Bringing up baby

Joe Bibby

Filed under: Fiction

Emma Donoghue in conversation with Michael Rutter

‘We’re not experts’, said Emma Donoghue, beginning her remarks at this joint meeting with the Royal Society with an acknowledgement of what she called ‘literature’s inferiority complex vis-à-vis science’. This was perhaps understandable, given that she shared the stage with a man whom Susannah Herbert, chairing the discussion, introduced as ‘Professor of Everything’ – or at least one of the UK’s most respected authorities on child development and neuropsychology, Professor Sir Michael Rutter. However, it became clear as their conversation went on that the interplay between imagination and reality can be stimulating and enriching for both sides.

The focus of the discussion was Room, Donoghue’s bestselling novel about a kidnapped woman, ‘Ma’, and her child Jack, born and raised in captivity – a book which, as Herbert noted, ‘means many things to many people’, eliciting strong responses both from those working in prisons or with children, and those who have seen in Ma and Jack’s struggle for some kind of ‘normality’ an allegory of their own experiences.

Although inspired by the Fritzl case, Room was not intended as a true crime novel, Donoghue asserts, but rather as a kind of thought experiment – an inversion of the cases of so-called ‘feral’ children, where rather than being bestialised by abandonment, Jack is ‘humanised by language’, in what she called ‘a test case for the question of whether one great parent might be all you need’.

While both speakers agreed that Jack is a ‘best-case scenario’, Professor Rutter noted that in some ways this premise reflects recent changes in thinking about child development: scientists now acknowledge that it is discord within families, and not their breaking up, which is damaging; that the quality of relationships matters more than family structure to children’s overall well-being.

Could this work of fiction, asked an audience member, have any role in science? Donoghue insisted she had no such ambitions, but Professor Rutter’s response hinted at the fruitful potential for future literary-scientific dialogue. Science is about thinking up a story and then testing it, he said, ‘The testing of the story, you can’t get from literature; on the other hand, ideas about what might be happening, you can.’

Recorded on: July 7, 2013