On Saturday, reader Leah asked a very timely question, just as I was wondering whether the matter needed explanation myself.
Why was it so important to protect Rose from Gatsby – when Gatsby was and remains a (more-or-less, apart from the odd spliff) law-abiding, respectable, civilised, well-meaning member of society who had been a friend of the family for years?
To answer this, I need to go back decades.
Premise No One: Madness Hurts Everyone.
Bink became ill long before Rose was even born. (Possibly, arguably, since before she herself was born. The trigger was a commonplace occurrence in Bink’s first term at senior school, aged eleven... but the die was surely cast when she inherited her genes as a zygote.)
By the time Rose was one of us, the rest of us had seen – and far worse, experienced – the ravages of Bink’s illness in all our own lives. Mental illness is both destructive and infectious. More so than you can readily believe, until you live with it yourself. It sucks the life out of a family as well as the individual. After all, merely by being absent Bink can dominate any joyous celebration, any happy event in the church calendar, any Christmas or confirmation of faith or reunion of tribe and clan.
Our careers have changed course. Our own health has been dragged down. Even our decision to leave our beloved vicarage in Parson’s Green was influenced by the mental miasma which has had such a devastating effect on all of us since before Rose was even thought of.
Every family will cope with this in its own way, and I have seen far too much – and made far too many of my own mistakes – ever to say one way is better than another, or someone else’s way is wrong.
When Bink had been ill only a year or two I spoke to a mother whose son was suffering similarly, whose family could afford to send him to an asylum in Canada. Even as she was telling me this, I realised the move was not primarily for his good, but to protect their remaining children.
I was shocked.
We Atkinses would walk – if necessary fall – together.
Two decades on, not only am I not shocked at all but I wonder whether Bink’s siblings might have something to say about our not protecting them in this way. After all, despite all we have done for her, despite being so often the centre of our (particularly my) attention to the detriment of the rest of us, Bink is still ill...
So by the time Rose was born we had learnt much, most of it sadly. Being in the proximity of an illness as acute as Bink’s is damaging. No doubt about it. To health, work, career, relationships, happiness, finances, virtually everything you can think of.
It still took me eight or nine more years and a pertinent comment of Serena’s to see what I eventually did see so clearly. Rose was a child: Bink an adult. Child protection trumps all. (In theory, the adult is able to make choices for herself... though in Bink’s case I’m not sure how much this is genuinely true. But anyway, this is the wisdom of our age so in lieu of any better advice let’s go with it.)
Push Premise No One to its conclusion, and any child in the vicinity of madness deserves protection… if possible.
Premise No Two: Relationships Have Characters.
I am reminded of an explanation Shaun once gave me of the Trinity.
God the Father is a concept most of us can understand.
God the Son, once you manoeuvre your head around Christmas and the Incarnation and God made flesh, is also a reasonably accessible idea.
The Person many struggle with is God the Holy Spirit. Who is He? What is He for? Why did we have to complicate matters with a third member of the Christian Godhead?
Look at it this way, my beloved said to me. When two people love each other, that love can be so strong and positive a life-force it’s almost like a third person in their marriage or their love.
This was certainly true of my parents.
My father was principled, innovative, enlightened and visionary, decades ahead of his time. (He was also stunningly good-looking, brilliantly musical and quite heart-stoppingly romantic.) My mother was very clever, exceptionally kind and dedicated, an outstandingly accomplished mathematician and teacher in an age when women seldom put their own careers first. (She was also self-effacing and self-deprecating to a fault… and romantic.)
Separately, they would probably have amounted to reasonably successful people in their individual fields.
Together, they were far, far more than this.: the very deeply and dearly adored parents – everyone says it was indeed a family – of a world-class school. Dozens, quite possibly hundreds of their pupils still remember the environment they created as encompassing the happiest and most influential period of their lives, shaping their futures and their characters and their friendships and life-choices.
My parents’ love for each other – and of course for us, their resulting children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren – had, still has, will continue to have after both are gone, a life-giving energy all of its own, bringing sunshine to all who knew them.
What is remembered with such affection is not so much my father, nor my mother, but the combination of the two of them. This is how my father wants it to be. Nearly ten years on from my mother’s death, he still signs Christmas and birthday cards from the two of them; gives presents from both of them. After all, he says, they earned and saved and treasured everything together. He may now be the one giving the presents, but both of them worked together to make such presents possible.
Premise No Three: What can be a Force for Good can also therefore be for Evil.
Just as the existence of God logically allows for the existence of a personal Evil, so, sadly, the positive power of creative relationships must also open us to the possibility of the opposite.
Relationships can be life-giving.
They can also be life-destroying.
Bink is not evil. Neither is Gatsby. It would be deeply unfair towards either to suggest any deliberate intention to hurt a child. (Gatsby even has children of his own. Though it would also be less than the truth to omit that, in his desire to be trendy, he could occasionally make very foolish decisions indeed... one of which we were eventually compelled to report when it did indeed hurt a child.)
As early as the summer of 2012, I started to become very concerned and distressed at what I sensed Bink and Gatsby might be doing to each other. Or more honestly, because she is my daughter, what he was doing to her.
By 2014 it was obvious to everyone who knew them that the association was very damaging and detrimental indeed... to both of them, not just Bink. The psycho-jargon, of course, is co-dependency. (Though, like so much psycho-jargon, the term is not only woefully inadequate but also quite unnecessarily judgemental. After all, Shaun and I are co-dependent... but I like to think we enhance one another’s lives. A lonely elderly person can share co-dependency with a cat, ditto. Humans and honeybees are co-dependent, each necessary to the other.)
There was to come a time when this was blindingly evident not only to all their friends and family, but even to the local constabulary, frequently called out to keep – or rather, restore if possible – the peace between them. Indeed, so obvious that the police eventually took a drastic (Bink might say, controversial; even extremely unjust, though well worth it) measure to part them... but I am getting ahead of our story.
By the time our tale has reached, therefore, we had:
A vulnerable child, whom we wanted to protect. More than we’d been able to protect ourselves.
A destructive illness, we wanted to protect her from. Currently being lived out and very much exacerbated by a toxic co-dependency.
How could we possibly protect Rose from the sister she loved, without doing her more harm than good?