Hazel McHaffie

domestic violence

Behind bars

There is something unutterably sad about people for whom prison is a refuge.
‘Being inside is my happy place.’
Life outside is so chaotic and traumatic that the safety and discipline inside gives them a sense of security. If you’ve never been exposed to such situations it can be difficult to empathise, which is where The Prison Doctor: Women Inside, by Dr Amanda Brown, comes in. It takes us inside, not just a large women’s prison, but the lives of some of society’s most damaged citizens.

The statistics are sobering indeed.

Female offenders are some of the most vulnerable people within our society. Women make up just five per cent of the prison population in England and Wales, and the vast majority are imprisoned for non-violent offences, and are often sentenced for a matter of just weeks at a time. Many of them are caught in  a vicious cycle of domestic violence, drug abuse and homelessness. Written off by society, they disappear into a world that most of us are oblivious to, of lost invisible souls who have no voice.

… the more previous custodial sentences a woman has had, the higher her reoffending rate; the reoffending rate for women with eleven of more previous convictions is eighty-three per cent.

… a prison for women means it is full of mothers and the female chains that form our society. Around two-thirds of women in prison have dependent children under the age of 18 at home.There are mothers whose kids have been taken away from them; mothers whose kids are temporarily being looked after by others; new mothers looking after their babies on the MBU; and, sometimes, mothers who have harmed their children.

… the average age of death for a woman who is homeless is 43.

Dr Brown works in Bronzefield, the largest female prison in Europe, one of only two in the UK to house Category A prisoners, the most dangerous women who pose a serious threat to public or national security. She has a wealth of experience behind her: as a community GP; in a young offenders institution; and seven years in Wormwood Scrubs; but she still finds the encounters she has in this setting challenging. And she’s wise and humble enough to realise there is still much to be learned from conversations with the inmates who come into her orbit.

In the words of one prisoner: ‘I used to judge people. Now I don’t. You never know what someone else is living through.’ Probably the most powerful lesson this compassionate medic has learned from her own experience.

The stories she recounts so often show that the ‘criminals’ are in fact the victims – victims of cruelty and abuse and neglect and oppression. Victims whose self-loathing has taken them through self-harming to the brink of suicide. Victims who have resorted to drink or drugs or prostitution or crime merely to survive in their own private hells. It’s both sobering and traumatic to read again and again of how these girls are failed time after time, and are failed again when they are released into homelessness. Dr Brown herself uses words like tragic, heartbreaking, shocking. Her insights and empathy can help to enlighten us all. And how we need that enlightenment! Because these failures are a challenge to our whole society.

 

 

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The transformational power of education

How many of us really appreciate the education we received? We mostly take it for granted, don’t we? – only stopping in our tracks when we hear children in less advantaged countries expressing their amazement or gratitude for opportunities (often limited) that come their way.

Educated is a searing account of one woman’s extraordinary childhood and the transformative power of education in her life. It’s a compelling and sobering read, beautifully written, and unflinching in its honesty.

Gene Westover doesn’t believe in the state, so his daughter Tara has no birth certificate, no schooling, no medical records. The government doesn’t follow up her absence from school because, according to the state of Idaho and the federal government, she does not exist. Instead she spends her early formative years preparing for the ‘Days of Abomination’, or roaming the mountain, or bottling fruit ready for the End of Days, or delivering herbs and babies with her untrained unlicensed midwife mother.

The extremities of her dysfunctional family emerge only gradually in Tara’s memoir, which somehow makes the revelations the more harrowing.

Tara Westover is the youngest of seven children. Her father is a religious zealot, a paranoid and fundamentalist Mormon, an eccentric, who believes drinking milk is forbidden in the Scriptures; that public school is a ploy by the Government to lead children away from God; college education the work of the devil.

There’s two kinds of them college professors. Those who know they’re lying, and those who think they’re telling the truth. Don’t know which is worse, come to think of it, a bona fide agent of the Illuminati, who at least knows he’s on the devil’s payroll, or a high-minded professor who thinks his wisdom is greater than God’s.

To Tara’s father the theatre is a den of adulterers and fornicators; doctors are sons of perdition, and the Medical Establishment to be avoided at all costs; a teenage girl showing an inch of bare shoulder is a gentile exhibiting rank provocation; accepting a Government grant is to indebt oneself to the Illuminati; safety at work is a matter of faith in God. As Tara says:

We had been bruised and gashed and concussed, had our legs set on fire and our heads cut open. We had lived in a state of alert, a kind of constant terror, our brains flooding with cortisol because we knew that any of those things might happen at any moment. Because Dad always put faith above safety. Because he believed himself right – after the first car crash, after the second, after the bin, the fire, the pallet. And it was us who paid.

