SHADOWLANDS

It’s not unprecedented for a new post to act as a virtual ‘sequel’ to an old post; indeed, there are some stories that are ongoing sagas in which multiple posts on the same subject are inevitable as the plotlines twist and turn over weeks, months or years. However, this post is (I hope) the concluding instalment of a two-parter in that it directly relates to an extremely sad story covered last August. This week, Olga Freeman was handed an indefinite hospital order after being found guilty of manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility. In case you’ve forgotten, Olga Freeman was the 40-year-old mother of a disabled 10-year-old called Dylan, whose body was found at his Acton home after Ms Freeman handed herself in to police and confessed to killing him.

The nature of the boy’s condition was specified as a strain of autism called Cohen Syndrome, rendering him bereft of ordinary speech and communication skills; in other words, he was severely mentally disabled – that is, his mental development froze in infancy and remained that way as he physically grew. Children afflicted by this condition place parents and carers under unimaginable strain of a kind that only intensifies the older they become; add a lockdown to the mix and the results can be tragic.

Last summer several stories emerged that, to anyone who knows or has known a parent with a child facing such difficulties, came as no surprise; a care system for such children that was already underfunded and overlooked was evidently not prioritised when the decision was taken to close down society. Whilst the classroom of able-bodied and minded children was suddenly transferred to the home environment with varying degrees of success – often dependent upon the social demographic mummy and daddy belonged to – the children whose needs impose draining demands upon parents who struggle to cope alone were either locked-up with those parents or locked-away from them. Children in ‘respite care’, i.e. living away from home in special units that are a kind of cross between school, children’s home and (to put it bluntly) prison were abruptly separated from visiting parents, denied regular contact in an act of emotional cruelty that naturally couldn’t be explained to the confused child anymore than an ageing adult with Alzheimer’s could be made to understand why contact with their own loved ones had halted.

Anyone suffering from an affliction, condition or illness in which an intense focus on routine and repetition is a vital element of the sufferer’s mental wellbeing will naturally find it devastating if that routine and repetition is disrupted overnight. When it comes to a mentally disabled child with the temper tantrums of a toddler housed in a physical frame much older, the dangers to both themselves and to those around them when the daily pattern is dramatically altered are manifold. I read of the anguish inflicted upon such children and their parents during the initial lockdown last year, but these were all stories of separation; the alternative was just as awful.

As soon as lockdown was instigated, Olga Freeman was just one of many faced with little option but to care for her son at home, robbed of the usual welcome break school offered on weekdays, sacrificing any semblance of a life outside of her child’s demands and placing herself in his complete control, at his every exhausting beck and call. She wouldn’t have been able to sleep, eat, bathe, read, listen to music, watch television, spend extended time online, conduct a telephone conversation, forge friendships or relationships or attend to any chore the rest of us take for granted without him intervening and screaming for her attention.

Single parents of children like Dylan Freeman find that looking after them round-the-clock is hard enough at weekends or during school holidays, but when suddenly deprived of the light at the end of the tunnel that is the resumption of school, the patience of any saint would be tested to the absolute limit. If one is faced with the prospect of caring for a child with Dylan’s difficulties, every other aspect of life that even the most put-upon (or so they imagine) parents of ‘normal’ children manage to incorporate into their so-called stressful days has to be put on ice for a decade or more. They live an utterly isolated, parallel universe existence, completely out of every loop, marooned on the fringes of a society that only notices them when the child embarks upon a screaming fit at the local supermarket; to say being cut adrift from the rest of the world and entombed with an eternal infant for sole company has a deep, psychological impact on the individuals concerned would be a supreme understatement.

I suspect perhaps the only comparable trial would be a lengthy sentence detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, yet even that is comparable merely in terms of time out from the human race – and the sentence usually has a limit on it. Yes, if parents in this situation connect with each other, a community of sorts can develop, it is true; but this still means the only people they are in contact with are in the same boat as them and this is often the sole thing they have in common, forever reflecting their desperate predicament back at each other in an infinite hall of cracked mirrors.

