Disturbing the peace

My mother is can empty-nester, child-free for the first time since 1956. I am not exaggerating. My oldest brother was born in ’56 and my youngest sister has just moved out. My sister has Down’s Syndrome, so moving out was a bit different for her than it was for most adults. So now, for the first time in her life, my mum has lots of time to read and I love buying books as gifts so this opens up a new world of options for the woman who says, ‘I don’t need anything!’ You can never have too many good books!

I bought my mum Stranger Care by Sarah Sentilles. The subtitle is ‘A memoir of Mothering what isn’t ours.’

My mum is quite adept at mothering what isn’t hers. With 6 children of her own, she adopted 2 babies, one of whom was me, and fostered many more. I can’t give you an exact figure but she could. She remembers each and every one.

Some of the foster children were babies with special needs who went on to be adopted by loving homes. But some of the kids were emergency placements from abusive homes. Mum would pick up tired, scared babies and take them home to their own warm bed, healthy meals, and a chance to be a child for a while in a room full of toys and a caring, ‘normal’ family.

Then they would go back to their parents when the emergency had passed, only to come back again the next time. It was hard on mum.

I’d love to know what happened to some of those kids. I know what happened to one of them. My foster sister Becky didn’t live to see her 4th birthday. She was killed by her mother’s boyfriend.

Becky’s life, and death, still ripples through our family. Three of my nieces were given first or middle names in her honour. The day we were told of her death was the first time I ever saw my dad cry. He cries a bit now, he’s such an old softie!

As much as mum loved the book, Stranger Care brought up this old grief. I didn’t mean to upset her, but I felt, after listening to the author in a number of interviews, that there might be some healing available from reading this story and there was. Mum said the book is so well written it helped even after all these years.

I’m no expert, but I’ve heard experts say that reading can help us heal. The healing power of writing is well documented but there must be a reason we gravitate towards stories of loss, grief, fear and pain, retribution and redemption.

Reading the fictional or real tales of survival or triumph entertains, teaches and comforts. Harry Potter surviving his awful aunt and uncle tells young readers they can overcome, even if the only magic they possess is an imagination.

When we read a harrowing tale, and the protagonist wins out, it should tell us that survival is possible even if our win is very small.

We all have our preferred genres and storylines (read my Id List) and I prefer not to read this kind of sad story especially anything to do with child abuse but late last year I read a stunning, disturbing, divine book. Sofie Laguna’s astonishing Infinite Splendours is the kind of book that changes everything. Who you are before you read it and who you are afterwards is subject to change.

You have been warned.

As I said, I am usually averse to reading anything with descriptions of child abuse. I had no idea what I was in for when I started reading and I’ll be honest, I almost put it down. I’ve done that before. But the writing was so sublime, I couldn’t not read this book.

It definitely disturbed this comfortable reader.

I knew the story would be worth pushing myself past the revulsion of some of the scenes.

Poor Lawrence. I don’t think I have ever read a book where I felt sadness for a whole section of people. There are beautiful and worthy people out there whose lives have been turned inside out by childhood trauma. I wanted to reach into the book and shake the mother. I wanted to shake Paul, his brother. I wanted to push the Uncle out the door and down the road and far, far away from this clever young man. I couldn’t even hate the Uncle; His own childhood and that of his sister, Lawrence’s mother, was crushed by childhood abuse and the loss of their parents.

I have recommended this book to people I know, but I’ve mentioned the storyline without giving much away. I’m not a fan of trigger warnings but I did wonder at the potential a story like this would have for upsetting someone who had experienced such abuse. I know ‘on paper’ someone else’s trauma can’t hurt you. Look, it’s so powerfully written, it may just facilitate a healing in the person. I don’t know, I’m a writer, not a doctor.


  1. melcat76

    I finally got back into my Word Press account, huzzah! This was such a lovely, thought-provoking read.

    I think I am helped by what I call ‘dark art’ if the piece can engender meaningful compassion for those who do terrible things. It’s easier to cope with the effects of other people’s evil if you can somehow see what created them. It’s been said that people are inherently rational, in that they simply respond to their internal logic and forces — but it’s crucial to understand that their rationale is not necessarily based on truth, or even reality.

    What doesn’t help — and what is actually harmful — is simply to empathise with the sufferer, which is why I avoid misery porn at all costs.

    I’m so sad that you were exposed at such a young age to the stark reality of the depths of some people’s sickness and weakness. Poor Becky. Thank you for sharing <3

    1. Christine Betts

      I do believe it’s our pain that ultimately forms us into who we are as adults. Whether that pain is healed or still hurting us. And yes compassion is the goal. Empathy or worse, pity, are not virtues. Neither get us anywhere.

  2. equinoxio21

    Your family is quite “extraordinaire”. Compliments to your parents for bringing you all up. And easing some of the pain of this world.
    Thank you for this post Christine.
    Stay safe.

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