I was lucky to receive an ARC of In Her Wake from Karen Sullivan. What resonated deeply with me was the psychology in the novel and the nature of the themes which Amanda explores so beautifully.
For the blog tour I caught up with Bella, the protagonist in the novel, slipped on my psychologist’s hat and we had a chat about her life and how she feels about some of the things that have happened.
Interview with Bella Campbell
What was it like growing up with your parents, Elaine and Henry?
It was lovely, really. Our house was beautiful and I had a gorgeous bedroom that overlooked the garden. Elaine was a committed and caring gardener and it was stunning, a real treasure trove of hiding places and sunny spots to read. Elaine had a few issues, of course. She liked me close to her, and felt that the local schools weren’t up to much – at least that’s what she told me and I had no reason back then to question it – so she and Henry home-schooled me. Henry did all the science lessons and maths, and Elaine covered everything else. I particularly enjoyed English literature. She would read passages to me from all sorts of books and we would discuss the characters and the story. I’ve always loved books, you can really escape into them, can’t you? Henry was quiet. You could never describe us as close. But he was a kind man, even if he tended to keep himself to himself a bit.
Sigmund Freud, John Bowlby’s theories on attachment, both still inform much of contemporary thinking on the parent-child relationship and how it influences us throughout our lives. What can you tell us about your mother? What was she like?
She loved me, often a little too much. She was a powerful woman and it was easier to let her make all the decisions. Neither Henry nor I dared to argue with her, really. She could go from calm to furious in the drop of a hat! She went to church regularly and loved to cook meals for me. She enjoyed listening to radio plays while she ironed. She was wonderful when I was ill. She would get Henry to drag a chair into my room and she’d sit with me all night, stroke my head, make me chicken soup, and read to me, of course. She hated leaving the house though. It used to make her twitchy. Henry once told me she suffered from a form of agoraphobia. She definitely had a fear of crowds. Is there a name for that? She hated other people and always told me you could never trust anybody.
Elaine and Henry clearly had a particular dynamic to their marriage. When we meet your father, he is suffering. It made me wonder whether their marriage evolved to be like this, or whether it was always so. Can you tell us about their relationship?
I don’t really know what it was like before, but certainly there were moments when I’d catch a closeness between them. There were some albums which had a couple of pictures of them together, early on in their marriage, and they seemed totally different – especially Henry! He was smiling and toned and Elaine looked smitten with him. They were very reliant on each other. They had no other friends and no family, just the two of them. And me, of course.
The death of a loved one is never easy. Death of a spouse, sibling or child can take years to recover from. Psychology sometimes links grief and mourning to attachment and loss. How does Elaine’s death affect Henry?
I was shocked when I first saw him. He was even frailer than he was before. He seemed to have aged about ten years in ten days. She was just such a big part of our lives, such a presence, and she had real control over us. Henry was a bit like a ship without a rudder. He looked confused and, well, it turned out he was more lost than I thought.
I’m fascinated by what people know at a pre-cognitive or unconscious level. Sometimes when something major comes to light, people report afterwards that they had a ‘feeling’ about x, y or z. When you read Henry’s letter, did you have any prior inkling about your up-bringing and parents or was it all a complete surprise?
Things began to slot into place, began to make sense. Of course, I wanted it to be lies. I was cross with him too. I didn’t understand why he had told me. But I couldn’t shut up the voice in my head. All the signs were there. It was a shock, without doubt – I felt as if my world had ended, to be honest – but, if I’m totally honest, it wasn’t a surprise. That letter turned my life upside down. For a long time I wished I could unread it! But you can’t do that can you? You can’t go back in time and change things. You just have to forge onwards.
Freud had plenty to say about our choice of partner, some of which is still supported empirically. Bowlby’s ideas on childhood attachment have been extended to apply to our choice of romantic partner. The idea is that partner choice, and perception of relationships and love, are linked to and determined by the sort of attachment we’ve had with our parents. What do you think about this, and what made you choose your husband, David?
