Shattered Lives

‘Most of the children cried quietly. I did too.’

There is a humane core to Shattered Lives. In a series of letters to some of her young clients, the founder of the south London children’s charity Kids Company rightly berates a society that refuses to take collective responsibility for its children, preferring to criminalise them for petty acts or to run in fear from their childish tantrums – and yet for all that, refuses to grow up itself. Batmanghelidjh rages against the dehumanising institutions and practices of the welfare state on behalf of marginalised and brutalised children. The portrayal of society as uncaring and its institutions as unresponsive to their desperate needs rings true.

The managerial framework within which public services are delivered today is relatively unmoved by appeals to our common humanity. But the author’s rejection of ‘business values’, in favour of regaining a lost sense of ‘emotional vocation’ that she argues informs the practice of care-giving, reveals a commonly held misconception of the problem with welfare provision. It is not care and compassion that are missing, but any compelling notion of public service. In its place we have an instrumental use of social policy to meet bureaucratic political ends such as ‘diversity’ on the one hand and ‘social inclusion’ on the other, rather than meeting people’s needs.

And I suspect that Batmanghelidjh is at times cavalier with the truth – the empirical truth, that is, as opposed to the psychological truth she prefers to indulge in. Batmanghelidjh’s dramatising of degradation and misfortune sometimes appears more fantastical than real. Perhaps that is unfair, and I am belittling unimaginable horrors out of ignorance. In which case I apologise, but we are given little else to go on.

By claiming to speak on the children’s behalf she gives herself unlimited licence as her clients’ self-appointed ventriloquist – as their ‘voice’. But this can just as easily mean she ends up mouthing her own prejudices. For instance, the author’s portrayal of young people prone to bouts of violence as automatons subject to a ‘pre-programmed biological response which is activated through physiological arousal responses and body memories’, takes us into the realms of pseudo-science.

Elsewhere, the reader is assumed to be both unsceptical and cynical, ready to believe that terrible things happen more or less routinely. Did the cops really sell on the drugs, or did the young person make that bit up, or imagine it perhaps. Are the judges corrupt too? Did those 12-year-old kids really brandish machine guns? (‘No one could catch them’). As we are already implicit in the abuse done to them (or so the argument goes), to doubt their stories would be to revisit it upon them once more.

Beyond this, the author’s own radical pretensions to fighting a lone battle on behalf of damaged kids tends to obscure what she has in common with her contemporaries working inside these failing institutions. They may at times appear indifferent to the suffering of the ‘difficult’ and ‘challenging’ kids deemed ineligible for their services. But she shares a commitment to the orthodoxies on which their practice is based – not least of which is an over-attachment to attachment theory. And this is a bond that endures because of the prejudices of the age rather than the ever elusive evidence-based practice.

It was the powerful influence of a traditional gendered morality that gave attachment theory its initial wind when Bowlby proposed the theory in the 1950s. Today, it is the mistrust of the motivations and capacities of ever more parents, and an underestimation of the potential of individuals to transcend their background and their problems early on in life, that gives it its staying power. This is one example of how Batmanghelidjh’s hermetically sealed therapeutic discourse presents dangers of its own, condemning young people to lives that they might not otherwise recognise as theirs.

‘Poorly attached infants’ she pronounces, ‘do not bring resilience into their childhood’. Well, that’s that then. Except resilience is not a function of a child’s relationship with their principal carer and is not necessarily killed off by what she calls ‘murderous motherhood’. It develops as a consequence of living with and battling against adversity. The steely exteriors of some of the children that feature in Shattered Lives is taken as a warning sign of the destructive tempest within rather than evidence of a robust character perhaps able to withstand life’s hardships better than most.

Batmanghelidjh claims to uphold the resilience of her subjects, but simultaneously denies them the agency needed to break free of the destructive cycles of abuse, or the intrusive recall of childhood traumas in later life, to which she insists they are or will be subject. It seems that the more adjusted these young people are to the unimaginable horrors they have endured, the more likely they are to find themselves subject to her therapeutic interventions.

