Book Review by Wanda Gibson
The Little Prisoner by Jane Elliot is a difficult book to categorise, although it is clearly intended as an autobiographical account of abuse in childhood.
Jane Elliott recounts a tale of abuse at the hands of a sadistic step-father and completely ineffectual mother. She and her brother were placed into care on a number of occasions when her parents’ marriage failed. When she was four years old, her life changed. Jane was returned to her mother whilst her brother was never heard of again. When some of the social workers heard that she had been returned to her mother’s care, they apparently resigned in protest.
Jane’s mother began a long-term relationship with a man called Richard who turned out to be a most sadistic and calculating perpetrator. Her account is rather disjointed as most autobiographical memoirs of abuse are. Her mother and stepfather produced three other half-siblings who were all encouraged to use torture and punitive measures against her.
Some of the incidents she recounts are shocking in their primitive simplicity. The story takes a different turn as Jane approaches adulthood. Despite her years, she was still trapped by the demands of the stepfather and his violent bullying tactics. No one, including those with authority – and even the police, had the courage to stand up to him.
Her story is told in a matter of fact manner which makes it all the more devastating as a result. The final chapters describe the court case as she prosecutes her stepfather and her mother. The extended family have been mobilised to beat or kill in order to protect the stepfather. Even after he was found guilty and imprisoned, their pursuit of her didn’t stop until she was beaten almost senseless.
I think the most frustrating aspect of this story is not necessarily the realistic accounts of abuse and torture, but the lack of belief and motivation to protect her on the part of ordinary men and women, including those who should have known better. There are several examples where patronising, self-righteous individuals created more damage and chaos by simply not believing that human beings could behave in this way towards others.
My concern is that some people will pick up this book anticipating a sorrowful journey through a mildly abusive childhood where everything comes right in the end. This is not the case with this book. There is no really happy ending. There is no apology from the abuser. There is no acknowledgement from those who should have protected her that Jane was right. There is, however, the recognition by Jane that she did the right thing, even though the cost was high.
As Jane Elliott herself said, “I suspect that the audiences for books like The Little Prisoner fall into two categories. Firstly, there are those who come from stable, happy homes, who can’t understand how anyone can abuse a child, and want to find out about a world they can barely imagine. Secondly, there are those who suffered something similar themselves and find some comfort in discovering they are not alone in the world. They get some inspiration from discovering that not only is it possible to go on to lead happy and normal lives, but that you can actually turn all that misery into something positive.”
This book is not for everyone. It makes for uncomfortable reading, but the flat, sometimes disjointed style gives it the ring of truth, and there are times when we need to learn about the pain people have suffered, even if it is uncomfortable.
Elliott, J. (2005)The Little Prisoner Harper Element