‘The Lost Child’, Anne Atkins: review, Part Four (aka 3B)

This is the fourth part of what is now a six-part review of 1990s anti-abortion novel The Lost Child, starting with this post. In the third post, I started reviewing the part of the novel in which protagonist Caz, as part of her own book, tells the story of her life complete with detailed description of a younger sister who is, in fact, entirely a product of her imagination in response to her mother’s abortion. This might make more sense if you start with the first post, but I can’t promise anything on that score. Anyway, this post started out as the second half of that post before I split it, and is the continued story of Caz’s life with her imaginary sister.

Content warning: Mention of child death including national disaster with huge numbers of deaths. Mention of infertility leading to suicide.


The letter

Caz – now in her mid-20s and living in her parents’ old house in London at what seems to be largely their expense – gets a letter from a person she knew at university. This is plot-relevant as it ends up inspiring the series of books that will make her name as a children’s author, but it’s also Atkins’ excuse to dive into more moralising.

It probably would be unfair of me to say this if everyone in the comments didn’t already hate the book anyway, but, since it seems you all do, I’ll go ahead: Reading through the general level of annoyance/indignation/outright anger directed at this book in the comments on the previous posts, I have had to fight the urge to say ‘But, guys! Pace yourselves! We’re not even at the really annoying bits yet!’ And, IMO, we are now there. But see what you think.

The letter comes from a Swedish woman whom Caz knew from Oxford. Caz tells us ‘For a term or two we’d been very close’ and that she assumed they’d be friends lifelong, but then Katerina got pregnant and had an abortion, and

Soon afterwards, our friendship, like many an Oxford affair, fizzled out without comment; we found ourselves amongst different friends almost without noticing it.

Come off it, Caz; we already know how you feel both about abortion and about people having different beliefs from you, so, no, you’re not convincing us that this close friendship just coincidentally happened to fizzle out right after her abortion. Also, we get Katerina’s version in the letter, and it’s a sight more plausible from what we know about Caz:

You criticised me, and made me very angry, and our friendship was broken. I still have some hurt in me because of this.

However, it seems that Katerina is not actually writing after all these years just to call Caz out. She’s writing to say that, although she still disagrees with Caz over the abortion, she’s come to agree with her over something else; namely, Caz’s views on the dropping birth rate.

You said we were disposing of our children, and soon there would be nothing left.

‘But wait’, you might possibly be thinking right now (if you are managing coherent thoughts beyond the ‘WTF’ rage-blurt), ‘isn’t this the same Caz who has gone on to have precisely zero children by this point in her life?’ Why, yes, indeed it is. Well, as long as you’re not being hypocritical or anything, Caz.

I didn’t hear you well at the time, the larger thing that you were saying, because you also said that a baby should be more important to me than my studies, with which I very strongly disagree: our grandmothers and great-grandmothers worked very hard to allow us to put our minds before our bodies.

So… it was all right for Katerina to decide something was more important to her than having a baby, but she doesn’t like the fact that other people are making the same choice? Well, as long as you’re not being hypocritical or anything, Katerina.

But now that I have lived in Sweden again for nearly three years, I see a society robbed of some of its most beautiful people. Here, the middle-class members value their salaries, and their careers, and their fine homes and materials. And they have one child, perhaps, or sometimes none. […] Perhaps you say I shouldn’t criticise, as I didn’t want a child in that time and place.

Ding ding ding! But more to the point, Katerina, do you have any children now? If you think Sweden needs more children, by all means have some instead of complaining about all those other people who don’t. (And if there are reasons why that’s not an option for you, then please bear in mind that you have no idea how many of the people about whose choices you’re complaining have the same reasons or ones equally valid.)

I don’t criticise: I merely observe.

Ah, ‘merely observing’. The companion to ‘just asking questions‘.

And the streets are empty and cold.

I do want to point out again here that this is Sweden. I’m sure the streets are cold, but that’s hardly due to the lack of children.

And the mountains are climbed by old people who have taken early retirement. And more than half the desks in the schools are empty.

It’s interesting that, although this is clearly meant as alarmism, it’s actually describing some positive things. If older people are still up to mountain climbing and can enjoy early retirement, I think that’s great for them. If class sizes are smaller, that’s a good thing for the children still there, who can benefit from more individual attention (though I expect the teachers will in fact have the sense to take the unoccupied desks out and do something more constructive with the space).

And what the government does not tell us is that the recession which has been eating our society for many years will soon cause it to collapse unless something can be made to change.

I don’t know whether Swedish society is actually close to collapse or whether Atkins is exaggerating (it seemed to be going strong last I heard anything on the matter), but she actually has touched on a genuine and well-known problem here. We’ve developed the technologies for successful contraception at around the same time as developing the technologies that greatly expand life span, with the result that we have increasing numbers of old people at the same time as getting decreasing numbers of the new babies who will some day grow up to replenish the healthy working population who will be needed to support all these dependent elderly financially and sometimes physically. So on the plus side the population is decreasing overall, which is something our overstrained planet desperately needs, but on the minus side we’re ending up with an increasingly unbalanced population, with too high a ratio of dependent elderly to people who are fit to work.

I haven’t yet seen a good solution to this conundrum, but that’s not a valid reason to leap after bad solutions. ‘Expect people to have children they don’t want, then berate them when they don’t do this’ strikes me as a bad solution by any measure.

There is an old, old myth […] You will know this story, through your poet Browning, as ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’. Earlier versions of the tale do not have the rats; the basic element of the story is simply that the town gets rid of its children. Sometimes there are some disfigured, poor children left behind. The beautiful ones always disappear.

Wow. Just… wow. I’m actually lost for words at this implication that the loss of children only matters if they’re appropriately attractive and rich. But it gets worse:

Perhaps this story is based on true events: the last time such a thing happened was in your Welsh town, Aberfan, in the 1960s. Usually, the society which loses its children is to blame in some way.


I’m guessing most or all of the people reading this will not have heard of the Aberfan tragedy (even in Britain, I don’t think it’s widely known these days; it’s only by chance that I’ve previously read about it) and will not know what this is all about, so I’ll explain. Content warning, again, for major tragedy involving multiple child deaths.

Aberfan is a Welsh mining village. As is typical practice, the waste coming out of the mine was piled up in giant piles known as ‘spoil tips’ or ‘slag heaps’. During the ’50s and ’60s, Aberfan residents repeatedly expressed concerns over the stability of one such tip which was piled up on a hill overlooking the primary school, but their concerns were ignored by the National Coal Board. On 25th October 1966, the spoil tip spilled over and buried the school and the nearby houses in an avalanche of mud and slurry. A hundred and forty-four people were killed, most of them children. The subsequent inquiry found that blame for the tragedy lay squarely with the National Coal Board. Their negligence, in the face of the repeated concerns from the residents, had caused the tragic death of so many of the village’s children.

Now, I suppose Atkins might be lumping the NCB and Aberfan together in her mind as all part of the same society, which would make her comment here technically accurate. However, when you are referring to an incident in which the poor and the powerless suffered the worst possible loss due to being unable to change the behaviour of the callously indifferent well-off, talking about blame in a way that sounds as though you’re attributing it to the people who suffered the loss is about as appallingly tactless as you can get. This is a viewpoint that Atkins apparently thought it was quite all right to write down unchallenged and submit for publication. Wow.

From using mass child death to score a point, to using suicide to score a point:

But something has happened recently which made me see it in a wider context, and prompted my letter to you. A friend of my sister’s has committed suicide because the doctors told her she could never have children.

Given the context, the implication of including this particular tragedy seems to be ‘if only there were more spare babies around that she could have adopted!’. Now, my heart goes out to anyone who wants children but doesn’t get the chance to have them. It’s a horribly sad situation to be in. However, I really don’t like the attitude that this imposes obligations on random other people to go through unwanted pregnancies and give up the newborns.

It has been impossible to adopt children in Sweden for many years now,

There is a whole tangential debate here that I feel the need to comment on but hope to keep brief. While it would be wonderful to picture a society that cared for its children so well that no children were stuck in foster care without permanent families, I doubt very much that this is what Atkins meant; I suspect what she was actually picturing was the impossibility of adopting babies. Sweden might well have very few babies available to adopt; that’s certainly the case in the UK, due to a combination of reasonably available contraception and abortion and a passable social support system, and from what I’ve heard Sweden is better at those things than we are and probably therefore has even fewer babies in need of adoption. However, while it might also have fewer older children in foster care than we do, I really doubt if the number’s zero either now or when Atkins was writing this.

The reason this topic is contentious is because of a school of thought that anyone who wants to adopt should be trying to adopt an older child from foster care rather than a baby, a claim which I suspect is about to get made forcefully in the comments (hi, Katydid!). So, I’m going to say up front here that I actually disagree with this. I think that older-child adoption is an excellent option which I would love to see more people exploring; what I object to is the idea that it should be an obligation for would-be adopters. Adopting an older child with a traumatic history is a whole different kettle of fish from starting out with a baby, there are excellent reasons why even people who want to be parents might not be up for older-child adoption, and going in reluctantly can do far more harm than good.

However. With all that said… I do find it highly distasteful that Atkins is not only ignoring the existence of this option, but is doing so in the context of an implied ‘if only there had been some children around to adopt so that this poor woman wasn’t driven to suicide’. Older children in foster care do exist and are not chopped liver. So Atkins is implying here not only that childlessness is a fate worse than death, but that adopting an older child is also. About the best thing I can say about that is that I think at least the second of those two implications was unintentional.

and it is not usually legal to adopt from another country.

