My book reviews

Books on adoption

Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child by Nancy Verrier

In this pioneering work, Verrier, a clinical psychologist, explores the possible psychological effects of adoption on the adoptee. Her most controversial idea is that the adopted person suffers a primal wound when removed from their birth mother. She supports this idea by observing that babies put in incubators have similar symptoms. Other areas of psychological disturbance for the adoptee may include a lack of genealogical history, the secrecy often involved in adoption and, crucially, the very of idea of your birth mother giving you away. This is a must-read for anyone exploring the subject. 

No Matter What by Sally Donovan

Sally tells the story of adopting two young children who had been abused by their birth parents. I found this a very emotional read, bringing me to tears of joy at times and tears of sadness at others. Sally is so honest, admitting that she sometimes felt like giving up but as the title suggests, she sticks with her beloved children no matter what. As an adopted person myself, the book helped me to empathise with the experience of my own adoptive mother and other adoptive parents. 

Twice Born: Memoirs of an Adopted Daughter by Betty Jean Lifton

The title of this book gets to the heart of the adopted person’s dual identity: born first to her birth mother, then reborn into her adopted family. This a heart-warming book, full of the little details that bring a person’s life alive. An engaging read even if you have no direct acquaintance with adoption.

Special and Odd by James Mulholland

This memoir tells the story of James’s ‘rite of passage’, as he calls it, of finding his birth mother and father. One insight I found particularly useful was what James calls the ‘doubling rule’, which is that being adopted does not create special insecurities that only adoptees can understand but rather doubles everyday insecurities. The memoir is full of humour, often in unexpected places.

Books and films on boarding-school education

The Making of Them by Nick Duffell (2000)

This was the first book to look at boarding-school education from a psychotherapeutic perspective. Duffell’s view is that some boarders repress the pain of abandonment because they feel they cannot complain about their privileged education (most British boarding schools are fee paying). This leads to boarders being stuck in a ‘strategic survival personality’ aimed at hiding this pain. For example, boarders and ex-boarders might detach from their feelings, become perfectionist or rebels or seek refuge in addictions.

Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, Crimes and the Schooling of a Ruling Class by Alex Renton (2008)

Written by an ex-boarder and journalist, this book uncovers physical and sexual abuse in boarding schools. It is a harrowing read but clearly of great importance in terms of lifting the lid on what occurred, and continues to occur, in some British boarding schools. Renton writes in an empathetic, sensitive way, focusing on presenting the evidence without theorising about the psychology of the abused and abuser.

Boarding School Syndrome by Joy Schaverien (2015)

Schaverien, a psychoanalyst, has done most to popularise the controversial idea of ‘boarding-school syndrome’, viewing boarding as a potentially traumatic experience that the child represses. Schaverien describes healing as coming from retrieving that ‘hidden trauma [that] had been buried but was latent’. She invites her clients to create drawings and some of the drawings that she includes in the book (with the clients’ permission) are very moving. It is fascinating to follow her analysis of what these works of art reveal about the clients’ repressed emotions. 

The Making of Them, a film by Colin Luke (1994)

Originally shown on BBC2’s 40 Minutes, now available on YouTube, this is a poignant fly-on-the-wall documentary about a boy’s boarding prep school. During one scene, a mother fights back emotion on leaving her son, justifying her sacrifice with the phrase that boarding will be ‘the making of him’. (Nick Duffell, who was an advisor on the film, then used the phrase as the title for his book.) This is a heart-wrenching film, not least because of the way the young children adapt, splitting off their feelings of abandonment.

Leaving Home at 8 (2010), film by Charles Russell

Another documentary about boarding school, this one follows four eight-year-old girls as they start boarding. The viewer witnesses the girls sobbing freely, followed by their apparent serenity a term later. As in The Making of Them, the film suggests that parents are prepared to hand their children over to strangers for eight months of the year, often with a pang, because it is the social expectation within their culture. This film can also now be viewed on YouTube.

Books on addiction

The Easy Way to Control Alcohol by Allen Carr

Alcoholics Anonymous sees the problem of alcoholism as being with the alcoholic, not the alcohol. Most people, AA argues, can drink moderately, so those who can’t must take responsibility for their ‘disease’ if they wish to escape alcoholic slavery. Allen Carr comes to the same conclusion – but for the opposite reason. He argues that the problem is with alcohol and anyone who drinks is on the path to alcoholism, it is just that some drinkers are further along that path than others. Alcohol does nothing for us, Carr argues, we only think it does due to social conditioning. In this book Carr does for alcohol what he did for smoking in his previous book, which is remove the desire to drink. For some recovering alcoholics, AA is the only way and for others, Allen Carr’s method has saved their life.

Eating Less: Say Goodbye to Overeating by Gillian Riley

Riley invites the overeater to ignore the scales and think psychological. Every time you want to overeat, remind yourself you have a choice between on the one hand satisfying the addictive urge to overeat and then feeling the inevitable regret, and on the other hand resisting the addictive urge – even if at first you can only do so for ten minutes – and feeling a boost to your self-esteem. This is a more sustainable, holistic approach to overeating than conventional diets that focus on weight loss, which leave you feeling great when the pounds are falling off but the moment that slows down or stops, the shame cycle kicks in and the diet is thrown out the window. Riley’s approach is full of the wisdom of forty years helping people to address eating addiction with humanity and empathy.  

The Time In Between by Nancy Tucker

Beware, this is a no-holes-barred memoir of the terrible toll extracted by anorexia and bulimia. One sentence from the book is seared into my memory: when Nancy sees her uneaten lunch of oatcakes still in her bag, cracked to pieces, she tells herself, ‘didn’t crack, and I feel The Voice [of anorexia] wrapping its disembodied arms around me in a warm, congratulatory embrace.’ Nancy does not glamorise anorexia or bulimia, however the book may not be suitable for readers susceptible to euphoric recall. Nonetheless I believe this is an important book for anyone interested in the lived experience of an eating disorder and its treatment.

Breaking the Cycle by George Collins

This is a comprehensive, clear-eyed exploration of sex addiction, its causes and treatment. As with other addictions, people may use sex to ‘numb out’ and avoid unwelcome feelings such shame, loneliness and sadness, without realising they are doing so. Collins examines all forms of sex addiction, including compulsive use of internet porn. Sex addiction is sometimes mocked in the media but the reality is anything but a joke. 

To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop by April Benson

Benson is a psychologist who specialises in compulsive buying disorder. In her book, she explains how overshopping is often an attempt to fill a hole in one’s life. There are plenty of examples in the book that readers will identify with. As with the other authors in this survey, Benson writes with empathy for the reader in the grip of addiction. The book contains a clear plan of action that is realistic and supports self-esteem.