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When love isn't enough

When you have an ambivalent relationship with your parents, their deaths can bring complications

I wrote an article for the Telegraph recently, about what happened when my mother in law died, and I thought some of the comments that were posted following it were kind of interesting.

I wrote and filed this copy quite a while ago and have only just got round to reading it online - I generally prefer not to read articles once they're sent. But death is a touchy subject and it certainly touched a nerve with some readers. I find it interesting that so many people just assume that you love your parents and that your instinct will be to rush to their side. 

But what if you don't, and it isn't?

My husband's difficult relationship with his mother is a private matter between the two of them, but as an example of filial piety, we might look instead at the relationship I had with mine.

When my mother became terminally ill in 2006, she was expected to live only a few weeks. 

I hadn't seen her for 15 years and for the first 10 of those, we hadn't spoken either. We had only lately, and to my reluctance, been in intermittent contact for a few years and I was still largely avoiding her on the phone. In fact, I now realise, I'd only seen her a dozen times since I left home in 1981 - 25 years earlier.

Deciding whether or not to see her now that she was sick was a tricky matter because the truth is, deep down I was still terrified of her.

My husband was livid that I'd even consider it. "She's done you enough damage," he kept saying.

And yet, and yet. You only get one mother and a person wants to do the right thing - I didn't want to spend the rest of my life regretting that I hadn't gone, and I supposed that her illness had probably reduced her ability to do me any real damage. 

Whenever I suggested visiting, however, she put me off, saying to come later when she was feeling better. Since I knew she would never be feeling better, I wasn't sure if she really didn't know she was dying, or was trying to keep it from me. Or simply wanted to avoid me. I don't know to this day.

But in the end, when 'the call' came, from my aunt, saying: "If you want to see her again, come now," I didn't hesitate. We got straight in the car. 

It takes 17 hours door to door from our home to my mother's home in the North (we're not quite - as one commentator on my article suggested - 'a few minutes' from the UK), and once back in Blighty I phoned repeatedly to see if she was still with us. 

Indeed she was. I arrived, kissed her a brisk hello and sat down for - who knows what? 

I mean, I think she was pleased to see me, but it was hard to tell. The DH was aghast at what he saw as her indifference. I just thought she was ill. Besides, it was what I'd expected. We are not, and never were, that sort of family. We were the sort of family that sat at opposite sides of the room.

But at least she and I didn't argue. Nor did we talk about anything deep (some of my friends fondly imagined there would be some sort of rapprochement and lots of earnest conversations but I knew that would never be). We spoke instead about the weather and the flowers in the garden. She dozed from the morphine, I read a magazine. Thus ended the first day. The DH and I had to leave quite early to find a hotel, because she refused to let us stay in her flat (not just us - anyone else, either. Afraid we'd nick her stuff).

The second day I spent more time with her, helping her to eat at one point, but I don't remember much else. Much of the time she was asleep. My aunts - my father's sisters - visited, and I chatted to them. And my mother's husband (my father is long-dead) came, but she didn't want to see him because he was too weepy. At one point my mother went to chapel (she was always very religious).

On day three she was more alert, as they had changed her medication, but the DH and I had to leave for the ferry back to France, so we chatted for only half an hour or so.  I asked her if she would see my sister (they weren't speaking and mother had previously threatened her with a court order if she came near her), but she wouldn't ask her to come, and my sister would not come unasked. And so we left. 

An hour later, on the M1, the DH and I were almost killed by an articulated lorry, leaving me with whiplash and him sleepless and on tranquilisers for months. For obvious reasons, he became my main priority for the next few months. 

Far from dying in the next 24 hours, as expected, my mother lived another five weeks, even suffering a stroke and being rushed to casualty at one point, as if they could 'save' her. My brother in the south of England made many fraught journeys north. My other brother on the Isle of Wight saw her once, I think (he's rarely seen anyone in the family since the late 1970s). My sister, who had been her carer for over a decade and lived only a mile away, didn't see her at all.

Meanwhile, from France, I underwent physio for my damaged neck, sent books and flowers and music, phoned every day (she was often asleep and I couldn't speak to her) and ummed and ahed over making another visit.

But to tell the truth, I just couldn't see the point. She was asleep much of the time now, and surrounded by other relatives and I didn't feel that my particular presence would make that much of a difference to her. And for myself, I didn't feel the need - I had said goodbye to her many years before, and I took the opportunity now to say goodbye every day. 

It is a difficult decision though, and part of me now regrets not going to see her again, just so that I could be absolutely sure of her indifference, rather than just supposing it. 

