A world without Down’s Syndrome?

Yesterday, like a lot of people, judging from Facebook and Twitter, I watched Sally Phillip’s documentary, about her own experience of having a much loved son, Olly, who has Down’s, (and two other children), and also about the wider picture once a new screening programme goes live. This new screen is non-invasive and it’s thought up to 99% of foetuses will be identified. Sally travelled to Iceland, where the test is in place, and where there is a 100% termination rate at present.

There was an outpouring of emotion on either side of the debate. Many viewers, of which some had children with Down’s themselves, praised the programme. A smaller number felt that the programme was not balanced and did not give the other side of the debate – the lack of support for families, or how best to express the woman’s right to choose, sufficiently strongly.

I think it was a very strong documentary, with a wonderful and engaging presenter. I think, from the programme, that Sally herself is on a journey, exploring the woman’s right to choose and what implications that has, after this test is introduced, for people with Down’s. It’s a very difficult area, sensitively explored. In the end, given how hard that right was won, I support the woman’s right to choose, but I do feel that we need to see far more positive images for people with Down’s and disabled people generally, in society. The medical profession does need to work on its presentation of the diagnosis too – it is not a curse, or a tragedy, to raise a disabled child. It may well be a challenge, given the cuts and the attitudes of many in society, and particular conditions present particular challenges. That’s not the same thing. Luckily for me, living with chronic migraines, this is not a condition that could be picked up with testing and no doctor has ever suggested, to my knowledge, that migraineurs do not have a right to life. But where will the dividing line fall, in the future, between those granted a right to life, and those deemed a ‘risk’ to their parents, and a burden?

It made me look back at my own book, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people, which was published in 2011. In the chapter, Not them but us: society’s challenge, I examined the wider issues of our attitudes towards disability. When we condemn the perpetrators of disability hate crime (the main theme of the book) we tend to believe that they are in the wrong – and that we are better than them. But our general attitudes, although they are shifting in the right direction, remain somewhat negative – especially when it comes to disabled people marry, or disabled children coming into the world. As I wrote then: “Discrimination starts before birth for a disabled person, and continues right up to the point of death. Expectant mothers are offered an increasing array of pre-natal testing and if there is the possibility of giving birth to a disabled children they are offered, quite rightly, counselling and advice on which steps to take. As a feminist, I do believe in the right to choice whether or not to continue with any pregnancy, but this does not take place in a framework of neutrality towards disability.” I haven’t diverged from that view, even though I wrote that chapter five years ago.

Lastly, as I wrote in my conclusion: “The obsession with the body beautiful, which puts such pressure on young people to self-harm and stop eating, and on people of all ages to have risky cosmetic surgery, is as damaging ow as it was in classical times, if not more so….Perhaps one of the saddest consequences of this is the choice that some parents of disabled people make, to mask the obvious signs of their child’s impairment (particularly children with Down’s syndrome) with cosmetic surgery, so that they can avoid the mockery that they would otherwise face. So where do we start to make the change? It has to start with an acknowledgment that none of us is perfect – that is what makes us human…We all grow old and infirm, and die. But at those times of vulnerability, we still believe that our humanity should be recognised, beyond our looks, our ability to work or our intellect. Disability, therefore, is part of our human condition and cannot be set apart.”


Well done to Sally, and a great production team, for raising these thorny and heart-felt questions.






Society of Authors management committee elections

I’ve added my election statement for the Society of Authors management committee below. There are some very good other candidates and I look forward to a fair election.

Because of space I wasn’t able to include details of my committee and campaigning work. I am a member of English Pen and the NUJ. I am also a long-time co-ordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, and have served on a number of expert committees arising from my investigations into violence against disabled people. They include an expert committee advising the Equalities and Human Rights Commission on its inquiry into the same crime; the Crown Prosecution Service National Scrutiny Panel on Disability Hostility and the National Police Chiefs’ Deaf and Disabled Forum. 

