Hazel McHaffie

religion

On a serious note …

You might be forgiven for suspecting I read only fiction. Not so. Alongside the reading I do to hone my skills as a novelist, I also study topics that relate to my ethical interests. And lately that’s been around discrimination on the basis of different-ness. I rarely talk about these books on my blog as they’re unlikely to appeal to most of my readers.

Ethics and religion are often intertwined and I’ve been trying to tease out why devout believers are often very judgemental and apparently blinkered. I’m thinking not so much of the extreme level of torturing and killing young women who refuse to conform to a strict dress code – the kind of ferocity that hits the headlines – or the fierce opposition to clinics helping women grappling with the consequences of an unwanted or unsafe pregnancy, we’ve seen in the USA this year. Rather I’m exploring the rationale behind closing the doors of the church against people who are coming to a different conclusion on topics like LGBTQ+ or gender equality. And I’m not looking in one specific direction; we see it across religions and denominations, amongst the rank and file members, as well as the hierarchy paid to lead their flocks.

I’m particularly perplexed where the Christian religion is concerned. Not just because ours is a nominally Christian country, and it’s the faith community I’ve been a member of all my life, but more because, after all, it’s a religion purporting to be founded on love – for God and one’s fellow-man/woman. Surely the God whom Jesus Christ came to reveal is bigger than the petty details his followers get bogged down in? Surely he can accommodate different-ness? Surely he doesn’t want his people to be uniform clones made in an image designed by a founder of any given specific denomination? The whole of nature is full of infinite variety – just watch a couple of episodes of The Frozen Planet II!

So am I coming from a prejudiced standpoint here? I’m trying not to. And to that end I’m looking at both sides of the argument, as far as it’s humanly and humbly possible, with an open mind. Right now I’m embedded in the issue of same-sex relationships. Talking with people who espouse differing views, engaging in correspondence with those who challenge my own understanding, and reading, reading, reading. Three books give a flavour of where I’ve been – each valuable in their own way.

Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why, by neuroscientist Simon LeVay, deals with the science of homosexuality from an academic standpoint; a kind of meta-analysis of the huge number of studies that have looked into a range of biological and psychological and social factors that might predispose someone to be gender-nonconformist. It’s fascinating but probably not for the faint-hearted. Suffice to say, it’s a ringing endorsement of the biological and inbuilt nature of same sex attraction on more counts than you would imagine.

By contrast, Unclobber is a much easier read. It looks at the six so-called ‘clobber passages’ in the Christian Bible that are commonly believed to say that homosexuality is a sin which God hates. Pastor Colby Martin argues that not only have these sections been misunderstood and misused, but that there is a compelling case for the church to welcome everyone regardless of their sexual orientation.

Preston Sprinkle, an academic professor, pastor and ‘ordinary dude’, challenges Christians to look at the LGBTG+ community afresh. His book, People To Be Loved: Why homosexuality is not just an issue, is a model for how to move away from the sometimes hostile confrontational kind of exchange too often seen in the past, and towards a useful balanced discussion on the subject; to see past the distant theoretical arguments and look into the faces of real people with heartbreaking stories of rejection to tell. Like Unclobber, this slim volume seeks to put common assumptions on one side and discover what the Bible actually says about homosexuality, and then to evaluate how we should treat those who make up that divergent group. Though it’s a deeper and more methodical study of the subject, it’s very accessible, and it’s challenging. The author comes to a different conclusion from Colby Martin where the Scriptural passages are concerned (he thinks the Bible tells us that same-sex sex is against God’s will), but nevertheless he advocates the same kind of unconditional grace.

If I had to sum up where these authors take me I might say being homosexual is definitely not a lifestyle choice, it’s inherent. It’s not so much an issue to be solved, it’s more about vulnerable people who need to love and be loved – loved without footnotes, without a background check, without fine print (as Sprinkle puts it). What that looks like might differ according to which side of the fence we come down on. And that’s the crunch point – how to reach out in love.

