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Helen Fields Utterly Terrifying

September 2019 saw the paperback publication of my first legal thriller, Degrees of Guilt, under the pen name HS Chandler.

It was difficult to write for a number of reasons, but the most immediate of them was having proper consideration for the real victims of coercive control. Last year saw the overturning of a conviction following the defendant’s account of living in a coercive control relationship. The subject has taken on a new importance, and public understanding of the subject is - I’m delighted to say - at an all time high. What we don’t have figures for, or a solution to, is the number of such relationships that exist behind tightly locked doors. And I never forgot that for one moment when I was writing the book.

I view it as a privilege to write books that are traditionally published, that people review,

that they comment about on social media. My job is to entertain my reader, to wrap them up in a different world, to make them think, cry, gasp or laugh. To transport them. For this reason, it’s inevitable that my books contain an element of the shocking, the unfathomable and the terrifying. It comes with the territory when writing crime and psychological thrillers that you use people’s fears and nightmares, the worst that humans can do to one another, as subject matter. Yet there are real victims out there. Some survivors, some still fighting for a chance to survive, and others who have yet to encounter the monsters who will harm them. As a writer, balancing the need to entertain against the moral requirement to be respectful to victims, can be a tough one. For me, the question of getting that balance right, boils down to one simple question: Am I glamourising the criminal behaviour?

In a coercive control relationship, the behaviour can take a number of different forms. These

are usually long term relationships, and often there’s a power imbalance from the outset. I believe that power imbalance is rarely a coincidence. My professional experiences as a barrister showed me that abusers actively seek out partners who have personality types that they can manipulate and dominate. In Degrees of Guilt, the abuser went out of his way to find a partner with a history of self-harming. That may be an extreme example, but it worked for my plot, and it’s an obvious case where someone is already suffering or has suffered in a way which might make them still vulnerable. Coercive control, though, is often better hidden than that. It’s a chipping away at the confidence of a victim who might not even have recognised their own frailties until they are powerless. By nature, coercive control is shrouded and secretive. If it weren’t, it would fall more readily and firmly into the category of domestic violence. The other issue with coercive control is that there may or may not be any physical violence in the relationship. It might be purely verbal abuse or long term psychological torture. It might be only the threat of violence, or blackmail about past events, or the threat of harm or disclosures to family members. Coercive control is the ever-

present ghost of violence, pain and unhappiness. And it is terrifyingly real.

So the challenge for me was to write a book which brought the issues to the surface, without

making them nastier than was necessary. I needed to make the fear and horror tangible whilst making it clear that often the torture amounts to nothing more than looks, comments, tuts of disgust,a refusal to acknowledge another human being, a way of having sex, a way of making the victim feel worthless. Being ignored can be more demeaning than being shouted at. Being given a nickname that the abuser knows you hate, when they pretend it’s your failure to have a sense of humour about it that’s the real problem. Taken individually these behaviours may not be fast-paced and suspenseful thriller fodder, so I had to wrap them into a storyline that showed not only the action but their internal impact on the victim. In addition, I used a secondary character - Lottie - who is living a very different life, but who quickly also finds herself wrapped up in a toxic relationship. It was the parallels between their two stories that allowed me to write a more nuanced story where there didn’t have to be so much abusive “shock” value to the scenes when the coercive control is shown.

For anyone wondering why coercive control has suddenly become such a big deal, the

answer lies in the available defences to murder. Traditionally the courts have applied self-defence as a legal defence only where the circumstances leading up to the use of self-defence were immediate rather than long-term slow build up. In coercive control cases these days, the courts are starting to recognise when a defendant suddenly snaps after long-term abuse, effectively causing diminished responsibility, which is an unbalanced mental state that is short of insanity. It’s a huge leap forward in a culture which has been late in understanding and applying the effects of long-term abuse in court proceedings. These big cultural and legal issues need closer examination, both in non-fiction and fiction. We just need to be sensitive in how we handle them. Writing the book was, at times, harrowing. I only hope I’ve done the subject matter, and the very real victims of coercive control, justice.

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I wrote this short story when my first book, Perfect Remains, was being published. Publishers often ask you to write short stories around this time for additional publicity, and this one was printed in a national Sunday paper magazine. I loved the idea of a girl who was the opposite of what everyone imagined she should be.

