We’re such a lucky bunch here at the wellbeing reading group! Last week we welcomed our third author to our virtual reading group meeting. This time the fantastic Helen Naylor author of My mother, Munchausen’s and me came along to talk to our receptive group of readers and answer our questions.
This wasn’t a difficult book to read, but the subject matter sometimes made it a tough read. Helen grew up with a mother who had Munchausen’s syndrome. These memoirs weave Helen’s recollections of her life as a neglected child with her mother’s diary entries from the time and paints a vivid picture of life as a child of a parent with this little-known condition. Many of our readers had heard of Munchausen’s by proxy but hadn’t realised that Munchausen’s was significant in its own right.
What came across from the start was that Helen doesn’t feel angry with Elinor, her mother, she explained that she finds it easier to feel angry with the people around her mother who let her off the hook and didn’t pick up on what was happening to Helen. She described how her very clever mother kept her friends isolated, and managed things so that no one ever saw the full picture. Helen gave us a real sense of the Munchausen’s as a kind of addiction that eventually took over and controlled her mother completely. We gained a sense of the intelligence and emotional detachment of Elinor, who Helen felt knew what she was doing, and did it anyway.
Helen was asked if anyone from the past has contacted her since the publication of the book. It’s perhaps not surprising that some people had been in touch to say they knew something was wrong but didn’t know what. Mostly it was people she wouldn’t have expected to intervene anyway who contacted her to apologise. Another mother who was buddied up with Elinor at an NCT group for new parents told of the warning from Helen’s mother that having a baby was horrific and would ruin her life. Helen has also had lots of contact from others impacted by people with Munchausen’s Syndrome and talked about how hard it was to offer anything other than sympathy- she’s still working through all of this herself and isn’t in a position to give out lots of advice.
Helen answered questions about her father, saying she thought he knew that all wasn’t what it appeared to be. He was probably an alcoholic and knew about the neglect. Interestingly she feels pity for him, and thought he was a victim of what would now be called coercive control. She makes allowances for the 1980s being different times and accepts that her father’s minimal role in childcare was in line with the times. We got a real sense of how complicated this situation was, and still is, and the range of emotions and feelings Helen still deals with- she feels her father let her down massively.
The group were keen to know how reliable Helen felt Elinor’s diary had been. Helen told us that the dates were accurate, and that she felt the diary wasn’t manipulative, but accepted that her mother had wanted the diaries to be read- she had included instructions for the reader. This prompted a wider discussion about who in the group wrote a diary, and the meaning of dreams! For the record, Helen is currently keeping a diary, because she forgets things, but it’s for her eyes only.
We also discussed with the author how the NHS might have responded better- we talked about the issue of confidentiality and how that may impact on the diagnosis of Munchausen’s syndrome. This is a complicated topic and Helen emphasised that it was difficult to know what the NHS should do to tackle it.
Helen told us that she wrote the book for her children, so that they would understand her childhood and their grandmother. She didn’t realise it would be published at first, and since its launch life has been a whirlwind, including a trip to see Phil and Holly on This Morning. Writing the book gave her affirmation for her life choices, and the difficult decision she made to distance her life from her mother.
This session raised issues with some in the group of their relationships with difficult parents, and we were privileged to have some of our group share their thought on relationships with difficult parents. It really is a wonderful group of people to talk to each month.
The final word goes to one of our readers who was unable to attend, but asked us to pass on the following message to Helen. “I would have liked to say to the author how brave she had been to turn the spotlight on not only her mum but on herself and I hope writing this book helped in some way with the healing process.”
Our next book is The last of the Greenwoods by Claire Morrall. If you’d like a copy, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com. Check out the wellbeing reading group page for more information, and to read our previous book reviews.