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Broadmoor

Broadmoor. The very word carried a deeply chilling resonance. The most infamous high security hospital in the world. Makes me think of spine-chilling names like Peter Sutcliffe, Ronnie Kray, Charles Bronson … serial killing, cannibalism, paedophilia, arson, and the like heinous crimes. Or the horrific occasion in 1977, when two inmates trapped a third in a locked area in Broadmoor, and tortured him to death, skinning him alive, ramming a spoon into his brain, before garotting him. What kind of a mind could conceive of, and calculatedly carry out, such barbaric acts? I still remember the shivery sense of profound relief when these men were locked away in this maximum security psychiatric hospital facility for the criminally insane. Little public sympathy for them; widespread fear should they ever be released; a general ‘throw away the key’ mentality! ‘Monsters’, ‘evil incarnate’, ‘irredeemable’. ‘The more whole-life sentences running sequentially the better.’

But TV journalist Jonathan Levi, and cultural historian Emma French, have uncovered a much more nuanced picture of this notorious place. In their book: Inside Broadmoor, (published in 2019 but written before the new hospital was opened in the December of that year) they bring together their observations based on nearly ten years observing and interviewing staff, experts and the patients themselves, and they find that the staff really believe in redemption and rehabilitation – at least in most cases. No matter what they’ve done these men deserve to be treated humanely, and they aim to give them the best chance of a future.

This generosity of spirit from the staff comes in spite of the fact that the threat of violence is ever present. There are on average five physical assaults on staff members each week, but violence is seen as intrinsic to some of the medical conditions these patients suffer from, so it’s viewed more compassionately here than by the public at large.

The authors asked why did the men commit such dastardly deeds? Might they do it again? Can clinicians unravel the mysteries of their brain chemistry and render them safe? Are any conditions untreatable? Is there such a thing as pure evil? What can we do with those who are beyond help? What draws people to this work: 8-900 staff at any given time, all sworn not to reveal any information outside the hospital?  If the inmates are themselves the victims of appalling histories, does society owe them anything in compensation?

It’s hard to believe that 200 of Britain’s most dangerous men can be housed here together, maximum unrelenting security measures notwithstanding, some of them day in day out with no reprieve of any kind for decades. Each one suffering from a serious mental disorder rendering every man a grave and immediate risk to the public, not to mention their combined threat.

There is a popular misconception that, when someone goes to Broadmoor, they are there for life; in reality only a very few high-profile criminally insane individuals remain there for decades. Over the years a lot of work has gone into de-stigmatising and altering perception of severe mental illness, with great emphasis on intensive programmes of drug and psychological therapies. The old prison mentality and ethos has largely gone. As a result, nowadays, the average stay for a Broadmoor patient is less than 6 years, and there is a notably lower reoffending rate than in the UK prison population overall. This is not to say the men all go free into the community – depending on their diagnosis and progress they may be sent to a variety of other less high security institutions.

The demographics of today’s patients have changed radically over the last 150 years. Religious and ethnic factors play a significant part in this, and the authors concluded that, It is tragically clear that work needs to be done urgently to address these inequalities.

What really emerges is the vulnerability of these men alongside their criminal insanity.

It is nothing short of chilling  that … the fate of many Broadmoor patients was fixed from early childhood. Critically, theirs was a childhood not just of deprivation and economic hardship, but of abuse too … Childhood experiences, often shocking and sickening beyond belief, seal the fate of many patients very early on.

One illustrative case is Dillon, born into a ‘satanic’ family. Father broke his bones, sexually abused him, and raped and beat his mother. From birth, mother rejected Dillon, convinced he was evil. She sexually abused him and tried to kill him repeatedly. He was kept locked up in the attic, not allowed to talk to his brothers, or tethered naked to a post and made to eat food off the floor like a dog. By the age of 5 he was an arsonist. From the age of 7 he went into care but became arsonist, kidnapper, violent offender, out of control alcoholic. What chance did this boy have in life? And yet most of us don’t see beyond the violent, criminally insane adult. The staff in Broadmoor do.

One consequence of receiving effective medication, therapy and healing, is that patients can arrive at a deeply vulnerable moment; they begin to have consciousness of the crime that brought them to the hospital in the first place. This is a point of profound fragility. In some cases it’s more than they can handle and proves lethal; they take their own lives. Suicide is rendered possible in the lower risk areas, especially in Victorian buildings where ligature points, such as bars at the windows, have remained because of a shortage of funding to make the necessary alterations.

Hmm, a shortage of funding … Maintaining these dangerous men in secure units under constant surveillance is horrendously expensive. It costs upwards of £300,000 per annum to keep each patient in Broadmoor – five times the cost of a prison stay. Peter Sutcliffe’s 32 year stay in Broadmoor cost the taxpayer in the region of £10 million. In just one of a number of rooftop protests, Charles Bronson did £250,000 of damage.