It’s only years later that she suspects he suffered from bipolar disorder – unacknowledged, undiagnosed. At the time she believed his rantings: … the whole world was wrong; only Dad was right.

The Westover family live in a state of permanent chaos and squalor, and expectation of the imminent end of life as we know it. They keep themselves distant from anyone who believes differently, and even scorn members of their own church. Their family are the only true Mormons they know.

The house was pure confusion: piles of unwashed laundry, oily and black from the junkyard, littered the bedroom floors; in the kitchen, murky jars of tincture lined every table and cabinet, and these were only cleared away to make space for even messier projects, perhaps to skin a deer carcass or strip Cosmoline off a rifle. But in the heart of this chaos,Tyler [my third brother] had half a decade’s pencil shavings, [stored in matchboxes in his closet] catalogued by year.

It’s a wonder Tara survived childhood given the accidents and horrors and violence that befell her. Her father might believe angels were protecting them; her brothers might say they were protecting her; but to a dispassionate reader Tara relied largely on her own quick wits and instincts to survive. And in self defence she sometimes re-wrote history. It was the only way she could handle the manipulative controlling behaviour that characterised family life.

She finds redemption in study. Initially she uses dense church texts to learn.

In retrospect, I see that this was my education, the one that would matter: the hours I spent sitting at a borrowed desk, struggling to parse a narrow strands of Mormon doctrine in mimicry of a brother who’d deserted me. The skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand.

Then she applies herself to mastering the abstraction of algebra and trigonometry, of prepositions and gerunds, and of science, for the entrance exam to college, and that, in spite of her father’s constant refrain that her desire is flying in the face of God’s laws.

The Lord has called  me to testify. He is so displeased. You have cast aside His blessings to whore after man’s knowledge. His wrath is stirred against you. It will not be long in coming.

University life is a shock to the system for Tara, even though it’s Brigham Young. Not only is the whole programme of work completely alien to her, but her fellow students repeatedly shock her. They think nothing of breaking the strict Mormon code of behaviour she has lived by: they shop and watch movies on Sundays, they wear skimpy clothes, they use soap regularly, they drink Coke. She’s surrounded by gentiles disguised as saints. She desperately clings to every truth, every doctrine, her father has taught her, finding a new devotion to an old creed. It’s only when she learns about slavery and apartheid at university that she starts to see her upbringing for what it was.

I had started on a path of awareness, had perceived something elemental about my brother, my father, and myself. I had discerned the ways in which we had been sculpted by a tradition given to us by others, a tradition of which we were either wilfully or accidentally ignorant. I had begun to understand that we had lent our voices to a discourse whose sole purpose was to dehumanize and brutalize others ...

Course-wise Tara is at a grave disadvantage. I wanted to weep at her accounts of ritual humiliation because of her deprived upbringing; her complete unpreparedness for life; her determination to remain true to her father’s philosophy. It’s clear from her writing that this girl is highly intelligent and discerning; and yet her loyalty overrides her instinct. But gradually, incrementally, enlightenment comes, and she receives sympathetic help. So much so that she wins entry to a study abroad programme at Cambridge in England!

I believed myself invincible. It was an elegant deception, a mental pirouette.

But the refinement, the encouragement, the praise, at Cambridge, compared with her former life of violence and manipulative control on the mountain, is initially overwhelming. She could never belong here …

… being here threw into great relief every violent and degrading moment of my life …
I could tolerate any form of cruelty better than kindness. Praise was a poison to me; I choked on it … The ugliness of me had to be given expression.

However, her brilliance as a scholar shines through her social gaucheness. She is nurtured by her academic mentors, winning a Gates scholarship to Cambridge on merit and with their powerful endorsement. Her father still takes the credit, because they home schooled her … but he is also bereft – she is putting herself beyond the reach of his protection.

If you’re in America we can come for you. Wherever you are. I’ve got a thousand gallons of fuel buried in the field. I can fetch you when The End comes, bring you home, make you safe. But if you cross the ocean …

But it’s there, as a full time postgrad, and subsequently a PhD student, in this famous seat of learning, that she finds the courage to live in the real world. It is to cost her dear. One by one her family betray and disown her, creating a fantasy history exonerating themselves, blaming her for the evil influences that have led her astray. In the face of this agony, even a visiting fellowship to Harvard is robbed of any allure. This was what education had cost her. For a time she believes herself to be insane, delusional, crippled by psychological injuries, and begins to unravel. It takes years, and independent corroboration, for her to regain belief in herself. Some rifts are never healed, but eventually she finds a measure of peace – both within herself and with some of her family – without renouncing her own hard won belief.

