Book Review: Behind The Mask Is Nothing

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.

Book Review: The Storyteller

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“Do not take this moment lightly. Tread gently on its paths. This time too will never come again.”

The Storyteller, by Kate Armstrong, is a tale woven from the intricate threads of a life damaged by tragedy. Iris Buchanan is teasing the details from Rachel Miller, a young woman she has come to know in the psychiatric hospital where they are both being treated. Iris tells Rachel that she used to write romantic novels and wishes to lay down her life story in this vein. The book is their discussion told from Iris’s point of view.

As Rachel talks of her experiences the reader can see that Iris is adding in her own. She is possessive, at times voyeuristic in her fact gathering. There are echoes of Barbara from Heller’s ‘Notes on a Scandal’ although this is a very different work.

The events recounted are almost an aside to the heightened level of consciousness detailed. Rachel feels deeply: her isolation, the beauty of a sunrise, background noise, the tidy formation of geese in flight. She knows that she must move beyond her sharpened sensory perceptions and her tendency to repeatedly overthink interactions if she is to appear as those she cannot avoid expect.

After a spell in hospital Rachel is discharged and returns to her empty flat. She forms a relationship with a man from downstairs which Iris attempts to weave into a form that she finds pleasing. Rachel insists that elements of the truth as she sees it be made clear.

The setting of the story changes as the narrative progresses. The true and fictional accounts intertwine offering questions of what is memory and what desire.

This is a complex novel with moments of clarity offering hints as to the cause of the women’s mental distress. What is happening can at times be bewildering but is intriguing to read. The women’s quest for social normalcy remains hauntingly elusive, the personal cost of their mental breakdown becoming clear. It is interesting to consider how normal anyone truly is inside their own head; if given the option who would choose to start again.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Holland House.