I’ve no idea why Atkins thought this, but it seems to be flat-out wrong. Adoption from abroad is, apparently, not only legal but reasonably common in Sweden. I was willing to allow that perhaps things had been different back in 1994 when Atkins was writing… and then I remembered reading this autobiography by a woman born in Brazil who was legally adopted by Swedish parents back in (checks book) 1991, just three years before ‘The Lost Child’ was published. I’m guessing Atkins just made this bit up to suit her story.

So she kills herself. I find it tragic, too, that even in our advanced society a woman can find nothing to do with her life but have babies.

This last line clashes rather oddly with the context. Katerina seems to be presenting this tragedy as another warning against the consequences of the general dearth of appropriate baby-production in society, and she’s certainly chosen to write to someone who she knows will agree with that viewpoint. But she’s simultaneously lamenting the idea of women being too devoted to having babies. I’m honestly not quite sure what note Atkins was trying to hit here; I think she was trying to present the ideas Katerina presents in this letter while at the same time depicting Katerina as one of these misguided (in Atkins’ eyes) women who thinks there’s something deeply wrong with devoting your life to having babies, and didn’t entirely think through the contradiction.

Anyway, this is almost the end of the letter, and is the end of the moralising part of the letter. Katerina tells Caz she misses her and hopes to see her again, and signs off. We now get to the point of all this plot-wise, which is…

The book series and the fictitious artist

All this stuff about a society without children inspires Caz to write an illustrated children’s book about children disappearing from London into a fantasy land. This sells very well and Caz follows it up with a series about the one child who remains behind in an otherwise childless city, which, again, is a huge success and makes Caz’s name as an author.

However, here is the really weird part; she publishes these books as a collaboration with Poppy. She attributes the artwork to Poppy and the writing to herself, and publishes the books in both their names.

This raises some major questions. As far as I can gather from the text, Caz didn’t even tell her publishers the truth. So… how did that work? What happened when they wanted contracts signed? What about the payments? Did Caz end up collecting a double share of royalties under this pretence of being two separate people? Wasn’t that fraud? That goes way beyond enjoying pretend conversations with your imaginary sister in your quiet moments.

And what about her family? It’s established that Caz has two parents and two brothers, with all of whom she’s still in contact; they’d have kept track of her glorious writing success and wanted to see her books. (In fact, it’s explicitly mentioned that Jack, now married to Shangani, bought them for his children). Did they have no reaction to seeing her claim to be collaborating with a non-existent sister? What on earth??

Atkins doesn’t address any of these issues at all. As far as I can see, she sees Caz as driven to these lengths by her mother’s abortion and hence entirely justified in taking the whole bizarre fantasy as far as she does. It doesn’t seem to occur to Atkins to consider how it would realistically be seen by the different people in Caz’s life.

Anyway, the series sells extremely well (which Caz attributes to the deep-seated loneliness of modern British children, because parents are having smaller families and not spending much time with their children, hint, hint) and Caz and Poppy become household names despite refusing to give any interviews about the books. Caz does do other writing of her own and does sometimes give interviews regarding those pieces, and tells us that she is ‘constantly’ asked why Poppy never appeared. That seems like more interest than the media would actually show in a children’s book illustrator not wanting to do interviews (and also seems ironic in view of the unintended implication that her own family were so implausibly uninterested in the whole setup). However, Atkins wants a set-up for the writing of the book-within-a-book, and so Caz tells us that she wrote this book to answer the question.

And on that note, the last-but-one chapter of the book-within-a-book ends. That leaves the conclusion of the book-within-a-book, in which we will get the Big Reveal about Poppy being imaginary, and then several more chapters of Caz’s frame story. I’m planning one more post for each of those parts.

‘The Lost Child’, Anne Atkins: review, Part Three

This is part of a multipost series about ’90s anti-abortion novel The Lost Child, by Anne Atkins. The first post is here; other posts will be linked back there as I post them.

This part of the review will be about the third of the three alternating story strands that I described in my initial summary. In this strand, protagonist Caz tells the story of her relationship with her sister Poppy as part of the book-within-a-book she’s writing, thus giving us what seems on the face of it to be a rather sweet story about the lifelong bond between two sisters. However, in her book’s conclusion, Caz will reveal that Poppy was in fact imaginary. In response to her mother’s abortion, Caz invented the sister she thought she could have had and spent the next twenty-four years picturing the different things she might have been doing with this imaginary sister, and her book has actually been telling the story of her memories of imagining these things.

I originally planned to get through all of this part of the story in one post. However, Atkins has a tendency to weave in bits of anvil-dropping moralising, and there was so much to discuss that I’ve finally decided to split it into two posts. As I still have two concluding posts planned after that, this will make the full review six posts long.

Content warning: Greek myth involving rape, body mutilation, silencing, and child murder.


The imaginary baby sister

This strand of the story starts out with what are supposedly Caz’s memories of the day Poppy was born. This scene works well in light of the reveal; the scenes Caz describes are blurred and confused in a way that could work equally well for ‘adult remembering something that happened when she was six’ and ‘six-year-old’s imagined version of what a baby sister’s birth would be like’. However, the next scene doesn’t. It’s a lengthy anecdote about how six-year-old Caz and her grandfather get left in charge of baby Poppy one afternoon and chaos ensues, which works well when we think it’s an actual story of someone looking back on what a mess they now realise they made of something as a child and joking about it all in hindsight, but doesn’t read like something that a six-year-old would have had the self-awareness to invent.

The imaginary justifying quote

As Poppy gets older, Caz and Poppy play together extremely well despite the age gap. That fits perfectly with the reveal (of course Caz would want to picture this imaginary sister as someone she loved playing with). However, what doesn’t fit well with the reveal is that Caz ‘quotes’ her mother as telling other people that it’s actually really easy to have a fourth child because Caz and Poppy just amuse each other all day long and her mother has hardly anything to do. Since under the circumstances her mother clearly couldn’t have said any such thing, what this means is that Caz has blatantly invented a quote from her mother to convince us and herself how easy it would have been for her mother to have the baby. (As Atkins herself has four children, she might well have been trying to get in her own opinion about her own experience. However, she doesn’t seem to have realised what an inappropriate comment it is from Caz in this context.)

The Greek myth

When Caz is twelve and Poppy supposedly six, they spend a holiday with her grandfather, who is apparently a retired classics teacher and who is ‘appalled’ to find out that Caz’s private school no longer teaches classics. Caz is in fact interested in learning the subject and thus her grandfather starts telling them various Greek myths, including the particularly gruesome one of Procne and Philomena. In this story, Procne’s husband King Tereus rapes her sister Philomela and cuts her tongue out to prevent her from complaining; when Philomela nevertheless manages to communicate the terrible truth to her sister by weaving a tapestry which shows the story, Procne gets her revenge on her husband by killing their son Itylus (or Itys, in most versions, but this is the name Atkins used).

Atkins had a few different Doylistic reasons for including this myth, which I’ll get to, but first Caz asks her grandfather the obvious question; why would Procne get revenge by killing the child who was her much-loved son as well? This seemed like a good question, so I did a fairly small amount of internet research and found a point which hadn’t occurred to me; Procne, in the story, would not actually have another option for getting any sort of justice for her sister. Her husband was the king in a country with an absolute monarchy, so he was above the law. I realised that the power of the myth was in Procne’s dilemma; she either had to let a hideous crime against the person she loved the best go unavenged, or avenge it in a way that would hurt her even more. We can disagree with her solution and still recognise why the story of the dilemma is powerful.

Now, if I can work that out I’m fairly sure a classics teacher should be able to work it out. And surely someone who’s ‘appalled’ that his granddaughter isn’t being taught the classics should be eager to seize the chance to explain this. However, here’s her grandfather’s take on it:

‘Well, it was an ancient feminist protest, I suppose. Like Medea. Men could be pretty beastly in those days, and what else could she do?’

‘But didn’t she love him?’

‘Her son? Indeed she did: she died of grief afterwards. She and her sister. That’s why nightingales and swallows have such sad voices.’

‘Then why did she do something which would upset her even more than it would upset her husband?’ I wanted to like Procne, as her story was such a romantic one, but she did seem to me to have behaved idiotically.

‘Ah, now, some people would say that’s what Women’s Lib. is all about,’ Grandfather said with a bit of a twinkle in his eye. ‘Cutting off your nose to spite your face. I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t dare: your mother would give me a frightful ticking off. But it’s only a story, darling. You mustn’t take it too seriously.’

So, there you have it. Raping and mutilating your sister-in-law, leaving her voiceless, is ‘pretty beastly’. But clearly the only reason a woman might not want her sister treated in such a way is that she’s making some sort of ‘feminst protest’ (really, darn those feminists!). And, even if you’re appalled by children not getting to learn the subjects you think they should learn, don’t bother taking the chance to fill in the gaps if you can instead take a dig at ‘Women’s Lib’ while pretending you’re not doing so.

