Walking Disaster, Chapter 18

This is a chapter-by-chapter review of problematic romance novel ‘Walking Disaster’ by Jamie McGuire. Posts in the series will all be linked back to the initial post, here.

This was initially a companion series to the magnificent Jenny Trout‘s review of the original novel, ‘Beautiful Disaster’. Jenny has since stopped her review, not wanting to give McGuire any further publicity in the wake of her attempts to run for office.


Chapter 18: Lucky Thirteen

My word, it has been a while. I had to look back to find out what had been happening in the book at the point where I was last reviewing it (it involved Abby standing up to Trav and calling him out, so that actually managed to be briefly enjoyable). Let’s see…

Travis is taking Abby home to meet the family. The place reeks of everybody smoking and of ancient carpet, and one of Abby’s brothers calls Travis an asshat the minute he’s through the door (to be fair, I cannot actually disagree…) but Trav is confident Abby’s going to love his family anyway.

There’s a bit about how Thomas has made it his job for years to ‘calm potential storms’ in the family by being ‘always on the lookout for someone that could potentially rock our already rickety boat’, because they all recognise that ‘Dad can’t take it’ if there are problems. So, major dysfunction and parentification going on there.

Trenton eyes up Abby and gets slapped on the back of the head by his father for it. Abby, meanwhile, recognises someone called Stu Ungar from a photo. (Famous poker player, in case anyone else was wondering, but I had to look that up because McGuire doesn’t really explain it. Is he famous enough in the US that McGuire could reasonably have assumed her readers would have heard of him?) This scores her major points with the family, who are about to launch straight into a poker game, including Travis. Great welcome for a guest there; if Abby hadn’t been a poker fan, she’d have been left twiddling her thumbs through multiple games. (This scene could have been rather better done if the mention of Stu Ungar had led to the boys finding out that Abby loves poker and asking if she wants a game, rather than clearly being about to launch into one regardless.)

Fortunately, it turns out that Abby’s brilliant at poker and wipes the floor with them all. Thomas then recognises her surname and puts it together… Abby is the daughter of Mick Abernathy, a poker legend. This makes her an out-and-out celebrity in the family’s eyes, and they go wild for her. We now get our title grab; it’s a press nickname of Abby’s. Apparently her father gave an interview saying that his luck ‘ran dry’ at midnight on her thirteenth birthday and hers picked up instead. And she grew up playing poker with her father’s friends, who were mobsters.

Abby is looking mortified by all this and Travis and family think she’s the best thing since sliced bread. Travis finds this so hot he makes excuses to his family and heads home with her straight away, where he finds out Abby’s worried she’s mad at her for not telling him. When she finds out he’s actually starstruck, she’s not much happier with that; she left Kansas to get away from being Mick Abernathy’s daughter, which sucked for her. Travis actually does the decent thing for once and promises her he won’t mention it again and won’t tell anyone else.

Later, after Abby’s asleep, Travis gets texted by ‘Jason Brazil’. That clears something up; ‘Brazil’ is clearly his surname, not his first name, so at least that’s less improbable than having two characters with unusual country first names. I do wonder in passing whether that fact gets a mention in ‘Beautiful’, or McGuire put it in only after everyone pointed out to her how unlikely it would be to have a Brazil and an America in the same friend group. Anyway, Brazil is texting to tell Trav that Parker is ‘talkin smack’ about him. Apparently Abby is still calling him and Parker is waiting in the wings to get his chance when Trav screws up… oh, great, sounds like Parker’s going full-on Nice Guy. Brazil also tells Trav:

Sd just now that she told him the other day she was really unhappy but u were kinda crazy and she was worried about when to do it.

Trav, being Trav, immediately jumps straight to wanting to wreck Parker’s car, rather than wanting to speak to Abby and find out whethr she is unhappy and whether there’s anything he can do to make her feel more comfortable. However, he at least manages to keep this under control, so… some character growth has happened! Yay, McGuire! Shepley spots this as well, the next day; he thinks Parker planned this to wind Trav up to send him into a jealous rage that would convince Abby to break up with him. (Sadly plausible.)

Trav then tells Shepley he’s on his way to get a new tattoo, and…

“What are you doing, Trav?”

“What I always said I would do if I met the right girl.”

So it sounds like he’s about to go get the sort of Abs-&-Trav-4-evah tattoo that everyone tells you it’s a terrible idea to get when you’ve just started going out with the person. Shepley tries to talk Trav out of this in case it freaks Abby out, and Trav not only refuses to listen, he tells Shepley he’s going to the jeweller’s store next, to ‘have it. For when the time is right.’ So apparently he’s planning to buy Abby an engagement ring to have at the ready. When he’s nineteen, she’s eighteen, and they’ve only known each other for what seems to be a few months, although in McGuire Time it’s difficult to tell.

Shepley tries talking some sense:

“No time anytime soon is right. I am so in love with America that it drives me crazy sometimes, but we’re not old enough for that shit, yet, Travis. And . . .  what if she says no?”

And, of course, Travis has no intention of listening; he’s on his way to get that tattoo and buy that ring. I’m going to hazard a guess that Abby will, in fact, see all this as super-romantic and not a red flag at all, but we do not find out at this point as the chapter ends here. Huh; that means I actually made it through a chapter review in fairly short order. Amazing what you can do when the dysfunction reduces. Maybe the rest of the book will be like this and I can whiz through it? I’m a completionist and do want to finish it, but I don’t want to devote my life to it. We shall see.

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

This is the last of a multi-part series reviewing the 1994 anti-abortion novel ‘The Lost Child’, in which protagonist Caz reacts to her mother’s abortion by constructing an elaborate lifelong fantasy about the younger sister she imagines she would have had. Part One is here and contains links to all the other parts.

At this point in the book, Caz has finished writing and publishing her book, in between a rapid and intense romance with her next-door neighbour Will, to whom she is now engaged.

Content warning: Talk of child death, life support cessation decisions, ablism (though this is presented as wrong in-story), inappropriate pressure from the medical profession, description of callous treatment of a body after death, and suicide plans.


The highbrow despair

Having ended the previous chapter (the conclusion of the book-within-a-book) on a positive note, with Caz looking forward to the future, Atkins starts this one with Caz in the depths of despair. In a very highbrow literary way, to the point where she actually lampshades it; ‘Oh, Caz, can’t you even watch your heart break without quoting effing literature?’ she writes after quoting Macbeth and rambling about how Laurence Olivier managed to howl effectively on stage when required by learning it from trapped minks.

The next several pages are Caz a) lamenting how awful she feels and b) telling the Greek myth of Cassandra because Atkins wants this for symbolic purposes which I’ll get to shortly. One slightly odd thing here (which will be relevant in a few minutes, so bear with me) is that Caz claims that, as part of the curse, Cassandra knows her prophecies will be believed just once in her life, on the day that she dies.  This would be a brilliantly effective addition to the curse (imagine not only never being believed, but knowing that when it eventually happens it won’t be a relief as it’ll be a sign of your own imminent death), but it isn’t one that I can find in any version online, nor could I find anyone who’d heard of it when I asked on Reddit. I’m not sure whether Atkins took liberties with the story deliberately, whether she actually had heard this version somewhere herself, or whether she simply got it wrong.

Anyway, we eventually find out what all this is about; her lover Will has finally told her the full story of his child’s death, and it turns out that he gave the doctors permission to turn off the life-support machine, which Caz finds unacceptable.

Will’s story (as told by Caz)

Late in her pregnancy, Will’s wife was hospitalised and unconscious with severe pneumonia. The baby was delivered by emergency Caesarean and put on a life-support machine. The next day, the paediatric team came to Will (his wife was still unconscious) and told him that ‘there was a considerable possibility of brain-damage to a greater or lesser extent’. We’re not told what sort of level of brain damage the doctors were suspecting here, but Caz implies that it’s on the level of ‘won’t get qualifications or go to university’. The consultant’s response to this level of uncertainty was…

Their medical opinion was that the continuance of life-support for the foetus was strongly contra-indicated.

As before, Atkins apparently doesn’t know that ‘foetus’ is a term specifically used for the stages of development prior to birth and thus no-one would have been referring to a child after birth by this term. However, that’s far from being the worst plausibility problem with this story. We’re told that the consultant not only recommended switching off the life-support machine, he wanted a fairly quick answer from Will about this because…

[…] as there was no knowing how long the machine would be needed … well, suffice it to say that Will would have to make up his mind while there was still the choice.

… and so the consultant was going to come back to Will at the end of the ward round, forty-five minutes later, and get his answer then, the clear implication thus being that this was framed as ‘switch off the life support right then or risk being saddled with a brain-damaged child which will, of course, be too awful a prospect for you to even consider it as a possible option’.

Aaaaand no, Atkins, that is not how decisions about switching off ventilators are made in real life.

There are rare and tragic cases where brain damage is so severe and the predicted quality of life so poor or non-existent that doctors will advise that life support be turned off. Typically, in such cases, the medical staff will do everything they can to be sure that the prognosis really is that bad. They will sit the parents down for a sensitive conversation about it. They will give them time to think about it. And, above all, they won’t make the suggestion in the first place unless they’re sure that the prognosis really is hopelessly dire.

This idea that a consultant would railroad a parent into making this sort of decision about a child who was already showing enough signs of improvement that they anticipated her shortly being able to breathe independently is just so far away from the reality of these sorts of situations that I’m flabbergasted that Atkins had the brass neck to write this. This is deeply insulting to all the doctors who’ve had to guide parents through these horrible decisions with sensitivity and professionalism. While I disagree with Atkins’ views on abortion, at least with abortion she’s objecting to something that actually happens and not to some strawman she’s invented.

Oh; we also get told a few pages later that the baby’s body was thrown out with hospital trash after death. Again, no. I get that Atkins is probably trying to make some sort of point about how much she disapproves of fetuses being treated this way after abortion or miscarriage, but that isn’t what happens when children die after birth. (For that matter, it’s also not what happens with stillbirths after viability or even with late miscarriages.) Both parents would have been given a chance to hold and say goodbye to their child and then a chance to plan a funeral and choose either burial or cremation. Atkins is arguing against a strawman.

Caz’s reaction

So, Caz has told us this heart-wrenching story of Will, left alone and without guidance under this sort of pressure while his wife is still unconscious. She tells us about how he desperately tries to get through to someone he trusts with whom he can discuss this horrible decision, and can’t manage it within the short time he’s been given, and how he prays for an answer and doesn’t get one, and eventually, after forty horrible minutes of this, tells the doctors that he’ll ‘be ruled by them’, because he just can’t think of any other way to make the decision. Regardless of what you think of the rightness or wrongness of the decision itself, it’s very hard to read this without your heart going out to anyone faced with such a horrible situation and so little support.

