As a novelist I am wary of what is often called “research,” by which I mean reading detailed, real-life criminal cases or news stories and using those details, or the structure of those narratives, in a narrative of my own. This is partly due to a squeamishness about taking the facts of suffering individuals, whether still living or survived by grieving loved ones, and making them into entertainment. But it is also that from the more self-interested point of view of the novelist, whose brain can only fit so much at one time, real life is big and untidy and often stranger and more unwieldy than fiction. The effort of cramming all the material that real life presents into the confined space of a novel is, frankly, too daunting for me.
But those stories from life that stick in your head and won’t go away however much you avert your eyes from them in the news are different. My new novel What We Did also feels different. It’s the only one of my fourteen novels I had to wait for.
As a rule, I have an idea, then I sit down and write until I’ve found all my characters, my setting, my plot, and keep writing until I get to the end. But I had the germ of the idea for What We Did more than ten years ago: Bridget, the survivor of childhood sexual abuse, builds a life for herself—a family, a house, a job, a small but safe set of friends—then her abuser reappears in her life with another vulnerable girl in his charge. I wrote some hundred pages of her story, then stopped. I didn’t know what she did next.
By the time I returned to Bridget’s narrative, the world felt as though it had shifted, somehow, on its axis—and a woman had died. The world had seen many, many more than one death, of course, directly or indirectly as a result of abuse: at the hands of predatory men, controlling men, brutal men, stupid men, men who had themselves been abused, and men without empathy or morality or scruple. It is partly that accumulation of outrage, that unignorable clamour of victims’ voices that shoved me back into Bridget’s life. But the spur—and I should emphasize that it was only that, a spur; I have not returned to look at the case until I sat down to write this piece—was the death, in 2013, of one woman, a forty-eight-year-old wife, mother, and talented musician called Frances Andrade. Andrade committed suicide after having given evidence at the trial of her former teacher Michael Brewer for abusing her thirty years earlier, having told friends during the trial that it had felt like “being raped again.”
Having already begun to write a story with so many similarities to Frances Andrade’s—Brewer, like Tony Carmichael, was a respected teacher at a prestigious music school, had been awarded a CBE for his services to music, and was still actively engaged in grooming girls under his care at the time of his arrest—the case, and the rage I felt at its outcome, couldn’t be ignored. It drew in its wake the memory of an earlier story—that of an extremely vulnerable young woman called Emma Humphries who had killed her violent abuser Trevor Armitage in 1985 out of fear for her own life and in response to years of trauma. She was arrested immediately. Having no strategy, no guile, and no strength after years of anorexia and abuse, she was found guilty of his murder and imprisoned. After more than ten years in prison she was freed on appeal, only to die in her sleep of an accidental overdose three years after her release.
What gripped me, therefore, and would not let me go, was the common factor in these cases: that the women died. The pull towards self-harm that abused women so often cannot resist; the tireless draw towards suicide because it seems easier, more peaceful—it represents an escape from an intolerable, toxic combination of shame and post-traumatic terror. It was a powerful anger in response to the overwhelming evidence that it is the victim who pays the price, over and over again, for speaking out or not speaking out, that told me what Bridget should do next. She would reach out and take control with both hands. She would confront the terrible temptation she had resisted for more than twenty years to punish herself for what was done to her, and she would fight back.
It was a powerful anger in response to the overwhelming evidence that it is the victim who pays the price, over and over again, for speaking out or not speaking out, that told me what Bridget should do next.
This is not real life. This is not a handbook for the abused and it is not a guide to how to handle your abuser. It’s a story. And in stories, as so rarely in life, we can triumph. If it has a message it’s about reaching out to others, it’s about gathering around you those you can trust, it’s about standing together. The story in What We Did can’t make anything up to those who have endured the reality of abuse and bereavement, but if it might help prevent future abuse, it feels like it’s worth a try.
Christobel Kent was born in London and grew up in London and Essex, including a stint on the Essex coast on a Thames barge with three siblings and four stepsiblings, before studying English at Cambridge. She is the author of The Day She Disappeared, The Loving Husband, and The Crooked House, among other novels. Kent lives in Cambridge with her husband and five children.