Anyway. One of Atkins’ reasons for including this myth was, of course, so that she could throw in this mention of a woman killing her child because Incomprehensible Feminsty Reasons, Really, These Feminists. Another reason will come up in the final chapters. The other reasons (one thing I do respect about Atkins’ writing is that she does get in a decent amount of layering in this way) are that this helps to set up Caz’s future career and Poppy’s future imaginary career, and it gives us our title grab. Caz writes a short story based on the myth, with illustrations supposedly done by Poppy, and submits it to a publisher under the title ‘The Lost Child’; it gets published in a collection of children’s stories.

Moralising in India

Caz and Poppy drift apart somewhat in Caz’s teenage and university years (which, again, makes meta-sense, since it can reasonably be interpreted as Caz’s interest in her imaginary friend waning quite naturally in her teenage years). Caz then goes travelling through India after university to get some life experience, and meets up with her older brother, who’s working there as an engineer and living in what seems to be a very remote rural village, where he’s formed a relationship with a local woman. Would there be long-term engineering projects in very remote rural villages? I’m a bit dubious, but the Doylist reason is that Atkins wants to set things up for a speech from him about The Evils of Modern Western Society.

‘What d’you imagine it felt like,’ Jack asked me, ‘to be living in the Roman empire at the time of its collapse?’

I was completely stumped. ‘Well, I suppose … er. What did they have? Orgies and things. I guess if you were rich enough …’

‘Exactly,’ Jack said. ‘It probably felt all right. Perhaps quite fun: they might even have argued that that kind of sexual freedom, for instance, was an advance on the strictness they’d had before. […]’

It sounds from this as though Atkins went along with the view that the fall of Rome was related to their sexual activities. From what I can find out on the subject, that idea now seems to be thoroughly discredited. By the way, the actual answer to what it would have been like to live in the Roman Empire when it collapsed seems to be, for the most part, ‘Horrible, with severe food shortages and a high death rate‘.

‘[…]Anyway, that’s what Europe looks like to me now: a society in decline. […]’


‘But how does it affect things? What d’you mean?’ After all, does it matter if society’s in decline, if people are fed and warm and comfortable?

If people are fed and warm and comfortable, that sounds like a society that’s doing rather well. But what Atkins is talking about, apart from the implication about what she sees as sexual immorality, is the society’s attitude towards having children.

‘It affects everything. It means children over here are more important than cars or telephones. It means people would rather have a family than an electric oven. It means there’s a hierarchy, and people have duties to one another, instead of simply having rights.[…]’

I’ve never understood this particular either-or; it’s like saying ‘coins should have a tail side as well as a head side’. The existence of rights automatically implies the existence of duties.

‘[…] It means I have to decide whether I want to give up my way of life back home and stay here and marry Shangani; or take her home with me; or give her up. If this were Europe we would have been living together for the last year, and she would have had a child if she wanted one, and wouldn’t have if she didn’t, and if she wanted a career she’d have a career, and if she didn’t she wouldn’t; and if I wanted to leave I’d leave, and if I didn’t I’d stay for a while.’

And you’re talking as though having those choices was a bad thing. Yes, I do much prefer living in a society where creating new humans or entering into permanent unions are choices rather than obligations and where women as well as men get the opportunity of having careers. I notice we aren’t told what Shangani thinks of the issue; how does she feel about living in a society that expects her to have children whether she wants to or not?

(On a separate issue, I can’t find the name ‘Shangani’ on any of the main name sites. I might be wrong but I have the feeling Atkins might have pulled a Panju here.)

Caz says that surely that approach is ‘much more convenient, after all’, which doesn’t sound at all to me like an actual response anyone would make to this; I suspect Atkins is working from some kind of pro-choice stereotype (as per the ‘they have abortions for convenience!’ myth). Jack says that it’s more convenient but he’s not sure it’s right, and he’s considering whether to stay in India with Shangani.

‘I don’t want a child in England,’ he said. ‘Europe doesn’t value children. I think that’s what I’m trying to say.’

First, a disclaimer: India and Europe are both huge areas with populations in the hundreds of millions, so I’m very wary of generalisations about how people in one of these places think X while people in the other think Y. However, taken in the context of Jack’s speech and the fact that he’s living in a particularly poor and remote area, what Atkins seems to be trying to say is that subsistence societies place a greater level of importance on having children than Westernised societies do. And, while this is true overall, I think Atkins has completely missed the point of why this is. It’s not because children in subsistence societies are more valued as individual people; it’s because, in a subsistence society, children are your workers and your pension fund. I suspect Atkins might be less keen on the reality of that attitude to children.

The reappearance of Poppy

Caz gets a job as a correspondent in Iran and moves there. After a bit more than a year and a half, she starts up with Poppy again, with the in-story explanation supposedly being that Poppy is travelling for a bit after finishing art school so will come out and see her. How this is supposed to fit with the reveal is extremely unclear. We do learn that Caz is really lonely and longing for another British woman to talk to, but taking up with your childhood imaginary friend again seems a bit of an odd way for an adult to deal with loneliness, and doesn’t go that well with Atkins’ main storyline about the Poppy invention supposedly being Caz’s reaction to the effect on her of her mother’s abortion. There’s then a whole bit about Caz waiting for Poppy and getting so worried when she doesn’t turn up that she phones her parents daily, and Poppy eventually hitch-hiking to get to Caz who then berates her for taking such a terrible risk. Again, I’ve no idea how any of this is meant to fit with the reveal. I suspect that at this point in the story Atkins had temporarily lost sight of the fact that Poppy wasn’t supposed to be real.

Caz loves spending time with Poppy and ends up deciding to come home to London. As it happens, Caz’s parents have just moved to the country and are letting ‘Poppy’ have their London house, so Caz moves in with her. No mention is made of how the finances work out; do Caz’s parents just let her have a family-sized house in London for little or no money while still somehow affording a second place themselves, or is Caz paying a London-rate rent or mortgage on a house that size on a freelance correspondent’s pay? The former sounds implausible but the latter would be downright impossible, so, on Sherlock Holmes’ famous principle, I’ll go with the explanation that her parents were letting her spend years living in a very valuable house for at most a peppercorn rent. That adds an even more pronounced level of poignancy to the way Caz is currently treating her parents.

Anyway, that issue aside, Caz finds that sharing a house with her imaginary friend works beautifully:

In some ways we were happier than the happiest of cohabiting couples. We never quarrelled, as couples inevitably do because they have so much invested in each other. We were never jealous, because we had no rights to each other. If we found each other irritating we could ignore each other for a few days. If either of us needed a change, we could go on holiday with someone else, or simply travel, for a couple of weeks or more. If one of us had a new boyfriend, as I did seldom and Poppy did frequently, the other would simply take a delighted interest in the progress of the affair. [p 251]

That’s the nice thing about imaginary friends; you can picture their interests and wishes as harmonising exactly with yours. I do wonder if Atkins realised this or if she really thought this was a realistic description of what a beautiful relationship Caz could have had with her younger sibling if her mother had continued her pregnancy. Of course an actual relationship with a real sibling – with someone who would have been hanging around hogging the bathroom when Caz wanted to ignore them, who probably wouldn’t have wanted to disappear on holiday conveniently just when Caz wanted them to, who would have had actual new partners whom Caz might not have got on with, who would have had all sorts of traits that would have grated on Caz’s nerves, who might well not have wanted this convenient house-share in the first place – wouldn’t have gone this well. Maybe it would still have been a great sibling relationship, maybe not; but it would never have lived up to the idealised image Caz is picturing.

I think this is a good place to break the post, so I’ll post the rest of my review of this part of the story in a few days, followed up by two more posts as per the original plan.

‘The Lost Child’, Anne Atkins: review, Part Two

This is part of a multipost series about ’90s anti-abortion novel The Lost Child, by Anne Atkins. The first post, which contains the summary, is here; other posts will be linked back there as I post them.

In this part of the review, I’m going to discuss the second story strand, which is protagonist Caz’s experience of her mother’s abortion when she was a child, including her family’s vote on it. These sections are part of the book-within-a-book that Caz is writing, and alternate throughout with sections from the two other book strands (read my summary in the previous post and it’ll hopefully make more sense). Caz writes this part of her book in third person and refers to herself as Sandy.

The timeline

Sandy is five when this part of the story starts and has her sixth birthday during it. The timeline is accordingly vague, but here’s what I’ve managed to glean. (This is, of course, all based on the assumption that Caz is accurately remembering events from when she’s five and six, but since that’s what Atkins wants us to go with I’ll go with it.)

Sandy’s story starts in the first week of her summer term in 1990 (which, based on the date of Easter that year, would probably have been latish April). Soon after this her mother mentions having forgotten her contraceptive pill, with the implication being that this is when she gets pregnant. The family vote is on the last day of the half-term holiday, and the abortion in the last week of Sandy’s summer term (which would make it the third week in July). The story then continues through to a point in the summer holidays of the same year, far enough into the holidays that it would have been some time in August.

Working out likely term dates for that year’s calendar, this all means that her mother would probably have been 8 – 9 weeks pregnant at the time of the family vote (making the embryo 6 – 7 weeks, since, for archaic reasons too ingrained to be changed, pregnancies are dated from two weeks before conception), and would have had the abortion around 5 – 6 weeks after that. In case anyone is wondering, that last sadly does fit with typical NHS delays at the time.