Here’s my statement for the Society of Authors – if you are a member, please consider voting for me. I would like to serve to support the Society of Authors in its important work lobbying those in power to help creators carry on writing; in being an outward looking organisation, as free as is possible from internal disputes and supporting writers to become better at what they do through training and networking.

“The Society of Authors is well-placed to campaign for the power of stories – and the authors who write them.


I have written or contributed to twelve books, ranging from three non-fiction books based on campaigning journalism (one of which has not yet been published in the UK), books for children and Kindle Singles, both fiction and non-fiction.


I became a member of The Society of Authors soon after my first book, Fussy Freya, Frances Lincoln) was published in 2008. I’ve attended some fascinating talks and the SoA has suggested useful changes to draft publishing contracts. It also provided me with a much-needed Authors’ Foundation grant in 2012 to finish my second non-fiction book, No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers (Oneworld, 2013). That grant enabled me to drive to isolated Traveller sites, visit families bereaved by hate crime and witness horse fairs and religious meetings. Most importantly, it gave me the time I needed to put down on paper some of stories about which I feel very passionate – those from people whose voices are not often heard or who are wilfully misunderstood.


For me, the core mission statement for the SoA is all about getting stories published, voices heard. The Society has reformed itself and become more responsive to its members. Now I think we need to work together and face outward, because stories and authors are vital and must be protected – from politicians and even those in our industry who do not always treat us fairly. The Society of Authors needs to build on its reputation for safeguarding and defending authors’ rights. We face continual challenges – from changes to copyright and unfair contract terms, lower revenues and pirating of our books on the Internet and new threats such as Universal Credit for many low-paid writers. As a long-term union member, in the NUJ, and as a former parliamentary researcher, I believe we are stronger if we work together, using a range of tactics, from lobbying to deploying social media tactics and other forms of peaceful protest.


However, we must be positive too. Globalisation has brought disruption to our industry, but it has brought opportunities too – self-publishing, for example, and a range of new stories from refugees and others. If that much used word, diversity means anything real, it means a commitment to communicate a wider range of stories. Those include narratives from older and disabled people, younger people, or people who have arrived from abroad, as my mother and grand-mother did, post-war from Yugoslavia, carrying one book of fairy tales in the one suitcase they could bring with them. James Baldwin called writers ‘disturbers of the peace’ who revealed society to itself and made freedom real. That’s a daunting, if exciting challenge – but one for a management committee that is looking outward – to create a broader, fresher literature.”





Review of Cash Not Care (Mo Stewart, New Generation Publishing, 2016)

Mo Stewart (a pen name) wrote this book, Cash Not Care, as an impassioned, critical response to what some might call ‘welfare reforms’ – and many, many others would call the austerity measures that have tightened since 2010, when the Coalition Government came to power in the UK. This administration was followed by a Conservative Government in May 2015.


Mo Stewart, a veteran, has researched the effect of those benefit cuts, in particular, on disabled people. She pays generous tribute to the many other disabled people, and allies, who have supported her in this painstaking piece of work which, in the end, was self-published. Benefit cuts are not an immediately sexy subject for publishers, unfortunately. When corporate giants involved in administering welfare reforms are criticised, as they are here, which increases legal risk, publishers may be cautious. This does not mean, however, that this painstaking piece of work should not be read, or discussed. I think this hard-won book, over which Stewart has laboured for six years, should be debated, scrutinised and read.

Stewart examines the roots of the benefits reforms in the UK, linking them back to previous reforms in the US (which haven’t yielded much, in truth, except more poverty). She then goes on to look at the rise of new welfare benefits here in the UK over the last five years. She provides a clear account of the history of the new benefits which have been introduced, how they were received, the way in which some parts of the media promulgated the worst parts of the benefits reform message (scrounger, skiver, need I go on?) and the effects of such poisonous rhetoric on disabled people themselves.

