Bad Blood

Warning: content may be distressing to some readers.

When researching there are so many garden paths that one can take, it is a wonder anything ever gets finished. Alongside reading books about orphans and care experience in fiction, there is also research and the writing of the PhD novel. You may be researching one thing and accidentally stumble across another. So it was for me when I was campaigning some years ago for an Adoption Apology for mothers who were forced to give up their children in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s; since then there has been some movement from Government which you can read about here.

On Thursday 21st March 2013, in Canberra, Australia — Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered a moving national apology in Parliament to the thousands of unwed mothers who were forced by government policies to give up their babies for adoption over several decades. The committee could not estimate how many adoptions were forced but said they numbered in the thousands.

Here in the UK, the situation was no different. The era was one of intense discrimination and stigmatisation of women who had children outside of marriage. Tens of thousands of women sought the assistance of social services and religious institutions and gave birth in homes for unmarried mothers. These women were often subjected to humiliating, cruel and sometimes criminal practices designed to pressurise them into surrendering their new-born babies to the adoption market.

If you were in the United Kingdom unmarried, pregnant, and without the support of your family, the likelihood was that you would end up in a Mother and Baby home.  These institutions were often run by the church or local government, sometimes a mixture of the two. If the figures for illegitimate births in 1952-1955 were 33,000, it seems likely that the total figure could be hundreds of thousands during the period 1950-1979. If we include the mothers, then we could be looking at many thousands more, who were affected by the stigma of illegitimacy, and the social and political policies of the day.

Photo by Jimmy Conover on Unsplash

As well as the trauma of being rejected by their families, facing the prospect of having to give up their newborn child for adoption, being ritually humiliated and in some instances abused by the people who ran these homes, there were other worrying policies that were enforced by the British Medical Association (BMA).

During the fifties and sixties, in order to enter one of these Mother and Baby homes, the pregnant woman first had to undergo certain invasive medical tests. One of these was for gonorrhea. Having these tests meant getting a medical certificate, without one, the young mother-to-be would not be allowed to enter the home.

Amherst Lodge Mother and Baby Home, Ealing. (Now a luxury block of flats)

What were the reasons for these tests? According to a leading consultant Venereologist, and the Chief Medical Officer of Health at the time, Gonorrhoea, was on the increase in the late 1950s. Of course, a general medical examination of a pregnant woman entering a new establishment was necessary, but to test thousands of women for Gonorrhea – Syphilis, and other venereal diseases; were these necessary? Could it be that testing them for sexual diseases was just another way of demonising them? These unmarried women were often likened to prostitutes. Even more worrying was the testing of newborn babies for sexual diseases. Just as the mother needed a medical certificate to enter the Mother and Baby Home, so the newborn needed a certificate to leave, not with its mother but with its new adoptive parents.

Under Adoption Regulations at the time, the Adoption Act, 1958: The Adoption Agencies Regulations, 1959 – Serological Tests Before Adoption: infants who were to be adopted had to be tested for syphilis. ‘In cases in which there is no history of previous infection – blood tests from mother and baby, when the child is 6 weeks old, if negative, can in my opinion be regarded as a safe basis for adoption…I think the child should be kept under observation and my practice is Wasserman and Kahn[i] tests at 3 monthly intervals for 1½-2 years, then at six monthly intervals until the age of 3 years – one test at 4 years of age and one at 5 years.’[ii]

At the time, it was thought that if a mother’s Wasserman reaction was negative during the pregnancy this did not preclude syphilis in the offspring: and although the mother may transmit the infection while in the incubation period of syphilis or in the seronegative primary stage; it was possible that she could become infected during pregnancy.

The British Medical Association provided a list of venereologists who were willing to carry out examinations and tests on the pregnant mothers and the babies, once born.

‘In small infants it is difficult to obtain blood from the arm, but not from the heel…The blood flows freely and can be collected in a test-tube. 2ml of whole blood is sufficient. The clean cut made by the blade is practically painless; the bleeding soon stops when the tourniquet is removed…’[iii]

Although many members of the medical profession carried out these tests without question and even insisted the child should be brought back for further tests, there was some concern about the way the tests were carried out. The Wasserman test involved obtaining sufficient blood from a small baby, the organising Secretary for Moral Welfare in the Diocese of Southwell at the time, observed, ‘…only a specialist will undertake venous puncture in the skull’.[iv]  The Shrewsbury Diocesan Children’s Rescue Society, one of the adoption agencies of the time, was also concerned, ‘In one case recently, the Doctor inflicted sixteen pricks in vain, with the resulting upset to the child and children concerned.’[v]

A pathologist from Warrington, D.G. Miller, refused to do the test, saying: ‘I do not consider it justified to attempt to extract from so small an infant the relatively large amount of blood necessary for this test. The procedure is not without risk and unless it is essential to save life, I will not do it.’[vi]

It’s questionable if taking blood from an infant’s foot is dangerous, but it appears that many hospitals did not know how to extract the blood properly.

‘Kidderminster General Hospital refused to take blood from any young baby, they tell us that it is dangerous, as it must be taken from a jugular vein. They will not consider a heel stab which all the other hospitals in our County and Diocese use.’[vii]

Other adoption societies wrote to say they had no difficulty in getting their medical certificates completed and blood tests carried out, their babies, coming from ‘Mother and Baby Homes’, all over the country. These adoption societies often gave the new adoptive parents a letter when they received the newborn baby to be passed to their doctor. This suggested that the baby be taken for another Wasserman test at three months.

There was so much doubt about the tests, both the need for the test and how to obtain the blood, that articles were published by Mr Ambrose King in the Lancet[viii] and by Dr Hilda Lewis in the British Medical Journal[ix].

And in some instances, the Organising Secretaries of the Mother and Baby Homes were most surprised at the idea of testing for gonococcal infection, it was felt that “their girls” were not the promiscuous type and were seldom, if ever, infected. Some went even further, ‘Why single out unmarried mothers? Why should not all mothers have this examination?’ And in the Northampton area, apparently: ‘The offer also to take samples of blood for those babies to be placed for adoption did not act as the “selling point”, that the General Secretary, of the Church Assembly Board for Social Responsibility, Church of England Moral Welfare Council, had hoped.’

Indeed, they said the test was valueless at six weeks, as it was useless to take blood before the child was three and half months.

What is even more puzzling is the many reports that claimed gonorrhoea was on the increase, whereas in fact, it was in decline, figures for 1957-1958 showed ‘that very few of these unmarried mothers are, in fact, infected.’[x] As an example, in 1958, figures from the Department of Public Health in Bristol, showed that of the total of new unmarried mothers, 178, who attended a ‘special’ diagnostic clinic only two actually had Gonorrhea.[xi]

If Venereal Disease was on the wain, and the test results on newborn babies were useless, what was the point of these tests? Why traumatise new-born babies from loss of blood, bruised and bloodied arms, feet and even heads (where apparently the veins are more visible). It seems the whole idea of sexual-disease-free certificates had only one ulterior use. Government officials, together with adoption agencies, devised a scheme whereby a newborn baby that was put up for adoption could be handed over to the prospective parents whilst clutching its newly printed medical certificate, presumably to reassure them that the baby was clean and had no ‘bad-blood’ coursing through its veins and came from good stock.

Since writing this research there has been even more movement for a UK Adoption Apology. The Joint Committee on Human Rights launches a new inquiry to understand the experiences of unmarried women whose children were taken and adopted between 1949 and 1976.

The inquiry will examine whether adoption processes respected the human rights, as we understand them now, of the mothers and children who experienced them, as well as the lasting consequences on their lives.

Launching the inquiry, Committee Chair Harriet Harman QC MP said: “Everyone has the right to family life. The Joint Committee on Human Rights will look at whether the right to family life of young unmarried mothers and their children was respected in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. We have launched this inquiry to understand the realities of what the adoption process was like at that time and hear the experiences of those who went through it. The adoptions took place decades ago, but the pain and suffering remains today.”

