding which books to sample on the Kindle – just to check whether I really really did want to leap into the twenty-first century – one of the first on my list was Sing you Home. I read it ages ago but it’s taken me till now to get around to posting my comments. Which probably says a lot about my rating of the book.

Sing you HomeThe story revolves around Zoe and Max Baxter whose marriage is on the rocks after a number of failed attempts to have a baby. (Yeah, yeah, I know. I do bang on about these issues.) Anyway, Zoe finds comfort in Vanessa whose work as a school counsellor overlaps with her own music therapy. They go on to ‘marry’ and decide they want children.

Zoe already has frozen embryos left over from her IVF with Max. Using them seems like a no-brainer. But Max is now a born-again religious zealot, vigorously opposed to same sex unions, and he fights Zoe’s claims through the courts.

OK, some of the issues are my territory but that doesn’t mean I’m bound to like books on these subjects. Indeed, I can be super critical of the way authors deal with medicine and ethics. So, what was my verdict on Sing you Home? Hmm.

It’s the usual Picoult formula:
Major social issues
Multiple voices speaking in the first person.
Lots of amateur psychology.
Big social issues.
A courtroom drama

It has one unique feature:
Accompanying songs, the lyrics of which were composed by Picoult herself. An interesting ‘gimmick’, entirely fitting with the story line about a music therapist who reaches troubled people through songs.

A few amusing/thoughtful quotes to make you smile/wonder:
Max on the effect of infertility on their marriage
‘Our sex life had become like Thanksgiving dinner with a dysfunctional family – something you have to show up for, even though you’re not really having a good time … want had become need and then obsession … There was no room in my marriage for me anymore, except as genetic material.’

Vanessa on society’s attitude to homosexuality
‘I remember my mother telling me that, when she was a little girl in Catholic school, the nuns used to hit her left hand every time she wrote with it. Nowadays, if a teacher did that, she’d probably be arrested for child abuse. The optimist in me wants to believe sexuality will eventually become like handwriting: there’s no right way and wrong way to do it. We’re all just wired differently.
It’s also worth noting that, when you meet someone, you never bother to ask if he’s right- or left-handed.
After all: Does it really matter to anyone other than the person holding the pen?’

Zoe’s on school canteen
‘It looks like every other school cafeteria I’ve ever seen – a life-size petri dish breeding social discontent, students sorting themselves into individual genuses: the Popular Kids, the Geeks, the Jocks, The Emos.’

Vanessa’s on court protocol
‘The clerk scrambles forward to make his announcement as Judge O’Neill strides off the bench, so that we all rise, too, like some magnetic after-effect of his anger.’

I liked:
The insights into what music therapy can achieve with the depressed, the dying, the dementing.
The sympathetic and empathetic principal female characters.

I disliked:
The stereotypical portrayal of bigoted right-wing Christianity.
The pseudo-psychology everybody seems to indulge in.
The occasional misuse of medical terms (or maybe it’s simply American shorthand).
The anomalies in the formatting that crept in during conversion.

So, a mixed bag. Not a patch on House Rules.

Oh, just before I go, if you’re weighed down by the stress of Christmas preparations, or feeling jaded by lack of daylight hours, or in anyway down in the dumps, I recommend you go to dovegreyreader‘s post for Saturday December 10. It’s called Security knitting alert …start casting on everyone and it’s sure to bring a smile to your face.

 

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