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Penny Booth: Secret pasts

Date:4 MAY 2010

Secret pasts

Penny BoothAt election time some politicians keep secret their pasts and hide from public view the little bits they do not want the electorate to see or know about... in some cases it is the little nuances of life that tell us much of a person or a situation. We have had plenty of that from our legislature over the last year or so, and top-ups during the election campaign. The constant question is - just what of what we see, hear or are told, can we believe? Let's hear it, politicians - once more for the electorate.

This week, the child in me was rather shocked to read that ‘Heidi has a secret past...' (The Times, Friday April 30 2010 page 44). I remember the Heidi of old, that sweet story by Johanna Spyri which inspired television serials and with wonderful scenes in the Swiss Alps that has undoubtedly fed the holiday dreams of many women over the years. My ancient, green, hard-backed copy with the torn dust cover that no longer performs its function dates from the early 1960s. Two hundred and fifty pages is a lot when you are seven. I was an avid reader even then, but it is only now that the picture on the front of a bare-footed young female of around the age of six, sitting alone on a rock high up on a very big hill with snow-covered peaks in the distance and goats feeding on the grass around her brings to mind a potential child abuse situation, that I realise that life has changed and all is not always what it seems. It may look like child abuse, but in our minds it was an idyllic picture; in reality, for children of the time, it may not have been so but they may have known no better, and there may have been little better to know.  

It seems that even Heidi is not sacred from commercial interests - there are claims that Spyri may have borrowed a number of scenes, ideas and possible storyline from a writer called Hermann Adam von Kamp of Mannheim, Germany, who wrote a book about Adelaide, the girl from the Alps, some fifty years before Spyri. Seems ‘intertextuality' is a new word for plagiarism... according to the protagonists, at least. The theme park village of Maienfeld in Switzerland where Heidi-land is situated must be thrilled at the publicity.

It is, however, in the Sunday Times of 25 April (bottom of page 5) where there is an example of thoughts of things not being quite as one may think become a little more sharply felt. It seems a father who gave up his share in the family home in a divorce settlement (he says, on the basis that he did not want to upset the child by having a legal tussle with the mother about the property) has discovered that the daughter he thought was his, cannot have been his biological child. No wonder he feels angry, bitter and betrayed, for the knowledge will burden him throughout the rest of his life. She is his beloved child, but not biologically. Ramifications. The lack of perfection in family life can find not so sharp a focus, nor so sharp a consequence as this. Can it be that some secrets are best left as precisely that? Knowledge is a wonderful thing, but humankind is full of stories, events and apocrypha suggesting that the burden of knowledge can blight something in life.

What of law? Well, justice is reputedly built on the truth, versions of which are debated, argued and paraded in court. The ‘father' has a right to know whether the child is ‘his', and, of course, he also has the right to try to reverse the settlement made under dubious circumstances. One just wonders of the price is always worth it.

"I share your happiness in the child as if, next to you, I was the one to whom she most closely belonged, but I wish also to share all responsibilities concerning her and to do my best for the child. I shall then feel I have my rights in her, and shall look forward to her being with me and caring for me in my old age... she will have the same claims upon me as if she were my own child, and I shall provide for her as such."

A recent family law case? No, it's taken from the last page in Heidi.

Penny Booth is an Honorary Research Fellow at Liverpool University Centre for the Study of the Child, the Family and the Law. Click here to follow Penny Booth on Twitter.