Book review: Wednesday’s child by Shane Dunphy

I just finished another amazing memoir of Shane Dunphy’s, a child protection worker in Ireland. I would highly recommend any of his books to anyone interested/ studying psychology, social work, early childhood education or anything related. I wish more people in the US would write these kinds of books.

Wednesday’s Child highlights one year in Shane’s life as a child protection worker. The childcare workers aren’t social workers. In the book it explains the system which is somewhat different from here. The social workers actually head the cases and it sounds like due more paper work/ signing off on stuff than anything elseThe childcare workers are responsible for working eclusively with the children in the family and doing kind of home based therapy with them mostly and also figuring out a plan of action for their short and long term needs. Then there are the family support workers who work with the family as a whole I guess. The system is confusing and very compartementalized.

Anyway Shane is given three big cases. These cases are extremely challenging and while he gives his all to each one he becomes so sucked in emotionally that he ends up getting burnt out.

The first case is the MCCoy family. Max is an alcoholic still grieving the possible suicide of his wife from years ago. The children are Ibar, victor and Cordelia. Cordelia is the oldest and took on the role of mother. Ibar is in his own world as any five year old would be. Victor is anxious and withdrawn. These are all reactions to having an unstable father who in spite of the alcoholism truly loves his kids. It’s heartbreaking to read how the disease has ripped him apart. How he can’t stay sober for even half a day after rehab stays. How Shane is frustrated both for and with him, and how in the end his priotity is to the kids. When the worst happens to Max Shane is crushed feeling he could have done a lot more though he poured his heart into things. This case does have a positive ending and the last scene of the book is with them where Shane does find a little bit of peace from the rollercoaster of the year.

The Kell.y family is another matter. They have a history of everyone being involed in the system for years and years. Both parents have mental illness as does the son. The two girls, one is a teen mom and the other is older but still lives in the house are just barely hanging on. The house is dirty and often the electric is turned off. There is nonstop aggression and a sense of hopelessness as one set of workers after another has been brought in. So much money and energy has been poured into this family. And through no fault of their own they don’t seem to be able to break the pattern of social economic cultural and emot5ional traumas heaped on them. Incredibly the child the supervisor directs Shane to spend most time with is Connie. She is the proverbial lost child of the family to reference the role. She gets perfict grades and causes no trouble. She is very resistant and suspicious of Shane thinking they’d put her in care. But he was assigned to work with her help her social skills. It still feels strange how she was assigned a worker anyway but it’s a damn good thing she was!

Something about Connie’s past doesn’t make sense. When she was younger she wasn’t nearly so polite and invisible. She had a lot of aggression running away and other issues. She went missing for two weeks and came back a different child. When Connie trusts him and shows a more vulnerable side, and when shane takes the time to read through her records a pattern of sexual abuse is brought to light. He believe it or not gets criticized for bringing this to people’s attention in the department and putting more resources towards a cause everyone thought was “a lost cause.” But when his persistence shows how dangerous Connie’s world does he does everything he can to give her and her older sister and baby cousin the life they deserve.

Last and most heartbreaking is Gillian. Gillian has also been on the books for several years. Along with severe depression she has severe anorexia and bulmia mixed. Her biggest problem is her very mentally ill unstable mother. Her mother has a bizarre influence on Gilian to where she can influence Gillian to say what she wants her to say (sometimes they speak in unison), or do what she wants her to do. In the same way she causes the dogs around the outside of her house to keep people away.

Shane knows he has to be very gentle with Gilian. But slowly he builds trust with her. His approach to eating is unique in that he starts her on gentle things like soup and puddings and other soft/ liquid foods and gradually moves her up to solids. Like feeding a baby. This is good physically as well as emotionally. I’ve never understood the practice of taking someone with an eating disorder and forcing them to eat large quantitys of food right off the bat. This wise and gentle step by step plan seems sensible to me.

And over time Gilian does gain back some weight and seems to lose the symptoms of her eating disorder. However in order for her to grow as a person emotionally she has to separate from her mother. A colleague suggest Jungian regression therapy. And Shane is supervised in this by a fast talking very passionate therapist. They create a comfortable tent in the house where gilian goes in and is lead through relaxation/ regression exercises. It’s not clear exactly what the therapy is/ does. Other than over time Shane says that she’s doing well with it. In fact was about to complete the last stage of treatment when she and her mother went missing for a couple of weeks. When they returned Gilian was as a reflection of her mother, nasty and wanting nothing to do with Shane. Not because of wanting to hurt him but because she had no capacity to create her own relationship to anyone without her mother pulling her back into her disturbed control.

Finally the two take off again. By this time Shane is about as burnt out as he can get. And his supervisor is demanding practically that he go on a break/ leave. One day though before he can do this Gilian calls. And says she wants to be put into care and break from her mother. Shane is shocked and amazed she reached out and happily calls the colleague who suggested the gungian therapy. Who also said when Gilian was ready she’d arrange for a good care placement. Due to the sudden crisis notice of it all the psychologist was unable to find a bed for Gilian for a couple more days. He devastatingly has to tell her she has to go back to her mothers for a few more days. Resigned and emotionally shut down she says that’s fine and hangs up. Shane knew he’d broken her heart.

In a last attempt to reconnect with her he repeatedly goes to the house hoping the two have returned home. He is given a dog whistle from a vet friend and this keeps the dogs at bay. It was by chance of looking in a window that Shane finds gilian cut severely. Whether it was self injury or attempted suicide it was imposible to say. But shane tried to stop the bleeding and the ambulance got there. She came to consciousness slightly and upone seeing shane started to reach out but then went into a rage. They thought it was the reaction of what happened and the physical trauma. Shane stayed by her side until it was determined she was physically ok. Whenever she saw him she became extremely agitated trying to hurt herself physically. She was unable to connect with anyone after that, as in relate. She was basically trapped in a psychotic breakdown. She was in the hands of the psychiatric system now and Shane was crushed.

He basically blamed every mishap or failure on himself even though he put his heart and soul and intelligence into each case. He is a creative and compassionate person. But he had no sense of personal boundaries and did not take thew advice/ warnings/ pleas of his coleagues to take a break or seek counseling. Which now we know all therapists/ w helping professionals should do. Have therapy and other supports to deal with the trauma of supporting traumatized people through the worst life experiences there are.

Again I highly recommend this compelling book. It’s heartbreakingly raw and honest, educational in theraputic/ social work practice and psychology. I could imagine professors using this book as a case study and for meaningful class deiscussion. It will also certainly resonate with anyone who has gone through the issues in the book: eating disorders, sexual abuse, alcoholism, greif and just being stuck in a deep rooted crisis.

I welcome thoughts on the book and issues in it.

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