The inquiry will cover a range of practices that led to the children of unmarried mothers being adopted. The scope of the inquiry will specifically cover issues arising from cases which took place during the time period between the Adoption of Children Act 1949 and the Adoption Act 1976.


[i] Test for syphilis. Kahn’s test is faster and simpler than the Wassermann test – which required a two-day incubation period – and can be completed in a matter of minutes. However, it can also be inaccurate and show false positive and negative results.

[ii] Michael Shaw, 27th September 1956

[iii] Ministry of Health File, ‘Examination of unmarried mothers for Venereal Disease, 1958-1960

[iv] Ministry of Health File, ‘Examination of unmarried mothers for Venereal Disease, 1958-1960

[v] Ministry of Health File, ‘Examination of unmarried mothers for Venereal Disease, 1958-1960

[vi] Ministry of Health File, ‘Examination of unmarried mothers for Venereal Disease, 1958-1960

[vii] Ministry of Health File, ‘Examination of unmarried mothers for Venereal Disease, 1958-1960

[viii] Lancet, 10th October 1959, p.553

[ix] British Medical Journal, 16th April 1960, entitled. ‘Medical Responsibility in Adoption’, p.1197-1200

[x] Ministry of Health File, ‘Examination of unmarried mothers for Venereal Disease, 1958-1960

[xi] Ministry of Health File, ‘Examination of unmarried mothers for Venereal Disease, 1958-1960

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The Homes by J.B. Mylet

Book Review by Dee Michell

When I told a friend I was reading The Homes by J.B. Mylet, a murder mystery set in an orphanage, he responded by saying: “aren’t all orphanages and children’s homes crime scenes?”

To Mylet’s credit, he doesn’t ignore what we now know about the horrendous happenings in numerous orphanages during the 20th century— that paedophiles were harboured within; that kids bullied other kids; that physical punishment was rife and harsh; that warmth and affection were often absent —but these are background themes.

As indeed are the murders committed in the grounds of the children’s home in his story, a village of about 1000 children around 16km west of Glasgow.

Instead, and what I loved most, is that The Homes is really about the smart and brave 12-year-old Lesley.

Lesley has been a resident of The Homes since she was a baby. She lives in Cottage 5 with her dearest friend, the irrepressible, voluble Morag Jones—Jonesy—and the two have been best friends their entire short lives.

Lesley’s maternal grandmother visits often, her mother less so. The girl is six before she realises her living arrangement is unusual.

Set in 1963, The Homes is based on stories Mylet’s mother told him about residing at the Orphan Homes of Scotland during the 1950s. The Orphan Homes in the village of Bridge of Weir, Renfrewshire, was founded by William Quarrier (1829-1903), a successful businessman who was influenced to philanthropy because of his own impoverished childhood.

A classic example of what sociologist Erving Goffman would call a “total institution,” around 1000 children plus staff live within the confines of The Homes. Thirty children stay in each cottage under the care of the ‘house mother’ and the ‘house father’ (plus live in cook) and on the grounds there is a school, church, shop, and hospital.

Unlike most of the children she lives with, Lesley gets to escape The Homes every school day. She takes the train to the local grammar school, a state high school that only takes in students who pass an exam at the age of 11. Her love of school, especially maths, allows Lesley to tolerate a long, lonely commute and social isolation at lunchtime.

One day, the body of an older village girl, Jane Denton, is found covered with stab wounds. Shortly after, Sally Ward is missing and later discovered strangled to death.

Lesley and Jonesy are scared, but they’re also excited by the drama. Indeed, Lesley’s school life is transformed as everyone wants to hear about the murders.

When the police fail to locate the killer, Lesley and Jonesy decide to solve the crime themselves.

Throughout the story we learn about how few people Lesley can trust. The onsite counsellor, Eadie, is one, but even Eadie heartbreakingly disappears. Her mother, she discovers, has been hiding an entire family from Lesley, and her darling grandmother, a reliable visitor who often sneaks the child money for sweets, is complicit in the lie.

What Mylet has done extraordinarily well is create the emotional life of a small girl living in a strange and frightening situation. He has also devoloped a fabulous character in Lesley; she is intelligent, inquisitive, caring, compassionate and courageous, as well as vulnerable and in the process of learning some tough lessons about life.

I finished the book feeling horrified by finding out the identity of the murderer but also keen to know what Lesley does next.

Thanks to Viper/Profile books for a review copy of The Homes.

Dr Dee Michell is an academic at The University of Adelaide. She was made a Ward of the South Australian State in 1960 and remained in foster care for 15 years. From 2013 to 2016, Dee has worked on many projects including the history of foster care in Australia and more recently Care Leaver Activism & Advocacy: From Deficit Models to Survivor Narratives – both with Nell Musgrove, Australian Catholic University. Dee also works with Rosie Canning on the Care Experience & Culture digital archive.

Follow Dee on Twitter: @DrDeeMichell

J.B. Mylet was inspired to write The Homes by the stories his mother told him about her childhood. She grew up in the infamous Quarrier’s Homes in Scotland in the 1960s, along with a thousand other orphaned or unwanted children, and did not realise that children were supposed to live with their parents until she was seven. He felt this was a story that needed to be told. He lives in London.

Follow J.B. Mylet on Twitter: @JamesMylet

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Rousseau and The Paris Foundling Hospital

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Born: 28 June 1712 Geneva
Died: 2 July 1778 Ermenonville
Partner: Thérèse Levasseur (1745–1778)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a philosopher, writer, and composer. He was in kinship and foster care as a child. Rousseau’s mother died shortly after his birth and his father abandoned him when he was 10. Young Jean-Jacques was sent to live with an uncle, who had the child fostered out. From about age 14 Jean-Jacque was on his own. He was often homeless and did a variety of working-class jobs to support himself. Jean-Jacque was fortunate at the age of 16 to meet Francois-Louise de Warens (1690-1762), who took the boy in and supported him financially and emotionally.

His political philosophy – outlined in the Discourse on Inequality (1754) and The Social Contract (1762) – was a key influence during the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement in the 17th and 18th centuries which advanced ideas such as religious tolerance, individual rights and a focus on reason and science rather than religious dogmatism.

The Confessions (1782) published posthumously, is widely regarded as the first modern autobiography. It is an astonishing work of acute psychological insight. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) argued passionately against the inequality he believed to be intrinsic to civilized society. Rousseau believed that society has an enormous influence on human development and behaviour. In Confessions, he wrote a detailed account of his life from the formative experience of his humble childhood in kinship care and then in foster care, through the achievement of international fame as novelist and philosopher in Paris, He explained how his own experiences shaped his personality, views, neuroses, and imperfections.

It took more than 200 years for Rousseau’s basic ideas to be formally adopted by many western education systems, though now they’re accepted in our contemporary culture: children are very different from adults; they need protection from harm; they need love and security; they are full of joy and curiosity and have a natural urge to understand the world.

According to Rousseau, childhood has to be respected and revered. Children should not be subjected to threats, smacks or other punishments.

In modern times we have only recently endorsed the importance of ‘children’s voices’

Rousseau had a long-term relationship with Thérèse Levasseur, a barely literate working-class woman he met in 1745. He was seen as being radical and was anti-verbal lessons and instruction he believed children learnt by experience alone, which encouraged thought. Instruction is bad because it is not natural. Children should be guided how to learn for themselves. He who wrote a long book Emile, Or Treatise on Education (1762) about just the right way to raise children. And yet he sent his own children, five of them to the Paris Foundling Hospital immediately upon birth. He never knew or even saw them.

Édouard Gelhay, Aux enfants-assistés: L’abandon, (1886).

