December 2007
I have been a writer for 30 years – articles, short stories, poems, the odd radio play, and writing competitions. Like many writers it was a hobby, something I did almost furtively in my spare time, while employed in my ‘bread and butter’ work, and looking after my family; all the while waiting to be discovered. The big one, the novel I sent out and was rejected – ‘we very much liked your story but our lists are full’. For the last 23 of those years I have also been a foster carer, looking after children who could not be cared for by their own parents, often rising at 4.30 to write as that was the only free (and quiet) time. Then miraculously the two halves of my life – writer and foster carer – came together in a way that was truly the stuff of dreams. I wrote about a child I had fostered and it immediately became a number one best seller.
How did it happen? And why now after all those years? The answer – the right story at the right time to the right agent. Andrew who, even now, says ‘talent will eventually be spotted’ and lays no claim to my success which has been helped by his hard work, ability to spot potential and take on new writers.
When I began writing my first book, Damaged, nothing was further from my mind than a best seller. The first furious draft was purely cathartic. I had often written articles and short stories based on issues that had moved me or about which I felt passionately. But this was taken to a new level with Damaged, where I told the dreadful story of Jodie and what she had suffered. Jodie was nearly 8 when she came to me and was the most abused and disturbed child I have ever looked after. Because of Jodie’s behaviour, her high level of needs, and the dreadful things she disclosed about the abuse, I lived and breathed Jodie for the year she was with me and for some years after. I couldn’t get Jodie or what she had been through out of my mind. I was not only overwhelmed by the appalling abuse she had suffered at the hands of the very people who should have protected her – her parents, but I was also incensed by the system that had let Jodie down and had allowed the abuse to go undetected for so long.
When I had finished the rough first draft I put it to one side; writing it out had helped, a little. But the fact that Jodie’s story had happened at all, and was undoubtedly still happening to other children stayed with me. I realised I wanted other people to know, although I doubted anyone would be interested. Andrew (the second agent I approached) thought differently when I emailed him the more polished second draft. The publishers who bid for the rights to the book apparently thought so too.
But if I was bemused by my agent’s and publisher’s interest (and faith) in my story, I have been astounded by the public’s empathy and support. Within a week of publication the letters and emails began pouring in. Many were very personal and for my eyes only, but for those who wanted their views aired I set up a blog on my website. The letters and emails came from people of all ages (my youngest reader to date is 12), from all walks of life and professions, but united in the need to tell me how moved and incensed they had been by what had happened to Jodie (Damaged) and Tayo (Hidden) – exactly my reason for writing the books.
Inspirational memoirs sometimes receive a cynical press, although it is the most successful genre to emerge in recent years. Why does anyone read this stuff? one journalist who recently interviewed me asked. I think there is a voyeurism in reading about sexual abuse, another commented. In reply and justification I referred them to Comments on my website which gives a candid insight into why people read this type of book:
I couldn’t put it down, and just had to write to you…
I was appalled, shocked, and incensed…Thank you for bringing this to our attention.
Thank you for opening my eyes to all the bad things that go on behind closed doors.
The general public’s collective conscience wants to know what is going on in our society, and wants something done to right the wrong.
I haven’t spoken out before, but after reading your book, I intend to.
People were spurred into action – I’ve always wanted to work with disadvantaged children, and now I will.
One social worker wrote, I am aware the system does not always look after all the children in the way that it should. I am returning to my fostering team on Monday and will be recommending your books to all of them.
Readers found the book therapeutic in rationalising their own problems –My husband did some reverse psychology. He hoped that by reading your amazing book, it would help me realise that I am not a failure, and that I am a good parent. It has worked!
And others suddenly realised how lucky they were – I thank god for my own loving family, was repeated time and time again.
Then there were the emails and letters from adults who had been abused as children and had identified with and found comfort in my writing. – I too was sexually, physically and emotionally abused by my father, however he managed to fool social services.
Reading this book has made me want to speak up again about the abuse I suffered.
This book touched my heart. As a survivor of incest, the similarities between Jodie and me were too close for comfort, but it gave me permission to allow the child in me to voice her sadness and I am now seeing a therapist. Thank you for the gift of the words from this book. I am truly grateful…I have a tear again in my eye as I write to you. So did I.
Others were luckier – Your book brought back lots of memories of my time in care and I was also lucky enough to have a wonderful foster carer like you.
If I had needed justification in writing another ‘inspirational memoir’ I had it in the overwhelming response from the public. And if, as a result of, not only my writing, but all the other books in the genre, the ‘system’ is changed and one child is saved then it has all been worthwhile. And on a purely personal level the way the two areas in my life, which give me greatest pleasure – my family and writing, have miraculously come together make me one very contented bunny.