Short Story by Helen Fields

Tilly had walked a tightrope with her father her whole life, or at least as far back as she could

remember. It wasn’t that she didn’t love him - it was just that the older she got, the more she found his expectations unrealistic.

He required her to study five hours a day, train for another five, sleep for a minimum of nine. Socialising was an unnecessary luxury, and as for having a

boyfriend…Tilly didn’t allow herself to even contemplate that one. Her mother had been the same. Driven, single-minded, ever conscious of the need for perfection. That was why Tilly had no siblings. She was what her mother had referred to as “unexpected”. A blip on the radar of her otherwise stunning figure. When you performed in front of hundreds of people, each pair of eyes following your every move, you didn’t want to be sucking in your stomach.

It had been fun at times, Tilly accepted that. She had visited countries throughout Europe,

known heat and cold, poverty and luxury. There had always been a friendly face to tell a joke, sing song or entertain. Fellow performers had come and gone from their lives like her brief enrolments at different schools or stays with increasingly distant relatives.

Life with the circus was chaotic. And then there was the constant threat that audiences would dwindle. ‘It used to be easy,’ her father would moan. ‘When I was young we were competing with four television channels, audiences with nowhere to go but the local pub, and if you wanted to share your photographs you needed a camera, film processing and the risk of boring your mates showing them your snaps. Now everything is social media this and mobile that. These people come to our show and they film it. Away it flies onto that internet where every man, woman and children can watch it…’

‘…without paying for a single damned ticket!’ Tilly would finish for him.

She chastised herself for her lack of gratitude. How many people knew the thrill of the high

wire, could spin through the air certain they would be caught, only to fly off again amidst a

backdrop of pulsating light, pounding music and the whoops and cheers of an astounded crowd? But there was fear, too. Not a fear of falling. That would be logical, sensible. It would make her normal. Tilly was afraid that one day she would fly from one set of hands and just keep going. That she might never come down. That her feet might never walk firmly on the ground, along a well-trodden path. Then they’d arrived in Scotland.

The circus had set up on the outskirts of Edinburgh to a reasonable turnout, three quarters

full, big hearted with encouragement. That night, her sleep too disturbed with dreams of flying, she’d left her caravan silently and walked the mile into the city. There, bars were still teeming and the smell of food clouded the streets, but she’d had her fill of exuberance. In search of an alternative, she’d followed a group seeming unnaturally hushed, as if they’d been roped together by anticipation. From The Royal Mile, the whispering quintet had disappeared through a set of doors and downwards, with Tilly in their shadows. A guide met them, dressed in old fashioned clothes, telling stories of the past. Of ghosts, of plague, murders and impossible hardships. Mary King’s Close was cold, dark, and wonderful. Ancient streets hidden beneath Edinburgh’s modern heart. She followed the group, only half listening as histories designed to titillate and chill were recounted. Beneath her feet was rock that had withstood an age of passersby and still not crumbled. Above her head was no sky at all. Walls built up and over were a framework of stability, security. An hour later, the world beckoned again. One hour after that and her caravan with its swirling colours, racks of costumes and drawers of makeup, consumed her once more.

It was a Tuesday when she left. There was cash in her pocket, a job offer in her hand, and a

smile on her face. In the fourteen months that had passed, she’d read every book on Edinburgh’s history, studied the parts each tour guide played, saved every penny from the shows and done chores to earn extra, pretending to her father she was saving for the things he could understand - new shoes, new clothes, anything that shone and flashed. The coach left from Southampton, and Tilly watched England slide by. There was an arrival, a startling moment of reality, a rush of shocked excitement. The hostel was warm and clean. There were girls her age, quick to chat, eager for details of her life. Her room had a

comfortable bed, a small wardrobe, a tiny chest of drawers. It was perfectly simple.

Then it was morning number one. That was what she had decided to call it. Sixteen years

old and she was stepping outside for the first day of her life. A man called Dan met her at the door. He handed her a costume, showed her where the staff could leave their coats and make coffee during breaks. Dan had a beard, a ponytail, and brown eyes that made Tilly think of camp fires. He bit his lower lip when he was thinking of the answer to a question, and Tilly had a lot of those. Day two came and went. She did not dream of flying. Day three arrived and her feet were planted firmly on the ground. Not a sequin in sight.

Her father found the note on day four, fallen from her pillow behind her bed.

‘I’m running away from the circus,’ was all she'd found herself able to write.

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