A superb memoir by an inspirational writer and courageous woman.

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The Last Thing I Remember

Having just been challenged by a return to psychological thrillers (as reported last week), I was in the mood to test my lockdown mettle by a bit more skirting around the edges of insanity. Deborah Bee‘s thriller, The Last Thing I Remember jumped out at me.

The author’s unusual background intrigued me too: fashion editor, magazine writer, creative marketing director. Hmmm.

There are two narrators alternating chapter by chapter:
Sarah is in an ICU with an extremely serious brain trauma, in an induced coma, following a supposed mugging. Since there are no outward signs of her consciousness returning, and she’s unable to open her eyes or move a single muscle, the staff, her family and the police all tend to be indiscreet in her presence. She discovers a number of facts: there is little expectation of recovery; she could be in a persistent vegetative state or locked-in; her husband Adam is dead; her father loves her dearly but her mother is more interested in returning to her suburban life. She’s also painfully aware that she’s being threatened – by a man who smuggles himself into the hospital claiming to be her brother. But she doesn’t have a brother …

Kelly is a bolshie, foul-mouthed teenager, from a seedy London secondary school, Sarah’s next door neighbour, and now a constant visitor at her bedside. Why? Breaking the habit of a lifetime, she reveals more and more of her own story as well as Sarah’s. We see a formidably tough, strong kid who has learned the hard way how to fend for herself in the face of cruelty, injustice and danger, who has her own moral code, her own way of seeking justice. Her friendship with Sarah is an unlikely partnership based on a shared understanding, and a determination to win through against the odds.

As the hours and days pass, Sarah, trapped in her unresponsive body, gradually pieces her own narrative together, coupling overheard conversations with flashes of returning memory. Kelly is dogged in her efforts to bring Sarah back to a sentient life; she has her own reasons for wanting to communicate with her friend and mentor. Together their contrasting voices tell the tale … a tale involving dark issues: bullying, gang crime, domestic violence, paedophilia. And the emerging picture highlights the ripple effect that can, in the end, destroy lives and wreck families; how easy it is for a moral compass to swing away from true north. In the same circumstances, would any of us do better?

I confess I wasn’t a fan of the repeated use of the f-word, or ‘like’, or repetitive phrases, in Kelly’s sections, but I could admire the plotting and development of the characters in this debut novel. It certainly held my attention and offered real distraction. Thank you, Deborah Bee; you were part of this week’s therapy!

 

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Psychological control

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time on train stations of late, and browsing in the book sections on platforms while I wait … and wait … and wait. This week I was struck by the proportion of books in the top 60 which deal with psychology and crime – not just through fiction (there were several of those), but factual books.
Confessions of a Psychopath by ME Thomas
Stalkers by Rachel Cassidy
Talking with Psychopaths and Savages by Christopher Berry-Dee
Talking with Serial Killers by Christopher Berry-Dee
Unnatural Causes by Dr Richard Shepherd

Hmmm. Is this the current trend, d’you suppose/know?

Weirdly enough, I had a book for the journey on Thursday that takes psychological thriller writing to a whole new level. “A wonderful portrayal of psychological obsession at its creepy best’ as one reviewer puts it. The Girl Before by JP Delaney. Creepy serendipity? or just my mind atuned to the subject?

The setting for The Girl Before is an ultra-minimalist house in South Hendon in London: One Folgate Street. Austere, sterile, disciplined. Serene, calm, beautiful emptiness. A mausoleum of a place. Its award-winning architect and owner, Edward Monkford, insists on a huge number of rules – over 200! – for anyone leasing the property: no flatpack furniture, no cushions or rugs, nothing to be left on the floor at any time, no animals, no handrails, no books! …These rules constitute a restrictive covenant, a legal condition imposed on the property in perpetuity. Potential inhabitants must sign documents, fill in questionnaires, submit to being interviewed, before being selected to move in, and undergo repeated ongoing psychometric measurements grappling with intense ethical dilemmas – we get glimpses of the penetrating questions they’re asked throughout the book. Once in, they must undertake to keep the property completely uncluttered and regimented in line with Edward’s exacting standards. And every tenant so far has been a beautiful red-headed girl with determination and intelligence – facsimiles of Edward’s dead wife. Every one a vulnerable woman who has know grief and loss.