Setting the scene

We get a long-drawn-out chapter describing every random thing five-year-old Sandy’s thinking during a school afternoon, which, as you can imagine, is pretty much the opposite of gripping. Considering this is supposed to be the opening chapter of Caz’s book, I’m dubious as to how many readers she’d get. As far as I can see, it’s mainly there for the foreshadowing; in the course of lengthy stream-of-consciousness thinking, Sandy thinks about how she’d like a sister, she mentions to her friend that she’s not allowed to play shooting games because ‘it’s not very nice to kill people’, she thinks about how adults are usually good people with good reasons for the things they do, and she thinks about a book she has at home that shows the various stages of fetal development complete with fruit size comparisons and emotive thumb-sucking.

The story continues through a couple of chapters of very British-middle-class lifestyle, during which Sandy’s mother (Amanda) mentions having forgotten her pill and we gather that this is something she does quite often. This is an excellent example of why long-acting reversible contraception is so important, by the way; what a shame Amanda didn’t get an alternative that would have avoided the need for her to remember to take something on a daily basis. Shortly after that, Amanda tells Sandy she’s pregnant, and Sandy gets hugely excited at the prospect of a younger sibling and starts imagining all the things they’ll do together. This means that Caz/Sandy’s moral objections to the abortion are going to be inextricably intertwined with her crashing childhood disappointment about it. It’s sad that she had her hopes raised in this way.

The family vote

This is the scene that inspired Atkins to write ‘The Lost Child’ in the first place, after she heard about a real-life family who did this (for reasons that Atkins never found out). Here’s how she wrote it.

As per the timeline above, this seems to be several weeks into Amanda’s pregnancy. We don’t find out why it took so long, but maybe Amanda was struggling with the decision. Their father (Simon) tells the children to stick around after breakfast so that they can have a Family Discussion. He launches rather self-consciously into an awkward little speech about how Mummy’s pregnant but it was an accident, and how people used not to have much choice about how many babies they had, hence the huge family size/high infant death rate in Victorian times, and ‘Nowadays we have far fewer children and they hardly ever die, which is much better’ (we’re told, not surprisingly, that Sandy’s brother Jack is already looking bored by this point), but that with this increased choice comes more responsibility:

‘[…]But now we have no excuse for ever bringing a child into the world which isn’t wanted. So this means we have a decision to make. We have to decide whether to have the baby or not. And because the decision will affect you, we want to know what you think about it. We want to hear your opinions. We won’t necessarily do what you want, but we promise to listen to what you say.’

Sandy was listening very carefully, but even so she didn’t understand very well. The baby was already there, wasn’t it? She was in Mummy’s tummy. She was the size of a pear.

No, she wasn’t. Based on the dates I worked out above, it’s at most the size of a grape, if that. Let’s get background facts right, at least.

By the way, the Watsonian reason for Sandy coming up with the fruit comparison is the book she’s been reading about fetal development that uses fruit sizes for comparison. However, it’s not clear why Sandy picked this particular one. She doesn’t seem to have thought at all about what gestation her mother’s at (and, as above, she’s actually wrong about it anyway). So it’s not clear why she’s opting for ‘pear-sized’ with such apparent certainty.

Sandy could see that there might be other people, bad people perhaps, who didn’t like babies. But her parents loved babies. All good people loved babies. That’s what babies are for.

All right, let’s put that myth to rest. I think it’s reasonable to say that all good people want the best for babies and don’t want to see them hurt or neglected. Loving babies is a different matter. The whole matter of how you feel about beings who can’t make conversation, require intense round-the-clock care, and emit loud noises and noxious smells at unpredictable intervals is an extremely individual one, and it is absolutely possible to be a good person who’s indifferent towards babies, or likes them in very small doses, or actively dislikes them. It’s a really bad idea to judge morality by personal likes and dislikes.

Sandy’s mother talks about the practical side of having a baby insofar as it will affect the children; less time to spend on them, less space, difficulties caused by one of the parents having to give up work temporarily. Her father, in a pro-lifer stereotype of why people get abortions, tells them that they won’t be able to go away for expensive holidays or buy expensive things, and won’t be able to send the children to boarding school.

‘Well, I don’t want a baby,’ Jack said simply.

‘I see.’ Daddy sighed. ‘I see, Jack. You don’t want to think about it any more than that?’

No shit, Sherlock, your child is not interested in thinking about the details of a potential baby he doesn’t want. What are you expecting from him; a well-thought-out debate speech that’ll make up your mind for you?

Sandy’s other brother’s view is that he doesn’t mind, which I would have thought counted as a neutral vote. However, because he adds that he’d like to go to boarding school and likes their holidays, it gets counted as a vote for abortion.

Sandy asks the obvious question:

‘What will happen to the baby?’

‘You mean if we don’t have it?’

‘Mmm,’ Sandy said, and the sound hardly came out at all.

‘It’s called a termination, sweetheart. It means ending. It means you stop the baby growing and don’t let it be born and become a person.’

I get that Atkins’ point is meant to be that if you describe abortion to a child she will see past your euphemisms and see that it is really MURDER MOST FOUL, but, even aside from disagreements over whether abortion is murder, I genuinely cannot see how a five-year-old would have got ‘killing’ from this. I’d have thought Sandy would interpret it as the fetus being forever frozen in time at whatever gestation she’s currently picturing it, or maybe thought they could start it growing again later on.

Strangely, we then get this:

[their father] ‘It’s not quite like our summer holidays, this. It’s not a decision where we all have an equal say. You see, there’s one person who’ll be influenced much more than the rest of us by this decision, isn’t there?

Sandy nodded. She thought of Poppy, the size of a pear, in a little pink bonnet and sucking her thumb.

‘Mummy, obviously. For myself, I’d like to have another baby. I think the financial considerations are secondary. We’d make do. But it’s Mummy’s body, and I really can’t ask her to have a baby she doesn’t feel she can cope with. No man can make that decision for a woman.’

So why are they even putting this to the vote? This should never have been a voting matter.

Sandy, of course, desperately wants the baby and is highly distressed by the whole thing:

She would keep the tears down if she had to fight them with all her body. She held her bottom lip with her teeth. Under the table her hidden fists kept seizing the air and letting go again in a quick little rhythm.

Also a reason why this should never have been a voting matter. I get that Sandy would have been upset about this however it was handled – on top of how she feels about abortion, there’s also the fact that she really wants a baby sister and now sees her chance disappearing – but putting a share of responsibility for the decision on her was never appropriate and just made it harder for her.

She knew what she could say. She would save up all her pocket money for all her life for the baby. She would give up school to look after her, so Mummy needn’t give up work. She would do her washing: Barney and Jack needn’t help. She could even feed her with a bottle like some people did, if Mummy was too busy to feed her properly. But somehow she knew these minute arguments of delicate and fragile logic would be useless against the vast tidal wave of adult feeling.

That’s not ‘logic… against a vast tidal wave of adult feeling’, that’s a five-year-old being age-appropriately terrible at thinking through the long-term problems of a plan that seems good in the short term. Of course Sandy’s parents aren’t going to opt for ‘our five-year-old can drop out of school and devote her life to taking care of the baby’ as a solution here, because that would be child abuse.

Sandy casts her vote for having the baby, but because her father is counting Barney’s neutral vote as a vote against (Fix! Fix! Fix!) she’s still outvoted. Her father comes out with some patronising guff about how this is a good lesson that you can’t always have what you want. I really hate it when people do that. If someone is dealing with disappointment, acknowledge that and sympathise instead of telling them what a great life lesson it is. And, yes, this is very much still the case when the ‘someone’ is a child.

Strangely, now that the vote is over we get a completely different explanation from her mother:

‘You see, I got quite depressed when I was pregnant . . . when I was last pregnant. Depressed means sad, but much worse than sad. Sad in a way that sort of destroys you. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. I love all three of you very much and I’m more pleased than I could be that I’ve got you all. But I was quite ill, and couldn’t be a proper mother to anyone, and I had to keep going to the doctor to be cheered up.’ She smiled. ‘It was beastly. I was horrible to everyone. I really don’t think I could go through it again. And I’d much rather have more time with you, than have to worry about a new baby all over again.’

So in fact, the actual issue for her mother is her history of significant pregnancy-related depression and her concern about the effect a recurrence will have on both her and her existing children. It’s extremely understandable that she wouldn’t want this to happen again. And so, once again… why was this being put to the vote? Why was Amanda’s mental health being treated as though it was a subject on which everyone got an equal say? And why was the discussion held in the way it was, with the parents talking about every potential downside of having a baby other than the actual main one that was the issue?

We know that the Doylist reason for the vote scene was that Atkins had heard a supposedly true story about a family who actually did this (or at least that’s how Atkins interpreted the story). However, I don’t get any sense that Atkins worked out a Watsonian reason. She’s trying to portray a Liberal Middle-Class Family who Have Discussions (and doing it pretty well, actually; the dialogue has a realistic feel to it), but even liberal middle-class parents don’t typically feel themselves constrained to run the really important decisions of the family past the children. Nor does it sound as though the parents in this story were genuinely running this past the children; rather, we get the impression that they’re trying to talk the children into voting the way they want.

The headcanon I ended up with here is that Amanda feels guilty about not wanting to continue the pregnancy, and making the decision at least nominally a family vote lets her feel better about it than if she’d just said ‘I can’t face going through post-natal depression again, so I’m going to have an abortion’. I doubt Atkins had that in mind, but it works for me as a headcanon, given the pressure women often feel to shoulder all burdens For The Sake Of The Chiiiiildren. Meanwhile, I feel Atkins has unintentionally written a meta-commentary illustrating how pro-lifers stereotype abortion decisions as being about superficial things when they aren’t.