Olga Freeman was divorced from Dylan’s father and despite the product of their union being in her custody, she had (according to the press reports) a history of depression; the CPS, an organisation which past experience has taught us to approach with caution, claimed in the week leading up to Dylan’s death his mother had ‘spoken about being a Messiah’. Whether there is any truth to that claim doesn’t detract from the fact that the boy’s mother had reached breaking point after several months of lockdown. At the Old Bailey trial – with Olga Freeman giving evidence via video-link – senior judge Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubb concluded, ‘I have no doubt at all that you were a remarkably loving and dedicated mother to a vulnerable child until multiple pressures overwhelmed you and your mind was swamped by a destructive illness with florid psychotic elements’ – adding that Dylan Freeman should be viewed as ‘an indirect victim of interruption to normal life caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.’

Dr Martin Lock, a psychiatrist, told the Court that Olga Freeman had developed ‘psychotic symptoms when under very heavy stress because of the Covid-19 lockdown’, pointing out that the mother’s pre-existing condition was exacerbated by the pressure of looking after Dylan and then increased with the closure of Dylan’s school, placing the burden of Dylan in her hands 24/7. It would seem Olga Freeman had persistently begged Ealing Council for assistance in caring for Dylan, though the response was sadly (and predictably) too slow and too late – perhaps the employees were busily engaged in some Unconscious Bias Training? A review of the lacklustre response is underway, though it will make little difference to either mother or son now. Whilst Prosecutor Gareth Patterson QC observed, ‘The role of the council does seem to have been a further source of stress for the defendant at what was a very difficult time’, Ms Freeman’s ex-husband Dean was critical of ‘inadequate support and funding’ of services that left some parents in his ex-wife’s position ‘without a voice’.

This whole unbearably sad story is a culmination of factors that seem to sum up so much about the shameful place our society finds itself in today. It appears mental health issues and autism in particular are fine if worn as a badge of honour in Twitter bios, feeding into the victim narrative that resurrects the ‘fashionable invalid’ of Victorian literature; but greater public awareness in the hands of celebrities and corporations hitching a ride on the latest cause only stretches so far into the less attractive, real world existence of parents pushed to the brink like Olga Freeman.

© The Editor

EXTRA-SPECIAL NEEDS

I suppose it’s inevitable that a medium in such a state of perilous uncertainty over its future as television will go out of its way to promote and overhype some programmes; these tend to be those it hopes will grab the headlines and fuel 24-hour social media discourse, thus providing another stay of execution. In the meantime, the few remaining gems that sparkle under the clickbait radar are usually the ones worth investing in. A wonderful example of this is ‘There She Goes’, which recently completed a second series on BBC2. The central premise of the programme is not an easy sell, dealing as it does with the challenges faced by parents with a severely mentally-disabled child. Not, one would imagine, the formula for a classic sitcom; however, ‘There She Goes’ hovering between humour and pathos actually isn’t that far removed from a good example of the classic sitcom such as ‘Steptoe and Son’, which often had bleak moments worthy of the finest drama – perhaps reflecting the fact it was the first comedy series to employ actors as leads rather than comedians.

Written by Shaun Pye and largely drawn from his own personal experience as the father of a learning disabled child, ‘There She Goes’ demonstrates how humour can even be derived from what on paper appear to be the least humorous circumstances imaginable. Miley Locke, the little girl who plays Rosie in the series, is not learning disabled but gives an astonishingly convincing performance in a part that no child with such a condition could possibly have reproduced on cue. At times, Rosie is akin to a Tasmanian Devil let loose in suburbia, with no comprehension of social mores or awareness of how to behave in public; she takes the obsession with random objects and the endless repetition of routine that are hallmarks of autism to extreme limits. Whilst all parents are familiar with the way in which babies are no observers of adult sleeping patterns, most understand this will pass; ditto the anarchic hyperactivity embodied in toddlers who have just mastered the art of putting one foot in front of the other – not to mention the difficulties of non-verbal communication that are overcome when speech develops. However, in the case of a child like Rosie, those early-years characteristics remain intact and permanent while she physically grows.