She looks at the resistance to the new reforms, as disabled people started to oppose them – on social media and on the streets. She pays tribute to the brilliant journalism of John Pring, from the Disability News Service, who has exposed a number of suicides after benefits were denied – with one coroner giving a ground-breaking verdict of a suicide being ‘triggered’ by a ‘fit for work’ test in January 2014 (Story by John Pring on the verdict, 18 September, 2015).

Stewart ends by writing that disabled people “have tolerated an unprecedented political attack against them in recent years”. This book is her “voyage of discovery”, which has taken her, like Odysseus, the best part of a decade. Disabled people aren’t home yet, either, and whether or not the current Labour party leader will lead disabled people safely into port is moot (although Stewart writes in her conclusion that he may do). Sadly, it is important to note that Labour started the welfare reform process, rather than the Conservatives.

Cash, Not Care is not an easy read – there are many Appendices, footnotes, and it could have done with some editing although this is a common issue with self-publishing. Traditional publishers may need to work harder to support those with a cause and a burning, important story to tell in the future. Cash, Not Care, was published by someone who felt the information had to be out there, no matter what the personal cost (and that cost was pain, financial and personal). This was set aside for the greater good. I urge you to read it. It is available on the link above. Please click…





Inside the story tent

On Sunday our road held its annual street party and we did something new – a story tent which I was lucky enough to put together, with help from some other lovely neighbours, most notably Dorothy Newton.


You can hear the recordings here:

There were several strands behind the story tent, but I think the seed was planted several years ago, when my daughter had to do a school project on the Second World War and we thought it would be interesting to interview all her grandparents about their memories, which she recorded on the tape recorder I used at that time for my interviews for my own journalism. My mum came from war-time Yugoslavia as an eight year old girl after the war with her mother with just a suitcase, which I wrote about in the recent anthology, A Country of Refuge. She remembered the Allies bombing Belgrade, where she and her family lived during the war. My dad grew up in Yorkshire, and had vivid memories too. Her other grandmother lived in Brazil during the war, and grandpa Gordon in London. We also interviewed Amy and Dave, our neighbours, who had excellent recall of the war in London, and of the railings in our road being taken away for the war effort, and of the bombing in the area.

That led me, years later, to think of howe we could tell an intimate history of our area, perhaps through the memories of older people. But there were other threads too. One was the sense of separation after the Brexit vote. Nicolette Jones, another neighbour, wanted to bring people together again, and asked in our local newsletter, which she edits, how many nationalities lived on our road (she’s just published the results and there are 43 countries represented). We live pretty harmoniously together here. Then there’s the present-day of Islington people, celebrated through the Islington Faces Blog, written by Nicola Baird – an amazing archive of over 200 interviews.

I worked with my neighbour, Dorothy Newton, to find people who would be willing to share their stories of where they came from, why they left and what it was like to arrive here. Many of them take tea on Thursdays at St Thomas’s Church, just around the corner, and we chatted about their stories before the street party. Many contributors said that there was nothing particularly interesting about their story – but there was.

Sunday came, and we put up the gazebo, with sides, and set up the recording equipment – all the contributors have agreed to be recorded, as we would like the recordings to be available for local school-children for school projects in the future. I have uploaded them via Soundcloud on this website (see above).

There was Dorothy herself, who talked about the early history of Plimsoll Road, which was once just a cornfield, without a name. She gave a fluent explanation of how this area was urbanised and talked about the main owner or developer of the land, Mr Rock. She thinks that the houses in this area were then built on by a great number of different builders – small firms who maybe did at the most one terrace at a time.  In just 25 years, between 1864 and 1895 this area went from being fields to the inner city. The pace of change must have been dizzying.

Then came Nicolette, talking about our own local hero, Samuel Plimsoll, after whom our road was renamed – he saved the life of thousands of sailors, after inventing the Plimsoll Line on ships, so that they were not overloaded.

Malcolm then talked about a local World War One sailor, a man of 45, who enlisted and died after just a few weeks service after being torpedoed. He lived in the neighbouring road.

