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

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

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


The letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t criticise: I merely observe.

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

And the streets are empty and cold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The book series and the fictitious artist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, for this Hallowe’en…


…it is, once again, time for the monthly fundraiser and general showtime, when you get to see the gifts of FTB’s amazingly talented members!

Unfortunately, this time around, you also get to see me. That’s right; I seem to have signed up to do the FreeThoughtBlogs Hallowe’en QI show tomorrow. (Have you ever had those moments of looking back on the conversation you just had and thinking ‘How… how did that just happen…?’? It was like that.) So… if you guys were hoping for the chance to see me make a total prat of myself, well, I guess this is your lucky weekend. Enjoy! And, y’know, if you wanted to throw a bit of money the way of our fundraiser, so that I get to feel my hideous embarrassment is at least in a good cause, then that’d be great.

Well, f&*%

I don’t normally use the F-word on my blog even with asterisks (I’m not squeamish, but my mother reads this blog) but there’s simply no other response to the results at this point.

Last night, when the polls were suggesting Clinton would just squeak through, my husband told me something he’d read in Reason magazine; that it was worrying to realise that if a competent racist without a history of sexual assault allegations was running for president in America today, he’d win. It now seems that an incompetent racist with a history of sexual assault allegations can do so. It’s beyond terrifying to think how many voters may have found his racism a feature rather than a bug. Or how many disliked the idea of a woman as president so much that they would literally vote for any available alternative.

I now have a header!

Took me long enough, I know. Well, it’s nothing to write home about – just something I threw together on Canva – but I like it and, at any rate, it’s a big improvement on not having any header.

If anyone has any particular suggestions about how it could be improved, fire ahead.

The Wyndham Fallacy

Hi again! Sorry for my long absence! I had a pretty busy week followed by a week of being absolutely wiped out by a horrendous cold, so I haven’t had a lot of energy for posting.

I came across another Answers in Genesis post that I thought was worth a mention (via the same route as before; a post on Libby Anne’s Love, Joy, Feminism blog. So hat tip to her once again.) This one was written by someone called Avery Foley and is called Why Does God Allow Bad Things to Happen? The answer, in case you were wondering, is apparently because anyone who’s a Christian eventually gets to go to Heaven for all eternity. So, uh, that’s quite all right then and glad we cleared that up. Anyway, here’s the bit that I (like Libby Anne) wanted to comment on:

Evolution supposedly progresses by the death of the less fit and the reproduction of the most fit. So, if this the case, why should we help the old, sick, infirm, and disabled? Shouldn’t they be eliminated as less fit? After all, in the world of evolution the strong survive, and tough for you if you’re born weak or less fit. According to an evolutionist’s own worldview, how can death, disease, suffering, cancer, and disabilities really be “bad”? In nature, the weak and ill die off and the strong survive, passing on their good genes to the next generation—this is how evolution supposedly progresses. Death and weakness from disease and mutations is a must for “bad” genes to die out. So by what standard do evolutionists call these things bad? Certainly not by their own standard! To claim a standard for good and bad, they have to borrow from a different worldview—the biblical one—to define what good and bad even are.

Well, first off, I don’t have to borrow from the biblical or any other worldview to say that it’s bad for people to suffer pain or distress or loss of autonomy, and good to take steps to help or prevent situations in which those things happen. Sure, there’s room for plenty of complexities and grey areas and debate around those basics, but I’m still baffled as to why the ‘So how do you even define good or bad without a God, huh? Huh? Huh???‘ question is meant to be such a ‘gotcha’. But what I mostly wanted to comment on here is this bizarre claim that a belief in evolution as a scientific fact somehow requires us to also accept it as a moral imperative.

This is a fallacy that shows up now and again in creationist writings, and it is exactly as logical as saying that, having discovered that gravity causes people to hit the ground when they fall over, we are now morally obligated to push them down. I have for some time thought of this as the Wyndham Fallacy, because it’s rather nicely summed up by a line author John Wyndham wrote in his novel ‘The Kraken Wakes’; the main character tells his wife ‘Darling, if I happen to mention that, as a process, autumn follows summer, it does not follow that I am all for getting a ladder and pulling the leaves off the trees.’

‘The Kraken Wakes’, by the way, is unrelated to evolution and uses that line in a different context. In general, though, it’s in creationist writings about evolution that this fallacy typically shows up. After all, the story creationists believe about how the world got started is one that’s heavily tied in to their morality and their worldview in general; not only does this make it virtually impossible for a creationist to question that version of events (because they so strongly believe it’s morally wrong to believe anything else), but it actually makes it difficult for many creationists to get their head round the fact that beliefs about origin don’t, in fact, automatically have to tie into our moral beliefs, and that the two can be independent.

Or maybe they just push that line as a way of making non-fundamentalists look bad. Why go for accuracy when you can have propaganda?

But either way; no. Yes, in nature the less fit are more likely to die. No, that doesn’t put us under any sort of moral obligation to kill them off. If you think otherwise, I look forward to seeing you at the end of summer with that ladder.

Hello there, everyone…

Yes, indeed… I am yet another of the large new influx of bloggers that Pharyngula has just been telling you about. And this is very exciting and quite scary for me, because, while I have been blogging for almost ten years now on one site or another, they’ve always been the kind of tuppenny-ha’penny personal blogs that people occasionally stumble across when they’re googling something. And, suddenly, here I am on a very public platform doing the metaphorical Internet equivalent of worrying about how silly my voice sounds over the microphone.

If you clicked on this blog then you probably want to know a bit about me, so here you are: My name is Sarah and I’m a 45-year-old GP living in England with one husband and two children. I’m a skeptic, a humanist, a feminist, and an atheist, and I love debunking myths when I can find the time to do so. I also love reading, and I’m a big fan of fantasy: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series (most of his non-Discworld books actually aren’t all that), Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, Diane Duane’s Young Wizard series, Mercedes Lackey’s 500 Kingdoms and most of her Valdemar books, and probably several others.

In case you’re interested, here are some of my previous blogs:

Good Enough Mum: a general one about my life, in practice mostly about my life as a mum.

Thoughts From An Atheist: some writings of mine on religion and on the not having of it.

Parenting Myths, Parenting Facts: a few things I’ve written debunking some of the latest dogmas around parenting practice. For those who are interested in that sort of thing.

I’m also about to be late for dinner, so that should do for now. I’m thrilled to be here and look forward to posting more and getting to know people.