The two parents in ‘There She Goes’ are played by David Tenant and Jessica Hynes. Hynes in particular is outstanding as the mother worn down by the pressures of raising a little girl whose condition would at one time have been categorised as ‘mentally handicapped’. She manages to convey the stresses of the situation with beautifully understated acting, able to sum up what can feel like the wretched hopelessness of her life with a simple weary facial expression. The strain on Tenant’s character is manifested differently; at times, he can come across as selfish and indifferent to his wife’s sufferings, yet the honesty in both the writing and acting accurately portrays the reality of how even the most trying of situations bringing out the best in people can also provoke nihilistic despair. These parents are not saints selflessly dedicating themselves to a noble cause; they have no choice. They’re human beings who sometimes just want to enjoy life like everybody else, yet can’t.

‘There She Goes’ can be both comic and tragic, at times heartbreakingly sad yet simultaneously warm and witty; there’s no way that living with a child like Rosie can be dramatised unless it encompasses the exhaustingly wide range of emotions such unique circumstances can inspire. Perhaps the fact the family in it happen to be living in a leafy middle-class London neighbourhood could suggest to viewers with no personal experience of Rosie’s condition that it never happens to those residing in less salubrious surroundings. Rosie’s parents inhabit a nice big house with a nice big garden and are able to get her into a nice special school environment that is designed to deal with her needs. No, they’re not exactly struggling ala ‘Cathy Come Home’, yet they still have to encounter the constant interference of ill-equipped social workers and the condescending approach of teachers and medical professionals whose understanding of living with Rosie 24/7 is minimal; it’s something that can’t be learnt by acquiring a degree.

If one were to take Jessica Hynes’ character and make her a single mother, placing her and Rosie in a council flat, it’s possible the series would adopt a much darker tone; then add the lockdown scenario, whereby even the paltry few hours’ break Rosie’s mother has from her child when she’s at school is removed and she’s entombed with her all day long. Social media and the MSM have been inundated with the whinges of parents locked-in with mentally sound and able-bodied kids ever since schools closed their doors, yet how much worse it could be. There are endless untold stories of the damage being done by what feel like unnecessary measures imposed upon people who will never overwhelm the NHS or die of Covid-19 even if they catch it. And I couldn’t help but think of both this fact and ‘There She Goes’ when the saddest story of the week was reported.

Olga Freeman, the 40-year-old ex-wife of a ‘celebrity photographer’ (the angle seized upon by the MSM) was this week in the dock at the Old Bailey, charged with the murder of her 10-year-old son Dylan. According to reports, Dylan was disabled and required 24-hour care; his specific disability was not mentioned, though the court was told his mother had been ‘struggling to meet Dylan’s care needs for the last year, as he became older and bigger’; the boy’s behaviour was described as having become ‘especially challenging’; it was said that ‘during lockdown, he was not able to attend school and the burden of care had fallen more heavily on the defendant, together with assistance from her friend.’

Within those two statements are two poignant observations – firstly that a child, possibly similar to the one portrayed on ‘There She Goes’, may be just about controllable when small; however, the fact they will physically mature as normal whilst remaining mentally frozen places even greater demands on the parent. Secondly, the inhumane imposition of the lockdown has increased the burden of living with such a child to the point whereby some might understandably crack, especially if deprived of a wide support network of family and friends. Of course, the lockdown cannot be held wholly responsible. Virginia Woolf’s wartime suicide is often attributed to her inability to cope with air-raids, yet not everybody disturbed by German bombing took their own life just as not every parent locked-down with a disabled child will take its life; but what the Luftwaffe did to Woolf was what the lockdown may well have done to Olga Freeman: it exacerbated something that was already present.

Extreme special needs children are poorly prioritised by both private and public sector at the best of times; in the worst of times, their care should not be regarded as something to be shifted solely onto parents for the duration as though the children can be simply lumped-in with ‘ordinary’ kids. It’s hard enough for such parents during actual school holidays, but at least they have an end in sight then; the decision to shut down society doesn’t seem to have taken them into consideration at all. The sad death of Dylan Freeman will be an extremely difficult case to judge fairly by those with no first-hand experience of the challenges faced by these parents; a mother murdering her own child goes against every instinct we hold dear, yet I sincerely hope reporting can avoid any ‘Myra Hindley’ portrayals of this particular mother, even if the revelation of the full details paint a less than flattering picture of the accused. A series such as ‘There She Goes’ feels fresh because it’s unearthing a side of life TV viewers have previously been denied; but it shines a small light on a truth for many families that can have unbearably tragic consequences for all concerned if they’re effectively abandoned.