Well, except apparently for Caz. She writes in her diary that he ‘murdered his child’ and that he ‘must be a monster’ who ‘destroys everything I’ve ever lived for’. That’s the level of compassion she’s able to show for the man she supposedly loves so much.

And that’s completely in line with the way Atkins has written her character. So far, through the book, we’ve seen a judgemental woman with rigid views on right or wrong, whose main relationship has been with an imaginary person she can idealise, who doesn’t seem able to extend sympathy or grace to the flaws of real people, and who doesn’t even seem to understand the concept of being able to sympathise with a decision with which she disagrees. Meanwhile, she’s seen no problems with making a decision to marry her first serious partner only a few months after meeting him, while still in full-on NRE stage.

With that background, it feels very realistic that she has this kind of 180o reaction to finding out something about Will of which she disapproves. She doesn’t seem to have any kind of framework for accepting and forgiving someone who has done anything with which she disagrees, however long ago and however deeply regretted. And, now that she can no longer idealise Will (the way she idealised her imaginary sister), everything has crashed down for her.

But I don’t get any sense that this characterisation was deliberate on Atkins’ part. It could, in fact, have worked really well to present Caz deliberately as a flawed protagonist and unreliable narrator. But Atkins is trying to present her as Cassandra the ignored prophetess, the truth-speaker we should all believe. Atkins is on Caz’s side here.

Having given this scene a lot more thought than it actually deserves, I’ve eventually realised that Atkins is clumsily trying to make some point about non-Christians supposedly being unable to forgive:

So what do I do? I honestly don’t think I know anyone who’d understand. I once knew a man [her grandfather] who would have done. But then he had a future and a city with a crystal river to look forward to, where the sun never sets. He would have known what to do. But this, all this futility, wasn’t the end for him.

I don’t have his future or his faith, and my point of reference isn’t the Bible but the classics – which he understood well enough too – so I’ll have to look for my answers there.

So it seems Atkins thinks nonbelievers are incapable of forgiveness. At the same time, she seems to have no concept of reacting to a disagreement by thinking about the person’s reasons for acting the way they did and/or their feelings about it now and whether they regretted it and forgiving others in that way. In other words, she doesn’t really seem to understand forgiveness at all. I’m left with the impression that she sees forgiveness as ticking off a mental ‘there, forgiven’ box rather than actually trying to understand anything about the other person’s viewpoint or actions.

Atkins does not seem to see anything wrong with Caz’s lack of any such attempt to understand. As far as I can see, the only problem Atkins has with Caz’s reaction seems to be that she isn’t able to tick the mental ‘there, forgiven’ box which (in Atkins’ eyes) a Christian would be able to make everything all right by ticking. Other than that, Atkins seems to see this harshness and lack of compromise as completely justified. If this is how Atkins really feels about the matter, then that tells us quite a lot about her.

And just when you thought this was bad enough… (further content warning)

Caz, having broken up with Will because of a decision he made years ago under great pressure and clearly deeply regrets, feels she also can’t face living without Will. So, her reaction is to start planning her own suicide.

She doesn’t go through with it; after a few days of relating her despair at great length (and, to be fair, with beautifully written vivid description; Atkins is good at the wordsmithery part of writing), she posts a more positive diary entry which is all very vague but does effectively imply that she’s going to go and make it up with Will. On top of which, she is apparently a major character in Atkins’ next novel, and, from the look-inside feature on Amazon, it seems she is back with Will, so clearly that’s what happened. But we do get these few days in which, although she never specifically says in so many words that she’s planning to kill herself, she makes it very clear that that’s what she’s thinking.

Now, I’m trying to think how to say this next bit, because I do not want either to minimise the horrendous pain that leads so many people to take their own lives or to make assumptions about what anyone does or doesn’t feel they have to live for. I know that people whose lives seem wonderful on the surface can have unsuspected torments beneath that surface. I know that depression is a tricksy lying weasel that can convince someone that their life is hopeless even when it seems objectively good. So please, please, do not take my next comments as being any sort of judgement on the real people who are faced with real problems that drive them to suicide, and please, if anyone reading this feels that way themselves, know that I believe in your pain and hope for you that you have people who will take it seriously and help you.

But here is the problem with Atkins’ portrayal: We’ve been reading Caz’s diary all along, so we know that she doesn’t have that level of problems. This isn’t a case of someone who seems fine on the surface while feeling terrible underneath. This is someone who has not been suffering from depression, who has not been struggling with hidden problems, whose life has by her own account been going splendidly up until the point where she chose to break up with her fiancé purely because she is too rigid and lacking in compassion to accept that he once, long ago, did something she believes to be wrong. And the result of writing Caz as planning suicide solely for that reason is that what would otherwise have been a genuinely excellently written portrayal of someone struggling with despair comes across more as a teenager having an ‘I shall DIE and THEN they’ll all be sorry!’ strop.

On top of which, we get this:

Cassandra died the moment she’d been believed; with the truth, as always, on her lips.

…which Caz ties in to the fact that she got such good reviews of the advance copy of her book:

My book has been hailed as prophetic, the catalyst to change the law. ‘The tide of morality is turning (I quote) and soon the law will protect the unborn child again, as it has throughout most of history until 1967.’

Oh, yes, they believe me now.

They believe me now.

So, Atkins is trying to draw a parallel between Caz’s planned suicide and Cassandra’s death, with both of them presented as the prophets who die only at the point where people finally believe them. I’m sure she meant this to be powerful and symbolic, but it doesn’t stand up well.

Firstly, Caz isn’t making a prophecy; she’s expressing an opinion. So people aren’t disbelieving her, they’re disagreeing with her. There’s a difference, although Atkins doesn’t seem to get that.

Secondly, the reason Cassandra’s realisation of her upcoming death was a tragedy was the inevitability of what she predicts. She knows that she’ll die later that day and she knows that there is absolutely nothing she can do to prevent it. Caz, on the other hand, is making a choice. She has the options of either facing the grief and learning to make a life without Will, or being less unbendingly rigid in her requirements for the people in her life, forgiving him, and taking him back. However much she might dislike the idea of either of those choices, they still exist.

The result of all this is that her comparison of herself with Cassandra comes across as not so much powerful as grandiose. (It also occurs to me that it is really quite rich for Caz to be comparing herself to someone who had ‘the truth, as always, on her lips’ when she has in fact spent years lying to her publishers.)

However. We are not done yet; there is still a layer of hypocrisy icing on this particular intolerance cake. Because we now find out…

Will and I are having a child.

This, by the way, is written on August 26th. Caz also says it’s a boy, so she’s supposedly far enough along to have had some sort of test for (apparent) gender. Caz and Will met on the first of May and became lovers some time in the middle of June. If Caz is not only pregnant but far enough along to have had a gender check, she must have conceived almost as soon as they started going to bed together, which was only about a month and a half after they met. That is… not a good timescale for making decisions about creating a new person for whom the two of you will be forever jointly responsible.

However, setting that aside; Caz, ferocious defender of fetal life, is pregnant. And considering suicide. So, surely, according to her own beliefs she should be planning on postponing her suicide until the baby is born? Nope. We’re back to the Greek mythology-based symbolism:

Procne took her beloved son, her Itylus, and killed him out of vengeance for her sister.


Will and I are having a child. A boy. Our Itylus.

…so Caz’s plan is, apparently, to commit suicide while she is pregnant and to view this as some kind of symbolic vengeance against Will in a gospel-according-to-Greek-mythology way.

And she’s planning this despite the fact that her defining character trait throughout the book has been her utter opposition to abortion, which she firmly believes to be child murder. Despite her protest in the end of her book, written only weeks ago, about how having to live through ‘a few short months’ of unwanted pregnancy shouldn’t outweigh a child’s right to life. Despite her childhood vow ‘never to kill my children, I mean a baby in my tummy’. Despite the fact that the entire reason she’s upset in the first place is because she’s angry at Will for what she believes to be child murder on his part. The hypocrisy is utterly breathtaking.

And it could still have worked in-story if called out. After Caz’s eventual decision not to commit suicide after all, she could have had a scene of looking back with horror at how nearly she had done something she found abhorrent. It could have been a learning moment in which she realised for the first time what it was like to be desperate enough to get to that point. She wouldn’t even have needed to change her views on abortion; just find the understanding and compassion that has been so missing from her character until now, maybe look back at her mother’s decision with new insight and sympathy. But we don’t get any of that.

The outcome, and final thoughts

After several entries in which Caz despairs of ever feeling happy again (and also some letters, including one from Caz to her niece for her sixth birthday in which she sends her the story she once wrote of Procne and Philomela, because of course that’s a totally appropriate present to send to a six-year-old, especially when you’re planning to commit suicide knowing what a traumatic event that will be for her), we get a final entry in which Caz seems to have found her way back to inner peace and a wish to go on living. And, again, the wordsmithery part of the writing here is very good. Caz goes out to look at the Thames and we get shown-not-told that she’s focusing on more positive imagery, in ways that are very nicely bookended with the negative images she was writing about back in the novel’s opening pages. The final line, in a callback to a pleading letter Will wrote Caz a few days earlier in which he told her he’d get a bottle of Moet and wait for her, is:

Well, I thought as I turned away, who ever said you couldn’t have Moet for breakfast?’

So, without being explicitly told that Caz has decided to try again with Will, we can still pick it up from that line. In these ways, this chapter is good writing.

The problem with it, however, is that we’re given no indication of how Caz got mentally from Point A to Point B. In real life it is of course fairly normal for a few days of letting the dust settle to be enough for people to find they’ve moved quite naturally from ‘LET’S CALL THE WHOLE THING OFF’ to ‘Potayto, potahto, whatever’; not every argument needs a big definitive resolution. But, when you’ve gone to the trouble of throwing a nuclear-level disagreement in as a plot twist forty pages from the end of your novel, you need to actually address it in some way, not just let it peter out vaguely into nothingness.

Caz could have realised that, while she still disagreed with what Will had done, she could nevertheless feel empathy for him and forgive him. Even better, she could have come to the obvious realisation about her own hypocrisy in planning suicide while she was still pregnant and could have learned the more general lesson of ‘people can make decisions they deeply regret later, especially in acutely stressful circumstances, while still being basically good people’ and extrapolated that to understanding and forgiving Will. But we don’t see any of that. We just go from Caz being all ready to commit suicide to make a point, to Caz waking up feeling a bit better, to Caz apparently feeling positive about life again and being about to go back to Will. So, as plot resolutions go, it’s a damp squib.