He says that at the time he was not troubled by his conscience and the only reason he did not boast openly of his actions was to save the feelings of his mistress (the mother), who did not agree with the decision.  He claimed abandoning one’s children at the Foundling Hospital was “the custom of the country” as told by the “fundamentally decent” men at the dining establishments he frequented. He regarded children as a considerable inconvenience, abandoning them was a socially acceptable way to relieve oneself of it, problem solved.

Rousseau was eventually troubled by his conscience about the way he had disposed of his children: I will only say that this error was such that in handing over my children to be raised at public expense, since I had not the means to bring them up myself, in ensuring that they became labourers and peasants rather than adventurers and fortune seekers, I believed that I was acting as a true citizen and father (Rousseau, 348).

He considered making a public confession at the start of Emile but thought better of it!

And yet, a baby at the Paris Foundling Hospital had only a two thirds chance of surviving its first year and only a five percent chance of reaching maturity. These are facts which Rousseau could have determined without much difficulty if he had investigated.



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My Name is Leon

My Page Forty-Three…

My Name Is Leon with Cole Martin as the young lead star. (Image credit: BBC)

“When Sir Lenny Henry was narrating the audiobook version of Kit de Waal’s novel My Name Is Leon, he had decided by lunchtime on the first day of recording that he wanted to make a TV version happen.”[i]

That was six years ago. The result was Friday night’s BBC2 90-minute one-off drama about Leon, a nine-year-old boy at the mercy of the foster care and adoption system along with his beloved baby brother after their mother (played by Poppy Lee Friar) has a mental breakdown. Lenny said: “I just found myself swept up in this kid’s world. And I found myself really moved by his predicament, being a mixed race kid who’s got a younger brother who’s white with blue eyes, and the threat of being separated from his brother causing him to take certain actions.”

De Waal says she didn’t set out for the book to have an explicit message. “But if people take anything away from it, it’s that there are a lot of children in the care system that don’t get adopted, and whenever possible, siblings should be kept together,” she says. “I worked on the adoption panel and, of necessity, siblings are split up all the time. It still happens today. It’s a phenomenon of children going into the care system.[ii]

Cole Martin, who plays Leon in the BBC adaptation, is exceptional. I had no doubt de Waal’s protagonist had been brought to life. So many layers, Leon’s slow realisation of losing his brother through adoption, racism, and the loss of innocence as he begins to understand the police, he looked up to, are responsible for killing Castro, Tufty’s friend.

Cole’s acting reminded me a little of Khoji in Mike McKenzie’s short film Be-Longing, played by Casey Mckenzie (Mike’s nephew) he brought alive the powerful emotions of what it is like to be a voiceless child in foster care. Casey was Nominated for best Child Actor at the Indie Short Fest. LA. I’m sure there will be many future awards given to My Name is Leon.

I had been looking forward to seeing the TV adaption, but I was also wary, I didn’t want to prod old scars. When I first read the novel, particularly page 43, I had an overwhelming visceral response and found myself buried in an avalanche of feelings. Louise Beech talks about this in Daffodils how the old wounds have scabbed over but underneath the cesspit is still there (though she didn’t use the word cesspit). Louise’s memoir is unusual because it is a family memoir, the voices of herself and three siblings are with her the whole way through. They managed to stay together apart from one period when they were separated from their baby brother, who was put into a foster home. The twins and Louise were sent to their grandmother, but eventually they moved back home and stayed together as a family. Their bond unbreakable, their story full of pathos and humour.

Bits of my story are not dissimilar to Leon’s. When I was six and a half, my mother took myself and my five-year-old and eleven-month-old brothers to the local clinic. In those days clinics were very much a community centre. She said she was going shopping and would be back later, but she never did come back. Five-year-old brother went to stay with my grandparents as he always did in times of crisis, and myself and baby brother were put into a foster home.

Unlike Leon, who was safer with his foster carer Maureen (Monica Dolan in the BBC2 adaptation), the foster home I was sent to was no safer than the house I had just left. The K’s had two children of their own and were brutal and violent, but only to me. Like Leon, I had been a mini-mum to my baby brother, *David even though I was only five and a half when he was born. Our mother often went out and left me looking after both brothers. I remember one day when the baby was crying, I knew he needed milk but I also knew our mum would be angry if I used the milk in the fridge so I made up a baby bottle and topped the milk up in the fridge with water. (She later discovered this and told me I was silly, she hadn’t meant don’t feed the baby only for us not to drink it). I loved David with the passion of a first-time mum and I can remember when my first son was born the familiarity of looking after a baby washed over me, I had done this before, I had cared and fiercely loved before.

A few months after living with the K’s, I went to school as usual, and that day when I came home David was gone. There were no explanations. Reading through my files this huge loss is not mentioned at all. Nobody explained where he’d gone, nobody even bothered to pre-warn me. The only reference I can find is a report by a social worker who wrote: “The K’s told me how Rosemary is obsessed with the idea of having a baby. She embarrassed them by remarking in a loud voice, on a bus, that she will have a baby as soon as she leaves school (not, however, mentioning marriage) and is always talking about it. She continues to be difficult, but the K’s seem very understanding and patient. She does not, however get on with the other children, and often causes trouble.”

I’m glad to see my spirit was not broken by the foster parent’s cruelty. The reality was nothing like it is painted in that social worker’s report. A couple of years later I reported the K’s, but was not believed.

I buried the pain and trauma of losing my brother. Page 43 of My Name is Leon dug it all up:

Wouldn’t you like Jake to be in a family with a mum and dad of his own?…Leon, we’ve got a family that want to look after Jake. They want to be Jake’s new parents. Isn’t that good, Leon? Jake is going to have a new mummy and daddy…Do you understand, Leon? Jake is going to be adopted. That means he’s going to have a new forever family. p.43[iii]

I wasn’t expecting such a strong reaction. All those feelings of losing David resurfaced and I cried on and off for days.

When I first read My Name is Leon, I wrote:

The writing is exquisite, powerful, and realistic. De Waal captures the voice of a traumatised child. Leon experiences what it is like to be nine years old and taken away from a mother and brother whom you love and adore. To be left alone in a strange world where all your belongings have disappeared and living with a stranger whose house rules you have to get used to. As young as he is, Leon finds new ways to live his life without his mother and brother whilst learning to overcome unbearable loss.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was of course writing about myself. Louise Beech says in her memoir Daffodils which is about the consequences of an attempted suicide by her mother and her erratic childhood that all her stories were life writing, all her stories had at their heart autobiographical truths about her interrupted childhood.

After Jake’s adoption, the story follows Leon, and a single summer of his life while he struggles to adapt to life on his own. The story is set in 1981 when a number of momentous things were happening in the UK; IRA bombs, hunger strikes, the riots and the Royal Wedding of Diana to Charles. De Waal wanted to illustrate that while all these big things were happening, one little boy was lost and grieving and going unnoticed. But Leon had a secret plan, one day he’ll rescue Jake and his mum.

Meanwhile, when foster carer Maureen is taken ill, Leon is sent to live with her sister, Sylvia (Olivia Williams in the BBC production) rather than a new foster placement. His social worker gets him a bike and with this, he gains a sort of freedom. On one of his rides, he goes to the Rookery Road Allotments where he meets Tufty, who reminds him of his dad. Tufty (Malachi Kirby) teaches him about planting seeds:

‘…these plants need support. They need to hold on to something strong while they’re growing. They curl round the bamboo and then, couple of months’ time, we get some beans.’[iv]

My Name Is Leon on BBC2 sees Malachi Kirby play allotment enthusiast Tufty Burrows who Leon meets at the allotment. (Image credit: BBC)

As Leon gets to know the people at the allotments, he begins to experience a sense of peace and more than that, a sense of belonging. In Friday night’s BBC2 adaptation, the drama comes to a close with Leon busily caring for his plants at the allotment:

Tufty’s teaching me about cuttings. You need to keep them warm and watered, and take care of them. Sometimes it takes time for the roots to grow properly, but they’re going to be strong, like the plant they came from. That’s what I think of you and Mum. We’re being taken care of in different places, but we’re cuttings from the same plant.’[v]

Belonging is all about roots, that feeling of putting a plant in the ground, watering it, watching it grow, revelling in the flower or fruit it produces. I imagine that feeling of roots deep in the ground, a little shift here or there, lodged, facing the sun, at home in the earth.