© The Editor

CONSENSUAL HEALING

coca-colaThe profile pictures of columnists in what used to be called the broadsheets are often an accurate pointer to the sanctimonious smugness of the scribe and his or her musings before the reader has even read them. The image of the Grauniad’s socialist-in-residence Owen Jones that appears on the paper’s webpage announcing the sacking of the crafty cockney Eric Bristow from his Sky Sports pundit job matches his pompous declaration that ‘Eric Bristow’s toxic tweets matter. These attitudes silence victims’ – a statement lifted from the piece I couldn’t bring myself to even look at. Like so many in his position who pose as an inquisitor of the consensus, Jones summarily fails to question any of the historical child abuse narrative and accepts it wholly as fact. The irrelevant viewpoint of an ex-darts player is a convenient red herring that gives Jones the green light to release the moral high-horse from his stable instead of addressing the actual issue.

The gruff opinion Eric Bristow tweeted in response to the spate of ex-footballer confessions over the past week or so is precisely what anyone with half-a-brain would expect a man of Bristow’s background and age to tweet; it wasn’t exactly ‘sensitive’, but if I want ‘sensitive’, I put Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ on the turntable, not 2 Live Crew. It is the unvarnished blokeiness of Bristow that has always been at the core of his appeal to those that like him, just as it is with Nigel Farage or Jeremy Clarkson. Maybe he should keep his opinions to his boozing buddies, but isn’t Twitter supposed to be a democratic forum where everybody is entitled to their say, a cyber Speaker’s Corner for the masses? That’s the theory, anyway.

When George Osborne copyrighted the phrase ‘We’re all in this together’ (one he should rightly be tarred with forever), the context in which he intended it to mean anything has been utterly transcended by everything else it can be applied to in this repressive, censorious society populated by timid, obedient schoolchildren masquerading as adults, terrified of being out of step with the rest of the class. Whether online, on campus, in media of both the print and broadcast variety and (especially) in public services, the fear of ostracism and exclusion from the crowd breeds the belief that if we all agree to pre-conditions in how we speak, think and respond then we’ll finally achieve the inclusive Utopia that Coca-Cola once portrayed when it tried to teach the world to sing.

Producing the next generation of consumers that will keep the economy on an even keel is a patriotic duty that opting out of risks vilification from the hypocritical harpies of Mumsnet, whose own concept of unity is rooted in an untruth because no mother dare admit her children have robbed her of her independence and taken away her identity. As someone whose morning routine is soundtracked by Radio 4, this is something I have never heard aired on ‘Woman’s Hour’, and I doubt I ever will. If Eric Bristow can lose his living because he tweeted something ‘offensive’, can you imagine the kind of punishment awaiting a prominent female in the public eye if she admitted she wished she’d never had the children that have become effective parasites draining her of all sense of who she is? Yes, we’re all in this together, none more so than that hotbed of competitive self-deception, motherhood.

Many of you may have read last week’s post, ‘A Social Disservice’, and this is a kind of sequel to that one, even if it might appear I’ve taken a roundabout route to it. But I think so much of the bureaucratic brickwork that the mother of the child I diplomatically referred to as X has come up against in an effort to retrieve a life for herself is mirrored in the wider world. It’s just more pronounced in the arena of social services and the detachment of management level, where patting one’s self on the back and earning Brownie points at dinner parties for proclaiming ‘I work with disabled children’ to an anticipated round of applause is the extent of actual involvement, as far removed from the reality of being cooped-up with a child suffering from extreme autism as WWI generals were from the trenches.

X was collected from four days in the care of the State last Friday and once back in the bosom of the family home reverted to feral type, reminding her mother why she’d deposited her in that care the previous weekend. X’s deterioration over just the last six months has rendered even the limited tricks that could once be used to momentarily occupy her completely redundant. In care, an entire team are employed to reduce X’s appetite for destruction, but the social services expect her mother to do the work of four or five people around the clock, 24/7, subjecting herself to continual assaults of biting, scratching and screaming for all of X’s waking hours. The individual members of staff attending to her in care have been subject to the same treatment, yet have to make excuses for it in order to accentuate the non-existent positivity that their box-ticking training requires.