Then we heard some stories from further afield – John talked movingly of his mother, who was born in what was then Prussia, and who had just given birth at the end of the Second World War. Her German husband was missing in action, presumed dead. The Russians were advancing and were raping and killing. Her father, a local dignitary, tried to reason with the troops as they entered the place they were staying. They beat him to death. She survived, and fled with her newborn, in terrible circumstances, and eventually got to Hamburg, to the relative safety of an Allied area controlled by the British. She met a British Army major, who fell in love with her. After a period of time, and after her German husband was declared dead, they married. John, the baby, as he was, came to England at the age of about four. Life was not easy for a German woman, who was spat at in the street, and he was not allowed to play with other children at first. A spell-binding story (and a true Plimsoll-roader – he has lived in the same house twice over).

Then Uli spoke of growing up in Vienna, around the same time, and her life in very difficult circumstances during the Second World, complicated yet further as her family was partly Jewish. Uli also gave a vivid account of living in Barnsbury in the ’60’s as a young married woman. ‘We were the only ones without lace curtains’ and therefore they got knocks at the door. Uli moved to Plimsoll Road in the ’70’s and has lived here happily ever since – she decided to move here because of the nice long gardens, chosen with the help of Ordnance Survey maps.

Then came Mickey, who described coming over from Trinidad, in the ’50’s, and gave a vivid description of the ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ signs outside boardings house. But, for Mickey, it stiffened his resolve to make the best of his life, and he joined the British army and did well for himself, later joining BT and also doing well in that company too, and buying and selling houses so that he did not have to abide by the rules of racist landlords.

Lastly, Nicola, from the Islington Faces Blog, gave a great description of some of the characters she had interviewed over the many years she has spent, writing the blog – over 200 interviews and counting. It is a great resource for local people – and well worth a look. There is a  huge amount of content there.

I summed up the very moving story tent session, with a thank you to all the wonderful participants. Oral histories are a very special way of sharing memories with the community, and we are lucky to have a really great community on Plimsoll Road. This is a way of looking at history at the micro level. People have come and gone from this area – the builder himself, Mr Rock, may have had Hugenot, (refugee) roots, with a name anglicised from Roche. This is one of those areas that welcomes people from different races and communities – it’s one of its strengths. This mini-project, I hope, will start to build up an archive of voices of those communities.






Three new books

It’s a bit unusual to have three publications out in one month, but very exciting – and they are all collaborations with lovely people.

The first two are picture books, co-written with the English Traveller, Richard O’Neill, and are published to coincide with Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month. Yokki and the Parno Gry, about a magic horse and its relationship with a Traveller family which has fallen on hard times, is a really lovely story and was great fun to work on with Richard, turning it, with his blessing from an oral story to a picture book. The other, Ossiri and the Bala Mengro, is a more comical story about a monster, and a girl from a Travelling background who yearns to be a musician.

Equally, it was an honour to contribute a chapter, ‘Becoming English’ to A Country of Refuge, edited by Lucy Popescu and published by Unbound this month. This was a book that celebrates the contributions that refugees have made to this country. I wrote about my mother and grandmother coming to the UK just after the war from what was then Yugoslavia.

I’m so proud of all three books, which have at their heart a respect of difference and diversity. We need publishers who fund such books at a time when refugees are being turned away at the borders of Europe. My mother and grandmother were welcomed when they arrived at Croydon airport in 1946, with the aid of the Red Cross. Things are very different now. They don’t have to be. Gypsies, Roma and Travellers are still persecuted across Europe. They don’t have to be. As Jo Cox said, we have more in common than divides us.



Statement from the Disability Hate Crime Network (Contempt of court and other reporting issues for the Jo Cox killing)

From the co-ordinators of the Disability Hate Crime Network:


We are all saddened and shocked by the killing of Jo Cox and we would like to extend our sympathies to her family, to her constituency and to all those who knew her.