When she died, I cried, of course. I wouldn't wish her death on my worst enemy, and she had been alone, too, which was very sad - for all my brother's efforts he was either en route or in the south when she died. And there is also the knowledge that once someone is gone, so is any hope that things might ever be better. The failed relationship is all that there is.

So, as I said, I find it interesting, the reactions to my article, that gave me '2 out of 10 and a C-minus for effort', or that said I was 'wrong' not to encourage my husband to go and see his dying mother, assuming that in some way, I was holding him back. I wonder sometimes if other people simply lead uncomplicated lives and don't realise that for some of us, life and relationships remain a more complex issue.



Childhood memories or arrested development?

Millions of UK adults still have a room in their parents' home, preserved as it was when they were a child

New research conducted for the Prudential shows that more than 4.6 million adults in the UK have their former bedrooms preserved by parents who can't quite let go of their memories. 

A staggering 42% of UK adults whose parents still live in the family home say their former bedroom is still decorated as it was when they were a child, with 44% sleeping in their childhood bedroom when they return to see their parents. Many of them still have their childhood trophies and toys stored 'at home' and regard their childhood bedroom as still 'theirs'. 

Well how weird is that? Talk about arrested development. 

One of the virtues of coming from a dysfunctional family, I guess, is that it makes you grow up a bit quicker than that.

When I left for university, my dad converted my room into a clock-mending workshop practically before you could say knife.

It pissed me off somewhat, as I did technically own the furniture - they'd made me pay for it after a family snit. Remember the scene in 'Friends' where Ross's room has been kept like a shrine while Monica's has been turned into a gym? Sentimentality wasn't one of the Devine family faults, I'll say that for my father. 

The upshot, of course, was that I went back a few times, but since I never really felt like I had a 'home' to go to (and they also charged me rent), I soon knocked it off and stayed in town and worked.

This - to tell the truth - was probably exactly my Dad's intention. I'd hung on the longest, after all, in living at home to the age of 18, whereas my sister married at 17 and the two boys left at 16 and 15. When I went, I think he was glad that his parental responsibilities were finally done with and he could get on with the real love of his life - making clocks and hiding from my mum in the garage.


Kerstin Fritzl regains consciousness

Kerstin Fritzl, the daughter of Elizabeth Fritzl, has regained consciousness in hospital in Austria

Kerstin, aged 19, was placed in a drug-induced coma in April after being brought in, with an unspecified illness, from the dungeon where she had spent her entire life as a prisoner of her father and grandfather, Josef Fritzl.

As of yet, the hospital has released no other information and has declined to comment on rumours that the girl has been reunited with her mother, grandmother and surviving siblings.

Josef Fritzl remains in custody.

For more on this story, visit the BBC website.


Turning away from the dark underbelly

In a period in which there have been two terrible natural disasters, I wonder what it is that disturbs us the most about the Fritzl case?

A few weeks ago, Burma was struck by a massive cyclone, closely followed by a devastating earthquake in China. These two events have cost the lives of around 200,000 people, a total which will almost certainly rise. Heaven only knows how many people have been injured - lost limbs, crush injuries, infections. Some earthquake victims had limbs amputated in order to remove them from the rubble.

We all recognise that natural disasters just happen - there's nothing you can do to prevent them, little you can to do prepare for them, only deal effectively with the aftermath. We also know that we are able as human beings to come together and deal with the problem. Like so many tiny ants, we scramble about, and extricate bodies and rebuild shattered lives. In particular, the Chinese Government's response has been exemplary. It is, of course, one of the advantages of a totalitarian state with a massive standing army, but the Chinese have mobilised, parachuted in help, assessed what they need and asked for international aid, particularly for tents. They are, fundamentally, on top of the situation.

Burma is a totalitarian state also, but differs in that the junta's main aim is to keep itself in power. Hence the agonisingly slow response and arrogant assertions that rescue and recovery are not needed - they will cope just fine by themselves thank you. This causes immense frustration in any caring human being who recognises that time is of the essence. And yet it is still not deliberate cruelty on the part of the junta - these people don't hate the cyclone victims, they just - utterly mistakenly - think they know what's best for them.

But the Fritzl case is a different matter. This is not a natural disaster, but an example of terrible human cruelty, only made worse by the length of time involved. Some men commit incest. Some men commit rape. Some men commit multiple rape or gang rape. Some men imprison their victims, or chain them up or otherwise degrade them. But this man did all of this to the people he was meant to love the most - his own children. And he did it over the course of 24 years. How on earth, we wonder, is this possible in a society that is meant to be civilised?

Keeping up this kind of sustained criminality is beyond our ken, as it the fact that this terrible thing occurred in peacetime, right under the noses of his neighbours. It wasn't a war situation, where everything is in chaos, and where terrible events occur every day which are then regretted.