However, good or bad (I’m voting ‘indifferent’), it is the end of the book. As I mentioned, Caz does show up in a subsequent Atkins novel titled ‘On Our Own’, and if anyone does happen to have read that I’d be interested to know what happens with the plot and whether the dangling threads from the end of this one are ever addressed. But I’m not interested enough to bother ordering the book, so unless I happen to find a copy in a charity shop somewhere I will not be reading any more about Caz.

And, since I have finally ranted myself out on the topic, this is also the end of this book review. I am sadly behind on responding to comments – for which my apologies – and will try to do so in upcoming days. Meanwhile, I will close by once again channeling Richard Ayoade: Thank you for reading, if indeed you still are.

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

This is the fifth of a six-part series reviewing the 1994 anti-abortion novel ‘The Lost Child’, which is about protagonist Caz reacting to her mother’s abortion by constructing an elaborate lifelong fantasy about the younger sister she thinks she would have had. At this point in the story, Caz is finishing her own book-within-a-book about the subject, in which she alternates between her experience of her mother’s abortion when she was a child and her fantasies about her imaginary sister Poppy written as though they were actual memories. This post is going to be about the conclusion of that book-within-a-book, in which she reveals (or at least confirms, since it’s probably fairly obvious by now) the truth about Poppy’s imaginary status to her readers.

The book-within-a-book’s conclusion

Caz, after a bit of humming and hawing, comes out with the reveal:

Have at you, then; I shall say it. Know what you’ve already worked out. Poppy is dead. I shall never see her no more.

I do not wish to dismiss Caz’s clear distress over the issue, but can we please keep sight of the fact that Poppy, even within the story, never existed. I do understand that, in this storyline, Caz genuinely sees her mother’s abortion as a sibling she has lost, that this would have been a potential brother or sister for her, that from her perspective she’s lost a sibling, that her grief over this is genuine. But that’s not the same as Poppy being dead. Poppy-the-person, the character described in the book, was never more than a creation of Caz’s imagination.

What more can I say? That I see her death in terms of tabloid headlines? Terrified Child Torn Limb from Limb. Callous Cold-blooded Killing…

Atkins has clearly been reading anti-abortion propaganda; the ‘torn limb from limb’ bit is a classic anti-abortion ploy of describing abortions in the most lurid way possible, at the expense of accuracy. We also now know enough about fetal brain development to know that a fetus doesn’t develop conscious awareness this early and thus a first-trimester fetus isn’t going to feel ‘terrified’ or anything else (though, to be fair, on the level of knowledge available at the time that Atkins wrote this it would not have been unreasonable for her to believe it).

At the time, as a child, I thought my world had gone mad when I found that those who were my greatest security, those I was supposed to turn to in times of most desperate trouble, were monsters of grotesque proportions, perpetrating violence against the innocent.

While Caz could plausibly have read anti-abortion propaganda between her childhood experience and the writing of her book, what she seems to be implying here is that the ‘torn limb from limb’ view of abortions was part of what made such an impact on her back when she first heard about them. The problem with this is that, regardless of what Atkins thinks about the accuracy of this description of a abortion, it doesn’t fit with the plot she’s chosen. The whole point was meant to be that we get the reactions of a child with no prior knowledge of abortion to the euphemistic description she’s given of it. Atkins doesn’t seem to have spotted the contradiction with having this same child apparently aware enough of abortion mechanisms to interpret them in pro-life propaganda terms.

This is, I gather, an adjustmental flaw. Most children can absorb new, even shocking facts about the universe, and modify their worldview to accommodate them. I could not. I still cannot.

Actually, Caz’s (and, by implication, Atkins’s) main adjustmental flaw is that she doesn’t seem capable of recognising anyone else’s viewpoint but her own. Remember that she’s showing no empathy for her mother’s risk of postnatal depression had she continued the pregnancy, and that she couldn’t even comprehend the fact that her lover was able to see her mother’s side of the story as well as hers. And, yes, for all the heavy subtext implications that this adjustmental flaw is Really A Virtue, this sort of rigidity is a major flaw.

Caz talks about how she invented Poppy’s life to deal with ‘the fact that no-one would even acknowledge she had ever been’. Then she moves on to discussing how she now feels about her parents. Or, rather, conspicuously avoiding discussing how she now feels about her parents.

The time has come when I want to say that I don’t blame my parents, because I know that they will read my book and the last thing I want is to cause them any more pain.

Caz, come off it. While it might well be true that you don’t actively want to cause them pain, it’s also true that you are a) publishing the book, b) doing so without discussing it with your parents first, and c) not even trying to anonymise them. Clearly, avoiding pain for your parents is lower priority to you than avoiding any of the above actions. When you can’t even spend the time on a find-and-replace of the names and details in your book to at the very least try to avoid doxxing your mother in the process of publishing her personal life for the edification of the world, let alone think about not publishing it in the first place, don’t try to tell us that causing them pain is ‘the last thing’ you want.

Having assured us that she wants to say that she doesn’t blame her parents, Caz… does not say that she doesn’t blame her parents. Instead, she tells us:

When I was studying the Second World War at school, I couldn’t understand why such a civilised country, which produced Beethoven and Bach and Mozart and Goethe, and some of the most interesting and gentle people I’d ever met, could have allowed six million people to be murdered without a protest. Had they all gone collectively mad?

This, please note, is the next paragraph after Caz’s claim that she wants to say that she doesn’t blame her parents. Yup, nothing says that you don’t blame someone like comparing their actions to the Holocaust.

My teacher explained it to me by saying that many didn’t know, and more didn’t believe what they knew. And those who both knew and believed did what they could before they were arrested and hanged themseles.

But what will posterity say of us? That we all knew, we all believed, and those that condemned did so politely in the newspapers.

This is something I actually remember from my own time as a pro-lifer: actually failing to comprehend that pro-choicers genuinely do not see embryos and fetuses from conception on as being full people with full rights. I really believed that all the people supporting abortion rights must just not know about fetal development, and once they knew all the details it would change their minds. (Shut up; I was naive, OK?) The thing is, once I realised that that wasn’t so, it did give me pause; not in a ‘all those people must just be callously evil!’ way, but a ‘wait, is it possible that there’s something wrong with my conclusions here?’ way. My mind didn’t change at that point, but it was one of the things that sowed the seeds. Atkins doesn’t seem to have had this reaction.

Meanwhile, Caz still notably fails to come out and say that she doesn’t blame her parents. It’s like the scene in ‘Monsters’ University’ when the can design lecturer tells them in their first lecture that some people find can design ‘boring, unchallenging, a waste of a monster’s potential’ and then says nothing to contradict this. The headcanon I was left with is that Caz knows perfectly well on some level that blaming her parents is an unpleasant thing to do that doesn’t fit well with her image of herself, and so is subconsciously struggling with wanting to say that she doesn’t blame her parents but not wanting to do the actual emotional work of not blaming her parents.

However, while the silence remains deafening on the topic of whether Caz blames her parents now, she does tell us this:

Strangely enough, I think that on a subconscious level, emotionally not rationally, without questioning why, as a child I blamed my father not my mother. This was totally unfair of me.

Yes, it was, rather, wasn’t it?

A possibly relevant bit of background here: Atkins happens to have read the same anti-abortion propaganda book as I did back in my anti-abortion days; ‘Two Million Silent Killings’, by Margaret White. I know this because she quotes from it several times for her chapter epigraphs. While it is a mercifully long time since I have read this book, one thing I do remember is that White did try the ‘but why do fathers get no say in what happens to their unborn children!’ argument. I wonder, therefore, whether that’s where Atkins got it from.

By the way, the reason I remember that detail is because it was the one claim I managed to see through even when I’d fallen hook, line, and sinker for the rest; I recognised perfectly well that this supposed concern for giving men ‘a say’ in the decision would be nowhere to be found in a situation where it was the man who wanted the abortion and the woman who didn’t, that pro-lifers were going to be just as much against abortion in a situation where both partners agreed that was what they wanted, and that White was only using the argument because it supported her overall viewpoint, not because it actually stood up. Shame this didn’t give me any pause in questioning everything else she wrote, but at least I spotted that fallacy.

Anyway, however Atkins got there, she seems to have actually spotted the practical flaws in this particular argument while still finding it convincing on an emotional level. This gives her an interesting case of cognitive dissonance:

I believe he would have liked another child. But he is a gentleman and a scholar, and would never have dreamt of compelling my mother to do something against her will. Indeed, such an idea is unthinkable as well as repellent. The man must be a monster who would force his wife to carry a child she didn’t want, even if the law allowed him to, which it didn’t. I have no desire whatsoever to return to a so-called ‘Christian’ society, or emigrate to an ‘Islamic’ state, where a man has powers over his wife and can tell her what to do.

But at this point something atavistic and childlike deep within me cries out in protest against the civilised times we live in. Why can’t a man have some say over his child’s life?

Excuse me, Caz, but your father did have some say. You had a family vote. He cast his vote. He accepted that he was outvoted. That is having some say. I’ve never before seen it made quite so obvious that ‘Why can’t men have a say?’ is code for ‘Let’s look for excuses to stop women from getting abortions!’

And is a woman’s body so precious, I want to ask, that it is worth more, for a few months, than my sister’s whole three score years and ten?

Can we drop the claim that pregnancy and birth are just a matter of ‘a few months’? It’s nine months plus postnatal recuperation time of varying and typically significant degrees of problems, with all sorts of potential complications (speaking of which, let’s once more remember that Caz knows about her mother’s high risk of postnatal depression), some of which can be permanent. And that’s all even without discussing the permanent impact that becoming a parent has on your life.

And, yes, everyone’s rights to their body are that ‘precious’. That’s why we don’t make organ donation compulsory.

It’ll be said, by those who want to say it, that I had problems because of my upbringing. That I suffered a trauma, at the age of five, because of well-meaning parents who were too liberal, who told me too much, who allowed me to know something that a five year old can’t cope with. That I suffered from too much truth. Say that if you must. I’ll never believe it. The truth, in itself, can’t be harmful.

Firstly, I think that, whether or not her parents did the right thing by telling her about her mother’s pregnancy and abortion, the way they dealt with telling her was terrible. Her mother told her about her pregnancy before having made the decision about it, thus giving Caz a chance to get excited over the prospect of having a sister only to have that snatched away from her, and then there was the whole dreadful family vote scene in which she was left feeling that the responsibility for stopping the abortion was somehow on her. If they were going to tell her, it would have been better if they’d presented her with a fait accompli and then sympathised with her disappointment over not getting the sister she wanted. (Caz’s grief and disappointment about this haven’t been properly acknowledged by her parents at any point, and are inextricably tangled with her moral outrage.)

