The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

“She said to David, “we are being punished, that’s all… For presuming. For thinking we could be happy. Happy because we decided we would be.”

Initially I expected this book to be a horror about an inherently evil child, similar to We Need to Talk About Kevin, but the horror of this tale is more subtle in nature.

It tells of newlywed couple Harriet and David who marry in the 60’s during the sexual revolution, where people no longer felt bound by rigid monogamous relationships or old fashion familial sensibilities. But David and Hariet want the old way, they want a stable relationship and a large house with a larger mortgage and lots and lots of kids, even if the whole world thinks they’re crazy for it. With the financial and maternal support of their parents they bring four glorious children into the world, and they are happy, but when their family begin to quite openly suggest that they should stop, they have one more, Ben, who from his earliest beginnings disrupts any hope of the family’s dream for a happy life.

This book was pretty bleak, maybe because there are a few people in my own life who remind me in some small ways of Hariet, or maybe because I’m a parent of a very young child, and since every future of every child is uncertain, reading books like these can’t help but make you starkly aware of the fragility of your happiness.

At first I decided that Hariet had post natal depression, pinning the responsibility of all her life’s misery on her last unwanted child who from the start she was unable or unwilling to form a bond with. She admits she cannot love him, she refuses to accept him as her own child or sometimes even as her own specis. She rejects him because she doesn’t believe that he is normal, but perhaps he isn’t normal because she rejects him. Then I decided that Ben might be autistic, with his difficulty in socialising with other children, and his indifference to his family, though as the book moved forward that didn’t seem to fit either. And then I realised that the point of this story is perhaps not merely to demonstrate the extreme hardships that befall some parents, but rather that society has an obsession with branding anything that fits outside of our perameters of normal with some kind of explaination. Ben could have special needs, he could be the side effect of rejection as an infant by his mother, or being institutionalised, he might be hyperactive, violent, whatever, as if just by attaching a diagnosis or explaination somehow provides a solution. A good amount of Hariets anger and frustration comes from a lack of recognition, that no professional will give her a diagnosis or even acknowledge that Ben is different.

This book is a horror because it holds up a mirror to our unease about the unlabelable. It shines a light on the fact that you don’t have to be any certain kind person on on to have your life derailed by something, and how quickly people will lay the blame at another’s feet and turn their back on what is not easy, even if that thing may have once been something they thought they wanted.



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