Reading plays a number of roles in my professional and private lives. Sometimes I read fiction to transport myself out of the present. I read fiction at night to provide for that gap between the switched on working mind and the sleeping one. However, writing this blog means I make connections between the theories and explanations of social policy and the fiction I read to escape. This was most acute when reading Ruby.
The social policy academic side of me, would describe Ruby as a novel about racism, sexism, their intersection, child abuse, child sexual exploitation (CSE) and poverty. The social work educator might use it as an example to study the impact of grief, bereavement and trauma. Yet none of those terms would be found in Ruby. The vocabulary of the novel and my day job are very different, even if the content is shared.
The first thing Ruby did was introduce me to a new word – haint.
“Ephram Jennings had seen the gray woman passing like a haint through the center of town since she’d returned to Bell land in 1963”
Haint – a curious mix of haunt and aint (isn’t, non-existent). Ruby, the cautionary tale of a woman who wears her heels to high and is born too pretty, is haunting and haunted. Her story raises a number of questions.
For me, question number one – is how does social policy recognise the story of Ruby and others like her? The people described by academic disciplines would not describe themselves in the same way. Therefore, a starting point should be listening to what they say, what words they use, how they would describe their lives. If we don’t heed the voices of those at the centre, there is too big a gap between describing phenomena and the experience of it. As Gilligan (2015:115) says:
“Young women affected by CSE (Child Sexual Exploitation) … are unlikely to engage effectively with statutory services (police, children and social care) unless those services demonstrate that they will listen to, protect and respect them”.
Gilligan’s study also highlights the anger, resentment, joy and complexity of survivors of CSE, with a language that speaks of pain and “paradoxical resilience” (Gallaghan et. al., 2015).
As one of Gilligan’s (2015: 120) respondents says:
“You took away my childhood… ruined my education and the friendships I had… You cut me off from my roots. I am scared to go out and because of you I struggle to trust anymore… I feel like I am the one in prison, locked away too scared to live my life. I am doing time because of you.”
When a survivor speaks so eloquently we have a duty to listen. However, requesting and listening to the story is not always so respectful. Especially when the exploitation intersects with forced immigration/trafficking. Stanley et. al’s (2016) study into the health needs of trafficked young people highlighted that the issue of age assessment can be particularly troublesome for victims. Age assessment is an example of how social care professionals are being asked to act as gatekeepers to limited resources, rather than providing support for those in need. This impacts on the relationship building and the ability to tell and listen to stories:
It causes them a lot of stress…and also this, sort of, opinion of not [being] believed. Some talk about that…no-one believes them… It causes impact on them feeling valued, and it knocks their confidence a lot…they do often talk about having to tell their story again and again and again and no-one believing them and they’ve said the same thing lots of times and why aren’t people believing them. (NGO practitioner 1) (Stanley et al., 2016: 107).
But this refusal to listen, to empathise, to trust is not unique to health and social care. Ruby Bell unravels over the course of the novel. Yet, there is a dogged determination by the people of her home town Liberty to ignore the causes and to locate her madness in her own character and choices.
In the social sciences, we often talk about the debate of structure versus agency. Put simply, is Ruby’s madness a result of the structures (racism, sexism, adult power) or of her own character flaws and choices? But the novel is asking a more complex question. For the reader, the intersection of race and gender and the burden of a violent history are obvious causes of her unravelling. What is of more interest is why that injustice is unseen, discounted, removed from the understandings of Liberty’s population.
As KO, one of the locals says:
“Hell ain’t nothing strange when Colored go crazy. Strange is when we don’t”
So, question number two is – even when the facts of inequality and injustice are clear, why are they dismissed, even by those affected by them? This is a question that vexes the social policy academic. Ruby offers some answers, such as superstition, religion, the burden of history, the need to keep on surviving, the lack of alternative ways of being or knowing. All of these are reasonable, even if they are not rational. Ruby is not a book which deals with the rational. It is a book which merges the natural and supernatural, orthodox religion with unorthodox beliefs, the past with the present.
Another means of refusing to acknowledge the structural inequality of our lives is to be wilfully dismissive, to doggedly believe in what is not there, or to provide excuses to suit beliefs. Ruby is full of truths which are hard to confront. It is easier to bear witness to one person’s madness and character flaws, than to acknowledge the impact of brutality.
For me, question number three is – how can compassion be reinstated? Ruby is a story about ‘will’. It is a battle of wills. There is the will of Celia – the pious sister of Ephram who has brought him up since his mother was incarcerated and his father murdered. She is a pillar of the community, with a spotless house and a spotless reputation. Her belief that she is right is solid and unswerving. It grants her the authority to judge. She is the rod that should not be spared to avoid spoiling the child. As Ahmed (2014: 2) says:
“One form of will seems to involve the rendering of other wills as willful; one form of will assumes the right to eliminate the others.”
Pitted against Celia is Ruby. Ruby escaped the horrors of an abusive, exploited childhood to go to New York. However, once she makes the journey back home, the demeanour and her New York shine quickly fade. In particular, her hair begins to unwind, to grow wild. Her hair is willful. But to the reader it is more that she is the archivist, the keeper of other people’s wills. Her will is demonstrated by her desire to keep the stories and lives of those who perished under brutality alive.
“But of course even ghosts have histories, even objects that are understood as illusions or fancies have a story to tell, a story that is independent of the story of those for whom such illusions and fancies are tantalizingly real.” (Ahmed, 2014: 5)
To the townsfolk of Liberty, Ruby appears as without will. To have lost the will. Yet, she is designated as willful by Celia. For Celia, Ruby has never been a victim of assault, but a willing accomplice. Like many victims of CSE she is the wrong kind of victim.
“When a structural problem becomes diagnosed in terms of the will, then individuals become the problem: individuals become the cause of the problems deemed their own.” (Ahmed, 2014: 7)
Celia demonstrates how designating wilfulness becomes a means of victim-blaming.
Then between these wills falls Ephram: hapless, slow, man-child Ephram. Just delivering a cake becomes a battle almost beyond him. Yet he demonstrates a willingness to listen, to work hard, to devote himself. He wills himself to be a man of a different order to those around him. He is what makes Ruby into a love story, of compassion against the odds.
Would I recommend Ruby? Absolutely. For me as a social policy academic, dealing with realism, evidence, theory and facts, the novel with its magical realism was a way of both travelling out of the day job, but also a way back in to thinking about the gaps in our understanding of real, traumatic lives and the explanations we grasp when the truth is too hard.
Ahmed, S. (2014) Willful Subjects Durham and London: Duke University Press
Bond, C. (2015) Ruby Hodder and Stoughton: London
Callaghan, J., Alexander, J., Fellin, L. and Sixsmith, J. (2015) “Beyond ‘witnessing’: children’s experiences of coercive control in domestic violence and abuse” Journal of Interpersonal Violence. (In Press available on line from 10 December 2015)
Gilligan, P. (2016) “Turning it Around: What do young women say helps them move on from child sexual exploitation” Child Abuse Review 25: 115 – 127
Stanley, N., Oramb, S., Jakobowitz, Westwood, J., Borschmann, Zimmerman, C. and Howard, L.M. (2016) “The health needs and healthcare experiences of young people trafficked into the UK” Child Abuse & Neglect 59 (2016) 100–110