Secondly, regardless of the effect on Caz of knowing vs. not knowing, Caz is showing that her parents were wrong to trust her with the information. She’s about to make a personal and painful episode in her mother’s life public, without discussing that with her mother. While Caz is still focusing only on the impact on herself and what would or wouldn’t have been best for her, I think her mother would have been better off not telling her.

I hope I shall follow my parents’ example, and always tell my own children the truth, however unpleasant it is. If they ask me where we go when we die I shall answer, quite truthfully, that for all I know some godless hell awaits us.

I suspect this is Atkins trying to write what she thinks a nonbeliever might sound like and ending up in ‘said no actual person ever’ territory. In terms of the validity of this approach, it’s like answering “What are we going to do today?” with “Well, for all I know a grisly fatal accident might await us” on the grounds that it’s quite true that for all you know that might be the case. Telling people ‘the truth, however unpleasant it is’ has its points as an approach but does not require deliberately digging up the most unpleasant hypothetical situation possible.

Caz wraps up the epilogue and her book-within-a-book on a positive note, telling us that she’s finally said goodbye to Poppy and is moving on and building her own life, and that she’s looking forward to having her own children ‘and making my own mistakes instead of dwelling on other people’s’, which was more of a self-own than I’d have expected. Thus ends Caz’s book-within-a-book.

There are still a few more chapters of the overall book, all part of the frame story of Caz’s diary and letters. While I’ll review those in a separate and final post, there is one point from the next chapter that seems to fit more neatly in this part of the review, which is the reception of Caz’s book by the ARC reviewers:

My book has been hailed as prophetic, the catalyst to change the law. ‘The tide of morality is turning (I quote), and soon the law will protect the unborn child again, as it has throughout most of history until 1967.’

To get the pedantry out of the way first; I have no idea why Atkins included the words ‘I quote’ in brackets. That’s both unnecessary (since the quote marks show that it’s a quote) and inaccurate (unless the original line she’s quoting included those words in brackets). C’mon, Atkins; according to your Wikipedia page, your degree is in English Language and Literature.

In terms of Atkins’ claim here, this wishful thinking on her part wasn’t fulfilled by her own book either in terms of the law changing or, as far as I can remember, in terms of making much of an impression at all. (To be fair, it was of course almost thirty years ago, but I do spend a good deal of time in bookshops and this book doesn’t ring any bells as anything I remember seeing when it came out).

As for Caz’s book, realistically it’s hard to see why that would make that much of an impression on society’s collective opinions. Why should ‘children’s author wanted a baby sister and didn’t get one’, which is what this boils down to, be a stronger anti-abortion argument than any of the ones we already know? Doylistically, I suspect Atkins thinks she’s written the equivalent of an alternative-universe scenario in which we get to see what a great and talented person the world could have had and what a wonderful relationship Caz would have had with her sister if only it hadn’t been for the abortion. But, of course, that isn’t how the story goes; what we’re actually given is Caz’s idealised imagining of the wonderful sister and trouble-free relationship she thinks she could have had, which isn’t the same thing at all. Watsonianly, meanwhile, I’m headcanoning that Caz’s publishers realised what they’d been saddled with and sent the ARCs off to the most pro-life reviewers they knew of so that at least they got glowing reviews to quote.

Anyway, that’s it for this section. The last post in this series, with review of the final part of the frame story, will be up next. Brace yourselves; it’s another doozy.

‘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.


‘Deciphering The Gospels Means Jesus Never Existed’: Chapter 9, part 4

‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never existed on earth in any real form but was an entirely mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and mainstream) view that Jesus was originally a human being of the 1st century about whom a later mythology grew up. I’m therefore reviewing Price’s book to discuss his arguments and my reasons for disagreeing.

The first post in this book review is here. Links to the posts on all subsequent chapters can be found at the end of that post.


Paul and Jesus’s brothers

Out of all the comments from Paul that I listed in the previous post that point towards Paul having believed in an earthly Jesus, Price addresses only one more; Galatians 1:19.

This verse, for context, is in the middle of a passage in which Paul is letting the Galatians know how little contact he’s ever had with the church (which, to Paul, is a positive, because he believes that this means he’s working solely from what Jesus told him to do rather than from the influence of less enlightened church members), so Paul is stressing how little time he’s spent with the church and how few of the apostles he saw while there. However, he does tell us that as well as staying with Cephas (Peter) during the fifteen days he spent there, he did meet one other apostle, named in the Greek as ‘Iacobus’, a name which our translations consistently anglicise as ‘James’ (as this is the version of the name used in all English works, it’s the version I’ll use as well throughout this post). And, the important point for our purposes… Paul identifies this Iacobus/James as ‘the Lord’s brother’. Since ‘the Lord’ is one of the terms Paul uses for Jesus, this means that Paul is saying he met Jesus’s brother.

Since mythical divine beings don’t typically have real-life flesh-and-blood brothers walking the earth and meeting people, that one passing comment is a pretty significant problem for mythicist theory. Let’s look at what Price has to say about it.

Price’s explanations

Price gives us two different theories. The first is that ‘brother of the Lord’ was just a general term used for Christians:

Many people, including Earl Doherty and Arthur Drews, have pointed out that the term brother or brothers was regularly applied to apostles and members of the church in general and conclude that this is how it was being used here as well.

Except that it isn’t. There are indeed many examples of church members referring to one another as ‘brothers’, a clearly metaphorical term indicating close bonds of union in shared belief; when Paul used the term in that sense, as he often did, he was implying that the person in question was metaphorically his brother due to their shared membership of the church. Or, even more than that, that the person or people referred to were metaphorically brothers to everyone else in the church. However, there’s a crucial difference in the wording here. In this verse, James isn’t being referred to just as ‘brother’; he’s being referred to as ‘the Lord’s brother’. That’s a very different phrase. Paul wasn’t referring to James as his (metaphorical) brother, but as the brother of the Lord; i.e. Jesus.

Now, it might of course still be meant metaphorically. Maybe Paul meant that James had had a deep enough bond with Jesus for the two of them to be described as brothers even without having an actual blood relationship. However, while that is plausible, it still doesn’t fit well with mythicism. We don’t typically describe actual humans as having even a metaphorical fraternal relationship with divine heavenly superbeings. A child-to-parent relationship, sure; Judaism has used that particular metaphor for millennia, with Christianity following in its tracks. But not a brotherly relationship, with its rather different connotations of a bond between equals.

This, however, does bring us to Price’s second theory; that ‘the Lord’s brother’ was meant metaphorically in a different sense. Not to describe a particularly close bond, but as a title to indicate James’s level of importance in the church, or perhaps his sterling qualities:

If this is the case, then the reason that Paul called James “the Lord’s brother” in Galatians is because James was seen as such a major pillar of the community, whom people called a “brother of the Lord,” which was a title similar to “the Just.”

So this theory is effectively the reverse of the previous one; Price is now theorising that, far from ‘brother’ being meant in the sense of a generic title for any male church member, it was a specific title for this one man in particular. Price thinks that over time this metaphor became misunderstood as a claim that this particular James was literally Jesus’s brother:

This James was only later considered to be a literal brother of Jesus. It was probably the early Christian chronicler Hegesippus, in the late second century, who recorded the first concrete association of “James the Just” as the literal brother of Jesus, helping to cement this view into Church tradition.

The first problem with this explanation is that ‘brother of the Lord’ is not, in fact, similar to ‘the Just’. ‘The Just’ is a title that refers to an important quality of the person described, while ‘Brother of the Lord’ refers to a relationship, not a personal quality. But it’s still possible that this phrase could have been used as a metaphor, and, interestingly, we do have some evidence for this. Price quotes this passage from Origen which was written in the third century:

Paul, a genuine disciple of Jesus, says that he regarded this James as a brother of the Lord, not so much on account of their relationship by blood, or of their being brought up together, as because of his virtue and doctrine.

Against Celsus; Origen

Origen seems to be citing a letter we no longer have, as none of the existing letters attributed to Paul say any such thing. So, this raises the question of whether Paul actually did write something similar to the phrasing Origen here attributes to him. Unfortunately we can’t assume that he did, partly because Origen seems to have been willing to be rather free with his citing of what writers actually said (in the same passage he claims that Josephus attributed the fall of Jerusalem to the killing of James, which isn’t at all what Josephus says) and partly because so many later epistles were falsely claimed to have been by Paul that we can’t assume Origen had a genuine Pauline epistle here.

However, if Paul actually did write the words attributed to him by Origen, then that’s a very interesting contribution to the debate which doesn’t point in the direction Price thinks. If Paul actually found it worth spelling out that James’s appellation of ‘brother’ was not ‘on account of their relationship by blood or of their being brought up together’, then that is strong evidence for an early church who followed a human Jesus. If a group who followed a divine heavenly being did take the highly unlikely step of referring to one of their human members as this divine heavenly being’s brother (and it is highly unlikely, as I wrote above), then it would have been very obvious that this was metaphorical. No-one there would have had to spell out that this wasn’t on account of a blood relationship or being brought up together, because no-one in the group would have thought for a minute that it would be. If Paul really did write those words, then that would point clearly to a human Jesus.

However, since we can’t know whether Paul wrote those words or not, that doesn’t help us. We’re left with the same question as before: how likely is it that a group would describe one of their human members, however virtuous, as metaphorically the brother of their heavenly quasi-divine leader who only dropped in from heaven to visit them? And with the same answer as before: not very likely at all.

On top of this, we have an even bigger problem with Price’s interpretations here: Galatians 1:19 is only one of the two places in which Paul uses this phrase.

The problem of 1 Corinthians 9:5

1 Corinthians 9:5 is, as it happens, also a passing comment in the middle of a mini-rant. Paul isn’t happy about the church refusing to support him financially in his work of preaching the gospel, although he is Absolutely Not Trying To Claim This Support because he considers himself obliged to preach the gospel regardless, but still, hmph, what about all these other church members who get supported for this work the way the scriptures apparently say they should… And, in the middle of this, he happens to make this comment:

Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?

So, Paul not only refers to ‘brothers of the Lord’, he does so in a way that inadvertently makes it clear that they are in a separate category from ‘the other apostles’ and ‘Cephas’. ‘Brother of the Lord’ therefore was clearly an appellation that was given to more than one person, that wasn’t just some sort of generic term for church members overall, and that also wasn’t a term for particularly important church members (or Paul wouldn’t have differentiated ‘the other apostles’ and ‘the brothers of the Lord’ as two separate groups).