This book endorses what I would like to call ‘therapocracy’, an aspect of the government’s ‘well-being’ agenda. Having started in a school broom cupboard, the author’s ‘therapy rooms’ (as she likes to call them) now have official sanction in the form of DfES funding, and are sprouting up all over the place. This indicates the government’s new-found interest in society’s happiness and discussed in the work of its ‘guru’, Richard Layard. Like Layard, Batmanghelidjh believes that the nation’s mental health should be high on the political agenda, and that the workforce should be therapeutically trained.

Batmanghelidjh also argues that parents ‘be helped to take on board the complex psychological responsibility of parenting’, lest they inadvertently traumatise their children and presumably cause their lives to spin out of control like those of the young people featured in her book. That makes sense if you disregard any sense of perspective you might once have had, and draw some kind of equivalence between children exposed to prolonged or repeated episodes of abuse and neglect with those whose parents are in a grey area perhaps just short of being – to use the common parlance – ‘good enough’ or ‘competent carers’. This expansionist mindset is also evident in her argument that young offenders should be placed on the child protection register because they are victims too.

From the outset it has to be acknowledged that the subject matter of this book is hardly cheery. But having said that, it is striking that the prognosis presented by the author for the children on whose behalf she claims to speak, is what really rankles and gets the reader down. Her outlook is unrelentingly bleak; she is hardly the sort of character you want around when you’re looking for a bit of a lift. This is what makes the improbably articulate suicide note that is included in the book all the more worrying. It seems as much a product of Batmanghelidjh’s own ideas as the desperate circumstances that the young person is grappling with.

Suicide, she says, ‘is a way out and must not be seen as entirely negative’. Really? OK, the young person in question may already be on a downward spiral, but if Batmanghelidjh can’t see beyond the next ‘living task’ why should they? Why can’t she help them find the better ‘way out’ instead of endorsing their despair? Of the young person in question, and without irony, she says ‘Your past and present [are] separated by a fragile membrane’. Hold on a second. After being told that you are irreparably damaged as a consequence of your trauma and upbringing, and after your therapist has been relentlessly picking away at that bloody ‘membrane’, is it any wonder that you are unable to put the past behind you, or that the metaphorical scab separating now from then won’t heal?

Thankfully the young person didn’t go through with it, but there’s a handy template for any other desperate souls dangling their legs over the edge and waiting for someone to push them off.

‘British mainstream politics’ the author argues ‘prides itself on its compassion towards the children of Africa’ while continuing to neglect the ‘abuse’ (generically speaking) done to children at home. But this is precisely why such patronising campaigns should be avoided here. It is easy for the great and good to side with the marginalised and oppressed, and feel their pain – as the gushing reviews on the back cover from the likes of Ruby Wax, Jon Snow and the Archbishop of Canterbury attest. But what kind of recognition do these celebrities offer the subjects of Shattered Lives other than a starring role in their degraded fantasies.

Batmanghelidjh speaks to a deep pessimism about our ability to socialise the young or to act in their best interests. She is right to criticise a ‘readiness to perceive ourselves as victims’ but apparently oblivious to her own complicity in the creation of a culture that makes victims of us all. We are all implicated in her tales of depravity, either as abusers or as abused. Indeed if anybody does escape the various ‘cycles’ that she describes, they are even guiltier for being mere ‘bystanders’ to the whole sorry episode and doing nothing about it. It is a book about what lurks around imagined dark corners – of the psyche as much as society. But in the end, it is little more than therapy for self-loathing misanthropes seeking an explanatory narrative for their own disorientation.

Those working with children living in such dire circumstances need to be allowed to get on with it. That means taking the therapeutic orthodoxies of Batmanghelidjh and her ilk with a very large dose of salt, while recognising that there are insights to be had. And though there are important political arguments to be won over the structural causes of the poverty in which such trajectories so often find their origin, let’s not flatter ourselves that these young people’s extreme misfortunes are part of our wider social malaise.

Like Victoria Climbie and the Soham girls before them, the children featured in Shattered Lives will doubtless be treated as emblematic in a society scratching around for moral pointers and ready to believe the worst about itself. As a consequence, not only will the particular and desperate needs of the individuals detailed in the book (and children like them) be further neglected – but in becoming instruments of public controversy, their peculiarly horrible experiences will gain greater resonance and be credited with a wider significance than they deserve.

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