Jan/Feb 2020  •   Reviews & Interviews

A Good Enough Mother

Review by Ann Skea

A Good Enough Mother.
Bev Thomas.
Faber. 2019. 324 pp.
ISBN 978 0 571 34838 1.

Forget the terrible title. This book is a gripping psychological drama, not a self-help book or (as one character in the book says) something akin to magazine articles offering "a way of letting yourself off the hook if you mess up."

Dr. Ruth Hartland, who is Director of a National Health Service Trauma Unit, knows the original meaning of the phrase that, as she reminds a colleague, was used by the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott to refer to "the fact that maternal limitations play an essential role in separation and in the child's development process." Ruth is forced to consider the truth of this when she encounters a new patient who so closely resembles her missing son, Tom, initially she thinks it is him.

As a professional counselor she should know that she is too emotionally stirred by this resemblance to deal objectively with this patient, but the urge to help him is too strong. "There are no excuses," she tells us. "But my state of mind on the day I first met Dan Griffin cannot be denied." The result, we know from the start, is devastating and violent, but we do not learn exactly what happened until late in the book.

Ruth's psychological insight into her own behavior is often retrospective. She is clear from the start about her difficult relationship with her own mother and the failure of some of her own parenting methods, but she can offer good reasons for both. She is clear, too, about the way her protective (perhaps over-protective) love of her son, Tom, caused a marital rift.

Tom and his twin sister were always very different. Tom's sister, Carolyn, was born first, and "she proved every bit as punctual and determined as she grew up." Tom emerged 28 minutes later, in a surgical ward, with an "angry, scrunched-up face."

"I wonder," Ruth writes, "if it was a shock he was to spend the rest of his life recovering from."

Unlike Carolyn, who was "fiercely independent," Tom seemed always to need Ruth's help and support. "Clingy," said one nursery school worker, to Ruth's indignation. But at the age of 16, floundering academically and stressed by final school exams, Tom tried to commit suicide. Then, a year later, when an accident happens at the canoeing club where Tom is a happy volunteer, he unnecessarily blames himself for it. And then he disappears.

Tom has been missing for two years, and it is on his birthday that Ruth first sees 22-year-old Dan Griffin, whose resemblance to her son is uncanny. Dan has been referred to the trauma unit by a locum GP. He is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after being attacked and raped by a gang in a local park. He is clearly disturbed and frightened and thinks the world is an unjust place, but he is also clever, manipulative, and as it turns out, dangerous.

Hayley, another of Ruth's patients, is an angry, self-harming teenager whose beloved mother has been killed by an out-of-control car just after Hayley has had an argument with her. Hayley blames herself for not being there. She, too, becomes a threat to Ruth after Ruth loses control of a counseling session.

As with Dan Griffin, we hear how Ruth deals with Hayley and how well or otherwise she feels she had succeeded in helping each of them. Ruth also reports on her regular group meetings with her colleagues as they share progress reports and problems. And Ruth, too, has her own supervisor, Robert, who acts as an experienced "intelligent, wise, insightful" and "sometime challenging" advisor for Ruth.

Woven into all this are Ruth's family; Tom's former girlfriend, Julie; and—a surprise for Ruth—a small boy called Nicholas who turns out to be Tom's son.

Due to serious errors triggered by Ruth's ongoing stress over her missing son, Dan, Hayley, Julie, and Nicholas all become part of a series of events with horrific and deadly consequences that trigger Ruth's downfall.

In the course of the book, Ruth looks back on everything leading up to these events. Her account seems straightforward as it weaves between past and present. We know from the start that something terrible has happened, and as the tension rises, the book becomes compulsive reading. Ultimately, Ruth is confronted in court for her professional failings. She describes the questioning she faced and her responses, and she tells us what happens after that—actions and events that offer her some resolution and consolation.

This is a very readable story, but it also offers insights not only into trauma but also into the lives of those who suffer from it and the lives and methods of those professionals who try to help them. Unsurprisingly, the author, Bev Thomas, is an experienced clinical psychologist who works with mental health services. Her accounts of therapy sessions are real, informative, and convincing, but she is also a skilful writer who can bring her characters to life and suggest the hidden triggers that drive them. She is very aware that, as it says on the cover of the book, "The most dangerous lies are the ones we tell ourselves."


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