And so, yet again, we have something that’s very difficult to explain under mythicist theory but very easy to explain under historicist theory; if Jesus was a real person, of course it was plausible for his parents to have had other children.

So, how does Price explain 1 Corinthians 9.5?

In one of the most notable pieces of question-begging I’ve seen in a while, Price actually quotes this verse in support of his argument by assuming that it can’t mean actual brothers and working from there to claim that this verse therefore proves Paul would use ‘brother of the Lord’ in a way that doesn’t mean an actual brother of the Lord.

The five hundred brothers mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15, as well as “brothers” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 9, are examples that are often cited to show the use of brothers of the Lord in ways that clearly don’t mean literal relatives. […] Some people even try to argue that this mention of brothers in 1 Corinthians 9 means relatives, but this really wouldn’t make sense, for why would literal brothers of Jesus even be a part of this issue, especially since in later accounts where literal brothers of Jesus are discussed, they have nothing to do with him or his movement? Indeed Jesus’s family is portrayed as being rejected by him in the Gospels.

Firstly, I have to point out that the ‘some people’ who believe this mention of ‘brothers’ to refer to actual brothers (or at least actual relatives) include, as far as I know, everyone who’s ever read this passage bar the occasional mythicist. I mean, someone (hiya, db!) is probably going to dig me out an obscure reference to someone somewhere who has argued otherwise, but when practically everyone believes the obvious meaning of a word in a passage to be the actual meaning then I don’t think ‘some people try to argue’ is quite the correct phrase.

Secondly, the passage tells us why Jesus’s brothers would ‘even be a part of this issue’. Paul is complaining that he doesn’t qualify for a privilege (getting church support for himself and a dependant) that some other groups of church members do. The brothers of Jesus are a part of this issue because they do get this privilege which Paul thinks he should have. Price is talking as though there’s some kind of inexplicable mystery about the idea of ‘brothers’ here referring to actual brothers when, in fact, it makes perfect sense in context.

Thirdly, let’s look at Price’s claim that ‘later accounts’ (which I assume from context has to mean the gospels) show Jesus’s brothers as having nothing to do with him/his movement. After going through the very brief references in the gospels to Jesus having a brother called James, which are indeed blink-and-you’ll-miss-them, Price makes this point:

Given that the Gospels were all written after the works of Paul, and that the Gospels serve as a backdrop for the Christian movement, and that the Gospels establish the positions of the major Christian leaders, it would not make any sense for the Gospels to totally ignore James the literal brother of Jesus […] if James the brother of Jesus is the one who was a leader of the Christian community.

Which would be a good point, except that, later in the chapter, Price himself gives us a plausible counterargument without even noticing that he’s done so. Here’s what Price says later in the chapter:

In both the writings of Paul and the Gospels, conflict between James son of Zebedee and the others is shown. […] It appears, according to the writings of Paul, that James and John held to a more Jewish version of the faith and did not embrace the Gentile apostleship.

In the first century, however, James son of Zebedee was considered a pillar of the Christian community, but perhaps later Christians sought to exclude him from tradition and sever ties to his sect.

The references to ‘James son of Zebedee’ here are a little confusing. Price is referring to the ‘James’ mentioned in Galatians 2 (verses 9 and 12), who is not specifically identified but from context is probably the same James mentioned in 1:19. Even if that isn’t the case, this James seems rather unlikely to have been James the son of Zebedee, as Acts 12:2 tells us that that particular James was killed by Herod Antipas quite early on, at a point which would have been well before the visit to Jerusalem to which Paul is referring in Galatians 2. However, via some interesting logic contortions, Price seems to have convinced himself that a) Acts was wrong on this point and b) that this James must be the son of Zebedee rather than any of the other people of this very common name.

However, all that is by-the-by. Setting aside the dubious ‘son of Zebedee’ claim, let’s look at Price’s main point here: the possibility that later Christian authors would have wanted to downplay the importance of an early church member who held to a theology different from that which eventually won out. And Price is onto something there. We know that there was significant conflict in the early church. We know that Pauline theology was the one that eventually won out. And, in view of the conflict described in Galatians, we have reason to suspect that this theology wasn’t the one held by Jesus’s original followers.

So, on the background of that first-century conflict, how would church writers from the Pauline side of the church have dealt with awkward traditions about key members of the early church having held to beliefs that were now considered mistaken? I agree with Price on this one; that would have been rather a strong motive to downplay the importance of these people in the accounts. (It wouldn’t even have had to be a conscious thing; more a case of ‘Well, James was clearly misguided, so let’s focus on what these others had to say’.)

In other words, we have an obvious explanation from Price himself of why the gospels might have wanted to ignore a brother of Jesus who became a leader in the early Christian community; because tradition had preserved the rather awkward information that this brother did not agree with the new belief system that, by the time of the gospels, was being taught as The Truth. As potential motives go, I’d say that’s a satisfactorily convincing one. And so, in fact, we have a good explanation of why the gospels had so little to say about James, and Price is wrong when he thinks we’re forced to fall back on the explanation that James wasn’t an actual brother of an actual Jesus.

In conclusion

Paul makes two passing mentions of brothers of Jesus (one of ‘brothers’ collectively and one of a specific brother), which Price, despite his best efforts, has not managed to explain away. And there’s an important difference between these two mentions and the other information we get from Paul about Jesus; these can’t be easily dismissed as just Paul’s own beliefs.

We’ve had to be very cautious about using other Pauline-derived information as evidence for the historicity side, because Paul himself makes it so clear that he gets his information about Jesus from what he thinks Jesus told him in a vision. Therefore, although Paul clearly did believe that Jesus had lived a human life, and made many comments referring to this, we can’t assume that this belief came from actual knowledge of what the original church were saying rather than from his own belief about what he thought Jesus had said to him in visions. However, the mentions of Jesus’s brothers come from much more prosaic sources. He mentions the brothers collectively because he’s annoyed that the church is giving them and their wives financial support which he himself doesn’t get, and he mentions James in particular because he met him.

So this, unlike most of what Paul says, actually is reliable information. Not theological expositions based on visions, but passing comments about people of whose existence and status Paul has personal knowledge. These two comments that Paul makes in the midst of rants about other issues are very good evidence that the Lord of whom he’s speaking (Jesus) had human brothers. And that, in turn, is good evidence that Jesus was human.

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter 9, Part 3

‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never existed on earth in any real form but was an entirely mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and mainstream) view that Jesus was originally a human being of the 1st century about whom a later mythology grew up. I’m therefore reviewing Price’s book to discuss his arguments and my reasons for disagreeing.

The first post in this book review is here. All subsequent posts will be linked at the end of that post as they go up.


Chapter 9: Finding Jesus In Paul’s Letters

We’ve seen Price’s arguments about Paul’s writings supporting mythicism, and I’ve discussed why they don’t hold up. Time to look at the other side. Are there passages in Paul’s letters that would point to him believing in an earthly Jesus?

A slight but relevant digression from the specifics of Price’s book:

Some years ago, having been impressed by Carrier’s mythicism polemic ‘On the Historicity of Jesus’, I decided I should go back and read the authentic Pauline letters with the mythicist argument in mind. After all, the book seemed convincing and well researched, and Carrier seemed very sure that Paul’s letters indicated a mythical Jesus, so probably I’d been reading them wrong. I reread them in light of mythicist theory, expecting it to be rather like the experience of rereading a book once you know the plot twist at the end; I’d see things falling into place, would read passages in a new light that made far more sense of them.

Here’s what I actually found.

  • Romans 1:3. Paul refers to Jesus as ‘descended from David according to the flesh’.
  • Romans 5:12-18. This is a lengthy passage in which Paul repeatedly compares Jesus to Adam (who, remember, Paul would have believed to be a human being who had lived on earth). In particular, from some work with the GreekBible.com site I found that in verse 15 Paul uses the word ‘anthropou’, meaning ‘human’, to describe Jesus.
  • Romans 8:3. Paul refers to God sending Jesus ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’. While mythicists have a habit of interpreting passages like this as meaning that Jesus wasn’t really a being of flesh, this is missing a key point; Paul clearly thought Jesus had showed up in what at least appeared to be a normal human body. And, unless you want to argue for the Docetist viewpoint that Jesus only appeared to be flesh and blood but was in fact a cunningly divinely-designed simulacrum, the obvious reason why someone would appear to have a normal human body is that they actually had a normal human body.
  • Romans 9:4-5. Paul describes Jesus as coming from the Jewish race ‘according to the flesh’.
  • 1 Corinthians 9:5: Paul mentions brothers of the Lord (‘the Lord’ being one of Paul’s terms for Jesus) whose wives were supported by the church.
  • 1 Corinthians 11:23-25: Paul describes Jesus instituting the Eucharist. This is, it should be noted, considerably less helpful than Jesus-historicists often think; although it would be too much of a digression to discuss now, there are plausible reasons to suspect that this was in fact one of Paul’s ‘revelations’ about Jesus rather than an actual historical event that Paul had learned about from existing group members. However, it’s still noteworthy that Paul describes Jesus as taking a loaf of bread, breaking it, giving thanks for it (which would have been, and still is to this day, a standard thing for a practicing Jew to do when about to eat bread), and taking a cup of wine ‘after supper’, implying that he also ate a meal between the bread-breaking and the wine. It’s not impossible that Paul could have believed in someone doing all these things in heaven, but it seems unusually physical and prosaic for a concept of heaven. Therefore, although it’s weaker than most of the others on the list, I think this one is nevertheless worth counting in the list of passages indicating Paul’s belief in a historical Jesus.
  • 1 Corinthians 15:4. Like the previous one, this is a detail within a passage that is overall easy for skeptics to disregard, as it’s about Jesus being raised from the dead and appearing to people in visions; I think one point on which Price and I can certainly agree is that these things did not actually happen, and thus this passage is not particularly helpful to the history-vs-mythicism debate overall. However, I bring it up here because Paul specifically mentions Jesus as being buried, which, again, is quite a physical detail to mention about someone that you think has only existed in heaven. Paul might potentially have believed that burial could happen in a heavenly dimension, but that seems at the very least less likely than that he believed it happened on earth. Again, I certainly wouldn’t hang the case for historicity on this one detail, but it’s yet another thing to tip the scales at least slightly more towards historicity, so I’m including it in the list.
  • 1 Corinthians 15:12-22. This is a lengthy passage in which Paul cites Jesus’s resurrection as evidence for the resurrection of the dead. It culminates in Paul specifically referring to Jesus as a human being (v21). Even before that, though, Paul’s making an argument that wouldn’t make sense if he wasn’t teaching his followers that Jesus had been a human. ‘Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?’ Paul asks rhetorically. This would be rather a strange example for him to use if he knew that the answer would be ‘Because Christ was a heavenly being and we’re talking about what happens to human dead!’.
  • 2 Corinthians 5:16. This is a rather odd verse in which Paul says that they now don’t regard anyone ‘according to the flesh’, which one translation that I found interprets as ‘from a worldly point of view’, which probably makes more sense. However, from our point of view the important point here is that Paul says that they did at one point regard Christ as being ‘according to the flesh’; i.e. having a genuine flesh-and-blood body.
  • Galatians 1:19. Refers to a brother of the Lord (Paul’s term for Jesus) whom Paul had briefly met.
  • Galatians 3:16. Refers to Christ as an offspring (in the sense of ‘descendant’) of Abraham.
  • Galatians 4:4. Refers to God’s son as having been ‘born of a woman, born under the Law’.
  • Philippians 2:7. Refers to Jesus as being ‘born in human likeness’ and ‘found in human form’.

