Courting Controversy

How do you write about controversial or sensitive subjects without upsetting people whose lives have been touched by similar tragedies? Helen FitzGerald is one novelist who doesn’t shy away from telling difficult stories. Here she tells us how she goes about it.

Helen FitzGerald writes …

In all three of my jobs – mother, social worker and writer – I never complete a task without asking myself this: Would I be able to stand up in court and defend what I just did?

I know parents who’ve left their children in the car when doing the weekly shop at Sainsbury’s. I know parents who’ve given their baby ‘something stronger’ than Calpol to keep them calm on a long haul flight. And I’ve certainly made decisions in the past which could have ended with me in court, unable to defend myself. Why didn’t I double check my daughter had her seatbelt on? Why didn’t I lock the painkillers in an out-of-reach cabinet? Why did I let my boy on Facebook before his thirteenth birthday?

I’m not perfect, and I’m not judgmental, but as the years have passed, I have become quite paranoid. So many things can go wrong.

As a social worker, the repercussions are too awful to contemplate. Call it covering your back, call it good practice, but do try to get it right.

I feel the same when writing about controversial themes. Get the facts right. Don’t upset real-life victims of terrible crimes. Write a cracking story, but be sensitive, and be careful.

My latest book, The Cry, is about a couple who accidentally overdose their baby. I didn’t want it to look like I was accusing anyone in real life of doing this. I was aware of various unsubstantiated allegations made against Gerry and Kate McCann but deliberately decided not to read anything about their case in the course of my research. I don’t for a minute think they did anything other than leave their children in their hotel apartment while they ate dinner with their friends, a mistake many holidaying parents have made. I’d hate to think that they’d be upset or angry if they read the book, because it is not about them, and it’s not insinuating anything about their situation. So I refused to read anything which accused them. I would hate – absolutely hate – to upset them, or anyone, who has already been through hell.

The Cry aims to pose questions rather than point fingers. For example: What kind of couple consistently makes terrible decisions? How easy is it to hide a big secret? How hard is it to be a good parent? How easy is it to make a potentially fatal mistake?

And, as with all the books I write, many of which deal with controversial themes, I found the answers to these questions were multiple, complex and often conflicting.

Helen FitzGerald is one of thirteen children and grew up in Victoria, Australia. She now lives in Glasgow with her husband and two children. Helen has worked as a parole officer and social worker for over ten years. The Cry is available now in paperback and ebook.