One other (in-story) point worth noting here is that all of this is supposedly adult Caz’s description of the scene years later… which means she remembers her mother saying this. This isn’t just about Caz not properly understanding her mother’s viewpoint as a five-year-old. She can look back as an adult, remember her mother telling her this, write about it, and yet never see it as a reason to rethink the anger and resentment she’s always felt towards her parents about the abortion. Caz makes it clear she thinks her mother should have continued the pregnancy, but never addresses the risk this would have entailed of severe postnatal depression.

The fetal viewpoint

This chapter is then rounded out with a page or so in which Atkins tries for an ‘omniscient narrator’ effect in order to include what she thinks the fetal POV is. She writes about the ‘smallest member of the family’ feeling safe and comfortable in the womb and learning to suck her thumb, while meanwhile Amanda and Simon are discussing abortion and a song from Rigoletto mourning the murder of a daughter is playing in the background. That last bit is rather nicely done in terms of providing a sense of understated menace, so credit to Atkins for the writing there. However, remember that we’re talking about a fetus that’s at most around nine weeks gestation, which means that brain development would still be at a very rudimentary stage. A fetus of this gestation just doesn’t have the kind of conscious awareness that Atkins is trying to portray. (For that matter, she’s pushing it a bit with the thumb sucking, as well; while that’s reflexive and does start pre-sentience, the earliest I could find as an estimate for when this starts was ten weeks.)

I think Atkins genuinely believed what she was writing, by the way. I don’t think she was lying here; I think she was misinformed, partly because this was all at a time when less was known about fetal brain development and partly because, alas, pro-life groups have a strong history of manipulating and misrepresenting facts. But, however well-meant a misrepresentation this is, it’s still a misrepresentation, so it’s worth correcting the facts here.

It’s also worth commenting on the worldview which Atkins (or Caz, in-book) is trying to use the fetus to portray:

This world around her, she knew without knowing it, was dedicated to her safety. Her mother’s body would starve itself sooner than let her go hungry.

Note that Caz/Atkins is presenting this as a positive in a book that’s against abortion. The implication is, apparently, that this sort of self-sacrifice is a noble goal to which pregnant women should aspire. It genuinely does not seem to have occurred to Caz/Atkins to stop and wonder how right it is to demand that someone continue with a process that can potentially take that kind of toll on the body.

Her mother’s womb would shield her from the cold, and cushion her from violence, and continually keep her protected and nourished.

This image of the uterus as a fetal protector is, of course, the standard popular one. However, it is worth reading this really interesting take on this viewpoint, which turns it on its head. (Hat tip to blogger Samantha Field, from whom I found that link.) The (anonymous) writer at that link points out that, in fact, zygotes often implant in places outside the uterus and grow very nicely there, burrowing in and grabbing their nutrients from the host’s blood supply just fine… up until the point where they rupture something crucial and cause the person whose body it is to suffer life-threatening haemorrhage. That’s why uteruses are necessary. The purpose of the uterus isn’t to protect the fetus. It’s to protect the person who’s pregnant. It’s to mitigate the dangers of pregnancy to the point where the pregnant person is (probably) going to survive them for long enough to give birth.

And I think that’s worth thinking about here. Atkins is giving us the romanticised view of the uterus’s role in pregnancy, with the implication that this is some kind of ironic contrast to the whole idea of abortion, where the pregnant person refuses to have their body devoted to fetal nurturing in that way. But, in fact, it’s biologically more accurate to view the uterus as protecting the pregnant person against the dangers of the fetus… because pregnancy is actually inherently dangerous. And, while it’s easy to forget this in a world where modern medicine has managed to bring the death rate of pregnancy close to zero, it remains the case that having a fetus growing inside your body for nine months and then vigorously exiting carries all sorts of potential short and long-term complications. Without abortion, those of us with uteruses are denied the final say in whether we’re willing to risk those complications. That’s probably not the part of the abortion debate Atkins wants us to think about, but it’s not something of which we should ever lose sight.

The aftermath of the vote scene

The rest of this strand of the book consists of Sandy’s reactions to the decision, both before and after the abortion itself. This part, I think, is well written; overall, it’s a very good portrait of a child trying to process something distressing that she doesn’t properly understand and struggles to articulate even to herself. Sandy has nightmares, becomes upset with her parents, and hides the expensive tennis racket her brother gets for his birthday (leading to it being accidentally broken) because her father managed to leave her with the impression that her mother had the abortion in order to enable them to buy expensive stuff and the thought of this trade-off upsets her in a way that she can only express by hiding the racket. Eventually, she sobs out the story to her grandfather, who is also against abortion and who’s able to offer her the sympathy and comfort she needs.

In this part of the story there are a couple of arguments meant in an out-of-the mouths-of-babes way; the ‘why be pro-choice but against capital punishment’ argument and the ‘why not have the baby adopted’ argument. I’ll therefore write about those.

Abortion vs. capital punishment

This starts off with a very odd bit of Hitler apologia in which Sandy asks her father about Hitler after hearing a garbled version of his story from one of her classmates:

‘He was a man with a great dream […] He wanted work for all his countrymen, and he wanted health and happiness for them all, and he wanted the best nation in the world’

Because that’s totally the way a middle-class liberal is going to describe Hitler to their child. Atkins seems to be using this as the setup for these lines to which she clearly wants us to have an ‘Oh, the irony’ reaction:

‘[…] He was wrong about how to go about it. […] No dream’s worth killing for. You never get freedom that way. You can’t build your own liberty on other people’s lives.’

So either the Hitler apologia bit is Atkins’ very poorly thought out setup or she actually wants to equate pro-choicers with Hitler supporters. Hmmm…. I’m going to vote for it mostly being the former with a bit of subconscious influence from the latter.

Anyway, we learn that Sandy’s grandfather is a pacifist who almost went to prison during WW2 due to being a conscientious objector, and get onto the topic of capital punishment, which Sandy’s father tells her is wrong because we never have a right to take other people’s lives, and we inevitably get this:

‘So Daddy can you only kill people if they’re really, really bad people?’

‘Yes. […]’

[…] It was during bathtime that Sandy asked, ‘Daddy. Can babies be bad?’

Daddy laughed. ‘Babies are very selfish. But they’re not really bad. […]’

‘So a baby that hasn’t been born yet can’t be bad?’

And her father gets a bit evasive and tells her that no, they can’t, but we normally call them fetuses. Walked into that one, Simon.

I’m coming from different premises here as I object to capital punishment on practical grounds rather than ethical grounds. I actually don’t have an ethical issue with the idea that someone who deliberately takes another person’s life should forfeit their right to their own, but I think there certainly are enough problems with the accuracy of the legal system that I’m not OK with that level of irrevocability in punishment. So my position on this is not ‘We never have a right to take someone else’s life’, but ‘There’s always a chance new evidence might come to light proving them innocent, so I’d rather have someone who’s still alive and can be let out of prison if need be’. And I’m also not a pacifist, because I think that fighting back against oppressors is much better (or a lot less worse, if you prefer) than leaving them to go blithely on with the oppressing. I certainly think there are cases to be made for objecting to particular wars, but I really don’t share Atkins’ implied belief that refusing to fight against Hitler is somehow a morally stronger position.

Of course, there are some people who are against capital punishment but for abortion rights; so is that a contradiction? I don’t think so. I think it’s perfectly consistent for your dividing line to be ‘protect life, but not at the expense of using other people’s bodies for life support’, or ‘protect the right to life for conscious beings with actual brain activity’, either of which works as support for a pro-choice and anti-capital punishment stance. (On the flip side, I do also think it’s not automatically inconsistent to have the opposite set of views. While I obviously disagree with people who are against abortion, I don’t think ‘But you believe that people who’ve committed severe crimes should lose their right to life, so how can you say that a fetus should still keep it?’ stands up as a good reason for that disagreement.)

Since we’re on the topic of contradictory views and since the US political landscape is what it currently is, I will add one other thought here which is not related to anything Atkins has said but which I think does need saying: If you’re against abortion but also against setting up a properly tax-funded healthcare system which would save lives – and which would also pay for contraceptives to avoid unwanted pregnancies in the first place – then that is contradictory. Unless, of course, protecting life isn’t really your reason for banning abortion at all.

Abortion vs. adoption

This one comes up when Sandy and her family are visiting her mother in hospital prior to the abortion (which was, by the way, a blast from the past for me, bringing back the days before pre-op clinics when anyone having surgery under general anaesthetic had to come in the day before and stay overnight; I remember the ward clerkings back in my junior doctor days). Sandy gets chatting to another woman on the ward, Sara, who is, apparently, recovering from surgery from ectopic pregnancy (which Atkins does apparently consider acceptable, so she at least hasn’t reached the stage of extremism of the current US anti-abortion movement).

We learn, via Sandy’s questions about whether Sara has children and why not, that following surgery for two ectopics Sara can no longer get pregnant, and, as she’s too old to be approved for infant adoption (she doesn’t mention the possibility of adopting/fostering an older child), she won’t be able to have children even though she really wants them. Ding! Sandy, of course, comes up with the idea that her mother can continue her own pregnancy and give the baby to Sara, thus solving both problems. When her parents tell her that it ‘just doesn’t work like that’ and can’t explain more clearly why not, she understandably becomes upset and desperate to convince them, or at least to get an answer that makes sense to her. It all deteriorates into a huge argument with Sandy getting smacked by her stressed father.

