Hazel McHaffie

Understanding alternative lives

In my former life as a university researcher, I had the amazing privilege of delving deep into the lives of people grappling with major problems and dilemmas related to their medical care, understanding their responses, exploring their opinions. I sat for hours and hours (the record being five and a quarter at one sitting!) with parents who had faced the terrible ordeal of losing beloved babies. I spent days in a hospice devoted to the care of patients with full blown AIDS at the height of the HIV crisis, watching helplessly as young men wasted away and died agonising deaths. I’ve sat in wards and clinics variously with infertile couples, prostitutes, terrified new mothers. Not only has my life been enriched by all these encounters, but I like to hope I’ve become more insightful and empathetic as a result.

And I’ve taken that same kind of philosophy into my current work. With each new novel my eyes, ears and antennae are tuned to anything that will give me deeper awareness and understanding. Along the way I’ve met and listened to the experience and opinions and inner thinking of organ donors and recipients; people who’ve changed gender; families traumatised by illness, death and dementia; patients themselves suffering slow degenerative illnesses; campaigners struggling to achieve justice and equality for the disadvantaged and neglected. Humbling and revealing.

At the moment I’m trying to get inside the skin of families and individuals who struggle behind closed doors, where relationships are fraught. A surprisingly large number of books on my shelves take me inside those facades, and three in particular have made painful reading recently, opening my eyes to the horrors some children endure and sometimes transcend.

The Little Prisoner by Jane Elliott reveals the seventeen years of horrific abuse one girl suffered at the hands of her depraved stepfather. She spent her entire childhood in fear and dread, controlled by threat and violence. Even when she did eventually find the courage to report him, even when he was locked up, he still managed to wreak fearful retribution on her via his relatives. Writing about her life, she was obliged to use pseudonyms to avoid worse. And her mother – her biological MOTHER! – was complicit in all this.

Behind Closed Doors by Jenny Tomlin tells the story of a young girl who also endured appalling abuse – physical, emotional and sexual – at the hands of her sadistic and depraved father. Again, a significant family member in a position of trust. Again the biological mother knew and turned a blind eye. In Jenny’s case the child grew up in a filthy flat forced to witness her mother being beaten and raped on a daily basis, her young sisters being sexually abused, her whole family being humiliated and ostracised. And yet a strong resilient woman emerged from this chaos, determined to foster love and trust and decency in her own children (one of whom is the singer actress Martine McCutcheon).

I Choose to Live (mentioned last week) is an amazingly frank account of Belgian Sabine Dardenne’s life during her kidnap ordeal. Her abuser was not a parent, he was a stranger, but she endured the agonies of feeling she had been abandoned by her family, and her relationships afterwards were significantly altered by the experiences, distortions and reactions everyone suffered.

To an extent we’ve all been exposed to the fact of child abuse.  Most recently, simply hearing about the case of little Poppi Worthington, almost certainly sexually abused to death at the tender age of 13 months by her father, made the blood run cold. Evil of such magnitude, masquerading in an everyday disguise, is as hard to comprehend as that which leads dictators to massacre thousands in acts of ethnic cleansing. The images haunt our screens and thoughts – especially where the authorities can’t or don’t exact any form of justice. The chilling reality of these intimate tragedies is captured in these three books, revealed bravely by three women who endured such relentless nightmares. I felt hugely sad and sobered, despairing at times, simply listening to them.

Bullies can only operate when other people are too frightened, ashamed or embarrassed to talk about what is being done to them.‘ Jane Elliott

Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our table. WH Auden

Will I have the courage and fortitude to see my own current novel to its end? Not that the subject matter is anything like as horrific as that described in these books, but any child suffering has the capacity to cut to the heart. Time will tell.

 

 

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