Sophie Hannah on the Perils of Interference
The protagonist of Sophie Hannah's enthralling new page-turner Haven't They Grown is faced with a terrible moral dilemma; having sensed that something is desperately wrong in another family's life, should she interfere or stay quiet? In this exclusive essay, Sophie Hannah discusses when it is right to intervene and when it is not.
Running Interference: When Should You, and When Should You Not, Interfere in Your Friends' Lives?
With my new thriller, Haven't They Grown, about to be published, I'm seeing little write-ups and blurbs of it everywhere, and they all say this: 'Twelve years ago, Thomas and Emily were five and three years old. Today, more than a decade later, they don't look a day older. Why haven't they grown?' This, in fact, is the book's shoutline, so it's no surprise that I'm seeing it all over the place - not only did I write that tagline myself, I also asked that it be prominently displayed on all publicity, because it's the driving question I want every reader to be desperate to answer.
And yet...in another sense, the explanation for why those two children have not grown in twelve years is not what the book is primarily about, in a psychological sense. Rather, the main theme of the book is: what should we do when we think to ourselves, 'There's something very wrong in this house -- but I'm not sure if I can or should try and tackle it.'
I have done both, in my time: I have tried to tackle, and I have left untackled. Not once, though, have I succeeded in bringing about change for the better, fairer or less bonkers, in any home other than the one that my husband and I are jointly in charge of. On at least two occasions, about different families, I have said to my own family, 'I really think I should say something to the school/the parents/someone making a documentary about narcissistic mothers' and have been ordered (usually by my teenage children) to mind my own business and leave things well alone.
Minding our own business is a vital skill and a recipe for increased inner peace and happiness, for sure. However, I vividly remember an afternoon in 1986 that I spent crying alone in a room because I had been forcibly prevented from leaving the building that I was in. I had not been locked in this building, but I nevertheless felt quite comprehensively imprisoned. My friends Liz, Jackie and Susan were all in town having fun, buying cheap plastic earrings together and talking about boys, and I was missing out. (These things really matter when you're 15 and suffer hugely from FOMO. Now, at 48, I suffer far more from FOBI in relation to all social arrangements - a fear of being involved.)
Anyway, back to 1986: the walls of the building that I had been ordered not to leave were thin enough for me to hear the voices of people in other rooms. A visitor to the building at one point learned of my predicament, and I overheard her saying, 'I don't understand. She's just sitting miserably in a room, doing nothing useful or enjoyable. Why does she have to stay there?' Then I heard the voice of the person whose unpaid job it was to make sure I did not leave. She said, 'I know, it's crazy. I don't understand it either.'
Silently, I urged the visitor to say more - ideally something along the lines of, 'Look, if you're not in favour of this, maybe you could defy the rules and let her out?' After which, hopefully, the other person would say, 'You're right. Since I don't even know what the point of this restriction is, I'm not going to enforce it any longer.' Unfortunately, this did not happen. Instead, they both agreed that 'the rules' were ridiculous, while leaving me where I was for the rest of the day.
I will remember - viscerally, forever - the way my heart soared when I heard that visitor ask those questions when she did not have to and when it would have been so much easier for her to say nothing. For all she knew, the person keeping me in the building might have responded angrily with, 'How dare you question the way we do things around here?' and she might never have been invited back, a consequence she would have hated. This incident, among many others, convinced me from a young age that if we care about making things better and fairer, we sometimes have to interfere in other people's business.
At other times, we should not interfere. I was recently asked a question by someone close to me about an area of my life that affects only me and nobody else. 'Oh,' I said cheerfully, 'I've decided to do X, not Y.' The Someone Close (as I shall call him, to make him sound as sinister as I decided he must be during the 'conversation' that followed) then spent thirty minutes bombarding me with a special blend of derision and dogmatic hectoring in the hope of shaming me into changing my mind and choosing Y over X. 'But I don't want Y,' I kept saying. 'Well, you should,' he kept insisting in a tone that clearly implied that I must have lost every last shred of human decency that I once possessed. By the end of the conversation I felt shaken, gaslit and in need of a very long break from all social interactions.
So, how can we tell when we should interfere, and when we should mind our own business? I have three basic principles that I follow:
1) have you invited me in and offered me a stake in your business? If you've taken the time and trouble to fill huge chunks of my mind and life with your weird business so that it starts to matter to me, then...sorry, but you've made it my business too and I'm on the case.
2) If you interfere in this particular business that many would regard as not being yours, will the heart of any imprisoned, oppressed or otherwise suffering person soar? Might you provide even a fleeting surge of hope for someone who needs it, even if that hope is later dashed? Might you rescue someone, physically or psychologically? Might you save something important, or prevent something appalling from happening? Will anybody's faith in human nature be endlessly rekindled when they remember that you did, or tried to do, this good thing? If so, you should interfere!
3) If you interfere in this business that many would regard as not being yours, will your action result in any innocent person who is harmlessly doing their thing in the world feeling shaken or gaslit, or whispering the words, 'I want to spend the rest of my life chatting to hedgehogs and elephants and avoiding all social interactions with humans'? If yes, then *do not interfere*. If no, then interfere away!
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