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