I was trying to be as fair as possible in weighing up the evidence, and thus ended up leaving one potential item off the list; 1 Thessalonians 2:14 – 16. This refers to Jesus being killed by the Jews in the same way as the prophets were, but also has an antisemitic slant to it that isn’t typical of Paul, as well as seeming to hint about the destruction of the Temple, which would have post-dated this letter; many scholars therefore believe this to be a later interpolation rather than words of Paul. So, while whoever wrote those verses certainly seems to have believed in a physical earthly Jesus, there is enough uncertainty over whether that person was Paul that I decided that that line was unhelpful for ascertaining what Paul believed.

Which left the above list. Carrier’s book did address a few of those lines (‘born of a woman’, ‘descended from David’, and the ‘brother’ quotes) by explaining them away with mythicist-consistent excuses and calculating that they were still fully compatible with a likelihood that Jesus was mythical. However, reading all of Paul’s letters with mythicism in mind and instead coming across all of the above lines or passages in turn was quite a different experience from reading mythicist claims about how Paul only wrote ‘a few’ things that seemed to ‘hint’ at an earthly Jesus.

And that was how, by the time I finished the read-through that I had expected to give me a new appreciation of Paul’s supposed mythicist views, I found it undeniably clear that Paul had believed Jesus lived a human life on earth. It was, of course, very debatable how much credence to give this view, given Paul’s penchant for getting his beliefs about Jesus from ‘revelation’ in preference to what existing church members told him; I felt it only fair to consider the possibility that this belief in Jesus’s earthly life might in itself have been one of Paul’s ‘revelations’ rather than anything we’d consider reliable information, and so I didn’t find it that much help in the mythicism-vs-historicity argument. But, for whatever it’s worth, it’s clear that Paul did at least believe in what we would now call a historical Jesus.

Back to Price. Since Price believes that Paul didn’t believe Jesus to be a real person, what does he say about all of the above? Well, most of them he doesn’t seem to have noticed. Out of all of the above, Price only addresses two issues; the ‘born of a woman’ quote and the issue of Jesus’s brothers. Which would, even if he did successfully refute those issues, still leave more than enough passages to indicate that Paul believed in Jesus’s earthly existence. But since Price did at least address those two and spend quite some time on trying to explain away the obvious problems they cause for his theory, I’ll discuss his arguments.

I’ll look at the ‘born of a woman’ discussion here as it was shorter, and address the ‘brother(s) of the Lord’ discussion in a later post.


‘Born of a woman’: Price’s explanations

First of all, I don’t think it’s particularly important whether or not Paul viewed Jesus as purely heavenly or not

I tend to agree with this sentiment, for reasons explained previously, but it strikes me as rather a contradiction for Price to be saying this after pages of using Paul’s quotes as support for mythicism without any such disclaimers. Can’t have it both ways; does he think Paul’s views on the subject are important evidence or not?

but secondly, this is by no means a literal statement by Paul, as he is in the middle of allegorical statements that he himself says are allegorical

It hardly follows from this that all the statements Paul doesn’t label as allegorical are also allegorical. On the contrary; since we can see he was clear about stating which parts of the passage were allegorical, it makes it less likely that this would be so of the ones that aren’t thus labelled. (There’s also, of course, the question of how it would make sense to say that a real being – as Paul believed Jesus to have been, regardless of whether he believed him to have been a heavenly or an earthly being – was allegorically born of a woman.)

and thirdly this is part of a special pleading to a group of people who clearly have had problems with Paul’s teachings where he is trying to appeal to them on a new and different level that he feels is more acceptable to them.

There’s nothing in this letter to indicate that Paul’s trying to change anything about his teaching to make it more acceptable to the Galatians. He’s explaining it in different ways to try to get his point across, but he isn’t changing anything about it. Quite the contrary; he’s angry with the Galatians and can’t understand why they don’t just get with the programme here.

But on top of that… even if Paul was trying to take the approach of making his teachings more acceptable, why would saying that Jesus was ‘born of a woman’ do this? Why would the Galatians – from a culture who believed in heavenly beings and their importance – find a Jesus who was created in heaven unacceptable and need him to have had a human birth before they would accept Paul’s theology? And why, if this was indeed a point of contention, do we not see any hint of Paul trying to discuss this issue or persuade them? He throws in ‘born of a woman’ parenthetically in passing as a descriptor of Jesus and gets on with his argument about the law no longer being binding. There is nothing anywhere in the letter to indicate that Paul had had any sort of disagreement with the Galatians on this particular point or felt any sort of need to appease them about it.

Paul goes on to tell a story about two women who give birth to children, and Paul says that these women represent covenants, and the woman of the promise “corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother.”

Price is correct on this point. Paul is citing the scriptural story of Hagar and Sarah, which he says is an allegory in which the two women represent covenants. (For context, this is part of a larger allegory Paul is using in this chapter, about slaves vs. heirs; in Paul’s allegory, Jews who still hold to the Jewish law are slaves while the ones redeemed by Jesus’s sacrifice are now heirs to the kingdom of God. The Hagar and Sarah story is used as a specific illustration, as they had sons fathered by the same man but Hagar was a slave whose son was cast out and Sarah a free woman whose freeborn son inherited, all of which made them a good example of Paul’s point for his Jewish readers who would have known the story well.)

However, Price then makes his leap of logic:

The woman that Paul is talking about in Galatians 4.4 is an allegorical woman, not a real woman,

I haven’t omitted anything between this sentence and the previous one I quoted; Price really has leaped straight from the observation that Paul referred to the story of Hagar and Sarah as allegorical to an assumption that a different woman he referred to eighteen verses earlier was somehow also allegorical. Nice try, but doesn’t work in context.

and in fact this passage provides further evidence that Paul’s Jesus was not a historical person.

How? Well, here’s what Price says:

Paul says that the Son of God was born under the law, but the law is in heaven; he is talking about the heavenly covenant and a heavenly birth!

This conclusion baffled me for a while, since Paul says nothing whatsoever about the law being in heaven, a claim which would in any case hardly fit with Paul’s main claim that the law is an intolerable burden from which Jesus’s followers have now been freed. The only way I can make any sense of this is to theorise that Price has incorrectly assumed that ‘covenant’ is another word for ‘law’ and thus, having followed Paul’s train of thought here to the logical conclusion that the covenant to which Paul is referring exists in heaven, interpreted this as the law being in heaven and Jesus’s birth under the law therefore being likewise in heaven. Unfortunately, if this is the explanation, it doesn’t work, because ‘covenant’ doesn’t mean ‘law’; it means ‘promise’. So, if this was Price’s reasoning, it’s fatally flawed. If this wasn’t Price’s reasoning, then he’s going to have to explain his actual reasoning if he wants it to make any sense.

If Paul were talking about a real women here, and Jesus’s earthly birth, then why does he give no details about the matter? Why not say that he was born to Mary or that he was born in Bethlehem, or anything else?

Because he’s writing a theological polemic, not a biography.

He clearly isn’t giving a historical account of anything, but his lack of detail, here and throughout his writings, works against the claim that Paul had knowledge of a historical Jesus.

The ambiguity of this phrasing has the potential to get a bit confusing, so let’s clarify. In terms of whether Paul ‘had knowledge of’ Jesus in terms of either knowing him personally or knowing details about his life, we’ve already established that he didn’t and that he preferred it that way. So, in that sense, I completely agree that ‘the claim that Paul had knowledge of a historical Jesus’ is provably false.

However, of course, that isn’t what Price is trying to say. He’s trying to say that Paul didn’t know of a ‘historical Jesus’ in the sense of our debate; that Paul’s lack of any details about Jesus means that he didn’t know of Jesus having existed on earth, and that this is because Jesus hadn’t existed on earth but only in the imaginations of his followers. And that one doesn’t stand up, for the reasons already given at the post linked to in the previous paragraph. We know that Paul, for his own reasons, deliberately chose to avoid learning details about Jesus from people who claimed to have known him, probably so that he could continue holding on to his own theology. So, what we actually have is someone who never knew Jesus, who avoided learning anything about Jesus, who was interested in Jesus the magical sin-eraser and not Jesus the person, and who, moreover, isn’t even trying to write biography; he’s writing theological polemics addressing particular issues for his readers. And, given that context, there is nothing in the least surprising about the fact that Paul doesn’t give us any biographical details about Jesus. Price keeps trying to paint this as some kind of inexplicable mystery that needs a mythical Jesus theory to explain it, but, in fact, it’s explained perfectly well by what Paul’s own writings tell us about him and his purpose.

I think Price could have got a lot further with trying to explain away ‘born of a woman’ (and most of the other phrases) if he’d pointed out that Paul was going by what he believed he’d learned about Jesus by revelation in preference to anything he actually did learn about Jesus from Jesus’s previous followers, and that this makes Paul’s views unreliable. But, of course, Price had reason not to want to look too closely at how unreliable Paul is; that would have meant blowing a hole in his own arguments.

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter 9, Part 2

‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never existed on earth in any real form but was an entirely mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and mainstream) view that Jesus was originally a human being of the 1st century about whom a later mythology grew up. I’m therefore reviewing Price’s book to discuss his arguments and my reasons for disagreeing.

The first post in this book review is here. All subsequent posts will be linked at the end of that post as they go up.

Chapter 9: Finding Jesus In Paul’s Letters

Price spends the majority of this chapter arguing that Paul didn’t believe in an earthly Jesus:

[I]n the letters of Paul, what we have are dozens upon dozens of statements, and overarching themes, that support the view that Paul not only had no knowledge of a Jesus person, but that Paul conceived of Jesus as an eternal heavenly being.