X’s mother was informed a panel would review her situation at an unspecified future date, a Star Chamber hearing at which she would not be allowed to present her case nor provide the video evidence of X’s behaviour. Instead, an inexperienced social worker who has never even met X in the flesh would be there on her behalf, to submit a report compiled from an interview with X’s mother that (unsurprisingly) wouldn’t suggest any members of that panel take X into their homes for 24 hours to see for themselves precisely what X’s mother has to deal with. This virtual Soviet trial would then decide the future of someone not entitled to attend, with the umpteenth social worker to have dealt with X’s case during her short life being the mother’s proxy representative. This is the kind of farce that forces parents such as X’s mother into taking dramatic action.

The authorities are not accustomed to parents challenging their authority and questioning their wisdom because the parents are usually so mentally and physically browbeaten by the experience of looking after their problem children that they have no energy to fight back. X’s mother knows if she doesn’t take this stand then her life is effectively over. On Sunday, she rang the same emergency number she’d rung the previous weekend and after the phone was answered by a human being, the moment she explained the situation she was immediately transferred to an answer-machine. So staggeringly ineffective are the social services, someone in a similar position even advised X’s mother to dial 999 instead. She didn’t, but she dispatched an email to all parties with a vested interest in her continuing to endure a nightmarish excuse for a life and made it clear she wouldn’t be collecting X from school again on Monday. She stuck to her word and refuses to collect her at the end of the week.

The pressures on X’s mother following her actions, not only from the facsimile togetherness of the mother’s union, but from a system that expects her to fulfil a duty no sane person could stomach for as long as she already has before heading for the nearest bridge, is a consequence of a mindset that demands subservience to a consensus nobody signed-up for. And yet the consensus is there – in the social services, the DWP, the NHS, the police force, the media, online, f***ing everywhere. Oppose it at one’s peril, but for God’s sake oppose it. If you don’t, we’re finished; and the future will be a boot stamping on a human face, forever – although O’Brien neglected to mention it will be a smiley one. After all, we wouldn’t want to frighten the children.

© The Editor

A SOCIAL DISSERVICE

virgin-maryKeeping wild animals as pets is never advisable, though it has been a regular affectation of the wealthy and eccentric; Dickens had a pet raven, Byron had a pet fox, Josephine Baker had a pet leopard, and there was the famous story of Christian, the lion cub purchased from Harrods (!) in the late 1960s by John Rendall and Anthony Burke, who kept the big cat at their home in London for more than a year until the difficulties of the arrangement became insurmountable. Christian was eventually reintroduced to the wild by George and Joy Adamson, the right environment for a creature unsuited to the enclosed spaces of the urban jungle. The feral characteristics of a wild animal whose natural instincts are in conflict with those of their human owners and the living conditions humans favour make such unnatural captivity ill-advised.

Children are supposed to be the antithesis of wild animals in the home, though the place of the most badly-behaved in it is sometimes indistinguishable from wild animals; children are essentially indulged pets for the first few years of their existence – at least until they start school. Many children are now able to get away with a good deal more than their parents could when they were the same age, for the unfashionable implementation of discipline and respect as administered during the childhoods of most reading this post has diminished with each successive generation. The deification of children by the media and its celebrity whores has elevated the mother figure back up to the level of the medieval Virgin Mary and the children themselves to the saintly cherub embodied by Baby Jesus. Any contradiction to the consensus condemns mothers who can’t keep up with the standards set by the Breastapo, whilst the child itself can rule the roost in open denial of its angelic status.

But what if the child is ten-years-old with the mental age of a nine-month-old baby? We all know how useless and essentially boring babies are – wailing, nappy-filling tyrants who can’t even stand on their own two feet – yet imagine what they could do with their limited intelligence were we to transplant their underdeveloped brains into the body of a fully-grown child. Every random thought that entered their head when confronted by the unfamiliar and the new would be something they could physically react to rather than stare and cry at. Chaos would ensue. And that’s precisely what happens with the mercifully-rare extreme autism some unfortunate children are afflicted by at birth – the ten-year-old with the nine-month-old mental age mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph. This particular child exists and we shall call her X.

