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Our Family and IT at the Book Group

Rachel Fearnley
Our Family and IT at the Book Group

Last week I had the most amazing evening at the University of Central Lancaster (UCLan) alongside the inspirational Amanda Taylor-Beswick. Amanda is the driving force behind the @SWBookGroup which brings together social work students, qualified social workers, academics and colleagues from allied professions to discuss novels which have relevance to social work practice. The book group is ‘traditional’ insomuch as people read the nominated book and then come together to discuss it as a group but it also embraces social media and invites people to join in the discussions on Twitter too. At the event I read a short chapter from Our Family and IT which was then followed by a discussion with attendees at UCLan and people who joined us on Twitter. Since the event I have been reflecting on the evening which has to be one of my highlights of 2018. I still struggle with the identity of ‘author’. To me, I am just me who happens to be passionate about a particular subject and so has written a book about it in the hope it makes people question what is happening to the Williamson family and families up and down the country. However, when people make the effort to come out, after work, to be part of the event it is very humbling. It is even more humbling (and feels very odd) when people discuss the characters in the book and they suddenly come alive. Since I created Angela, Nathan and the children they have been ‘real’ to me and I have lived with them as they have tried to navigate Angela’s illness, but suddenly they were being discussed by social workers and students and their lives were being analysed and assessed. People spoke about how they connected with the different characters and how reading their stories affected them. One attendee observed that having read about Rebecca being away from home (Rebecca is at university, is missing her family and is very worried about her mother’s health) they felt the need to telephone home and connect with their mother. Another attendee said that as they were reading about Daniel (the 14 year old) they were willing him not to take the route he briefly took. It was evident that reading the book had had an impact on the reader. The discussions also highlighted how reading the book had another impact too. There were philosophical, ethical and moral questions discussed about practice and professionals’ roles with the family. But also people shared their experiences of illness, dying, death and loss. When I was reflecting about this, I wondered whether the event had represented a safe place where stories of dying and death could be shared in the knowledge that the listeners would listen and that the stories would not be dismissed as being unimportant (when clearly they are extremely important to the narrator). So the book group became the conduit for cathartic exploration of personal loss and grief. I had certainly not envisaged that when we were planning the group and to me this felt a very positive addition. The discussions and observations about Our Family and IT and all that it stands for suggested to me that the gamble I had taken in writing and self-publishing the book had paid off. All the attendees had made an emotional connection with the family and could sense some of my frustrations about the, often, neglected needs of children and parental life-limiting illness. Within the discussions there were examples shared, from a professional perspective, where there were similarities with day to day practice.  At points in the discussion I was gently challenged about the plot – would certain professions really behave like that? Because the book is based on my research and experience, I was able to confirm, with concrete examples, that yes, people really can be so dismissive and insensitive to children who are trying to cope with the unthinkable – their parent’s life-limiting illness. I am a qualitative researcher because I feel strongly about the importance and relevance of stories to everyday lives and experiences. I often refer to Gilbert (2002) who, writing about narrative approaches in grief research, begins the paper with the message ‘we live in stories, not in statistics’. This is so true, our daily lives are made up of stories, some of which we want and need to tell to others. Our Family and IT is about one family telling their story about living with an unexpected and unplanned crisis. What became very apparent at the book group was how their stories resonated with the reader. There was an interaction whereby the reader made emotional connections with the Williamsons and shared the family’s fears, anxieties and pain. Through this process they began to explore their own stories and clearly felt safe to do so. When I was reflecting upon the evening that was one of the really powerful things that struck me. People were attending to discuss the book, people from different backgrounds and in different places on their career journey, coming together for one reason. And through the shared collective of discussing the book they felt able to add depth to the analysis by adding in personal experience to strengthen and enhance the discussion. They were living the story of the Williamson family but also re-living their personal stories. I am indebted to Amanda Taylor-Beswick for all her hard work organising, promoting and facilitating the book group. But more than that I think as a profession we should be indebted to her for her inspiration to have developed the @SWBookGroup as a way of creatively engaging with students and practitioners to explore practice in an enlightened way. The Williamson family should also be grateful because their story was shared, unpicked, analysed and explored. People took an interest in their stories. My hope is we can build on that interest so that more people begin reading their story and start to ask questions about how we can make a difference for all the Williamson families facing parental life-limiting illness.   Photograph courtesy of @SWBookGroup    

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