I’m not seeing why this belief would be incompatible with a belief that Jesus existed on earth as a human. After all, that’s precisely the combination of beliefs Christianity has held from an early stage; that Jesus was an eternal heavenly being who took on human form and was born and lived on earth. So the question is not so much whether Paul thought Jesus was an eternal heavenly being, but whether or not he believed Jesus also came down to earth in some form to live a human life there. With that in mind, I’ll discuss Price’s points.

A few things to bear in mind during this:

  1. As per the discussion in the last post, we can conclude from the Galatians passage (as well as from Paul’s letters as a whole) that Paul wasn’t interested in Jesus the person. Paul was interested in Jesus the magical sin-eraser. Hence, the things he says about Jesus aren’t focused on Jesus’s life, but on the theology Paul has constructed around him.
  2. Paul was writing in a different language, for a different culture. That means that at least some of the initial assumptions we might make about what our translated versions of his letters mean or what we might expect him to say in a particular situation are not necessarily going to be valid.
  3. We have no record of any of Paul’s speeches or discussions to the churches to whom he was writing, and only an incomplete record of his letters. It’s therefore important not to treat the Pauline letters we still have today as though they were meant to be a complete account of his beliefs and theology.

With all this in mind, here are the arguments Price raises:

Paul’s use of scripture to describe Jesus

There are several places where Paul refers to a line from Jewish scripture to make a point about Jesus or about Paul’s theology. Price finds this strange:

If Jesus had just been here, then why is Paul talking about old scriptures instead of Jesus Christ, who would have just recently been on earth? […] Paul is saying that ancient mysteries are being revealed and made known through prophetic writings, but why wouldn’t he be saying that these things were made known by Jesus himself?

Paul was writing for people in a society who had great respect for tradition, which meant that ancient prophetic texts would have commanded significantly more respect from the elite than what some Johnny-come-lately peasant had to say, even if the peasant was supposedly claiming to be a divine being. (There’s an interesting analysis by GakuseiDon somewhere online with regard to this, looking at Christian writings from around the 2nd century or thereabouts, showing that even Christians whom we know to have believed in an earthly Jesus still put much more emphasis on prophetic Jewish scriptures than on Jesus’s own sayings and actions when they were writing for pagan communities.)

But this does bring us to another point about Paul; that he doesn’t show much interest in Jesus’s teachings. This is another point on which Price comments:

Paul doesn’t cite Jesus

In addition to all this, with all of Paul’s discussion of the law in Galatians 3, he never once says, “Jesus said …” or “Jesus made it known that …” or “Jesus abolished the law …” Paul goes into theological discussions based on the scriptures about law and faith and covenants, developing his own explanation for why the law had been abolished. This is one of many examples where we would expect Paul to have used the teachings of Jesus to make his point if there had been a Jesus who had teachings to cite.

It’s ironic that Price chooses this specific example, because it’s highly debatable whether Jesus’s teachings on this point actually did support Paul. Of course, this has to be conjecture, because all the stories we have about Jesus’s teaching are post-Pauline and written by a church that had good reason to want to harmonise Jesus’s teaching with Paul’s. But it’s worth noting here that Jesus’s reported actions actually don’t break any of the Jewish laws as recorded later in the Talmud, and that both Acts and Galatians suggest that the apostles continued to keep to the dietary laws and attend the temple after Jesus’s death. And, given Paul’s disregard for what Jesus’s apostles had to say on the subject, it’s entirely plausible that he managed to disregard what the actual Jesus had to say.

This does, of course, still leave us with the larger question of why Paul showed so little interest in Jesus’s teachings generally; but, again, we’re up against the problem that mythicism doesn’t explain that either. Even according to the mythicist hypothesis, Paul would have believed that Jesus existed (as a heavenly being who sometimes contacted his followers with pronouncements), and could just as well have thought of a heavenly Jesus as a source of teachings to his followers as he could an earthly Jesus; if he wanted to know what Jesus would teach on a given topic, we’d expect him to show an interest in the message his followers passed down regardless of whether he believed this message had come from a heavenly Jesus or an earthly Jesus. So, this lack of interest on Paul’s part doesn’t get us any further forward in the debate.

Why does Paul show so little interest in Jesus’s teachings? Most likely for the same reason that he shows so little interest in anything else about Jesus’s life; because Jesus’s importance, for Paul, was as the uber-sacrifice that allowed Paul to feel he was free from the law, and he simply didn’t see Jesus as also having been a source of teaching.

Of course, that view seems strange to us; our natural assumption is that Jesus’s followers would be interested in both. But it’s worth remembering that we come from a culture in which the idea of Jesus as Teacher is as strongly ingrained as the idea of Jesus as sin sacrifice, and that the people who were there at the start of Christianity would not have been starting with the same cultural assumptions. Paul supposedly came from a Pharisaic background, and the Pharisaic worldview was that the details of how to interpret the Law in day-to-day life were to be worked out by humans rather than micromanaged by God. From what I understand of the Hellenistic worldview, they also did not see the gods as a source of advice on the details of how to deal with moral dilemmas or day-to-day life. And, with that background in mind, it becomes more understandable that Paul wouldn’t jump from ‘Jesus is a heavenly being sent as a sin sacrifice’ to ‘Jesus must be a good source of advice; wonder how he’d manage this problem?’ He’d do what he was used to doing, and manage issues himself.

‘In one of whom they have never heard’

In Romans 10:14 Paul asks rhetorically how anyone is meant to believe ‘in one of whom they have never heard’, and Price takes this up:

Romans 10 is a very significant passage. If Jesus had just been on earth and been ministering to the Jews and performing miracles in Galilee and Judea and drawing large crowds, as the Gospels claim, then why does Paul ask here if Jews cannot be blamed for not believing in Christ because they haven’t heard about him?

This letter was addressed to people in a city well over a thousand miles from Galilee, who would not be expected to have seen or heard Jesus regardless of whether he had recently been on earth or not. Price seems to have read this passage as referring to Jews rather than the Romans to whom it was addressed, but, while this is plausible, it doesn’t really help; there were millions of Jews in the world at the time, most of whom wouldn’t have been around the backwater province of Galilee to hear Jesus.

Paul is, in fact, touching on an extremely good question here, one of the main ones that always bothered me about Christianity; if the only route to salvation is through Jesus, what about all the people who didn’t happen to live in the right time or place to have heard of him? While Paul doesn’t actually do much to address this question, it’s still a highly valid one regardless of whether Jesus lived on earth or not, and the fact that Paul at least mentions it is hardly evidence that he didn’t believe Jesus was earthly.

Paul’s repeated use of the word ‘mystery’

Price puts great weight on this:

So Paul claims that he is telling these people a “mystery”, but why would this be a mystery if Jesus Christ had just been on earth a few years earlier to bring this very message to people, a message that he supposedly proclaimed several times according to the Gospels?

Back to translational and cultural issues: Paul and his readers wouldn’t have attached the same meaning to the word ‘mystery’. It comes from a word meaning ‘to shut the mouth,’ and hence, in this culture, it referred to secrets made known only to a select group of initiates (hence, the ‘mystery religions’ of the time). Of course, it’s debatable how applicable the word was here, when Paul was out to convert as many people as possible, but it’s easy to see how Paul would have wanted to make his followers feel like a select group with access to superior inside knowledge. So, when Paul uses the word this way, he isn’t throwing his hands in the air and admitting that there’s something here no-one can figure out; he’s trying to make his readers feel like a select group who get to be in on a secret. ‘Mystery’ here in no way precludes the existence of a real-life walking talking earthly Jesus.

The body of Christ and the desert rock

Price also brings up Paul’s references to the church as ‘the body of Christ’, as well as one line (1 Cor 10:4) referring to Jesus as the rock that the Israelites drank water from in the desert. Price’s implication seems to be that this somehow precludes Paul having believed Jesus had an actual body.

That, however, doesn’t work even with mythicist beliefs. Paul specifically stated that Jesus had had human form; he also believed Jesus had been crucified and buried, as well as being able to pick up bread and wine during his life. It is, therefore, clear that Paul believed Jesus had a body. Even if we go with the (dubious) theory that he thought this body had only existed in a heavenly dimension, Paul clearly wasn’t believing in some sort of disembodied spirit here.  It should, therefore, be extremely obvious that the lines referring to the church as Jesus’s body or comparing him to a rock are meant to be metaphorical rather than some sort of literal claim that Jesus did not have a body.

The future coming of Jesus

Price quotes the descriptions of the future coming of Jesus in 1 Thessalonians 4 and 2 Thessalonians 1, and makes much of the fact that these aren’t described as Jesus returning to earth; Price insists that this must mean that Paul (or whoever the author of the disputed 2 Thessalonians was) was saying that this would be Jesus’s first arrival on earth. That would be a lot of weight to put on word choice even without the issue of translating from another language; the word ‘coming’ can just as well be used to mean that someone is coming back to a place they’ve previously been. (For example, I find it completely normal for my mother to talk about coming to see us or to ask when I’m coming to see her, even though not only have we had repeated trips back and forth over the years but she’s still living in the house where I grew up! Clearly, when she asks when I can come to see her, she’s not meaning that word choice to imply that it’s the first time I’ve visited the house.)

On top of that, the translation issues raise another problem with Price’s argument here: atheist history blogger Tim O’Neill has pointed out that the word used in the 1 Thessalonians passage is ‘parousia’, which carries strong implications of a formal royal arrival. ‘Parousia’ thus makes complete sense as a word choice for someone who believed that Jesus had previously been on earth as a humble peasant but would be coming back as a glorious king.



Price has convinced himself that this collection of passages is a powerful indication of Jesus’s nonexistence. However, this claim doesn’t really stand up when the passages are looked at in the context of Paul’s own culture and theological focus.

Next up: The other side of the story. What passages in Paul suggest that he did believe in a Jesus who’d lived on Earth, and does Price give any alternative explanations for these?

Walking Disaster, Chapter 17, Part 2

This is a chapter-by-chapter review of problematic romance novel ‘Walking Disaster’ by Jamie McGuire. Posts in the series will all be linked back to the initial post, here.

This was initially a companion series to the magnificent Jenny Trout‘s review of the original novel, ‘Beautiful Disaster’. Jenny has since stopped her review, not wanting to give McGuire any further publicity in the wake of her attempts to run for office.

Back again! When we left our romantic hero, he was dismally failing at being a better person. Hands up anyone who’s surprised.