A local man has been named as her alleged attacker and his family has made it clear that he may have had a long-standing mental health condition. In addition, it is being reported that he may have had links with extremist groups.

As co-ordinators of the Disability Hate Crime Network, we would urge, as we would always do, pre-trial, caution in reporting, on social media and in the press generally. This is so that there is a fair trial and that it does not break down. The family of Jo Cox deserve nothing less.

The alleged attacker, also, deserves a fair trial. As a person who may have a disability, he may need, and be given, extra support during the trial process. Uncomfortable as it may seem at times, given the tragic nature of the circumstances, reporting of his disability should be done within the usual reporting guidelines of mental health.



Women, violence and prevention

Women and violence – some more thoughts on my article for Mosaic Science


The long feature that I have just written for Mosaic Science on women and violence has, in truth, taken a long while to write. I have reflected long and hard on our place, as women, in the history of power and violence. My own interest in violence may well have started as a child, when I was mocked by some other girls at secondary school for being different. I don’t think that kind of visceral experience ever quite leaves you. But it’s useful too.


However, on a journalistic level, my study of violence began in earnest when I visited Rwanda in 1997 with the BBC, three years after the genocide, in which some 800,000 Tutsis and others caught up in the slaughter, such as the Twa hunter-gatherers, were murdered. We interviewed survivors and perpetrators. It was clear that women and children, just like men, had been involved in the killing. Some women had been chief instigators – although the stories we were pursuing were mainly about male perpetrators. That knowledge did not form any significant part of my journalism, until around 10 years later. It sat at the back of my mind.


In 2007, I started to research hate crimes against disabled people, culminating in a book, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people, published in 2011. I have since gone on to investigate perpetrators of disability hate crime in some detail. I then found that women are over-represented, as perpetrators of such crimes, compared to other forms of hate crime, where the victims are perceived to be less ‘vulnerable’ and more likely to defend themselves. One of the many findings I took away with me from those heart-rending interviews with those bereaved by hate crime was the deeper sense of betrayal felt by those where the murder had been committed by women. They had committed not only a horrific crime – but one also against nature (it seemed even worse where the woman perpetrator was also a mother).






The latest data on convictions from the Crown Prosecution Service shows that women are convicted of 25% of such crimes, compared to 15% of other hate crimes.[1] This high proportion is mirrored in crimes against older people, in which women are convicted in 23% of cases, (although not all those crimes are violent). In safeguarding cases, which rarely reach the criminal threshold (around 1% of cases are referred to the police – most go to safeguarding boards for action of some lesser kind), although the gender of the victim is recorded, the gender of the perpetrator is not. The Department of Health and charities in the field do not record gender. But when cases are reported in the press, it is striking how many women are represented as perpetrators of financial and other forms of abuse and neglect in care homes where disabled and older people are residents. Journalist John Pring, who runs the news website, the Disability News Service, and who has investigated institutional sexual and physical abuse in a number of settings, has identified an even gender split amongst perpetrators in the cases he has investigated, although women are over-represented as victims.

I was struck by much the same pattern when I carried out a small survey on disability hate crime for the Disability Hate Crime Network, for which I am volunteer co-ordinator, last year. It was a small, online survey of 100 disabled people last month to ask them more about the perpetrators of hate crimes. We asked about the gender, race and age of the attackers, location of the incident, whether the attacker acted alone or in a group, and about perceived motivation.

More than half of respondents (57%) said they were attacked on the street, and one-fifth on public transport. A quarter of incidents occurred at home. Other people were attacked in pubs and shops, with some mentioning social media. Perpetrators were overwhelmingly white. Strikingly, around half of all attacks were group based and women were involved in most of those group attacks. The attacks can be vicious. One victim reported that they were: “Pushed from chair by women; verbally abused by both men and women.” Another reported: “Worst incident – an older white woman. Otherwise mostly men.” Another said: “Young mother with child abused me in a shop car park.”

