Behind The Mask Is Nothing, by Judy Birkbeck, is a devastating exploration of the abuse of power and the complicity of those who enable such abuse due to their inherent desire to belong. The protagonist is a woman named Stef who is a teacher, a wife, and a mother of two university aged daughters. She has a close and supportive family although, as is the way with families, the shadows from their shared history stretch long.
Stef’s grandmother, Hilda, helped raise Stef and her sister while their parents worked. The reader is offered a glimpse into Hilda’s past through a memoir she is writing recounting her youth in Berlin and as a member of Jungmädel. The tragic consequences of her desire to be regarded by her peers have darkened her life.
Stef likes to be organised and in control. When a new headteacher is appointed at the school where she works she finds her abilities undermined. Initiatives she enjoyed are changed for the worse and she is drowning in paperwork. Alongside these problems her younger daughter is visiting Africa and Stef worries for her safety. When she receives photographs and messages informing her that her husband, Mark, is cheating on her she doesn’t know who she should believe.
Mark and Stef approach a couples counciller, Oliver Diamond, who suggests they spend a weekend at a remote commune he runs on Exmoor. Here Stef discovers a group of people she feels accepted by, who listen to her concerns in a way her family have failed to do. Mark becomes suspicious of the setup and Stef bristles at his negativity. Over the following months she is pulled further and further into the Diamond Academy web. The charismatic Oliver controls his acolytes with an unpredictable mix of humour, endearments and viciousness. Stef will hear nothing against him.
Stef’s descent horrifies her family, especially Hilda, who understands that only Stef can make the decision to help herself. Hilda has experience of being drawn into cultish behaviour and the personal devastation this can wreak. She too had a happy childhood yet was persuaded that her family could damage her prospects of finding continued happiness. She paid a high price for her loyalty to a regime she wanted so much to believe in for how it made her feel.
“We were together, joined in spirit, we had new values, refined in the fire. Only later did I find out that all our noise was made to drown out our cries and the cries of those we trod on in the scramble for self-esteem.”
The casual cruelties of children and the more subtle yet equally devastating cruelties of adults are disturbing to read. The realisation that power is within a megalomaniac’s grasp, that they may harness the herd instinct and desire to belong to feed their ego and strengthen their position, results in situations where followers are used and then disposed of with little concern for their psychological cost. There is a conspiracy of silence for fear of rejection. The abused are complicit in that they allow themselves to be manipulated and will not question why such cruelties are deemed necessary.
The author makes clear to the reader what is happening yet also generates empathy for Stef and the young Hilda. The penultimate experiences of both are traumatic to read. What comes across is why cult members struggle to fully break away even when they finaly recognise the truth of their situation. The conflicted desire to recapture the feelings they enjoyed whilst within such organisations seems akin to addiction.
This is a powerful story, deftly presenting a situation often difficult to comprehend. It challenges the reader to consider how they would act under societal compulsion. In the world we live in today, it is an important lesson.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Holland House.