Hazel McHaffie

parent-child relationships

The Courage Tree

Janine simply wants her daughter Sophie to lead a normal life. Since the age of three her days have been dominated by illness and treatment for an inherited kidney condition, but now she’s on an experimental herbal regime. And, against the wishes of Sophie’s father and her grandparents, Janine has allowed her to go on her first overnight Girl Scout camp.

Disaster strikes. Sophie and her friend are missing, feared dead. One by one the official searchers accept that she cannot possibly have survived for so long in these wild uninhabited forest conditions, and scale back their efforts. But not her mother. She knows that every day of waiting for news means a day closer to Sophie’s death; that without dialysis and the herbal infusion, she will certainly die; but Janine will not accept that her daughter is dead … yet. She is relentless in her search … but will she be in time?

However, this is a far more complex tale than that of a missing girl. Hmmm. Would I choose to weave so many angst-ridden threads together?

*So many troubled parent-child relationships

… There’s runaway actress Zoe and her daughter Marti, imprisoned for murdering a rival actress. Immersed in her own career and her high-profile marriage, Zoe turned a blind eye to so much during those growing-up years. Whose daughter will she save now when the chips are down?

… Janine’s parents actively oppose everything she does, they hardly speak to her these days. They oppose her career choices, her handling of Sophie’s health, her divorce from Sophie’s dad, her new boyfriend.

… Sophie’s parents struggle in many ways – with conflicting ideas on how to treat her, guilt about their own culpability in the disease, Joe’s affair, Janine’s relationship with the gardener.

*So many secrets

… Zoe fakes her own suicide … why?

… Marti has escaped from prison but her past as well as her present are littered with unexplained horrors. Did she really murder and commit arson and torment other children and animals?

… Lucas, the gardener on the mansion estate where Janine’s parents are caretakers, is definitely hiding something. What exactly is he poring over on his computer in the tree house? Why has he got a magazine with a photo of a naked little girl in his rubbish bin? Why must he always wear a blue splint on his wrist? What’s so pressing he must desert Janine when Sophie is missing in the forest? Why did he take the gardening job, and why has he faked his references?

… Sophie’s dad, Joe, is leaning on his close friend Paula but not committing to a relationship with her – why?

*So many races against time

… To get Sophie effective treatment while there’s still a chance she could live.

… To find the missing Sophie before she succumbs to her disease.

… To get ex-con Marti to a safe place before the authorities find her.

… To save gardener Lucas from the effects of his own rash actions.

*So many threads to hold at once

Would I tackle so many in my own writing? Probably not.

I’m a bit of a fan of Diane Chamberlain, and I’ve read almost all her novels, so I was surprised at the much more convoluted and complex story lines in this one. But all credit to her for holding so many reins in her hands, and controlling them so effectively.

And I share her cautionary view about appreciating the here and now: ‘If your life is tied up in worrying about the future, you never enjoy what’s possible right now.’  When your child is facing a life-limiting disease, it’s incredibly difficult to put this adage into practice. But how sad to miss the joy of each precious moment today.


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Therapeutic boundaries

OK, you know already that my current novel, Killing Me Gently, is about pathological parent-child relationships. But it also includes contacts between professionals and families; clients and therapists. This past five years I’ve spent a more-than-usual amount of time on the receiving end of medical care (often unclothed – physically and mentally – and boy, you feel the disadvantage! Especially if you have the kind of body image issues I have!!) It’s a whole different feeling from being on the clothed healthy giving end as I was for decades. So I’ve given this subject some thought.

Boundaries (usually set by the professional) should protect all concerned, but what when those demarcations are eroded? What if emotions blur the parameters?

Healing Flynn by Juliette Mead is an example of what can happen. Madeline is a therapist dealing with clients traumatised by terrible experiences. Flynn is a photo-journalist documenting harrowing subjects such as poverty and the effects of war, in dangerous places like Freetown, West Africa. They meet when they’re both caught up in the immediate aftermath of an explosion on a North Sea oil rig, Astra Four. Madeline has been flown in to give immediate aid to the survivors and their families. Flynn, posing as an official with the oil company, uses her deceitfully to gain entry onto the rig to take photos of the aftermath. Not a good start for any relationship you might think. But three months later, his marriage in tatters and, suffering post traumatic stress disorder himself, Flynn seeks Madeline out for therapy. In spite of his provocative manner and hard exterior Madeline finds herself irresistibly drawn to him. The tension and attraction between them threaten the boundaries of what’s acceptable in clinical practice.

In fact Madeline herself is also already traumatised. Ten years before, something terrible happened to her, something she has never forgiven herself for, something that very nearly ruined her, and still torments her. And though now Flynn is the client, she the therapist, he is forcing her to recall the agony, the ache, the terrible suffocating pain. Three quarters of the way through the book we find out what happened.

There are codes for good practice. Of course there are. Therapists need to be supervised themselves, and offload their own issues. I’ve had to build in such mentoring in my former life when I was sharing deeply traumatic experiences with respondents in my research. But Madeline’s supervisor, Jillian, has herself had an inappropriate relationship with a client. Whoops ….

It’s a very slow moving book but I found it useful in analysing what could happen deep inside a therapeutic encounter. And it’s all grist to my mill at the moment while the parameters of my own current writing are still quite fluid and flexible.

Oh, and I must just share with you one lovely sentence about Flynn’s wife and daughter – well, you know how addicted I am to clever/beautiful writing:  Georgia smiled at the mirror reflection of her physical past; as Beth glared at her physical future.

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