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You by Phil Whitaker — one parent’s plea for justice

You by Phil Whitaker is an emotionally charged exploration of the way children are used as psychological pawns in marriages that ends in acrimony and bitterness.

Whitaker’s tale of is of a father who has been cut out of his eldest daughter’s life because his ex-wife systematically manipulated his eldest daughter into believing her father was a tyrant and a bully who had made her mother’s life a misery for years. Made to believe that any time she spent with her father was a betrayal of her mother.

The result is that Stevie Buchanan, an art therapist in his fifties, has not seen his daughter for seven years. As the book opens he boards a train to Oxford hoping the girl, now a 21 year old medical student, will keep a rendezvous he’s proposed. As the journey progresses,

cruelis based on a theory called parental alienation. i’d never heard of this previously but apparently it describes the way one parent becomes estranged from their children as a result of emotional and psychological manipulation by their former partner.

You by Phil Whitaker is an emotionally charged novel about the repercussions of marriages which collapse in acrimony and bitterness. 

Whitaker’s tale focuses on a father who has been estranged from his eldest daughter ever since he walked out the family. He’s a victim of “parental alienation”, a concept I’d never heard of but apparently describes a parent’s psychological manipulation of their child’s attitude to the other parent. 

Art therapist Stevie Buchanan was cut out of his eldest daughter’s life when his ex-wife exerted so much influence that the girl  believed her father was a tyrant and a bully. The girl came to feel that when she spent time with her father she was betraying her mother.

As the book opens Stevie is travelling to Oxford, hoping his daughter, now a 21 year old medical student, will keep the rendezvous he’s proposed. If she turns up, it will their first encounter in seven years. 

Part of the story of You is told in flashbacks that reveal why the marriage came to an end. They also show Stevie’s subsequent battles with a social care and legal system that give him little opportunity to counter his wife’s accusations. 

The rawness of his pain and anguish is evident but so too is his feeling of helplessness when confronted by social workers and police officers who turn up on his doorstep to investigate claims of domestic abuse and intimidation. 

Through a local support group he learns that his experience is shared by many other parents. They all try to find ways to cope, though for some it is impossible. 

Until you’ve been in it, seen so-called justice at first hand, you wouldn’t believe it possible. But we know differently, me and my clan. People think it’s all he-said-she-said. No one wants to believe there could be such aggressive all-out war. 

There’s an urgency and an intimacy to Phil Whitaker’s novel that makes it stand out from other tales of family breakdowns and embittered partners. Most of the narrative is in the form of a direct address from father to daughter, hence the “You” of the title. 

Stevie desperately wants his daughter to understand the past and how it has affected the present. In flights of imagination he takes her on visits to her grandparents and to days from her early childhood, a period when he and his wife were still in love.  They “fly” through time and space to a farmhouse in Yorkshire and to a Victorian family house in the suburbs before landing at the intended rendezvous point in Oxford.

By re-living these scenes he wants her to understand why that the origins of his marital problems lay long ago in the past.

This is very much Stevie’s interpretation of events since it’s only his account that we get to hear. But it’s still a persuasive one.  The book is essentially arguing that the present system in child custody and access cases is sick, unjust and unbalanced. That there is a need for agencies to adopt a more balanced response and not accept everything they’re told.

Make an allegation, no matter how transparently cooked-up or pathetic or bizarre, and everyone has to take it at face value. Everyone has to play the game. No-one wants to be found to have failed to take something seriously, if later it does turn out to have been the stuff that actually happened.

You is clearly an issue- based novel. There were a few times in the final chapters where I thought the theory of parental alienation was over-explained but fortunately it didn’t derail the novel. It’s still a powerful tale of damaged families and how some parents use their children as weapons against their former partners. Thought-provoking reading. 

You by Phil Whitaker: Footnotes

Phil Whitaker is an author and a practising doctor (which explains how he can write so authoritatively about parental alienation). He is a regular contributor to the New Statesman where he writes a fortnightly ‘Health Matters’ column. His first novel Eclipse of the Sun (1977) won the John Llewellyn Rhys and the Prize Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award.

You, his sixth novel. was published by Salt in 2018.

This is book number 3 in my #22in22 project to read more books from the hundreds that lie unread in my bookshelves.

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