I found this book profoundly challenging – challenging my preconceptions, my prejudices, my lack of real understanding: the barbed wire around my own reactions. I commend it to you.

 

 

 

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Truth stranger than fiction

Normally I stay clear of religion and politics in my blog, but this week I just can’t ignore the craziness bombarding us. There comes a time when staying within the safe and respectable writerly world, simply won’t do.

We’re rather inured to improbable happenings on our screens in dramas, aren’t we? Professors of neurosurgery who beat the living daylights out of a colleague who taunts them, and then walk straight into theatre and perform some intricate ground-breaking surgery on a patient to widespread acclaim. High ranking detectives who get suspects into quiet corners and extract information by foul means. All without repercussions. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about. And yet, reviewers are wont to criticise authors quite harshly if their characters don’t ring true; a person in that position in those circumstances just wouldn’t behave like this, wouldn’t say that.

Well, if I were to include in my novels some of the real-life activities in the news recently, I’d be accused of writing unbelievable fiction too. Or dubious hyperbole, at the very least. I ask you.

Mature (in years) men, MEPs, indeed, brawling … abroad  … when they are supposed to be representing their country …?

High ranking ministers promoting harsh discriminatory ideas completely opposed to views they themselves expressed as their deeply-held beliefs when they were lower down the food chain … ?

A last-lap US presidential nominee, bidding to lead the largest and most powerful free country in the world, who has already openly scorned many minority groups (eg muslims, immigrants), now admitting he has sexually abused women …, seeing them as the entitlement of any ‘alpha male’ … especially ‘a star’ …?

Hugely important questions about Brexit being decided by a tiny cabal with neither MPs or the people having a say …?

Large numbers of high-earning BBC employees being accused of dodging taxes …?

Hmmm. Looking at this list I note they’re all except one about politicians. Houses of ParliamentOK, I could develop that theme but it could get nasty, so instead I’ll share my thinking about the matter of credulity.

Decent civilised people living in decent civilised communities tend to assume the integrity and honesty of public and professional figures. We want to trust doctors, lawyers, policemen, teachers, clergy, royals, social workers … we want our children to be able to trust them. But coming on top of all the scandals exposed by the media in recent years, these current horrors challenge our credulity. Can this really be happening? How is it possible? The more I thought about this, though, the more I realised that this is the stuff of thrillers. When apparently trustworthy people step outside the boundaries of the acceptable and believable. Unreliable narrators, unscrupulous colleagues, immoral perpetrators.

Shutter IslandFor example, this week I watched the film Shutter Island, a disturbing glimpse inside the world of insanity. US marshal, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo diCaprio) is sent to Boston’s high security prison for the criminally insane, on a remote hurricane-blasted island, to investigate the disappearance of a female murderess. Daniels himself has a traumatic past having witnessed the aftermath of the atrocities at Dachau and lived through his wife’s murder. But on the island he is determined to gain access to the ward where the most dangerous patients are housed, a ward in a lighthouse to which the medical team are denying him entry. It’s a film that challenges received wisdom, professional facades, and the limits of humanity. What is believable? Can I trust what I’m seeing and hearing?

Nor is it just thrillers that do this. I’ve also been reading All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, a beautifully written, haunting novel about a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and an orphan German boy, Werner, whose paths cross in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. It’s by no means a thriller, but inevitably there are troubling scenes that make us question just how far humans can sink and still retain their humanity. Happenings which Marie-Laure’s great uncle says ‘sound like something a sixth-former would make up.’ In other words, unbelievable. But of course we today know about the atrocities of that era, and much as we might inwardly recoil and think, Surely not, we know these things were real and do/did happen. They become utterly credible in a spine chilling kind of way.

Spine chilling. Now that’s what I’m pondering in my own writing at the moment. I’ve always worked consciously to make my characters believable. For each book I’ve asked a raft of experts as well as discerning readers, to check the manuscript for credibility before it goes for publication. But I’m starting to wonder if any of us can predict how low human beings can sink, or how unlikely any extreme behaviours really are. And now that I’m experimenting with thriller-writing, perhaps I can push the boundaries further in my writing about a young mother who exhibits pathological behaviour, without being condemned by the literary critics. Certainly I need to keep pushing that ‘What if’ button. See how far I can go.

 

 

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