Welcome to Anne Goodwin who has kindly agreed to camp out at Top of The Tent and share some of the thinking behind her fantastic debut novel, Sugar and Snails, published recently by Inspired Quill. It was a pleasure to attend the second of the UK launches of the book in Newcastle last Friday evening and to finally meet Anne after quite a few years of interaction, first via the peer review site youwriteon.com and later through blogging and tweeting. In this post, Anne talks about early childhood attachments and how her personal experiences and understanding of these issues as a former psychologist, fed into certain aspects of her novel. Over to you, Anne …
Tell me a story about when you were a little girl
In the second chapter of my novel, Sugar and Snails, an intelligent middle-aged woman – with a PhD and a good job in academia – is flummoxed by a request from a seven-year-old child. Diana has just been introduced to the man she’s about to fall in love with at a dinner party when the hostess, her close friend, Venus Najibullah, asks her if she’ll pop upstairs to read Venus’s daughter a bedtime story. A single woman without children of her own, Diana has known and loved Ellie since she was a baby. She climbs the stairs, ready to resurrect her inner Cinderella. But Ellie doesn’t want a story out of a book. Instead, she asks Diana to tell her story about when she was a little girl. Diana is stumped. She doesn’t have any stories about when she was a little girl or, at least, none suitable for a seven-year-old. Eventually, she manages to cobble together something from a childhood game based on the drama of Romeo and Juliet, but the idea of a girl imbibing a potion that causes her parents to take her for dead gives poor Ellie a nightmare.
The reasons for Diana’s struggle with the simple request are twofold. The first is that, having spent the last thirty years trying to keep her past identity a secret, it’s impossible for her to come up with a story that doesn’t entail a degree of dissemblance. The second is that, in common with others whose early childhood hasn’t given them a secure foundation, her memories of those years are fragmented, with any happy memories that might be suitable to share with a seven-year-old refusing to cohere into a proper narrative. As the novel progresses, the reader gets a sense of how difficult her childhood actually was until the exact nature of her secret becomes apparent. But what Diana cannot share, because none of us have reliable memories of that time, was her experience of the first three years of her life, deemed so crucial for the development of attachment styles. Yet her earliest memory – in her estimate at about age three – of dressing up in her sister’s tutu gives us an idea (italics added for emphasis):
I tilt the clothes hanger and Patricia’s tutu drops to the floor. I jump down from the stool and pick it up, hold it against my body by the shoe-lace slim straps. My heart thunders against my ribcage. It’s a magical garment, vest and skirt and knickers all of a piece, but more: the pelt of a swan disguised as a little girl’s dress. I step out of my shorts and push through the leg holes with my socked feet. I hitch up the top and thread my arms under the shoulder straps. I wriggle till it moulds itself to my frame, the satin bodice chill against my chest. I point my toes, the netted fabric scraping my thighs like a cat’s tongue. There’s a draught up my back; I twist and turn but I can’t reach the zip, and I’m not sure my fingers could manage it anyway. Downstairs, I can hear my mother singing along with the wireless, but I daren’t go and ask for help. She’ll give me a walloping if she finds me like this.
A rhythm ripples through my bones without reference to my mother’s crooning. I hop and jump and jiggle my limbs to its beat. If I raise my arms above my head, the bodice stays in place despite the gaping zip. So I prance, I pirouette and twirl with my hands in the air. I flow like a fish, like a bird, like Hail-Mary-full-of-grace. Head, hands, heart guided by the music written in my veins.
Already, this little child does not see her mother as someone to approach for help. As the reader gets to know Diana’s parents through her memories of her childhood, it becomes apparent that they were not actively abusive, but unable or unwilling to imbue her with a sense of self-worth. As an adult, she’s fiercely independent to the extent that she avoids offers of emotional support and frustrates her loyal friend, Venus, who tells her, “But there are times I want to shake you, Di. It’s like you think taking care of yourself is a mortal sin.”
The idea of illustrating Diana’s disconnection from her past through Ellie’s request for a bedtime story comes from an experience of my own. Or, rather, a near miss that I imagine I’d have handled as badly as Diana. When a friend was having her second child, with no family around to support her, another friend (T) and I shared shifts looking after the five-year-old while both parents were at the hospital. Neither of us had children of our own, but we knew my friend’s daughter well and were happy to help out. When our friend went into labour, it was T who got the call to collect the little girl from school and put her to bed, while I went along later in the evening. Chatting to me about settling the little girl to bed, my friend remarked on the fun they’d had with her request for stories from T’s childhood. Inwardly, I shuddered. How would I have coped had I been in T’s position? I hardly thought about my childhood. Although I could remember lots of happy times, I couldn’t think of a single story that would soothe or amuse a little girl who was anxious without her parents. My difficulty in accessing such memories made sense when I later learnt about attachment theory.
In young children, attachment security is assessed via the “strange situation”, while in adults it relies on an in-depth interview about memories from childhood. Although I haven’t been trained to use this method, I understand that the inability to elaborate on positive memories from childhood is one indicator of insecure attachment, which can have implications for anxiety, trust and confidence in adult relationships of many kinds, not only with parents. As research seems to suggest that about one third of people meet the criteria for insecure attachment systems, I wonder how many you have come across in your reading?
Anne Goodwin writes fiction, short and long, and blogs about reading and writing, with a peppering of psychology. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, was published last month by Inspired Quill. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.