Looking at this altercation more clear-headedly, it sounds as though the question of why they couldn’t give the baby to Sara (answer: because legally in the UK you can’t just give a child to a random stranger, so Sandy’s parents didn’t have the option and that’s that) was getting confused with the more important question of why they didn’t give the baby up for adoption by someone, which is what Atkins actually wants to demand of women having abortions.

There are, of course, many reasons why adoption isn’t just a substitute for abortion. What’s strange is that the very obvious answer regarding this pregnancy doesn’t get mentioned at all. We’ve already been told that Amanda is at high risk of post-natal depression. That risk is still going to be there (in fact, probably higher) if she continues the pregnancy only to have the baby adopted. Having brought up Amanda’s risk of depression, Atkins ignores that plot point completely for the rest of the book, including here where it would be an obvious point to mention.

So, poor Sandy doesn’t get her question properly acknowledged or dealt with, and is left once again wondering desperately about the irrationality of the adults in charge.

The vow

This strand of the book ends with a chapter about the death of Sandy’s new rabbit (also called Poppy, which made this book really confusing when I was skimming through trying to figure out the plot). Amanda offers to help Sandy bury it, and after this is done Sandy stands by the grave wondering why her sister didn’t get a grave and thinking deeply about the whole thing. She thinks about how she’ll always remember her sister and think about what she’d be doing at each age and stage of life (thus giving context to the ongoing third strand of the story in which she’s been writing about her supposed relationship with her in-fact-imaginary sister). She vows to Poppy (the sister, not the rabbit) that she’ll never forget her and that she’ll ‘never kill my children, I mean a baby in my tummy’. Thus ends this strand of the book.

Book review: ‘The Lost Child’, Anne Atkins. Part One.

The Lost Child’ by Anne Atkins is one of many (many, many, many…) books that I picked up who-remembers-where because it was on sale and looked potentially interesting, and then didn’t get around to reading for the next I-don’t-know-how-many years. When I did eventually check it out (by which I mean ‘skipped to the last few chapters to see whether it was worth reading the rest of it or whether it should go straight on the charity shop pile’) I discovered that it was a novel written to convey an anti-abortion message. That, of course, made me immediately interested in critiquing it, which… might not have been the most sensible decision, since it led me down a rabbit hole of writing increasingly detailed notes about a book which has in fact been out of print for so long that nobody cares any more, most of which notes have ended up being about aspects of the book that aren’t even directly related to the pro-life arguments. So, yes, I question my life choices.

However, for what it is worth, I have now written a long, detailed, multi-part review which I plan to put up over the next couple of weeks. Content warnings: some moralising about sex, one use of an ablist term.


Atkins, who was apparently quite well known as a Christian writer and speaker in the ’80s, tells us in the preface that she came up with the idea for the novel after hearing about a family who collectively voted on what the mother’s decision about her unwanted pregnancy should be. Apparently everyone voted for abortion except for the youngest child, who firmly dissented. Atkins’ attempts to find out more details were unsuccessful, so we don’t know why the child disagreed, how she reacted to the vote going against her, why on earth this decision was being put up for a vote in the first place, or whether the story was even true (it probably is, but it doesn’t strike me as impossible that the speaker from whom Atkins heard it could have invented it as a condemnation of Middle-Class Liberal Families These Days). However, it inspired her to write a story about such a vote happening and about the aftermath.

Plot summary

The story is written from the perspective of the person who, as a child, dissented in the family vote. Her name is Cassandra (shortened to Caz), which is part of a heavy overall emphasis on Greek mythology/symbolism; Atkins is presenting her as the person who speaks truth even when no-one else around her believes her.

The book consists of three alternating strands, of which the first is the frame story and the second and third form a book-within-a-book which Caz is writing over the course of the story:

  1. The adult Caz’s diary (plus a few letters from/to Caz)
  2. The story of the family vote and abortion as seen through her eyes as a child
  3. Her story of growing up with her younger sister Poppy.

The reveal at the end of Caz’s book-within-a-book is that Poppy is actually a creation of Caz’s imagination; the sister she imagined she would have had, had her mother continued the pregnancy. Following this, we get further entries from Caz’s diary describing her horrified reaction to finding out that her lover once gave permission for his newborn child to be taken off life support. The ending of the book overall is rather vague but positive, implying that Caz eventually got over this reaction and decided to stay with him.

While I’ve been unable to resist going into a lot of detail in this review, I have at least succeeded in keeping to a shorter format than my more usual chapter-by-chapter breakdown; what I’ve done is to do a post for each strand of the story as described above. I left the conclusion of the book-within-a-book to its own post, and likewise the last part of the frame story after the BWAB finishes. So, five posts altogether. As I’ve been working on them all concurrently, I’m hoping to be able to post them over a shorter time frame than I usually manage with book reviews, so look out for them over the next week or two.

(AMENDED: Part 3 became so long that I’ve split this into two posts. So, two posts discussing the part of the story in which Caz writes about her supposed life with Poppy, and six posts altogether.)


The frame story

Diary format is hard to write well, because it’s difficult to convey all the necessary information in a readable way while still coming across like something that sounds plausibly like someone’s diary. Authors doing this often fall into the trap of writing the way they would for any other first-person narrative, which doesn’t sound quite right for a diary. This is what Atkins has done, and it has the unfortunate effect of making Caz sound rather pompous. That impression isn’t helped by Atkins’ strong predilection for throwing in quotations from obscure classical literature, or by her moralising with Caz as her mouthpiece.

There is a fairly slow start in which Caz goes into quite lengthy detail about a nightmare she had the night before, about her wanders around London the day before, and about finding the right stuff to make coffee when she’s just moved house and everything is still packed. In amongst all this, we learn that she is steeling herself to write a book that her publishers have already accepted for a publication date four months hence, which does not fit with what I’ve read about typical writing-to-publication timelines, but I suppose might have been realistic at the time (1994) that this book was written? I’m dubious, but don’t know enough to rule that out. Either way, it sounds like an incredibly tight schedule in terms of getting the book written in time to get to the publishers. However, Caz never seems bothered by that aspect at any point; what’s worrying her is the prospect of revisiting the story at all. Despite this, she concludes that she must

…tell it, remember it, write my book, so that all the world knows what happened. And then say goodbye, forever, to the dearest friend I ever had.

Let’s remember here that, while it’s left vague at the time, we will eventually find out that the ‘it’ she is planning to tell is her account of her reaction to her mother’s abortion. We aren’t told at any point how her mother feels about having such a personal episode made public. Caz is making her mother’s abortion all about herself.

We also get an insight that’s retrospectively poignant once we know Poppy is imaginary:

Because of Poppy, I never had the companions I would have wanted otherwise: a kitten, a dog. I loved animals but Poppy took their place, and I simply played with her instead.

Which I now believe, looking back on it, was what happened with boyfriends I tried to have. Trouble was, however much I liked them, however much I fancied them even, most important of all however good they were to me as friends, they could never compete with Poppy. I might talk to them, but I could never say as much as I could say to her. I might be open with them, but they never understood me as well as she did. Any love affair was doomed to failure; although to be honest I didn’t try very hard. I already had the best friend I could want. [p 17]

I think Atkins was probably aiming for ‘See how damaged Caz is by her mother’s abortion’, but the actual effect is to paint Caz as someone who has idolised her imaginary relationship with her imaginary sister to the point where it prevents her from forming real relationships. She can’t deal with the normal flaws of real people.

However, Atkins wants us to see Caz finally moving on with her life now that she’s bringing her family’s Deep Dark Secret out into the open, so, a couple of pages later, her next-door neighbour Will comes round to welcome her to the area and Caz describes this in a way that I expect Atkins at least meant to start out sounding like casual diary-writing rather than giant Here Be Love Interest signs. Mentionitis ensues, both in the diary and, apparently, in Caz’s life, since we also get reports of her having ‘so who’s this person you’re falling in love with?’/’DON’T BE SILLY, OF COURSE I AM NOT FALLING IN LOVE’ type conversations. Of course, the two of them do shortly end up in love and major NRE ensues. Caz, who previously moralised about someone she passed in the street who had the temerity to look bored while resting her hand on her partner’s bottom (which was apparently a shocking sight which indicated that the entire younger generation don’t take sex seriously enough, and, no, I am not exaggerating; that was actually Atkins’ message), now rhapsodises about how she isn’t just having sex, she is Making Love, which is soooo much superior.

Despite her whirlwind romance and massively detailed diary-writing, Caz never seems to feel any kind of time pressure over her incredibly tight book deadline. Once she’s overcome the psychological hurdle of getting started, we get no indication at all that she’s having any concern over getting the book done in time. No stressed-out calendar checking, no late night or all-night sessions, not even a mention of it being an issue on her mind. There’s such a thing as straining the willing suspension of disbelief too far, Atkins.