The Fritzl case reveals to us the dark underbelly of our own society, and it's something we're unable to deal with, except by crying for revenge - as if revenge will solve it, or give this family back their lost years. Better to study Josef Fritzl, and attempt to understand him, in the hopes of preventing this from ever happening again.

In the Fritzl case, more questions than answers

In the story of Elizabeth Fritzl, there are questions that people are reluctant to ask - or, at times, even to think about

Aside from Josef Fritzl's lovely little trips to sex resorts in Thailand, and the fact that he bought sexy clothing and underwear while there for his 'bit on the side' (whom we now presume to have been his daughter), there are other issues.

Why, my friend E asked last Sunday, did Elizabeth and her oldest son not overpower her father? The answer to that one became clear very quickly - because if they had, there was still no way out of the cellar. With some eight doors between them and the outside world, three of which were reinforced, they could not have hoped to escape without the combinations that only Josef Fritzl knew. And how would they have obtained these without torturing him?

There is also the question of how much Rosemarie Fritzl may have known. The police have not yet questioned her, as far as I know, and probably the only people fit to judge her are the family themselves. It's possible, I think, that this was a household where you learned very quickly not to ask questions. Some wonder if, in all this time, she never went down to the cellar when her husband was away, but even if she did, it's possible there was nothing to be found. The door was secret and hidden behind bookshelves, and this only led to other doors, even if she could have opened it.

There is also the question of whether Elizabeth's children witnessed her being raped. The unfortunate answer is that they probably did. For the first nine years of her captivity, there was only one room in the cellar, so her children must have been present when the rapes occurred. Only later did Josef Fritzl extend his dungeon to create extra rooms, including - horror of horrors - a padded punishment cell.

No-one as yet has raised the question of whether Fritzl also raped his daughter/grand-daughter Kersten, or any of his other children. But given that he started on Elizabeth when she was 11, and the convictions and accusations of rape of other women that now surround him, it might be a reasonable thing to ask. Few men of this sexually insolent nature stop at one crime when it's easy to commit several.

There is also the question of the fact that a sexually mature boy and girl, aged 19 and 18, have been locked together in a cellar throughout their lives, including their puberty, with no model of appropriate sexual behaviours to follow. Well, we all know what that may mean, and I hope that any issues arising from this will at least be explored humanely by the authorities rather than being swept under the carpet because no-one can face up to it.

The UK is pretty good at that carpet-sweeping act. Back in the 1990s, the trial of the murderers of James Bulger entirely ignored evidence that the children who killed this toddler had also sexually assaulted him before he died. This, the judge evidently considered, was meat that was too strong for the jury to hear, and not material to the case. And yet their sexual mind was crucial to any attempt to understand either them, or the crime they committed, or to have any hope of rehabilitating them. Better just to lock them up and do nothing? How does this help anyone?

The same Victorian sensibility hampered the handling of the West affair. Fred and Rosemary West, who raped, tortured and murdered at least 10 women and buried half of them in the cellar (building their children's playroom on top of it) also sexually molested their own children and killed their daughter Heather when she tried to resist.

As far as I know, no counselling was offered to the West children, all of whom were abused. And although one's heart bled in sympathy at their plight, my blood also froze when one of the boys, Stephen West, was jailed in 2004 for having sex with a minor. Fred West and Rosemary West themselves were both raised in violent and incestuous households and they meted it out, in turn, to their children. The patterns that can emerge from this kind of abuse can leave a dark stain on a family for generations.


What does a monster see when he looks in the mirror?

Josef Fritzl is now protesting about his portrayal in the media, saying his treatment of his offspring 'could have been worse'

Astonishing to believe, but Josef Fritzl doesn't think of himself as a bad guy. But then I dare say the same could be said of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and any number of Nazis, Colombian drug lords, Argentinian generals and serial rapists worldwide.

Fritzl - insane or just evil?

So, Josef Fritzl's lawyer is trying for an insanity plea, on the grounds that a man must be insane to wish to rape his daughter

I must admit, I don't think that argument holds much water for me. I don't think you need to be insane, you just need to be arrogant, without conscience or remorse - in a word, a psychopath.

How to steal a life

How must it feel to be Elizabeth Fritzl? How must it feel to be her mother?

In this nightmarish tale of abduction, rape and abuse in Austria, how does it feel to enter a cellar as a girl and leave as a middle-aged woman?

Mothers and daughters

To be serious for a moment...

My mother died in April. She was 83 and had pancreatic cancer, which was expected to kill her within weeks, but in fact she survived nearly five months. It is an ugly disease, and we feared the worst, but she remained independent almost to the end, only entering a hospice, and then a nursing home, in the latter few weeks of her life.