‘…I am aged maybe 6, in shorts and stripy top, on the pink porch of our Devon house. Lillian is there with me, in her yellow patterned summer dress with blue butterfly-wing brooch, sitting, smiling, patiently podding peas into her dented aluminium colander. And as I pick up a pod and help her, I know this is what safety will forever taste like: garden peas freshly picked from the lap of your new mum.’ – Plot 29, Allan Jenkins

Children in care, separated siblings, somehow survive the most excruciatingly traumatic episodes of their life and like all humans, many go on to grow wholesome and fulfilling lives. Leon found a place to belong, I hope you do too.

*David is a pseudonym

Siblings Together is a UK based charity that promotes positive contact between brothers and sisters separated in foster care, kinship care, residential care, or adoption.



[iii] Kit De Waal, My Name is Leon. Penguin; 1st edition (London: Penguin, 2017) p.43

[iv] Kit De Waal, My Name is Leon. Op. cit., p.105

[v] Cole Martin, My Name is Leon, (BBC2 10th June, 2022)

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A Conversation with Louise Beech

Louise Beech remembers sitting in her father’s cross-legged lap while he tried to show her his guitar’s chords. He’s a musician. Her small fingers stumbled and gave up. She was three. His music sheets fascinated her – such strange language that translated into music. Her mother teaches languages, French and English, so her fluency with words fired Louise’s interest. She knew from being small that she wanted to write, to create, to make magic.

Louise loves all forms of writing. Her short stories have won the Glass Woman Prize, the Eric Hoffer Award for Prose, and the Aesthetica Creative Works competition, as well as shortlisting twice for the Bridport Prize and being published in a variety of UK magazines. Her first play, Afloat, was performed at Hull Truck Theatre in 2012. She also wrote a ten-year newspaper column for the Hull Daily Mail about being a parent, garnering love/hate criticism. She is inspired by life, history, survival and love, and always has a story in her head. Her debut novel, How to be Brave, came from truth – when Louise’s daughter got Type 1 Diabetes she helped her cope by sharing her grandad’s real life sea survival story. It was a Guardian Readers’ pick for 2015.

Louise’s second novel, The Mountain in my Shoe, was inspired by her time working with children in the care system. It was longlisted for the Guardian Not The Booker Prize. Maria in the Moon was released in 2017, and was a Must Read in Prima, Red, and the Sunday Mirror, as well as being widely reviewed by the press. The Lion Tamer Who Lost was released in 2018. It was a Love Reading Star Book, longlisted for the Polari Prize 2019, and shortlisted for the RNA Romantic Novel of the Year 2019. Her fifth novel, Call Me Star Girl, was released in April 2019, a psychological thriller. It won Best magazine’s Book of the year and longlisted for the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize. I Am Dust came out during the lockdown of 2020 and was a Crime Monthly magazine pick. Louise also wrote her memoir, Daffodils, during the 2020 lockdown, and End of Story, a dystopian look at a future world where books are banned. This Is How We Are Human came out in 2021 and was a Clare Mackintosh August Book of the Month pick.


Louise has revealed the harrowing story in which she reflects on her life and the bridge incident that shook her family to the core.

Content warning: suicide.

“2019. Dawn. The River Humber. A misty February walk. Surprise early daffodils. A picture taken. Then forgotten. Because five hours later my world shattered.
My mother jumped off the Humber Bridge. Had those yellow flowers not delayed me, I might have been there. Could I have stopped her?
In the aftermath of this violent act, I turned to my writing, to my beloved siblings, to our only uncle. I was forced to look at events that led to this suicide attempt. At relationships wrecked by alcoholism. At chronic depression. At our care records. At my childhood. At my mother. At buried trauma never fully explored before. At myself …When I much later found the picture of those surprise daffodils, I knew it was time to write about that day. I began typing the story that inspired so many of my fictional characters, that shaped the testing things they endured.
My own story.”

The following conversation first appeared via Greenacre Writers in 2016:

Tell us of your journey as a writer

Oh wow, it has been long. Lifelong. Truly. But great, even with the lows. I’ve always written, ever since I could hold a pen. I told anyone at school who would listen that one day I was going to be a world famous novelist! I wrote little stories and full novels from being a child – I only wish I still had them. Being a very young single mum then occupied my time mostly. But when I was thirty I sent some articles I’d written on being a mum to a local newspaper editor, and he offered me my own weekly column, which I wrote for ten years. This gave me the confidence to start sending other work out. After my daughter was ill and I gave up my job to care for her, I had more time to write. To cope I wrote short story after short story, and they began winning prizes and being accepted by magazines. I took a brave leap and wrote my first full novel in 2008. It hooked me an agent, but not a deal. Book two didn’t get me one either. A third I never shared. Then I began How to be Brave in 2013 and knew (just knew) it was somehow going to be the one. My agent retired before she could send it out. I got rejection after rejection for the book. But I just carried on, and finally the wonderful Karen at Orenda Books said she loved it, and the rest, as they say, is book history.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

I see the role simply as storyteller. Telling and sharing stories, ones that might entertain, make someone feel, escape life for a while. Perhaps even heal. I know that writing some of my novels has been a very healing experience, and I hope that extends to readers. I absolutely love meeting readers. I’ve made some wonderful friends on this writing journey. So aside from the joy of the actual writing (it is and has always been pure joy to me) I love meeting new people because of it.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

Oh, this is a hard one. I’ve create characters I disliked and didn’t ‘get’ at all. Quite a few of them. But one I found myself empathising with? Hmmmm. I’d have to say a young mum in The Mountain in my Shoe. She’s let most of her childiren go into care and has made some huge mistakes, but I truly felt for her, and was hoping she’d be redeemed in the end. And you’ll have to wait and see if she is…..

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

In my third novel – Maria in the Moon – there are a whole range of diverse characters since the novel is set in a flood crisis centre, where a young woman finds the courage to remember a forgotten tragedy from her childhood. The people who volunteer at this centre, and those who ring its helplines, probably represent just about every kind of person you’ll ever meet in life – rich, poor, old, young, happy, sad. It was a challenge but a joy to find their stories, their tragedies, their truth.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

I’m still in love with New York. We went for a week in 2015 (for the second time) and I’m so happy on its gaudy, busy, vibrant streets. I’d love a high-up apartment there so I could write with a glorious view, and then be able to escape to the streets and people-watch for inspiration.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

One already out there? Probably The Book Thief. An all-time favourite. One of the few books where I literally forgot who I was and where I was while reading it.

What advice do you have for would be novelists?

Never give up. Read and write extensively. Never let the multiple rejections stop you if you absolutely believe in your work. Enjoy it. Love your writing, and enjoy doing it.

The Mountain in my Shoe features a care experienced character, where did the inspiration come from?

My second novel, The Mountain in my Shoe, was inspired by my time voluntering with children in the care system. Many of these kids have what is called a Lifebook, in which carers, social workers, and family members write up the young person’s childhood events so they have a history of it when they’ve left the care system. I always thought, wow, what an incredible way to tell a story. So a Lifebook is one of the narratives in The Mountain in my Shoe, alongside Bernadette who has just found the courage to leave an abusive husband, and ten-year-old Conor who is missing. I’m really excited. The book means a great deal to me.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

It has to be Katy from the What Katy Did series. I even named my daughter after her. I so admired her bravery after a childhood accident. She inspired courage in me when facing difficulties in my own young years. And bravery has become quite a theme in many of my own novels.

You can follow Louise on Twitter: @LouiseWriter



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The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie

(Updated December 2022 following the BBC series Agatha Christie: Lucy Worsley on the Mystery Queen and fascinating evidence from the AC archive.)