Will tells Caz about the breakdown of his first marriage. His first wife contracted severe pneumonia late in her first pregnancy, and was rushed into hospital unconscious. The doctors did an emergency Caesarian ‘of course’ (from the extremely little that I know about the subject of dealing with critical illness in late pregnancy I don’t think it is an ‘of course’ at all, but he’s a non-medical person describing a medical event so some inaccuracy is reasonable here) and kept the baby alive briefly, but…

‘…the next day, when Helena was still unconscious, they came and told me that in their medical opinion they considered the foetus “non-viable”.’


‘Will? […] She wasn’t a foetus. She was a baby girl.’

I get that this is Atkins’ attempt at a Don’t Say Foetus, It’s A Baby message. However, regardless of what you do or don’t think about the use of ‘foetus’ as a term prior to birth, it’s never used to refer to a baby after birth, so this bit just sounded rather silly.

Anyway, Will says that because the baby died while Helena was still unconscious she never got to see it (as a doctor, I have to point out that that last would not have been the case; in such a situation the mother is given the chance to hold the baby after death to say goodbye if she wishes, and, yes, this was also true back when Atkins was writing) and that she blamed Will because he ‘shouldn’t have believed the doctors, that I should have questioned everything they said’ and this led to the breakup of their marriage. (We find out in the last part of the book that that wasn’t the full story, but the above is the version we get in this bit.)

They visit Caz’s parents. Caz’s father drinks excessively and her mother can’t go out due to mental health reasons. The implication is clearly meant to be that all of this is a reaction to the abortion. Will spots Caz’s massive grudge against them (as well as, we can fairly assume, picking up on other clues in things she says), and eventually asks her

‘[…]What happened when you were five, and what happened to your sister? […] I know something’s upsetting you, and I want to know what it is. And I know it’s to do with your book, but so far you haven’t told me anything.’

My initial read of this was that Caz had been abandoning her decision to put her imaginary sister behind her to the extent of still talking to Will about her ‘sister’ as though she were real, which would have been bizarre behaviour to a mind-boggling degree. However, we do learn later in the book that Caz has made her name writing and illustrating children’s books but has published them with Poppy rather than herself listed as the artist. While that raises a number of questions on which I will indeed have things to say when we get to that bit, it does at least give us a plausible alternative explanation here; my headcanon is now that Will, on finding out that she’s that Cassandra Whatever, has been asking her friendly questions about her sister and their work together and that Caz has been evading the questions because she can’t figure out how to admit to him what she’s been doing. I doubt Atkins actually thought this through to anything like that extent, but at least it’s plausible as a Watsonian explanation.

Anyway, Caz tells him, though not us, the truth. To put this into context, at this point in the book we’re far enough into the interspersed book-within-a-book to know about the abortion, but haven’t officially been told that ‘Poppy’ is imaginary; the other part of the book-within-a-book, in which Caz writes about her imaginary life with her sister as though it were real, is still ongoing and we haven’t yet got to the Big Reveal. (I assume a lot of readers would have deduced it by that point, but since I skipped ahead to read the ending first I don’t know whether I would have been one of them or not.) However, Atkins apparently wants to stretch the reveal out as long as possible, so this is how the next bit is phrased:

And I did. I told him everything I could remember, just as I’ve told the book everything I can remember, all through that summer of 1990. And then I told him everything after that, everything about Poppy, from my memory of her birth right up until this year, till I moved out of Perrymead Street and said goodbye to her, I believe for ever.

Which is an extraordinary amount of detail to go into about your imaginary friend from whom you’re supposedly moving on; if I were Will, I’d be having some concerns about Caz’s stability at this point. If Will does feel that way, he gives no indication of it. However, to Caz’s outrage, he does sympathise with her parents as well as with her, which she’s not happy about at all:

‘But you can’t understand it from both points of view,’ I said. ‘You can’t! You can’t! If you do that, you’re saying that there’s no absolutes, and that nothing’s right or wrong.’

Caz literally does not understand the concept that someone can legitimately sympathise with a different viewpoint while still disagreeing with it. Or, for that matter, that disagreeing with her particular morality on one point is not the same as saying that ‘nothing’s right or wrong’. And Will does not call her out on this; there’s no indication in the text that there are any problems with this attitude. That’s a damning window into the author’s worldview.

Will, by the way, apparently also sees no reason why Caz should check with her mother before publicising her mother’s personal story; when Caz asks whether she should cancel her book, his reply is

‘No,’ he said. ‘Because I think your parents understand much better than you think. And probably rather better than you understand them. I think you should change the names. And I think you should let them read it before it comes out. And I think you should start talking to them. If you feel angry with people you love, you don’t write them off: you tell them, idiot.’

So at least there’s some constructive advice in there, but unfortunately it doesn’t include the advice that her mother might want to have the final say in whether a personal and painful episode in her own life is made public in this way.

(Also: I know, I know, ablist term. But it was the ’90s and this genuinely wouldn’t have struck Atkins as a problem, so on this one I don’t mind giving her a pass.)

Also, Caz doesn’t even take the advice. She does change the names she uses for her brothers in the book, but she doesn’t change her parents’ names, ‘because I can’t think of them as anything else’. (Since the whole point of the book-within-a-book is that it’s meant to be from a child’s perspective, she could have quite easily just omitted names altogether and have gone with ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’ all the way through, but she doesn’t.) She says she’ll pick two names out of a hat when she’s finished and get the computer to do the find-and-replace, but, since the names she mentions her parents as having are the names used throughout the book-within-a-book as we read it, that doesn’t seem to have happened. She’s also used the names of the streets on which the family used to live as titles for the different sections of the book, and mentioned her parents’ professions. Also, she’s publishing the book in her own name, as a well-known author already. So, her mother is going to be very identifiable here.

She doesn’t warn her mother about this, either. In fact, when she’s asked during her visit to her parents whether her book is going to be autobiographical, she flat-out lies to them, saying it isn’t. Her mother is going to be completely blindsided by this. (We never see her mother’s reaction or how this affects her.)

Later in that same diary entry, we hear that Will has proposed to Caz and she’s accepted. The date is July 10th… no, wait a minute, not even that, because that’s the date of Caz’s entry and she’s writing about something that happened ‘last Wednesday’. Working it out from a previous diary entry that gives the day as well as the date, July 10th seems itself to have been a Wednesday, which would mean they became engaged on July 3rd. Anyway, the reason I’m bringing this up is because they first met on May 1st on that year. That’s two months from their first meeting to their decision to spend their lives together.

Now, from all descriptions Will actually sounds like a decent man who treats her thoughtfully and respectfully, so at least this isn’t another toxic relationship story. But here’s your PSA for the day; however much you love someone and however good the NRE, it’s really not a good idea to make life commitments to them that quickly. There are so many possible reasons why even an apparently lovely – or genuinely lovely – person might not be the right one for you to be with long term, and this sort of timescale just doesn’t allow the chance to look out for those possible reasons.

Anyway, that diary entry is the last one from the part of the book I’m reviewing in this post; after that are the last few chapters of Caz’s book-within-a-book which I’ll discuss in their respective posts, and then the final section of the diary which I’ll discuss in the fifth post. Next post up will be the review of the part of Caz’s book-within-a-book which tells the story of her mother’s abortion, including the family vote. As usual, I will link subsequent posts at the bottom of this one.

Further posts

Part Two: The story of the abortion

Part Three: Caz’s story of growing up with ‘Poppy’.

Part Four: The rest of the Caz/Poppy story

Part Five: The wrap-up of Caz’s book-within-a-book

Part Six: The last few chapters of the book overall, complete with last-minute hypocritical twist.


Jordan Peterson v. the College of Psychologists of Ontario

There is a very widespread myth that ‘free speech’ somehow means the right to say or write absolutely anything without any consequences whatsoever, regardless of its accuracy or potential impact upon others. This is, of course, rubbish. Quite apart from the fact that rights have to be balanced against the rights of others in a ‘your freedom to swing your arm ends where my nose begins’ way and thus there are quite rightly legal limits on what people are allowed to say, there’s also the fact that speech does not exist in a consequence-devoid vacuum. The things you say are going to impact what people think of you, how they react to you, and, if you’re behaving in a particularly insulting or bigoted way, whether they can feasibly continue employing you.

However, there are a lot of people who either don’t get this or pretend not to, and will react to any adverse consequence for anything they or their heroes say – including insults and outright lies – as an outrageous impingement upon their rights and a crisis in society. I’m going to write about one such case which hit the headlines a few months ago, which, as you will likely have figured out from the post title, is Jordan Peterson’s unsuccessful showdown with the College of Psychologists of Ontario.


Peterson, as many of you will know, is a right-wing social media influencer and professor who is known, among other things, for making offensive comments about various people on various forms of social media. He also used to work as a clinical psychologist, although he stopped this line of work six years ago, and he has chosen to maintain his licence with the College of Psychologists of Ontario.

Holding a licence with a professional college does, however, normally involve more than just choosing to do so; there are requirements to be met. In the case of the College of Psychologists of Ontario, the Standards of Conduct include requirements that members ‘comply with the regulatory authority of the College’ and ‘comply with those statutes and regulations that apply to the provision of psychological services’, including the Canadian Code of Ethics for Psychologists. The first principle of this code is ‘Respect for the Dignity of Persons and Peoples’, and spells out the following ban:

[Members shall] Not engage publicly (e.g., in public statements, presentations, research reports, with primary clients or other contacts) in degrading comments about others, including demeaning jokes based on such characteristics as culture, nationality, ethnicity, colour, race, religion, sex, gender, or sexual orientation.

