New York: Borzoi Books/Alfred Knopf Inc.
Reviewer Lynda Woodroffe
The death of an author invokes a reminder of all their life works and Doris Lessing, Nobel Prize winner for Literature, was very well known through her novels for her social, feminist and political comments. One lesser known short novel is The Fifth Child, written in 1988 about a family’s shocking experience when, after four ‘normal’ children, the fifth is born deformed, different and destructive. The idyll of the large happy family is shattered at his birth. Ben, who was difficult to carry even as a foetus, showed his spirit from his first appearance by biting down hard on his mother’s nipple when first offered it.
Using her simple, descriptive yet powerful language that shouts out the pain suffered by this family after Ben joins it, Lessing shows us how managing disharmony can be exhausting, debilitating and frightening. This child, who looked unlike most human babies, also displayed dysfunctional egocentric behaviour not dissimilar to a psychopathic character. He was violent, unreasonable and demanding. Aggression, towards his mother as well as any other family member, was characterised by taking her hostage, depleting her of any emotional or physical strength to give to the other four children and alienating himself and her from the rest of the extended family. Knowing he could not remain in the family in this condition posed a difficult decision for the family members – he was taken and put into an institution where he would have surely died.
His future did not rest there; his mother, slave to her irrational instincts, could not live with this decision and brought him back to the family home. This resulted in further catastrophe: relationships, which were healing in his absence, ruptured once again; family members, including children, moved away and Ben’s parents stopped communicating. Schooling posed further problems as Ben’s violence had to be curbed and sociability developed. Only a threat to be returned to the institution from which his mother had saved him convinced Ben to hold back on violence, but he found it neither possible to learn to be sociable nor develop his mind for reading or writing. Moreover, other school-children feared him. He made no friends and appeared to hate everyone.
He journeyed through primary and secondary school learning little, truanting and getting involved with a small crowd of outcasts in the local town who indulged in criminal acts for fun and funds. The loving mother was blamed. Her family members pointed a finger at her for bringing him back from the institution and, Lessing implied, they blamed her for his existence at all. Society shunned Ben – he became what they expected of him. There was no room for him and his kind in 1960s London without the institutions of suppression that could have used drugs and other restraints to control him.
This story was written in 1988. Today, Ben may be diagnosed as a psychopath. He had no empathy for others; he felt no remorse for his violent, amoral acts; he could not be socialised (he learned by copying other children’s reactions) and, like an animal, had no subconscious. The novel echoes We Need to Talk About Kevin (Shriver, 2003) and Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty (Baron-Cohen, 2011). Neuroscience might have been able to detect deficient neural pathways and brain functions for Ben and provide a programme for socialisation, but the implication in the story was that he was unreachable. He sank into the underworld of society where there are no laws, no morals and no restraints; ‘democracy’ was a meaningless Greek word; ‘sharing’ was an unknown, not understood concept. He was unwanted, impossible to relate to, ostracized.
Mentally ill people can suffer similar ostracisation. It was not the case that Ben was worthy of kind attention; on the contrary, by both behaviour and appearance he was hideous. But Lessing reflected the narrow-mindedness of society towards difference and, as is often the case, how it is the fault of the mother to bring such a being into the world. Even medics sided against the mother; she was told not only by her GP, but also a paediatrician that ‘… the problem is not with Ben, but with you. You don’t like him very much’ (p117). And although that may have been true, nor did anyone else like him either. It was only after the paediatrician saw Ben for herself that she realised that this child was semi-human and, even in the light of this evidence, she would not admit this to the mother. His mother, in an attempt to defend herself, demanded that the paediatrician’s opinion be written down – to let the world know that this child was not normal, to let them recognise that he was different and that the cause for his condition did not lie at her feet.
Lessing’s empathy was with the mother, the mother who had been scapegoated by her extended family. Even though she knew that this creature was abhorrent, she could not distance herself. Her maternal feelings kept him alive at the expense of her other children who lost her to Ben. Of her previous four children, the youngest suffered most from her absence and was portrayed as a person who was going to experience mental health problems in later life. The mother was seen as the perpetrator of his future problems and although one could say that there was truth in this judgement of her, there is always another side to this.
This short novel takes its place in the history of child rearing. It was not until Alice Miller’s (1923-2010) work in the 1970s that trauma in children was acknowledged in the world of psychotherapy/analysis. If Ben had been born today, there would be a myriad of tests and clinics for him to attend, and extra help in the classroom. Attempts to address disabilities are available now but this is quite recent and, today, children like Ben would be separated and trained to comply at school. These socialisation programmes would not be the responsibility of the parents alone, nor, as is portrayed in this novel, the responsibility of the mother alone.
In psychotherapy, it seems, mothers more than fathers are often seen in sharp focus. Since child-rearing is carried out largely by women – mothers in the home, female nannies, nursery teachers etc – and learning to rear children is often passed on through a female relative, women are at the blunt end of child care. While there is indeed a special bond between the mother (creator) and the child (progeny), the role of the father can sometimes be overlooked. Perhaps this was the message Lessing was trying to pass on to us.
Doris May Lessing (née Tayler) was born on 22 October 1919 and died on 17 November 2013.
Lynda Woodroffe is an integrative psychotherapist working in N W London and on the editorial board of Contemporary Psychotherapy.
Baron-Cohen, S, (2011) Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty. London: Penguin/Allen Lane
Miller, A, (1979) The Drama of Being the Gifted Child: The search for the true self. Germany; Suhrkamp
Shriver, L, (2003) We Need To Talk About Kevin. USA: Counterpoint Press