This is part of a talk I gave for Care Experience & Culture about Interrupted Childhoods earlier this year. I wanted to discuss in a bit more detail about one particular inspirational story, Someone to Love Us (2010) and the mysterious link with Agatha Christie who was sometimes inspired to write her murder mysteries based in part on real-life events.

The Mousetrap, is a murder mystery play which opened in London’s West End in 1952 and ran continuously until 16 March 2020, when the stage performances had to be temporarily discontinued during the COVID-19 pandemic, then it re-opened on 17 May 2021. This year is the 70th anniversary of when the play first opened and the cast are touring both in the UK and Australia.

The play begins as news spreads of a murder in London. A group of seven strangers find themselves snowed in at a remote countryside guesthouse. When a police sergeant arrives, the guests discover – to their horror – that a killer is in their midst! Lucy Worsley in her latest BBC programme Agatha Christie: Lucy Worsley on the Mystery Queen, says: ‘He tells everybody that the victim was a woman who, years before, had been responsible for the death of a little boy in her care. Was she murdered in revenge? Taking inspiration from the real life O’Neill case, Agatha imagines that the surviving brother could be the vengeful killer.’ [1] One by one, the suspicious characters reveal their sordid pasts. Which one is the murderer? Who will be their next victim?

Lucy Worsley writes that, Queen Mary was asked to select a gift for her eightieth birthday by the BBC and opted for a new Agatha Christie play. ‘Agatha donated her writer’s fee to a charity for children, an appropriate gesture because the plot was inspired by’[2] a true event. The play was based on a short story ‘Three Blind Mice’, published in the US in 1950. It took at its heart the true story of the horrific abuse of two young orphan boys, one of whom was murdered by foster parents who were supposed to protect and look after them whilst World War Two was raging throughout Europe. Terence O’Neill and his brother, Dennis, were taken to a foster home in 1945 on the Shropshire, England farm of Reginald and Esther Gough. ‘The boys had been starved, beaten, terrified and humiliated virtually on a daily basis and later that year, Dennis died at the age of 12 from injuries he had sustained.’[3]

A tragic story and if you have seen The Mousetrap, you will know Christie portrays Terence, the boy who survived the horrific abuse as an adult, coming back to seek revenge for what happened in his childhood. There was an enquiry and this influenced the 1948 Children’s Act. That young boy suffered terribly after the death of his brother but it would be 65 years before Terence O’Neill could face writing his memoir, Someone to Love Us (2010).

Christie took a tragic story and in my view made it more tragic by using a care experience criminal stereotype, i.e. people who have been in foster care or adopted are often portrayed in crime thrillers as murderers or serial killers. We can see that even in the mid 20th Century, the criminalisation of those who had been in care was evident and more than that, Christie reinforced this belief. This was surprising as usually Christie portrayed her orphans sympathetically albeit often limited socially and intellectually.

Dr. Dee Michell, takes this one step further and questions the validity of the play in today’s current climate: ‘…why is a play that perpetrates a stereotype of a former foster child as a damaged, vengeful serial killer still running?…I confess to enjoying The Mousetrap—the acting was terrific, the script good, the set meticulous, and there’s an excellent twist. But surely it’s time to stop lauding a play that perpetrates a harmful stereotype.'[4]

The recent Care Review recommended that Care Experience be made a protected characteristic which will ultimately give Care Experienced children, young people and adults the same protection against discrimination under the Equality Act as age, disability, race, religion, gender reassignment, sex, sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity and marriage and civil partnerships. Terry Galloway is travelling around the country asking local councils to adopt the motion and in the north has had huge success. As the campaign builds momentum, it will be interesting to see how protected characteristic would affect the representation of orphans and care experience and in particular those awful petitions that ‘discriminate’ against children’s homes.

Dr Julius Green, author of Agatha Christie: A Life in Theatre, says of the play: ‘It was in 1945 and a very important case – this awful story of the boys who were sent into foster care. This forms the back story of The Mousetrap  is not the actual action of the piece, but it is referenced throughout it as one of the reasons for the motivation of the characters and the reason why people are there. For audiences of 1952, it would have been fresh in their memories. They would have understood the referencing in the play.'[5]

Agatha Christie has written “From this real life happening, happening. I took the idea for the mouse trap.”[6]

The portrayal of an imaginary grown-up Terence, is the complete opposite of the sympathy and understanding shown towards the orphan Maureen Summerhayes in Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952), who was adopted as a child: ‘I was an adopted child. My mother parted with me and I had every advantage, as they call it. And it’s always hurt – always – always – to know that you weren’t really wanted, that your mother could let you go.‘ This sympathy could be because Agatha’s mother was adopted, and never really got over it.

Agatha’s grandfather died young and her maternal grandmother was 27, poor and left to look after four small children. Her elder sister married a well-off American, and offered to adopt one of the children. Agatha’s grandmother chose to send Clarissa Margaret “Clara” Miller, née Boehmer.[7]

In Agatha Christie’s autobiography there is a mirror conversation and she describes how her mother had all the so-called advantages of a comfortable home and a good education – what she lost and what nothing could replace was the carefree life with her brothers in her own home. Christie goes on to say: ‘Quite often I have seen in correspondence columns inquiries from anxious parents asking if they ought to let a child go to others because of the ‘advantages she will have which I cannot provide – such as a first class education’. I always long to cry out: Don’t let the child go. Her own home, her own people, love, and the security of belonging – what does the best education in the world mean against that?…the feeling always remained of ‘not being wanted’. I think she [Clara, Agatha’s mother] held it against my grandmother until her dying day.'[8]

When O’Neill found out he had been put into The Mousetrap, he wrote: ‘Every audience is instructed not to give away the twist in the ending, but I am not breaking any rules by telling you that the plot is about me, as an adult, coming back to seek revenge for what happened in my childhood. As if I would do such a thing![9]

As far as representation is concerned I believe a writer’s role is to represent and when this is done well it is a joy to read. The orphan stories of my childhood were a great comfort and I’m pleased to see some brilliant representations of care experience by writers who either write from life or do their research well. Modern fictional favourites include Island (1999) by Jane Rogers, The Panopticon (2004) by Jenni Fagan and Girl With Dove (2018) by Sally Bayley.


[1] Worsley, Lucy. Agatha Christie: Lucy Worsley on the Mystery Queen. Series 1:3. Unfinished Portrait [Television Broadcast] London: BBC One; 2022 Nov 22.

[2] Worsley, Lucy. Agatha Christie: The Sunday Times Top 10 Bestseller. Hodder & Stoughton, 2022.

[3] Musgrove, Nell, and Deidre Michell. The Slow Evolution of Foster Care in Australia: Just Like a Family? Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018.

[4] Michell, Dee. ‘My question is…‘ DrDee-ThinkingOutLoud

[5] Worsley Op. cit.

[6] Ibid. Dr Julius Green provides evidence of AC’s influence from the Agatha Christie archive, a newspaper cutting from the Sunday Mirror, 1966.

[7] Christie, Agatha. Mrs McGinty’s Dead. New York: Pocket Books, 1970. P.15-16

[8] Christie, Agatha. An Autobiography. London: HarperCollins, 2017. p.12-13

[9] O’Neill, Terence. Someone to Love Us: The Shocking True Story of Two Brothers Fostered into Brutality and Neglect. London: HarperNonFiction, 2010. p.308

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A Conversation With Susan Francis

The Love That Remains by Susan Francis

When she was a baby, Susan Francis was privately adopted from a doctor’s practice in Newcastle, NSW, Australia. She grew up and travelled the world, living in Southern Spain, England, Indonesia and the central west of NSW. The unexpected death of her husband in Portugal, in 2015, a man who was the love of her life, inspired her to finish her memoir.

