Ian McEwan – The Children Act

Iian mcewan start this blog with a big thank you for the warm welcome and the stimulating discussion at UCLAN on 9th February where Ian McEwan’s The Children Act was discussed as part of the social work book group (follow on twitter: @SWBookGroup).  This could have been a daunting prospect.  It is easy for me to sit in a study on my own spouting my opinions about the link between literature and social policy, social justice and social work, but another thing entirely to engage with real people in a real debate about it, especially when those people include the two Chief Social Workers.  However, I am  glad I made the trip to Preston to have the link between a discussion of art and social work endorsed by both Isabelle and Lyn (and this is also in writing here: https://lynromeo.blog.gov.uk/2015/02/11/tweeting-is-teaching/)

The book is centred on a life or death decision in the Family Court.  It is an examination of legal authority as it reaches into personal lives.  The discussion in the book group had tentative beginnings, but as I re-read the tweets, I realised it covered a great deal.  Key themes discussed included: the processes in decision-making; gender roles and writing gender; religion; adolescence and later life-stages; and marriage as love, power and/or sex.  However, a debate that was revisited throughout the discussion was the portrayal of the social worker and social work in general.  As Isabelle Trowler suggested that despite possibly good intentions, the overall effect was less than flattering:

A plump, well-intentioned young woman often out of breath, uncombed hair, untucked unbuttoned blouse.  Chaotic, twice late for the proceedings, due to some complicated trouble with car keys and documents locked in her car and a child to collect from school.  But in place of the usual please-both-parties dither, the Cafcass woman’s account was sensible, even incisive and Fiona quoted her with approval.”

The social worker is a bit-player in this drama and so it is no surprise that she is reduced to stereotype.  Especially as she is in part there to function as a contrast to Fiona, whose work is described as “Godly distance, devilish understanding and still beautiful”.  Yet, if the text is searched harder the comparisons are not always favourable for the Judge.  Her writing (and somehow this seems to easily suggest that this is also her character) is described as “almost warm”.  Her husband is frustrated by her inability to play jazz, to improvise and she recognises herself that she cannot have the easy manner of the social worker.

She could not have performed a high five without withering self-consciousness, and that seemed to be understood.”

Yet, of course, it is only right that the social worker is a little frayed and blurred at the edges, able to flit between different worlds and not quite fitting in any one entirely.  This is the dilemma of social work.  Laura Epstein (1999:9) sums up this quandary by saying:

… it is common to state the intentions of social work as helping people to accommodate to the status quo and as challenging the status quo by trying to bring about social change.  This dissonance is intrinsic to the nature of social work, to its essence.

Just as jazz and improvisation is a useful metaphor within the novel, ‘dissonance’ is a useful musical term here. In music, dissonant chords are those that create tension and disharmony and although social workers may suggest that their role is to ‘help’, this is not supposed to be in a passive or non-conflictual way.  It is a complicated dance between support and challenge.  It is not easily choreographed.  Law, on the other hand, is supposed to follow fixed steps.  Whilst ultimately interpretation may differ, the route is laid-out and decision-making is supposedly based on reason and evidence.  The final arbiter is not supposed to be troubled by an inner life.  This is what the novel is attempting to address, the private and public life of the decision-maker.

For me, the main reflection I had after reading the novel was the contrast between two families in crisis (Fiona’s and Adam’s). Fiona’s life is falling apart; her soul-mate is deserting her.  (At the book group, reference was also made to Erikson and the psycho-social crisis relating to her age as Generativity versus Stagnation.) She sees herself as on the brink of losing her hard earned respectability.  From the publication of Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments  in 1759 it has been acknowledged that the down-grading of social position can be crushing for the human spirit.  As Fiona observes:

“To be the object of general pity was also a form of social death”

On the other hand, Adam’s life is in the balance and a family is torn by religious devotion and the need to save their son – they are looking for a way out.  Neither Fiona’s or Adam’s situation is enviable.

However, there is a stark difference in their abilities to keep their crisis private.  Whilst Fiona can close her curtains and change her locks, Adam’s family comes under the microscope of the Family Court and almost certainly the media.  Is this fair?  Examining the link between “personal troubles” and “public issues” is central to imaginative engagement with the social world (Mills, 1959).  I am not for one minute suggesting that Fiona’s marriage should be open to public scrutiny.  Nor am I suggesting that Adam’s situation deserves anything less than the support of social work and the scrutiny of judicial process.  However, it is worth remembering and noting that the boundaries around these lives as personal or public is an exercise of power.

In my last blog (http://wp.me/p4TyHK-1A ), I wrote about our apparent need to draw circles, to produce boundaries of expertise and knowledge.  I also noted how this often results in injustice.  In this novel, the boundary between public and private is being negotiated.  On reflection, this left me with the sense of the privilege granted to those of us whose professional practice allows us to investigate the personal lives of others.  The joy of using literature to discuss these issues was that in the book group we could do so without worrying about judging the characters involved, who in any case are not real.  It was a safe space to discuss our like/dislike of any of the characters.  It was a place where we could investigate how such emotions might taint our judgements and decisions.  It was for this reason, the group concluded that literature was a useful supervisory resource.  It could even be argued that the book group itself was a form of group supervision:

Groups at their best are a powerful and creative resource for all members” (Howe and Gray, 2013: 20)

It is worth noting that, despite her many privileges, that this was not a resource that Fiona could draw upon.


Epstein, L. (1999) “The Culture of Social Work” in Chambron, A., Irving, A. and Epstein, L. (eds.) Reading Foucault for Social Work New York: Columbia University Press

Howe, K and Gray, I. L. (2013) Effective Supervision in Social Work London: Sage/Learning Matters

McEwan, I. (2013) The Children Act London: Random House

Mills, C.W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination Oxford: Oxford University Press

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