X has profound learning difficulties that are incurable. She has no social skills and her ability to interact with others is severely limited. Her incompatibility with other children means her relationship with her siblings (from whom she is segregated) is minimal. She will never be able to lead a normal life. She cannot speak and can only express herself verbally through the most basic vocal noises. If the day’s routine veers from the pattern X dictates, usually by accident than design, an incendiary tantrum erupts. At such moments, X lashes out at herself and her mother with a fearsome strength that will increase as she grows – biting, scratching, punching and kicking. It is extremely difficult to reason with X or to explain a situation to her. She lacks the mental capacity to process such information and cannot understand why her mother won’t simply drive her around in the car, going nowhere for hours on end.

X puts many non-foodstuffs into her mouth, and is doubly incontinent. She views bodily waste as no different from any other substance. Her sleep does not adhere to any regular pattern. She can wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning and expect the day to progress as though it were 8 or 9. X has to be watched every moment of her waking day, placing an exhaustive burden upon her mother; her behaviour and the need to monitor her at all times makes a normal life for her single parent mother impossible and X’s mother has no extended family to call on for support.

Even a relaxing necessity such as eating a meal, watching TV or reading a book uninterrupted, something the rest of us take for granted, is impossible to undertake in X’s presence. X attends a special needs school during term time, with her needs attended to by a team. When the holidays come, however, X’s mother copes alone with occasional support staff. Bereft of her term team, school holidays are a challenge for X and her mother. Changes to X’s routine induce anxiety and upset, increasing incidents of both self-harm and harm inflicted upon those around her. X’s oblivious antisocial behaviour limits the time she can spend outdoors and amongst the public, narrowing her world considerably. Her quality of life is as poor as any able-bodied person could possibly experience.

But, of course, we have our wonderful Welfare State and its social service offshoot to aid and assist mothers of children such as X, don’t we? That unimpeachable gift to the nation that only wicked Tories and right-wing advocates of private healthcare dare to criticise is there to help, no? Think again. Oh, if your idea of a way of helping the mothers of children like X is to throw money at them because it’s cheaper to do that than to entrust the lifetime care of X to the State, fair enough. Overburdened by unnecessary referrals in the fallout from both Savile and Baby P, run along the lines of box-ticking bureaucracy with timid, naive staff trained in rigidly upbeat false positivity that negates common-sense realism, and weighed down by the layers of management that provide its beneficiaries with a comfortable career of paid holiday, pension-guaranteed detachment from the frontline parental war zone, the whole rotten system is the Circumlocution Office turned up to eleven.

This weekend, confronted by a relentless physical assault from a child whose rage is vocally manifested as the kind of screaming that makes a car alarm sound like Beethoven’s Ninth, the sleep-deprived, battered and bruised mother of X removed her earplugs and called the social services to take the wild animal masquerading as her daughter away into permanent care. Nobody rings such a number unless they have reached absolute breaking point, yet the response of the social services confronted by their worst nightmare was to try to dissuade X’s mother; when that failed, she then received a lecture in which the threat of ‘child abandonment’ accusations was implicit. Let the ivory tower-dwelling management Olympians take X into their home for 48 hours and see how they cope. It won’t happen. X’s mother has been astute enough to video X’s rages as evidence, and glass houses are susceptible to stones, after all.

I have been a long-distance recipient of X’s worsening behaviour over the last twelve months, and the fact that she has to sleep within an effective cage in order to prevent her from running away emphasises how unhappy she is with her living arrangements. The physically and mentally drained mother of X has undertaken her maternal duties above and beyond the call of duty, living a life few could possibly picture unless in the same situation. She has done everything humanly possible to appease X’s unimaginable condition, but she has finally arrived at the point of no return. If the social services cannot be there for children such as X, what is the bloody point? And, better still, how the hell can we retain outdated pride in it? If X was an adult in a relationship and had treated her spouse as X had treated her mother, the police would have been involved and there would no doubt have been a high-profile court-case. But a child? No, children don’t do that. They’re angels. And their mothers fail the audition at their peril.

© The Editor