Susan holds a Master’s degree in Australian literature and worked as a High School English teacher. Her only son Jonno is her pride and joy. Currently, Susan lives in her hometown of Newcastle, with no pets, too many books and an obsession to write about the truth. She is working on her second book, a crime novel inspired by the execution of the Balibo Five.

How could I write about the importance of truth and not tell the whole truth myself?

After twenty years spent searching for her biological parents, 52-year-old Susan Hull unexpectedly meets the great love of her life – a goldminer named Wayne Francis. He is a gentle giant of a man, who promises Susan the world.

Two years later, they throw in their jobs, marry and sell everything they own, embarking on an incredible adventure, to start a new life in the romantic city of Granada, where they learn Spanish and enjoy too much tapas. In love, and enthralled by the splendour of a European springtime, the pair treasure every moment together.

Until a shocking series of events alters everything.

It is an absolute pleasure to welcome Susan to the blog. I’d like to thank Susan for writing about her writing journey and memoir The Love That Remains – which will be a fantastic contribution to adoption/care experienced literature.

Tell us about your journey as a writer.

The memoir is my first traditionally published book. And that was published in 2020, when I was 59 years old. Prior to that, some of my short stories had been published. I worked as a Secondary English teacher for many years, including some time in Norwich so I was always immersed in language. I also completed a Master’s degree in literature.

What made you choose to write about being adopted?

It came from a place of anger. Because of the rules surrounding adoption, many people had denied me knowledge about the circumstances of my birth and my biological family and background. I could not understand why the rights of the mother were valued higher than the child. This was my story. Why did I not have the right to be informed?

Writing about my adoption (after 20 years of investigation) allowed me to rewrite myself into the world. It was my way of saying, you tried to keep who I was a secret, but I discovered my self, and here I am.

Orphans, adoptees or those in foster care or children’s homes, often feel they are stereotyped by their past. Have you found this to be so for adoptees too? And if so, how aware of this were you whilst writing your memoir?

As an adult, people will still look at you like you are a foreign creature, if you mention you were adopted. They are curious about what it is like. They always want to know ‘have you found your real parents yet’? I understand that. As far as being stereotyped, I don’t recall anything specific or derogative.

What is the meaning of the title?

There is a Portuguese word which best translates into English as ‘The Love that Remains’. Portugal, of course, is a pivotal setting in the memoir and it seemed appropriate to choose a word from that language, especially one with so much meaning. The word is saudade and it refers to still longing for or loving a place or a person you can never again see or hold close. It is all the love still contained within you despite that person or place no longer existing.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I’m working on a novel. It combines historical facts with a fictional story. I guess you would say it’s a little bit of a genre crossover. The shooting of five Australian and English journalists in the village of Balibo in East Timor in 1975 is where the idea came from.

What #diverse characters do you think are missing from literature?

Older women and the experience of growing older are characters and stories not explored often enough.

If you could recommend one book for your readers, what would it be?

I will be 61 in May, and I’ve been reading since I was four years old. So you can imagine how many books I’ve read in my lifetime. Honestly, what could I choose? The best advice I can offer is just to read. Read what you enjoy and sometimes read what challenges you. Reading has made me a more tolerant, educated and empathetic human being. I don’t like to imagine how I might have turned out if I hadn’t read.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

Not politically correct for some people, I know, but I grew up reading Enid Blyton and loved The Famous Five. For a year I pretended to be George. I loved George. She was brave, stubborn and very loyal.

What one piece of advice would you give adopted young people or those leaving the care system today?

Identities change and develop. You have the power to make your own. Hold onto the strength you own inside. We are not our families, or our carers or the system. We have survived all that and are strong and unique and capable of more than anyone believes.


The Love That Remains was published by Allen & Unwin and you can read the opening chapters here.

Follow Susan on Twitter: @susanfranciswr1

Join Susan at the Care Experience & Culture, Memoir and Autobiography Book Club, part of Care Experience History Month Event.

Saturday 9th April

10am UK / 6.30pm Adelaide / 7pm Melbourne. 

More details here.

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Vicarious (Secondary) Trauma

Vicarious: that which is experienced in the imagination through the feelings or actions of another person.

Vicarious Trauma or Vicarious Secondary Trauma is a complicated subject and this post only skims the surface. Vicarious trauma (VT) and Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) are frequently used interchangeably to refer to the indirect trauma that can occur when we are exposed to difficult or disturbing images and stories second-hand.[1]

Direct trauma is that which is experienced by the self for example by experiencing an abusive childhood. Secondary trauma is the development of PTSD-like symptoms without directly witnessing or having been involved in a traumatic event for example researchers dealing with the traumatic experiences of others/disturbing images, can themselves become traumatised and go on to suffer from various symptoms and possibly Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Unlike vicarious trauma, which accumulates over time, secondary trauma can occur unexpectedly and suddenly – e.g. witnessing an accident.

Possible secondary trauma effects have been extensively recognized and documented in those indirectly exposed to traumatic experiences through their affiliation with direct victims; for example family members, first responders and health care professionals. However, recognition and the study of potential secondary traumatization as the result of involvement in trauma research have only recently begun to emerge.[2]

Have you ever sat in a lecture or presentation and gone home and not been okay? Or read an article or book that has left you upset for days? I don’t mean an emotional response which evaporates after a very short while – I mean traumatic thoughts/visions in the head that last for days possibly weeks or even months.

I’m in my last PhD year and have learnt from my own experiences to be very careful with my self before attending events or reading particular books. I often don’t attend an event or workshop if I know I am going to get triggered or set off old PTSD. I know what the cost of that can be to me.

A few years ago, I had to read a memoir as I was giving a presentation about ‘misery lit’ a derogatory title, but in fact some of the stories are very miserable. I was traumatised reading about the terrible incidents experienced by two little boys, one of whom died from the horrific abuse by the foster parents. That book triggered my own PTSD but my empathy both conscious and unconscious meant I also experienced Vicarious (Secondary) Trauma i.e. living out the child’s experiences in my imagination, not looking after my own mental health and being left with re-occurring thoughts and images for days.

To understand more, you could begin by watching this video featuring Dr. Laurie Pearlman, world-renowned expert on the subject. ‘What is vicarious trauma?’ Or speak to your supervisor or fellow researchers, and for resources ask your librarian.

As researchers and caring individuals, we have a responsibility to look after our own mental health. Those adults giving talks about their traumatic pasts also have a responsibility to their audiences and can consider them by having good boundaries and signposting where to get help/advice if needed. Charity/ government/officials also have a responsibility to care not just for the person giving a talk, who might be a very young person, but also their audiences. Some speakers haven’t had therapeutic interventions or processed their own traumas, so their ability to hold an audience might be more difficult. It makes a huge difference for everyone involved to be in a safe environment.

Common signs of vicarious trauma

  • experiencing lingering feelings of anger, rage and sadness about a participant’s victimisation
  • becoming overly involved emotionally with the participant
  • experiencing bystander guilt, shame, feelings of self-doubt
  • being preoccupied with thoughts of participants outside of the research situation
  • over identification with the participant (having horror and rescue fantasies)
  • loss of hope, pessimism, cynicism
  • distancing, numbing, detachment, cutting participants off, staying busy. Avoiding listening to participant’s story of traumatic experiences
  • difficulty in maintaining professional boundaries with the participant, such as overextending self (trying to do more than is in the role of researcher).

If you are experiencing any of these signs, this could indicate that you are suffering from vicarious trauma.[3]

I would also add lack of concentration. My ability to stay focused and read a book from start to finish has also been affected.

For those people with traumatic pasts for example; refugees, domestic violence, care experience; working in fields such as social work or as a researcher where you are likely to come into contact with others’ trauma can be doubly difficult. We already know people can get triggered out of the blue. As care experienced researchers researching trauma, it could be PTSD x 2. And if you don’t have anyone to speak to about that experience, it can be sometimes frightening and overwhelming.