You can read more about my survey in the Guardian report I wrote on it here: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/jul/22/combat-disability-hate-crime-understand-people-commit

I was also surprised, when researching a book last year on so-called ‘honour’ violence, to find that it was not unusual that women relatives would be involved in attacks on girls or women who refused to conform. I talk about this in some detail in the main article, and the report by the Her Majesty Inspectorate Of Constabulary which found that women were not only involved in planning, but sometimes in physical attacks on relatives. “Female family members can be involved in facilitating violence and abuse through informal conversation, pressurising males of the family to undertake HBV acts or assisting in arranging violence, or actually being involved in the violence or killings”, the HMIC report stated.[1]

[1] https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmic/wp-content/uploads/the-depths-of-dishonour.pdf, p30

Diana Nammi, the director of the women’s rights organization, IKWRO, which campaigns against ‘honour’ violence, says: “Although it is rare for women to be prosecuted for “honour” based violence, many perpetrators are women. Perpetrators have included mother-in-laws and female in-laws, as well as any woman directly related to the victim.”

This has been difficult to believe in the past, but we have to do so, to protect other women. We find it difficult to believe that women are violent – but we also find it difficult to cede any kind of power to women per se. Things change slowly – too slowly. Perhaps the current discomfort with women occupying a violent position has more to do with displacing 1950’s ideas of women in the home once and for all. After all, women have a hard time of it, displaying any kind of legitimate power at all, let alone illegitimate power. This was the subject of a panel discussion at the Fortune Theatre in London, in which an array of leading women from professions ranging from journalism, business and law, rostered by Women in Journalism, (of which I am a member) discussed the theme of Women and Power. It’s still a problem – how to project authority without being seen as aggressive, as Sylvia Ann Hewlett, rated as a top business thinker and an authority on the gender wars, told the audience. Her organization, the Center for Talent Innovation, she reported, carried out a wide-ranging study into why women do not advance as far as men in their careers. Only 26% of women interviewed would go for a top job if offered one, she said, because they were frightened of the consequences for the rest of their lives. Hewlett, and others on the panel, is trying to change that, by stressing the agency that power can give women – and the ability that agency can give women to empower others (men and women), and to determine their own working hours, and so on and so forth, and to change the ethos of their organisations. It is an uphill struggle, but a worthy one. Hewlett stresses that “women without babies are also conflicted about power. Women seem not to understand that they can bend power to their purposes.” She adds that her study found that only 15% of women in their study liked the word ‘power’ compared to 85% of men. But, she added, this was not true across all racial groups – African American women were much more comfortable about reaching for power, as were Latino women. She concluded: “The problem is most acute for middle class white women” – who seemed most uncomfortable with reaching for power.


To summarise, Hewlett’s research does seem to suggest that the interplay between culture and how woman and men perceive and are perceived when they reach for power is key. For if women, who all share the same gender, perceive power differently across the racial divide, culture is clearly key, rather than men’s brains and women’s brains.


We can definitely all agree on one thing: violence, whether perpetuated against ourselves or those we purport to love, has long-lasting consequences. This was obvious in Rwanda (and has been since, talking to survivors). It was also the theme of a play I saw during the course of my research into this article.


In a packed lecture theatre at the Tavistock Centre in north London, famed for its work on mental health, two women act out scenes from a play about self-harm. The work is located in some kind of unit, although whether it is a hospital or prison is left deliberately unclear, the director, Sally Willis, explains later. What is clear is the overwhelming savagery of violence against the self. “The devil wriggles down the generations’ observes Suzi, one of the characters, if the cycle of violence against the self and others is not broken. After Dot, the other character, has slashed one of her wrists, she talks about the focus of the play: “It’s about the violence inside of me”. Uncomfortable as it is to see, such a play makes sense: when we connect the words ‘women’ and violence’ most of us think of self-harm, or the violence that men do to women.


