Introduction to Of Kith and Kin
Preface to the Methuen Drama edition of Of Kith and Kin by Chris Thompson
Preface | Of Kith and Kin
When I was studying for my MSc in social work at a child protection team in London, my manager thought it would be sensible for me to experience as many disciplines of the profession as possible. Wanting to pass the placement, I agreed, and it was arranged that as well as doing the regular safeguarding work, I’d undertake an assessment of a prospective foster carer and present my recommendations to the fostering panel.
Bogged down in neglect cases, troubled teenagers and a dissertation, this sounded like quite a nice assignment. And to top it off they’d promised me an easy one- a “lovely woman” and her husband, with three older children who no longer lived at home. They lived in a remote, affluent part of Croydon down in the hilly south of the borough, and I embarked, with appetite, on this undemanding assignment.I lived a double life back then. I could function in the daytime as a social worker (sometimes a good one, sometimes not), and most nights I’d go out onto the gay scene until the early hours looking for love and sex, applying to this nocturnal assignment as much heuristic zeal as I did my day job.
With one fungible man after another and a seeming unending supply of drugs and alcohol, I tried to banish away the shame bestowed upon me by not being born straight (I was born the year Thatcher came to power). And also, importantly, I was having a really fucking good time.What one’s body is capable of withstanding in one’s twenties is quite something. And the music, the glowing men, the drugs, the sunrise sex in the alleyways of Soho under a pellucid morning sky, none of it seemed inimical to my social work career. Perversely, it felt integral to it. Through the privilege and adrenalin of my then day job and the protean London nights (which we felt were just for us), I lived two lives, each one as exhilarating as it was exacting.(The only other time in my life I have felt so changed and instructed, broken and reassembled by an experience was 15 years later at the end of a long-term relationship, which was around the time I quit the social work profession altogether. I remember collapsing by the wheelie bins outside our block, my grief and fear fulminating amongst the discards and dirt. I look back now and note that both entering and exiting the social work profession coincided with the two most transformative periods of my life).
I’m going to call her Sophie.
The assessment can take several months. There are many obstacles to overcome. If you’ve had a drink driving conviction or if you’re known on the sexual offences register, clearly you have no chance. If your banisters are too wide such that a child might fall through them, we’d have to look into it further, and if you have a pet, we need a full psychological profile of its behaviour. So it was several weeks of banister measuring and dog risk-assessing before Sophie and I really got to chat.I loved Sophie. I loved her husband, her three daughters. I grew to love the dog. If we’re looking through an Attachment Theory lens, they were all securely attached, emotionally and intellectually intelligent individuals. Sophie was more spiritual; it manifested itself in artistic self-expression rather than anything devout. And her motives were good. With her children flown and a big house to fill, she felt she had something to offer.
And with her children now leading their independent lives, she was very honest and clear-sighted in her fear of feeling lonely and “of no use”. I’d visit regularly and we’d have tea and gossip; she wanted to know about all the men in Soho, and was very keen to set me up with their gardener. (Unsure of his sexual orientation, Sophie declared my next visit should coincide with his.) I used to look forward to going round Sophie’s house, we got into a cosy routine. But liking the family didn’t mean anything in the face of rational, analysis and assessment, and I’d remind myself of this as I’d dunk a biscuit into my tea and watch a bit of daytime TV with Sophie.Up until this point all my safeguarding work had been the result of a referral or a case transfer, cases in which we could see something was up and we’d assess and respond accordingly.
But now, I found myself undertaking a pre-emptive act of child protection. It felt too abstract for me, and whereas I could justify the intrusion in people’s lives because of an indicator or suspicion of abuse, here I felt differently. In all my years of home visits, I’d never walked down a drive way as long as theirs. I’d often wrangle with myself whether, as a social worker, I was nothing more than an agent of the state, employed to police the poor, but I did know that in some cases I was doing good. And it’s not that middle class people don’t abuse children, but not once in my safeguarding days did I ever come to an area like this.
But that wasn’t the issue. Although until now I had always trusted my ability to think objectively, I found the process impossible. On my third visit we found ourselves on the Mental Health section of the form. Sophie disclosed that she had depression. I asked a couple of brief questions, ascertained that she was on medication and that her self assessment was that she managed it, and we moved on to another part of the form. My manager, however, had other ideas. The panel would need far more detailed analysis and information than my two bullet points, and I was sent back to Sophie to ask more questions about her mental health.I stalled and stalled. I cancelled several appointments; I don’t know what it was but I just could not go back and ask Sophie these questions. I ignored her calls, and I swerved and I obfuscated whenever my manager asked for an update on the assessment.
So thoughtful and intuitive was Sophie, she eventually rang my manager out of concern for my erratic behaviour; I was hauled into my manager’s office.I don’t know if it was internalised homophobia (which I’d not yet fully sweat from my pores out onto the queer dance floors and mattresses of this prurient city – one hopes it evaporates rather than staining the skin of another) but I felt like, I, in my early twenties, living in the shadow of Section 28, a beggar at the feast of marriage, and having soaked up, like a sponge, the notion of gay as non- normative, outside the family space, I think I just felt like I was too much of a faggot to tell Sophie what she could or couldn’t do with her life. Back then I felt depressed now and again too, and I managed those feelings just as Sophie said she managed hers.
Whatever the reason, I could not go back and ask Sophie those questions.
My manager cited transference issues (that old misused chestnut!) and took me off the case. I returned to the high rises and the prisons and someone else, someone less emotionally dysfunctional than me, walked up Sophie’s long drive with a brand new form and rang the bell.I think the professional mistake I made was letting Sophie look after me. Although, personally, I’m glad I did. And thinking personally still, it’s probably no coincidence that some of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in my private life have involved not being able to let someone take care of me. But I also know that we get stronger through living. And we learn so much about ourselves by loving others and letting the right people love us back.
So as we teeter across the double-edged sword of intimacy, seeking refuge and reassurance, we have to make sure we are looked after not only by others, but also by ourselves. It’s the most important pre-emptive act of child protection there is.