Hazel McHaffie

maternal love

Controversy writ large

News flash: ‘Reports of the death of the printed book have been greatly exaggerated.’ A recent study by the Publishers Association has shown that sales of printed versions are rising, and digital sales falling – the first time since e-readers were invented. Interesting. Watch this space, as they say.

But where am I with my own shelves of books …?

Ahah, yes: Julie Myerson has risen to the top of my pile. Author, critic, columnist, Myerson is no stranger to controversy. A few years ago she wrote a supposedly anonymous column in the Guardian called Living with Teenagers, which was later taken off the website in 2009 because the family were identified and one of her children was ridiculed at school. She’s also written about her father’s unsavoury side and her parents’ divorce. She’s revealed her own ‘breakdown’. But most notably, her very public eviction of her eldest child from the family home in 2009 caught the headlines. I remember it well – reviews of the book (The Lost Child), and her appearances on chat shows.

Reaction was mixed; admiration for her courage and honesty, criticism for her disloyalty and avarice (see for example). What exactly was going on behind the scenes here, I wondered? What would prompt a mother to expose her child in this way, turn their family story into a book, do so many interviews, make money out of their tragedy? What was her motivation? I felt I should make up my own mind on the evidence available.

Myerson books

Well, it’s taken me till now to read the book, now when my writerly brain is grappling with the whole issue or parent/child relationships. To give me context and perspective, I revisited her novel, Laura Blundy (which I read some years ago), and I also bought two of her other novels: The Quickening and Something Might Happen.

Overall impression? Her writing is quite dark with supernatural overtones. I confess I’m not a huge fan of her style. Too many. Short. Ungrammatical. Split up sentences. Like this. Can become annoying. And interrupt flow. The absence of speech marks requires extra effort. And dotting in and out of second person narration is an affectation that I find confusing and irritating. But I persevered nonetheless. And the verdict?

The Lost Child
The Lost Child
The most controversial book and the only non-fiction one of the three. It’s a curious mix of her own personal experience as the child of divorced parents and a mother in trouble, and the parallel story of her discovery of Mary Yelloly, a nineteen century girl who died at the age of 21 in 1838 leaving behind a touching legacy.

The historical research is fine but unexceptional. It’s the writer-as-mother theme that grabs my attention, with her eldest child, Jake, taking drugs, and by the age of 17, constantly truanting from school, out of control at home, lying, stealing, even physically violent with his parents. Ultimata are issued: behave or leave.
‘But we reach a point where it’s him or us. Him or this family …
And every day is given over to dealing with the wreckage. All the joy and pleasure of normal family life has been replaced with dull-eyed damage control.’

Myerson begs the school to impose boundaries; expel him. In the end she applies the ‘terrible‘ last resort herself: eviction from the family home; a change of locks on the doors.

Some reviewers have linked the two main threads by contrasting the Victorian scourge of consumption which decimated the Yelloly family, with the modern plague of drugs ruining the lives of the Myersons. Others parallel the loss of the nineteenth century mother with that of the twenty-first century one. Whatever, for me it’s the betrayal of Jake that overrides any other consideration of merit or otherwise. Does it really help raise awareness of the dangers of drugs to lay bare a ‘celebrity’s’ family troubles? Or offer consolation to other parents in trouble? I’m not convinced the price is worth paying. Added to that, doubts have been cast on the veracity of some of the personal story as well. I have no means of verifying this point either way. But I’m left troubled.

As for Myerson’s other books, they helped me to get a sense of her style and her predilections, and better to understand the ghosts and hints of the supernatural which haunt her writing generally. For the purposes of this blog, a quick summary of the fiction.

The Quickening
The Quickening
A honeymoon in the Caribbean: a holiday on an island paradise with the brand new husband, Dan, whom she adores – what’s not to like? But for newly pregnant Rachel the dream soon turns into a nightmare. Mysterious things keep happening. Strange and sinister people appear and vanish. A murderer strikes. Dan dismisses her fears as dreams, but who exactly is this man who married her with such haste after the death of her father? What secrets from his past are haunting them on this idyllic island of Antigua? The tension mounts as she struggles to avoid the fate she feels closing in on her; and the author certainly kept me wondering right up to the final plot twist.

Something might Happen
Something Might HappenIt’s all there – the gruesome murder, a trophy taken, the clues, the false trails, the search for the perpetrator, suspicion, a persistent family liaison officer – all the hallmarks of the classic whodunnit. But Myerson’s real preoccupation is not with solving the crime, but rather with the sheer messiness of grief. Mum of four, Tess, struggles to sort out her complex feelings for the murdered woman’s husband, for her own husband, for the liaison officer – but I’m afraid her behaviour stretched my credulity a step too far. However the erosion of trust within the community and the secret fears of the children are a salutary reminder that grief can threaten security and ripple out in hidden ways.

Interesting reads. Not in my top fifty favourites.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Maternal love

In March of this year, Tania Clarence was 42. She lived in a smart five-bedroom house in an affluent area in south-west London. Her husband was an investment banker. She employed a nanny. The trappings of wealth and privilege, you might think.

But on 22nd April, while her husband was abroad, Mrs Clarence ended the lives of three of her children: 3-year-old twin sons, Ben and Max, and daughter Olivia, aged 4, all of whom suffered from type 2 spinal muscular atrophy, a degenerative wasting disease. She suffocated them and then tried to kill herself with an overdose. She was adamant that she didn’t want to be saved; she couldn’t live with the horror of what she’d done. How often must she have regretted that her suicide attempt failed.

Six months later, this week in fact, her defending QC said, ‘caring for three children with this condition was exhausting, distressing, debilitating and turned out to be overwhelming.’ Indeed. She pleaded guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. Medical reports described how she was suffering from major depressive illness. The courts have decreed she will not be charged with murder, but she will in all probability be treated in a psychiatric hospital.

Unless we’re drowning in her problems, it’s impossible for any of us to really empathise with the depths which drove her to this point, but I’m sure we can all understand her despair and depression. There was never going to be an escape from this intolerable burden, not just the relentless workload, but watching all three beloved children getting steadily more disabled.

I feel huge sympathy for her. And I say this with some feeling, because when my own firstborn collapsed aged 3 weeks and his doctors predicted a lifetime of disability, pain and suffering for him, I distinctly remember feeling that death would be preferable for him: better that I should be the one bearing the pain of losing him, than that he should suffer. So I for one am devoutly glad that the courts have decided Tania Clarence should not have to face murder charges. She is already serving a life sentence, poor woman.

FolderAmongst the files on my desk for future novels is this one, labelled ‘Mothers Convicted of Child Death or Damage’. I’m not sure I will ever have the courage to write it, but Mrs Clarence’s story goes into it for now.

PS. For those who don’t know, my firstborn defied medical prognoses, and is a totally healthy young man today; he has always been hugely loved. So please don’t waste any sympathy on me. Or castigate me for my callous approach to motherhood! Not for a second did I ever contemplate actually killing him, but then I was never driven beyond endurance.

, , , , , , ,

Comments

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.

Shutterstock image

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?

 

, , , , , , , ,

Comments