I’m always somewhat fascinated by the concept of the unreliable narrator, but it’s a tricky tactic to adopt in reality. This story follows two of the tenants – Emma and Jane – as they attempt to live up to the expectations of One Folgate Street, as they unravel the tragedies and stories relating to their predecessors. Because, for all its outward perfection, the house’s history is dark and sinister. Three people have died tragically – Edward’s wife and son amongst them. And Edward’s obsessive tendencies spill over into his control of the women sexually as well as mentally. He is looking for a pure relationship, unencumbered by convention, with a sense of simplicity and freedom on both sides. When it’s no longer perfect, each must be ready to move on, without regret.

Well written, cleverly plotted, interesting structure, well researched – and a runaway success. It took the author a decade or so to work out how to write the book, but she has captured something very special. It was well worth the wait.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in obsessive perfectionism, but it rings true. As does Delaney’s description of grief and loss, and the emotions around having a disabled child. Not surprising maybe as the author has herself lost a son, and has another one with a rare medical syndrome.

And the poignancy of this book is enhanced further for me by a report out the very day I finished it, about a five year high in the statistics for deaths relating to domestic violence in the UK. There is something particularly sinister about pathological behaviour behind closed doors. And Delaney has captured the essence of it in The Girl Before.

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Reflections on a golden summer

It certainly was quite a summer, wasn’t it? Wall to wall sunshine for weeks on end – no craving a Mediterranean break this year! And it seemed to fly by, often leaving little time for reflection. But September has brought a brief lull in my diary and inevitably I’m looking back and wondering what I’ve learned from the experiences; after all it’s the job of a writer ‘to see what everyone else sees and think what no one else thinks’ – or so they tell me!

Our beautiful city is currently in the process of dismantling the trappings of the biggest arts festival in the world; it looks rather forlorn, much as packing away Christmas feels. But the memories of a feast for the senses are bright and lasting. I’d like to share two reflections which are relevant to the blog and impinge on my decisions as a novelist.

When I first decided to fictionalise medical ethical dilemmas it was because I was increasingly aware of how story-telling can bring an issue to life and touch us more deeply than any textbook or lecture or internet search. This reality was reinforced during the Festival. I understand the life and times and motivation of Martin Luther the Protestant reformer,

and of Dr Josef Mengele the German SS officer and medical experimenter,

far better than I knew before, having watched superb dramatisations from their perspective.

I have greater empathy with the children of Dresden (another beautiful city) since seeing it through the eyes of a young Eleanor (performed by her real-life granddaughter) hiding from the bombs unleashed by ‘our’ side, picking her way through the rubble of flattened streets, cobbling together a life from the ruins of war.

And the second reflection? There’s a huge wealth of talent out there! I witnessed only a miniscule fraction of it. In total there were some 317 venues across the city; 3,548 different shows were staged; 2,838,839 tickets were issued. Mind blowing, isn’t it? And the standard was high. Only two of the many shows I saw disappointed in any way, and even they were professionally executed (the content was simply not to my taste). And most had a serious message behind them.

So I’ve returned to my own novel with renewed energy. I too can contribute, albeit in a small way, to this wonderful resource. And autumn seems like the perfect time to knuckle down to it. The crops are almost ready for harvesting. The nights are lengthening. The weeds are slowing their pace. Visitors have returned home. I have space to prioritise work; poring over every word, every comma; ruthless in my editing. I already have two pages of questions to take to the experts to ensure every aspect is authenticated. Ahhhh, yes, authentication. I’m struck by how often truth is stranger than fiction; if I’d written such-and-such real-life story reviewers would have condemned it as ‘far-fetched’, ‘not credible’, ‘hyperbolic’.

A case in point: this weekend I read a summary of a serious case review published by Wigan Safeguarding Children Board, which featured a 10-week old baby who died after being strapped in a car seat in a hotel room for 15 hours. Tragic in itself. But, more alarming still, 3 of the parents’ children have died in the space of two years. Indeed, of the 7 children the mother has given birth to since June 2015, only 4 have survived longer than 16 months.The authorities were aware of the history: alcohol abuse, neglect, domestic violence, frequent referrals to child social care, mental health challenges. The review reported ‘The commitment of the services that supported the child and family in the years preceding the child’s death was unquestionable, and the reviewers have identified many examples of good practice by professionals in providing information and support.
What’s more, all 4 surviving children remain with their parents. Would you have believed this in a work of fiction? ‘Far-fetched’, ‘not credible’, ‘hyperbolic’, come to mind!

Notwithstanding, I’m making every effort to make my own tale, Killing me Gently, ring true. And much as I love the buzz of summer, it feels like coming home myself to be back in the study, lost in my writing. And who knows, maybe one day this story will be dramatised! Screenwriters, film directors, out there, if you’re listening ….

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