I don’t think I chose him, really. I think he chose me. He was charming and handsome, or at least he had this aura about him that made him handsome to me. He just looked like someone who knew what he was doing. University was very different to home. I hadn’t even been to school and hardly ever out of the house. I’d never mixed with people my own age, so the whole thing was terribly daunting. I missed Elaine and felt lost at sea without her. David made me feel secure from the start, like I didn’t have to worry about anything. Sometimes I used to wish I had a younger boyfriend. I used to look at all my peers laughing and planning parties and things like that and feel jealous, but I knew I’d never have the courage to join them. And David really loved me. He told me all the time that he loved me and would always look after me. And that’s good, isn’t it? To have someone who loves you so much that they want to look after you.
Insight, compensatory experiences, and differences in personality and temperament can all affect how we respond to being a parent. If you have children, how will your experiences inform the sort of mother you would like to be?
I know what it’s like not to be able to make your own decisions and so I will encourage my children to be free and to have fun! I can’t help feeling like I won’t let them out of my sight, but that’s understandable, I think. I will tell them I love them and always put their needs first. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have something happen to one of your children. I try not to think too hard about it as it opens up all sorts of feelings I am still trying to process.
When people hurt or disappoint us it can be confusing. I’m fascinated by whether motivations make a difference to whatever has been said/done. Buddhism believes that motivation makes all the difference whereas the behaviourism of Skinner, Watson, of Pavlov maintain it’s simply the outcome which matters. When you learned the truth about your parents’ actions, were you able to understand what motivated them? Has this helped you in any way?
It took a long time. I understand they weren’t well and that they weren’t acting in the right frame of mind. But while I might have a bit of understanding I don’t think I will ever really forgive them. They destroyed so many lives.
The theme of betrayal intrigues me. There is something about it which cuts to the core. Do you think that people can fully recover from betrayal? Are all betrayals equal, do you think? Are they forgivable?
Betrayal is a breaking of trust and trust forms the building blocks of successful human interaction. Without trust it’s hard to have strong, functioning relationships. Betrayal takes so many forms, from things that appear minor, to things that shatter lives and mean there can be no turning back. I think trust can be rebuilt, but it takes patience. Sometimes you have to look at why the other person betrayed you. They will often have their own reasons and that might lay some of the blame at your own feet. It’s important to look at these things objectively if you want to repair the damage done by a betrayal. Sometimes, though, it’s better to walk away.
In our lives we each perpetrate, collude with and suffer from so many betrayals. What do you think motivates betrayal?
Lots of things come into play, I think. But selfishness fuels betrayal. Selfishness and lack of empathy. If you aren’t able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and grasp what damage your actions might cause, or worse still, don’t care, then you are more likely to betray someone you love.
Studies in psychology show that numerous factors influence the way people respond to life events. Faced with what might seem like the same situation, some people feel crushed and give up while others are able to overcome it. When you read Henry’s letter, what do you think gave you the strength and determination to find out what happened and to re-construct your life?
I just wanted to find out what might have been. And I needed answers. I battled with my decision to search out the truth for a long time, but in the end it just wasn’t an option not to. I couldn’t carry on not knowing my whole story.
When things go wrong, some people are more hopeful and optimistic than others. Where or who do you get your hope from?
Ha! Well, that’s a great question. Hope in the early days came from the Mermaid in Zennor. I just loved her story. It showed me that even when things look bleak, happiness is just around the corner, that you just have to chase it. You can’t wait for happiness to happen to you, you have to face adversity head on and claim happiness for yourself. Now things are more settled, I get hope from those around me, from the small things, from the idea that situations can only ever improve. I found myself in some dark places, but I made it through. Hope helped. Without hope I would have given up, I think.
Thank you so much, Bella, for sharing your thoughts with us.
My review of In Her Wake is here. It’s one of my favourite books of 2016.