Episode 2: Introducing Jess Isaacs – reluctantly renowned social worker

Shadow of the Wing episode 2 tells the story of how Jess Isaacs, a social worker, ends up working in the field of forensic mental health and psychological profiling. As readers of crime fiction will know, it is more usual than not that such lead characters are invariably from a psychology background such as Dr Tony Hill, the conflicted but brilliant character created by the wonderful Val McDermid in her first novel, The Mermaids Singing1 or from the realms of pathology such as Jenny Cooper created by MR Hall in his book The Coroner2 and Temprance Brennan the heroine of Kathy Reichs series of books, adapted for the TV series Bones.

Jess is a social worker and it is not often that social workers are portrayed as lead characters in any novel but there are good reasons why they should be. Tom Keenan used his experience as a mental health social worker to inform his own writing3. As he explained in an interview published in the Glasgow Evening Times, his experience has given him a unique insight into the moods, feelings, conflicts and behaviours of those who might want to harm others. One of the very first criminal profilers in the UK was Ray Wyre. Wyre was a trained social worker who went into probation work and subsequently into work with violent and sex offenders. Inspired by a trip to the US where he worked alongside the FBI in 1988 he established the Gracewell Clinic. This was one of the first residential treatment centres for sex offenders.

The Gracewell Clinic ran a sex offender treatment programme. Key to the programme was that those who attended must be there voluntarily and must take responsibility for their offences and he would not countenance any attempts by offenders to blame victims. Treatment was based upon cognitive therapies, some of which caused deep concern in the social work/probation/psychology communities and perhaps as a consequence the controversial clinic closed after five years. The clinic and its approach is mirrored to a fictionalised degree in the treatment centre described in Shadow. Wyre continued to be an advisor to police investigations and court hearings and worked tirelessly to raise awareness of child protection until his death in 2008. Wyre’s Times obituary notes that he was ‘one of the worlds leading experts on sexual crime’4. Subsequent to his death, the reputation and approach of Wyre was called into question.

Like many of us who do not have any clear idea of career direction, Jess’s choices are influenced by coincidence and unexpected opportunities. In this episode, we hear about how a terrible crime brought her to the recognition of her professional field and also the consciousness of the general public. This event would change the course of her future career indelibly and take her into work with some of the most disturbed people in the country.

On a different note…

Waaay back in May 2012 I wrote:

‘As a writer I spend much time really thinking closely and carefully about words and the capacity and power of them. Sorting them, curling them round and stretching them out. Its a delight.’

This week one of my readers called me out about my use of the word ‘infamous’ to describe Broadmoor hospital. They suggested that it did a disservice to the patients with mental health problems who were treated in the hospital. It really hit home and I have reflected on this a great deal. Writers use words to evoke atmosphere, we want readers to hear sounds, experience smells, feel pain or joy. There is a famous Monty Python sketch I remember seeing when I was in my teens, I think featuring Eric Idle and Graham Chapman, where they discuss the differences between ‘woody’ words (which are generally thought of as good/nice) and ‘tinny’ words (which are not good/nice). I recall laughing at this because I really did get it. Fundamentally the sketch is based on the premise that words have the power to evoke.

I went back to the English Oxford Dictionary. It suggests that ‘infamous’ refers to something of ‘ill fame or repute; famed or notorious for badness, notoriously evil, wicked or vile; held in infamy or public disgrace’. It is fair to say that many patients are of ill fame and repute in Broadmoor, (and it is important to note that they are patients, having treatment – I am not and never would suggest that people are intrinsically bad or evil, only that some or the behaviours that took them into removal of liberty are). It is also fair to say that the origins of the hospital as a ‘Criminal Lunatic Asylum’ might reasonably be described as ‘ill fame’. More recently a Government Inquiry related to the Saville investigation found that there were significant failings at the hospital which put patients at risk of abuse. And herein lay the creative tension.

The reader has a point: I used the word ‘infamous’ to capture an essence of all of these factors. It is a useful, evocative word which offers a shorthand to the reader. On the other hand, it is true that this is a hospital, full of people with ill health and significant life challenges. It is the workplace for hundreds of committed and high quality staff who do nothing but their best to enable patients to become and feel well. It is true that no work of fiction should ever trivialize the distress of people with mental health challenges or diminish the contribution of the vast majority of professional staff who work to support them in a time of need. I appreciate that this reader prompted my opportunity to reflect.

Listen to Episode 2:

The podcast is something of an experiment with new ways to share my fiction work. I hope you enjoy it and will subscribe for future episodes. I very much welcome your feedback (via Facebook, Twitter or Email). Please do share if you enjoy the series!

  1. The Mermaids Singing, by Val McDermid, is published by Harper Collins 

  2. The Coroner, by MR Hall is published by Macmillan 

  3. The Father, by Tom O.Keenan, is published by McNidder & Grace Crime 

  4. Times Online, June 30, 2008