However, the work of forensic psychologist and psychotherapist Anna Motz, and the consultant psychiatrist who inspired her, Estela Welldon, who were both in the audience to respond to the play, goes far further. Between them, they have been largely instrumental in breaking what has been, largely, a de facto taboo on discussing female violence against others. As Welldon explained, when she responded to the play, her own practice at the Tavistock, where she is now an honorary consultant psychiatrist, was about listening and hearing differently, because “the voices of some women were not heard”. Those women had a conflicted and ‘perverse’ attitude towards their own children. Until Welldon broke that silence, “the therapist would shut them up”, not wanting to believe that some mothers hated their children.


Motz, too, who trained with Welldon, is key to this story. In her response, she talked about the violence of self-harm and despair; how women are born into bodies by mothers and that, for some, it can be a toxic cycle in which self-harm becomes an attempt to cut the mother out of the body, in a symbolic attack on her. This is grim work, but, as she concluded, the job of the psychologist and psychotherapist, is, at its base, very simple. “We aren’t appalled. That is the journey of psychotherapy.”


Is it too tempting, however, to try and understand violence through the prism of art and literature? Does it refract and distort our clean vision of it? Does it mean that we never see the woman offender in front of us as she is, without cultural stereotypes?


One myth, upon which we often hang our understanding of violence amongst women, is that of Medea, a play written by Euripides almost 2500 years ago. In the play a warring couple, Jason and Medea, are divorcing; he has left her for a princess of Corinth. She retaliates by killing their children, before escaping to a new life. At no time, however, is she described as mad. I went to see a new production of the play as part of the Almeida Theatre’s Greek Season, rewritten by the author, Rachel Cusk. This was a modern Medea, in a contemporary setting, with a chorus of yummy mummies and Medea reduced to a one-note vindictive woman. Although the acting, particularly by Kate Greenwood in the leading role, was extraordinary, the ending failed, in my view, as the children take an overdose, instead of Medea killing them. Cusk said, in one interview: “I couldn’t write a play in a modern setting about a woman who kills her children.” However, women still do kill their children – and not just out of ‘mercy’ or madness. Making women merely victims of men made me feel uncomfortable – as if women, today, have no agency or power.











A similar elision of the pivotal role of Lady Macbeth in inciting the violence in Macbeth occurs in this year’s film version, in which Michael Fassbender, as Macbeth, dominates the action. Even in art, at times, it seems as if we find it difficult to contemplate our own power, for good and ill. Yet, going back to the text, Lady Macbeth tramples on gender stereotypes of both women and men, saying to Macbeth that she would dash a breastfeeding infant from her own body and kill it rather than go through with the murderous plan, and mocking Macbeth for being unmanned for not wanting to kill. We seem to be even more essentialist now, about gender, than we ever were, despite increasing evidence of the blurring of boundaries.


I write fiction, as well as non-fiction, and indeed I have written fiction about the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. I wrote a short story about a vision that haunted me – a true story, of a young woman I saw, on Rwandan TV footage (never broadcast, thankfully), whose throat was cut and who was then filmed, dying, to encourage the killing, by the Hutu interhamwe (militia). Luckily the TV station was liberated before the footage could be shown but that sight, of a young woman, in a yellow dress, dying, gave me nightmare for many years after I returned. I wrote a story about her to cauterise my own reaction to violence.




Fiction, of course, enables us to myth-make and shape reality in a way that non-fiction does not allow us to do. It is a powerful medium, and risky because of that. Women who commit crime are not seen individually – they are seen in the context of myth, art, literature and history. How do we hear their individual stories and in doing so, understand them better? And, if we can see and hear more clearly, as the brave, empathetic and kind women I interviewed in the main piece for Mosaic Science stressed, that may go some way to putting together the jigsaw as to why some women commit acts of violence. Then, perhaps, we can start to construct a prevention strategy.




[1] http://www.cps.gov.uk/publications/docs/cps_hate_crime_report_2014.pdf