Travis tells us that he’s now trying to avoid situations that make him angry, which isn’t easy because he also realises that ‘every dick on campus’ is just waiting for him to screw things up badly enough to alienate Abby so that they could ‘try her out’, so it looks as though he’s assuming that all the men on campus think of Abby as a possession. I think that’s called projection, Trav. Meanwhile, half the women on campus are upset because Travis is no longer screwing his way through the multitudes one (or more) five-minute stand at a time. Why, how could anyone be other than devastated that this toxic dirtbag love god is off the market?

And then! Unprecedented event; we actually get given a clear point in time! It’s Hallowe’en! Which of course doesn’t fit with the amount of time that’s supposedly passed in this story so far, but at least lets us know where McGuire thinks we are in the year now, even if that doesn’t fit with anything else she’s said.

The gruesome foursome head into the Red (that club from a few chapters back), with Travis thinking how glad he is that Abby isn’t wearing a slutty costume like all Those Slutty Sluts, because that means…

the number of threats I would have to make for staring at her tits or worrying about her bending over would be kept to a minimum.

Travis’s worldview, ladies and gentlemen; if other men dare look at your property girlfriend in a sexual way, you have to threaten them. (Also, apparently you have to threaten people who worry about her bending over. Or maybe that’s just how McGuire’s grammar came out.)

Despite Abby’s lack of a slutty costume, Travis does see a man paying for her drink and, with his friend, attempting to chat her and America up. (Unsuccessfully; she’s just telling him she’s here with her boyfriend when Trav walks up, and, from the description of the scene in ‘Beautiful’, both of them were already doing their best to give off go-away signals which were being disregarded, so she’s not cheating on Travis here.) So, naturally Trav is sympathetic that Abby and America are being pestered against their obvious wishes and checks that Abby’s OK….. nah, you got me, that was just my mental fixfic of the scene. Trav is actually furious with Abby. Takes the drink from her and throws it in the bin, glares at her, yells at her.

“I don’t like you letting other guys buy you drinks,” I said.


“Would it bother you to walk up to the bar and see me sharing a drink with some chick?”


“You’re going to have to tone down the jealous-boyfriend thing, Travis. I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“I walk up here, and some guy is buying you a drink!”

But McGuire wants us all to know that he has a perfectly good and justifiable reason for behaving this way:

Knowing about the two sexual assault incidents the year before, it made me nervous to let Abby and America walk around alone. Drugging an unsuspecting girl’s drink was not unheard of, even in our small college town.


I’d told Abby a dozen times not to do something so potentially dangerous as accept a drink from a stranger; anger quickly took over.


“I’ve told you a hundred times . . . you can’t take drinks from random guys. What if he put something in it?”

See, Travis only gets angry because he’s worried about Abby! He’s just trying to protect her! That makes his response totally justifiable… right? Well, Travis certainly seems to think so:

Of course I would get angry if she did something that would get her hurt.

Angry. Not concerned. Not worried. Not sympathetic. Angry. With Abby. For being at risk of sexual assault. It doesn’t even occur to Travis that there is something wrong with that reaction.

But also… come off it, Travis/McGuire. Firstly, the guys didn’t touch the drinks. This is glossed over in the account in this book, where Travis just says he saw ‘two guys buying them drinks’ and leaves the details ambiguous, but in the account in ‘Beautiful’ we see that the guy in question just handed the money to the bartender after she gave the girls the drinks they’d already ordered. (This was after America had already turned him down when he offered to pay, BTW, so he was being a pushy dick about it; but he hadn’t had the drinks prior to them being handed to the girls.) Secondly, America tells him that the drinks were never out of their sight, and instead of being relieved or even being eager to double-check with her – you know, the kind of reactions you’d expect if spiked drinks were really his concern – he gets snippy with her. Thirdly, this supposed concern for Abby’s welfare is coming from the man who was absolutely fine with insisting Abby ride on his bike without a helmet and speeding while she was on there. So, excuse me if I’m not terribly impressed with the level to which her safety and wellbeing are motivating his actions.

Shepley tries to smooth things over… huh, looks like McGuire C&P’d this from ‘Beautiful’ and forgot to change it, thus making it look as though Travis is talking about himself in the third person:

Shepley put his hand on Travis’s shoulder. “We’ve all had a lot to drink. Let’s just get out of here.”

Not-so-deliberate mistake aside, this has a real Missing Stair feel to it. Shepley doesn’t feel able to call Travis out on what he’s doing, or even to focus the let’s-cool-down approach on him. Instead, he’s avoiding putting any focus on Travis’s behaviour and is trying to solve the immediate problem by expecting everyone to leave. Three other people have to cut their night short rather than expect Travis to control his temper.

Abby storms off to let Finch know they’re leaving, and Trav sees her mentioning his name to Finch, which he is not happy about:

She had blamed it on me, which only made me more mad.

Because heaven forfend anyone put any responsibility on Travis for his own behaviour.

She didn’t seem to mind so much when I was bashing Chris Jenks’s head in, but when I got pissed about her taking drinks from strangers, she had the audacity to get mad.

Something about that sentence made me twig… I think McGuire actually means the whole scene where Travis commits assault and battery to be a feature rather than a bug. I’ve been reading it as Abby being willing to tolerate Trav behaving this way, which was bad enough. But I have the feeling now that we’re actually meant to see that scene as a positive thing, with Trav fighting for Abby’s honour. Maybe I’m reading too much into it… and maybe I’m not.

However, whether the message was meant to be ‘Abby was willing to put up with Travis violently beating up someone who was being a dick’ or ‘Abby was delighted that Travis would violently beat someone up for being a dick’, this is an excellent example of why it’s a really bad idea to stay with someone who shows you they’re willing to act this way. Abby stayed with Travis when he thought the best answer to Jenks’s dickery was violence, and now she’s having to deal with his toxic jealousy and early signs of controlling behaviour.

And it’s just about to get worse. Trav sees a man grab Abby and press up against her, and, without thinking about it, he reacts by punching him in the face hard enough to knock him over. Because he does this without getting the man to let go of Abby first, she gets pulled to the ground as well, and the blood from his nose sprays her. Well, there’s a throwback to how they met, and unfortunately not a romantic one. Abby is not happy.

Travis, realising he’s pushed things too far, starts trying to do damage control, apologising while trying to make excuses at the same time:

“I’m sorry, Pigeon, I didn’t know he had a hold of you.”

That’s a flat-out lie, Trav. You just said you hit him because you got angry when you saw him grab Abby like that.

“I wouldn’t have swung if I thought I could have hit you. You know that right?”

This, as well as being a good example of a sentence that needed a comma it didn’t get, is also a good example of how intent isn’t magic. Yes, Travis certainly didn’t throw that punch intending to spray Abby with blood or knock her over. However, he did let his anger run wild until it ended up having consequences he didn’t want. If Trav had been talking himself down and focusing on staying calm, he’d probably have handled things a lot more appropriately when Mr Grabby made his move on Abby. Instead, Trav actually focused on justifying his anger to himself. It was only because he cared about Abby! Only because he was worried about her! Totally legit! Which temporarily made him feel better about himself… up until the point where he lost it and made everything worse.

Trav is now desperate for Abby to forgive him and reassure him that everything’s all right. Unfortunately for him, Abby doesn’t forgive him and doesn’t think it’s all right. Trav, being Trav, can’t accept that and back off but keeps pleading with her to accept his apology:

“I’m going to fuck up. I’m going to fuck up a lot, Pidge, but you have to forgive me.”

Guess what, Trav? No, she doesn’t. She doesn’t have to forgive you just because you want her to. Not only that, but even if she forgives you she doesn’t have to stay with you. She gets to decide that dealing with the fallout from this sort of toxic anger and jealousy is not for her. She won’t, because this is a horrible romance novel, but it’s something people get to do.

However, while I’m disliking Trav as much as ever, I do have to say that I like several other things about this scene. Firstly, Trav is admitting that he’s screwed up. Not even in a way that makes me scream ‘But that’s not the real problem here!’ (as has been the case on previous occasions in this book); he’s acknowledging, at least to himself, that his actions have caused a real problem. Secondly, the others are calling him out on his refusal to back off and give her a bit of space when she doesn’t want to forgive him straight away. And, thirdly, Abby herself is calling him out loud and clear on the problems with his behaviour here.

“I’m going to have a huge bruise on my ass in the morning! You hit that guy because you were pissed at me! What should that tell me? Because red flags are going up all over the place right now!”

“I’ve never hit a girl in my life,” I said, surprised she would ever think I could ever lay a hand on her – or any other woman for that matter.

“And I’m not about to be the first one!” she said, tugging at the door. “Move, damn it!”

You GO, girl. (In both senses of the phrase. Go far away from Travis, and stay away.)

Trav reluctantly accepts he can’t actually keep Abby there for him to keep pleading for forgiveness, and lets her go off to spend the night in the dorm. Shep makes it clear to Trav that smashing the place up again is not on, and Trav manages to keep control of his temper.

After a sleepless night spent doing mindless housework, he heads over to the dorm first thing for another go at getting Abby to talk to him, because he still can’t manage to leave her alone and respect that she doesn’t want to talk to him. Luckily for him though unluckily for her future prospects in this relationship, she’s actually OK with him doing this. (Though it’s a pain for Abby’s roommate Kara, who has to leave her own room and go have a shower to give them some privacy and so makes a pointed comment about always being very clean when Abby’s around.)

That said, I do on the whole like the conversation they have now. Trav seems genuinely apologetic, and not in a ‘sorry, but…’ way. Abby, meanwhile, is clear about stating her concerns:

“You don’t see me throwing punches every time a girl talks to you. I can’t stay locked up in the apartment all the time. You’re going to have to get a handle on your temper. […] You’ve asked me to trust you, and you don’t seem to trust me.” […] “If you think I’m going to leave you for the next guy that comes along, then you don’t have much faith in me.”

So, will Travis actually be able to manage his reactions instead of translating them into anger against Abby? I’m not holding my breath, but we’ll see.

How much I needed her terrified me.

I’m including that line just because the grammar is so wince-makingly awkward.

Maybe together we were this volatile entity that would either implode or meld together.

You know, this is the kind of thing that would have struck me as ohhhh, sooooooo romaaaaaantic when I was a teenager. I’d have lapped it up. With the benefit of a few decades more life experience, I just roll my eyes at the thought of trying to make that kind of mess of a relationship work. Dysfunction isn’t really a romantic plus.

However, speaking of pluses, we are now at the end of another chapter. Maybe I’ll manage to speed up and skim through on the next chapter? Maybe McGuire’s writing will get better? We can dream of unlikely things.