Suggestions for coping:

Find out if your university runs a course around this subject. If they don’t, contact the relevant department and ask them to consider running something around vicarious trauma. It’s something that should be available for doctoral researchers who will spend some years immersed in what can be difficult research. You can refer them to University of Oxford, Vicarious [Secondary] Trauma Workshop which is for researchers whose work engages them with the traumatic experiences of others. Only Oxford graduates can attend this course, but it gives your department an idea of what it covers and a contact for further discussion.

Unfortunately, sometimes there is no way to deal with ‘it’. Sometimes it is like stepping on a metaphorical landmine, too late you’ve just blown yourself up.

These though are pre-event/workshop/research tips:

If you have a traumatic past make sure you read through what the event is about or even if you don’t. Google the details/people. Are they going to re/traumatise you? Do your research beforehand.

If your research is going to involve either participant’s trauma or your own, it is worth considering how best to deal with that – our academic supervisors are not counsellors. Due to the nature of my PhD it has been inevitable that at times I will be affected in varying degrees. Early on I recognised this and got myself what I call an emotional supervisor i.e. a counsellor.

And if you have to read/view/hear traumatic material, be prepared, and do self-care – some of which is listed below.

Take care of you.

Self-care tips:

  • If you find yourself triggered, speak to a trusted friend or colleague.
  • If you have access to a counsellor, speak to them. Really learn and understand why you’ve been triggered and what you can do to protect yourself in the future.
  • Make use of the wellbeing service in the university or workplace.
  • If you don’t have access to services, speak to your doctor and ask for access to therapeutic services.
  • Try and practice meditation or mindfulness, just the slowing down of breath creates time out and focus on yourself.
  • When working on research include self-care breaks whether this be chill time, exercise, creative activities or even washing up – which can be meditative in its own way.
  • Prioritise food, sleep, and spending time with loved ones.

A very few references, there are many more for those engaged in traumatic research/work:

  • Neuroscientist Sara Lazar talks about how meditation widens the ‘window of tolerance’ and reduces emotional reactivity in her TEDxCambridge 2011 talk: “How meditation can reshape our brains
  • van der Kolk, B. [2014] The Body Keeps the Score New York: Penguin.
  • Schiraldi, G. (2016) The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook New York: McGraw Hill.
  • Brockman, H. (2012) Essential Self-Care for Caregivers Salem: Columbia Press.
  • Williamson, E., Gregory, A., Abrahams, H., Aghtaie, N. Walker, S.-J., Hester, M. (2020) “Secondary Trauma: Emotional Safety in Sensitive Research” Journal of Academic Ethics published online 7 Jan 2020:


[2] Roni Berger, R. (2021) ‘Studying trauma: Indirect effects on researchers and self – And strategies for addressing them’, European Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, Volume (5), Issue 1, Available at:


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A Letter to Yusuf

One in a million, and sadly one in over one hundred and seventy thousand.

This is a letter I began writing over a year ago and which I finally feel able to finish. Part of this letter appears in the intro of Yusuf’s collection of poetry and art which has just been published (details at the end) and which will be added to the Care Experience & Culture digital archive. It’s a beautiful collection something he would rightly have been stupendously proud of. I attended the launch a couple of nights ago on what would have been the big man’s birthday.

Dearest Yusuf,

They say if a person dies and you want to speak to them you should write a letter. So I am.

The first thing I remember after hearing the heart-breaking news was the thought, but we still had so many conversations to have and you still had so much more art to produce.

It felt as if our relationship was in its infancy but there is no doubt it was an important one and we’d already covered a lot of mileage. Starting with our first meeting, your calm presence filling the space as we chatted about creativity particularly writing and painting. Already your poems had touched hearts at the first Your Life Your Story back in 2017.

Your Life Your Story 2017

We spoke of how weird it was that the special weekend was held in a place that was once a children’s home. I silently prayed that the children there had not gone through what we had. And at the end of the weekend, when we said our goodbyes that we knew were really hellos, you asked if you could send me some of your poetry.

Poetry in motion

You had been busy you said over the past few years and had cried for days and days while processing the pain and hurt from your oh so sad childhood. I cried too – reading your words. I was pretty good though and said I can give you feedback on the first three chapters and this was what I did, gave feedback, even though I wasn’t a poet but I do have an eye and I sent you my thoughts. You were too polite to say whether or not I had got it, got you. But, I hope I did. And, I don’t know if I told you this, I read every word.

Two weeks before you left us, you had finally completed your collection of poetry. So unfair.

I can’t wait to hold that compilation in my hands and read your artistry. (I received my copy a couple of weeks ago – it’s beautiful and illustrates your amazing talent, your unique style. Turning the pages, I of course I had a Rosie moment.)

At the time, I had said I could only read three chapters because I have a PhD to finish and often find myself doing stuff for others rather than concentrating on that. This then became part of our conversations. You became my self-appointed conscience. How are you getting on with your PhD? You always asked in a certain tone – wanting to know and giving me the gentlest of nudges. You do make me laugh, I said. And you said I made you laff too, out loud. I was pleased about that.

Dame Rosie, Sausage Smuggler Extraordinaire

Of course, you weren’t always perfect! In fact I seem to remember you could be quite rude and outrageous at times. Somehow you always did it when I was least expecting and I would burst out laughing. I so loved you for that and your wickedness. I can’t remember now if it was you who started the sausage saga or Dave, but you both teased me mercilessly. It was the weekend of the second Your Life Your Story, I was late for breakfast (as usual) and there was hardly anything left – no toast! So I had to make do with a sausage and croissant except we weren’t supposed to have the cooked element and as the sausage had somehow got hidden under my croissant, you said I had stolen it. Oh, you were so naughty and The Dame was most displeased.

You can take the child out of the home but you can never take the home out of the child. You were always saying this and loved it when I had a swearing fit so you could say it again. I know it made you laugh.

I have lovely memories of the weekend we stayed in Amanda’s cottage by the river – she made sure we had sausages. We had such a giggle and in such a short space of time turned my life around with some excellent advice…I thought we’d be friends for years to come.


Our next adventure was the Care Experience Conference. Would I get involved? Sometimes being in the care community can be difficult, all those memories and trauma that trigger mine. At times it is just too painful. Eventually I said I would, but only if it was something to do with art. An exhibition. I had already seen the power of art, its capacity for healing. I knew personally how it could be managed through the process of creating to become golden seeds and explosions of colour on the page. And how that process could be a safe space to explore, metamorphosise, let go. Little did I know that you were thinking the same. We linked up and darling Rod Kippen joined us. Initially we emailed but eventually we met up at the Manchester City Art Gallery to discuss how we would curate the care experienced art exhibition. I was so excited. I don’t think we made any plans at that first meeting as all we did was chat about anything and everything. You and Rod, try as I might just would not be organised. But you both went along with my plan for spreadsheets, the ultimate for us control freaks – okay just me then. They are so neat and tidy and you can add colour – wonderful! They would organise us all.

Yusuf, me & Rod doing our thing at the Care Experience Conference 26th April 2019.

You were so patient. Rod was lovely too. You both put up with me and for that I’m ever thankful. We were a fabulous team, I had so much fun. I hope you did too.

Organisers of the Care Experience Conference 26th April 2019.


You taught me some important lessons in life for which I am grateful. A writing friend told me about a film preview she was attending and thought I might enjoy it too and would I like to attend. I went along to the first screening of Be-longing after discussing it with you and Rod as a potential for the art exhibition. The screening was held at the Lexi Cinema, Kensal Rise a small intimate building perfect for the showing of such an emotive film. The lights went down and it was pitch black which was just as well because even though this was only a fifteen-minute film I cried a lot. The lights went up and the director, Mike Mckenzie, his nephew Casey McKenzie, who played Khoji in the short film, sat on the stage and were interviewed. Mike was talking about the foster care system it’s positives and how he had photos in the living room of his family and foster children so that when new children arrived they could see they were part of a larger family. I thought of how when they moved on they would perhaps feel they would not be forgotten and that they would be held in the memory of Mike and his family. I could feel the tears beginning to run down my cheeks and then one of the members of the audience asked a question. I can’t even remember what it was now but I do remember the anger was overwhelming and later that evening when I was at home on my own I shouted at the walls, raging about the foster care system and how it should be abolished.