In short, one of the conditions of remaining licenced to practice psychology in Canada is that you avoid public bigotry and don’t make ‘degrading comments’ or ‘demeaning jokes’ in public. Seems a reasonable enough requirement for an official licence to practice a profession that involves supporting and helping people through some of their most vulnerable moments.

However, this requirement has caused problems for Jordan Peterson, who does not want to give up publicly making degrading comments or demeaning jokes.


This comes from the writeup of the eventual court decision, which is available here.

2018-ish to early 2020: the College received multiple complaints about Peterson. I can’t find any details of what complaints came in during this time period were (although, looking through Peterson’s history, there does not seem to have been a shortage of potential candidates for complaint among his public statements) except that apparently they included concerns that some of the things Peterson said were racist, sexist, or transphobic.

March 2020: the College’s Inquiries, Complaints, and Review Committee (the ICRC) held an investigation into said complaints. They did conclude that ‘the manner and tone in which Dr. Peterson espouses his public statements may reflect poorly on the profession of psychology’, but all that they did at this point was to issue a polite though slightly pointed reprimand.

January 2022 – June 2022: several further complaints came in. (This implies that there weren’t any between the first investigation and January 2022. I don’t know whether this is because Peterson actually did dial it back a bit after the first investigation or whether he just got lucky.) These ones are listed in the court decision; some examples include:

  • On a podcast, Peterson joked about the deaths and illnesses of children from overpollution by quipping that they were ‘just poor children’.
  • Following the eviction of a very disruptive anti-vaccine protest in Ottawa, a councillor made a comment on Twitter about how peaceful the city now felt, and Peterson responded by calling her an appalling self-righteous moralising thing.
  • He referred to a surgeon as a ‘criminal’ for performing top surgery (a bilateral mastectomy on a a trans man) even though mastectomies are perfectly legal and the person was an adult who had consented to it. (He also deliberately used the trans man’s former name and pronouns, knowing the man no longer wants to be addressed that way. This is called ‘deadnaming’ and is a known way of being pointedly and deliberately rude to trans people about their transgender status.)

March 2022 – July 2022: the ICRC investigated this further round of complaints. (There seems to have been some back-and-forth here with the ICRC issuing an initial report to which Peterson replied, and one of the above complaints coming in while this was all ongoing. Also, during this time the social media platform then known as Twitter suspended Peterson for his behaviour, although Elon Musk later reinstated his account.)

4th August 2022: the College wrote to Peterson to express their concerns about some of the statements in question, pointing out that ‘public statements that are demeaning, degrading, and unprofessional may cause harm, both to the people they are directed at, and to the impacted and other communities more broadly’. They advised him to ‘to reflect on these issues with a period of coaching’ with a person OK’d by the College. (‘Reflect on these issues with a period of coaching’ is, as far as I can see, college-speak for ‘we can’t just ignore this problem, but we still really want to resolve it without head-on conflict’. The College seem to have been trying very hard to take a route that didn’t involve moving directly to pulling Peterson’s licence.)

6th September 2022: Peterson wrote back to the college refusing this suggestion. He told them that instead he would surround himself with an echo chamber a ‘wide range’ of unspecified family members/acquaintances who could give him feedback on his tone and content.

13th September 2022: the College wrote back to point out that, as this would not be a college-approved course, they would have no guarantee of the quality of the advice being given to Peterson, so, no. Still had to be someone OK’d by the College. (They sent him contact details for two possibilities.)

Some time around this point, date unknown: Peterson got a lawyer to write to the College, apparently claiming that this was some sort of conflict with Peterson’s right to ‘free expression’. The summary in the court report doesn’t give the date or details of this letter, stating only that the College replied on 7th October to say that as a Member of the College he was expected to ‘conduct himself in a way that is consistent with professional standards and ethics’, and that his reported public statements had not met this standard.

21st October 2022: Peterson’s lawyer wrote to the College with Peterson’s official refusal to sign an agreement to attend the required course.

22nd November 2022: The ICRC issued their official decision. This included their concerns that Peterson’s comments could be seen as ‘degrading, demeaning, and unprofessional’, ‘inflammatory’, ‘disgraceful’, or ‘dishonourable’. They pointed out that ‘potential harms include undermining public trust in the profession of psychology, and trust in the College’s ability to regulate the profession in the public interest… Furthermore, public statements that are demeaning, degrading, and unprofessional may cause harm, both to the people they are directed at, and to the impacted and other communities more broadly.’ They felt there was a high risk of Peterson continuing to act this way.

In conclusion, they still required Peterson to go ahead with the coaching programme as previously requested. Not only that, but they were also going to require confirmation from the coach that Peterson actually seemed to be taking the advice on board and making the necessary changes in how he presented himself on public fora. Failure on Peterson’s part to do these things could potentially be considered professional misconduct. In other words, if Peterson wanted to maintain his psychologist’s licence, he was going to have to literally get with the programme.

Some point soon after this: Peterson took the College to court, claiming that the College were setting unreasonable restrictions that infringed on his right to free speech.

23rd August 2023: The court issued their judgement, which was that no, setting reasonable standards for approving the granting or continuation of a licence did not count as infringement on free speech, and, yes, the College’s requirements counted as reasonable standards. Therefore, the College’s judgement stood.


Peterson ranted. (Content warning for Peterson’s thoughts on transgender issues at that link. However, you can at least click on it without adding to his clicks, as I set it up as a web.archive link.)

His free speech rights were being infringed! He was being cancelled for his anti-trans stance! He will keep on boldy telling the truth in the face of adversity Just Like Those Noble Biblical Prophets Of Old! Describing a surgeon as a ‘criminal’ for doing top surgery on a consenting adult is perfectly appropriate since there are completely different kinds of surgery which it would be criminal to do on children, and of course that logic makes perfect sense! Anyone who still believes free speech exists in Canada is delusional!

(That, by the way, is not what ‘delusional’ means. Quite apart from anything else, I think Peterson’s apparent ignorance of the meaning of a normal psychiatric term should possibly raise at least some level of question over his fitness to work as a psychologist, not to mention his apparent belief that it’s appropriate to use it as a slur.)

(Also: No, in all this ranting he doesn’t seem to have mentioned his ‘joke’ about children dying from air pollution. Maybe he realised that that would be a harder one to spin as just his moral stance/perfectly legitimate opinion.)


Firstly; I know this observation has been made in similar cases before, but can we all take a moment to reflect on the irony that these claims of Peterson’s that he’s being ‘cancelled’ and deprived of his free speech rights are being made in an article in a national paper and in comments on internationally-read social media? Peterson not only very demonstrably still has free speech, he has about the widest platform for it imaginable.

Secondly, the right to free speech does not include a right to protection from its natural consequences. Peterson can speak freely all he wants. The College aren’t stopping him. Regardless of anything the College do or don’t do at this point, he will still have his various social media platforms and will still be able to express his views on them to his heart’s content. However, if he continues to choose to use that free speech to make degrading comments and demeaning jokes, then he will not be allowed to continue to hold a licence the conditions of which specifically require avoiding degrading comments and demeaning jokes.

Peterson’s actual issue here seems to be that he doesn’t have a right to a licence. Which he doesn’t, because holding a licence isn’t a right; licences are conditional on fulfilling the criteria set by the licencing body.

Thirdly, I’ve started to suspect Peterson’s not nearly as bothered as he claims. I suspect that he’s actually doing a good job playing everybody.

Peterson’s an intelligent man and quite capable of understanding the judge’s arguments. He’s also demonstrated, in the past, that he’s quite capable of understanding the impact of online criticism, at least when he’s on the receiving end of it. I’m not ruling out the possibility that he really is so self-centred and lacking in empathy that he genuinely cannot see why his style of speaking is a big problem for those people or groups on the receiving end, but, on the whole, I think it a lot more likely that he is consciously and deliberately playing the martyr here because he knows how well that will play to his audience.

Peterson knows perfectly well that his followers are the kind of people who will seize uncritically on the idea that their rights are being violated and how very dare anyone. And that, of course, is exactly what’s happened here. Articles have been written and hands wrung about how terrible it is that poor Peterson has been denied his rights and that it! could! happen! to! you! Outrage is being relished. Which all gets Peterson the clicks, the followers, and, I suspect, rather a lot in the way of donations and free advertising for his books.

And fourthly… it occurred to me to wonder how many, out of all the followers who are getting outraged on Peterson’s behalf, are actually working in some way towards supporting free speech rights for the people in the world who genuinely are denied them. And I’m guessing it’s… well, maybe not actually zero, but not all that many.

I get that. I really do. Getting outraged on someone else’s behalf is easy and satisfying, checking out the other side of the story is harder, and actually getting involved in activism about an issue… well, that’s a lot harder. I’m not good at that side of things myself. But, if you’re happy to shout about how this is an outrageous violation of free speech but don’t actually want to put any effort into supporting organisations that fight against actual outrageous violations of free speech – not ‘he will lose a licence he doesn’t need if he keeps violating the licence conditions’, but people who are facing arrest, imprisonment, and retaliation against themselves and their families – then it’s worth thinking about where your priorities really lie.

If you are someone who does want to support free speech for those who don’t have it, and you have a bit of spare time and/or money to do so, this is a list of links to Amnesty International’s campaigns which gives details of what you can do to support them and this is the link to donate money to them. Thank you for anything you can do.