Belonging by Rosie Canning

The following day you and I had one of our conversations and you explained how you were caring for a two-year-old baby. You told me all the wonderful things that you had done and were doing for this baby. How his/her vocabulary had improved and he/she was learning to love books. You didn’t know at the time or maybe you did, but I was holding back the tears. We had many more conversations about foster care and one day I remembered that I too had been cared for by a foster mother as a two year old for a couple of years. I had to accept if we didn’t have foster care I would not have had that experience. I would not have the comfort that I too had once been loved. Ideally every child should have a home of their own. It is really sad when you have to leave a family that you love but I thought that if you had a good experience you could take that with you and maybe, just maybe it might help. And this was how I thought of the children that had been in your care. To have experienced love, to have been nourished, and cared for, to have had fun, to have been respected and listened to, these were all the things worth having and a child would be richer for.


A week after the awful news of your passing I was looking at the special painting you gave me. How I cried at the unexpected gift – another ‘Rosie moment’ as you called them. You had been saying ever since we first met that you had an image of me in your mind, a small child sat on a huge chair in a library lost in her world of orphan tales. And that one day you would paint it. And you had, and gave it to me and I hugged you. How I miss those hugs. You were such a good hugger. Oh, you so got it, dear Yusuf. I will so miss you. And now, back to the dark, dismal day of the painting. Because back then the days were so grey. I was having counselling (by Zoom) I had been talking about how you had died. I grabbed the painting. Sharing physical things is not something we usually do but I felt this was important. I was explaining about the painting, how you’d included some of my favourite books and that the little girl was reading Stig of the Dump, one of your favourites. I was glad you’d included that and how the painting was more than just an image of me as a child but included you and your love of books too.

I’ve digressed a little but that’s okay as you would say…I can hear your dulcet tones as you gave examples to make things okay for others. Just as you reminded everyone you were their brother, we were part of a larger care family. It wasn’t even a choice, the connection just was…So, back to the tag! There I was talking to the counsellor about you and me and us and art when suddenly it hit me. The tag on the painting: Return to Muswell Hill.

Yusuf, you had captured something I had totally missed up until that moment. I had been writing about other people, their yearning for home – something that never existed. How I had adopted the word Hiraeth for the care experienced community. And suddenly I got it. My Hiraeth. The place I came from. The place I wanted to belong. The place where I put the pink cat on the mantlepiece as a symbol of home. The place of my imagination. The place where I met an artist who taught me how to draw faces, who came every week for weeks and who I had missed desperately. And yet really that bed with its yellow candlewick bedspread, that corner of the room that was mine, that suburban house on the corner, the house that I have tried to re-create… Yes, I had once lived there but that was it. That was what the tag represented, a Hiraeth moment you had captured. Return to Muswell Hill.

I so wanted to go home but in reality, it was never my home, staff came and went, we had to adapt to their moods while reminded that one day we too would have to leave. We lived on our nerves. Always ready to run. And all the while my counsellor was listening. I had made the connection, my Hiraeth, which could possibly become an ending – to my thesis! All those questions and nudges and reminders from you, came full circle. Perhaps you already knew.

And I thought of how you had sent so many people your hand-made Christmas cards, a tag had fallen out of mine…

Tags were your art thing, they covered the jacket in your first art exhibition – No Colours For My Coat – they were powerful, raw and full of the hurt experienced by you and so many other children in the uncaring care system. The tags spoke, no shouted, the lack of care experienced. Treated worse than the way some humans mistreat animals, no ordinary human could look at those tags and not feel the outrage. You were testimony to the unfairness of it all. And yet you were so full of caring yourself, for others, your heart was huge. I will never forget the power of your images or words.

We spoke about doing some art stuff in the future and another possible very exciting art exhibition. The future was bright and orange-coloured but then Covid-19 stopped everything in its tracks including the possible exhibition, and finally you. 

Letting go

As with most things in life there are beginnings, middles and ends and so it is with letters too. I’m coming to the end of this letter to you, about you and because of you. There will be such a huge gap in my life and others collective lives too. How did that happen? One minute you were here and the next ‘puff’ gone, into legend, myth and fairy story – one of my favourite people disappeared. The gentle giant with the huge heart and capacity for love. I took you for granted. I let my guard down. I forgot that life is unpredictable. I forgot the lessons of my childhood. I relaxed, stood down. Which is what you do with friends and family and you were both. But, I am richer because of it. I enjoyed you dear Yusuf, the lessons I learnt from you, the healing I had because of you. The fun! I will miss you.

Goodbye dear friend until we meet again. I know you will be there waiting for me when I leave this world too. At last, someone on the other side I want to see again, I’m looking forward to meeting you in that art studio in the sky, one day. The only bit of comfort from your passing.

Until then, dear brother, adieu.

Marks of an Unwanted Rainbow by Paul Yusuf McCormack

Paul Yusuf McCormack was known as a giant of a man in the care experienced community. He grew up in care homes during the 1960s and 70s, although Paul never described this as ‘care’. Whilst there, he was subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse which had a far-reaching and lasting effect on his adult life. It wasn’t until he was 52 years of age that he finally released the torrent of pent-up pain that had been trapped behind the defensive walls he constructed during his traumatic childhood.

Paul channelled this outpouring of emotion into words and paintings, creatively capturing the experiences of his early life. A collection of these works is encapsulated in this book, 52 poems and many more pieces of artwork chart Paul’s incredible and inspiring journey. Paul died of covid-19 just weeks before the book was completed. His friend and colleague, Siobhan Maclean has worked with his friends and family to complete the book and share Paul’s work with the world. Paul called for us all to BE the difference.

You can buy it direct from Kirwin Maclean here – UK postage only.

195 pages

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The Stolen Child by Sanjida Kay

Review by Vasundra Tailor

This is a story about a seven-year old child called Evie who is adopted at birth by a loving couple living in the beautiful setting of the Yorkshire Moors. It is also a story about Zoe, Evie’s adoptive mother. The birth mother was a drug addict and the father unknown.

Evie is a happy child who loves her adoptive parents and her two-year old little brother. But this begins to change when she starts to wonder about her birth parents. Her mother notices that Evie has become very secretive and prone to throwing tantrums for no apparent reason.

Evie doesn’t look like anyone else in my family. Her hair is dark, her skin the colour of milky tea and her eyes are streaked green and brown.

Things become serious when Evie is found hiding secret notes and gifts.

Hello my darling. I’m your real father. I’ve been searching for you ever since you were stolen from me. I love you so much. Daddy.

Zoe is extremely worried and tries to make Evie understand that she is in danger. She cannot get through to her. Her nightmare begins when Evie disappears on the same day that her son is rushed to hospital in a critical condition.

Who has taken Evie? The police suspect everyone. With so much in the news about human trafficking, Zoe fears the worst. Unspeakable thoughts of child grooming and sexual abuse torment her.

I feel lost, adrift, with nothing to cling to. I’m literally helpless. How can I find my child? What can I do to save her?

Zoe believes that Evie has been snatched from her by the man claiming to be her real father. She is desperate to find out who he is and where he is holding Evie.

This is a very good read with lots of twists and turns to keep you reading through the night. The descriptions of the moors are particularly enjoyable with the wind and bleak landscapes adding to the suspense and feeling of foreboding that grips you. This is a psychological thriller that will keep you guessing right to the final surprising twist.


Thanks to Corvus for a review copy.

You can follow Sanjida on Twitter: @SanjidaKay

And Vasundra on Twitter: @Vasundrajay


*First appeared on Greenacre Writers 11th June 2017


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