The Quelling, reviewed by Katharine Coldiron

Debut Novel Explores and Explodes Attachment Therapy

Barbara Barrow’s intriguing new novel, The Quelling (Lanternfish Press, September 25) explores a psychological treatment called attachment therapy. Although this innocuous name connects to attachment theory, which is legitimate, attachment therapy is controversial and dangerous, as the novel demonstrates ably. In The Quelling, two sisters, Addie and Dorian, are placed in a treatment facility as children and forced to grow up under the harmful influence of daily attachment therapy. Barrow has constructed an old-fashioned Gothic scenario for these two young women, but she has set it in the present, with cell phones, anti-abortion protesters, and other touches of the twenty-first century. The scenario almost feels like a deliberate fiction, rather than a realistic one: like Barrow assembled it to illuminate the destructive effects of attachment therapy in the purest way possible, and not, as many novelists do, to narrate an incident that could have been real.

Photo by Sam Abrams; Used by permission of the publisherIt seems impossible, in this decade, for two young women to spend all their teen years in an asylum, unless they are so deeply mentally ill that they cannot live on their own. However, these women are coherent enough to narrate the novel, and sane enough to move about the asylum fairly freely, with minimal medication and physical restraint. “I took a great deal of inspiration from the Gothic novels I love to read and teach,” Barrow noted about the novel. “Novels like Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. Those novels don’t address what we now call attachment disorder per se, but they are very much about women and hysteria and repression and madhouses.” These novels, Barrow says, also inspired her to multiple narrators. The two sisters both narrate, but so do two workers at the hospital and the sisters’ doctor. This narrative strategy illuminates the sisters’ situation and stabilizes the reader in their surreal circumstances.

The primary elements of attachment therapy are an overbearing dominance of the patient by the doctor; coercion, manipulation, and punishment in order to get the patient to obey; and physical holding to calm (or quell) the patient. Attachment therapy is suggested for children, particularly children with serious behavioral problems, and appears to be a distant cousin to old-fashioned “spare the rod”-type child abuse. Obedience and “catharsis” are the desired outcomes. The catharsis goal stems from the idea that children who act out violently are expressing blocked rage or some other strong emotion. Once they unblock the emotion, they can be “re-parented” by the therapist—giving them a fresh start to be good, happy, healthy children. In theory, this process has a certain logic. In practice, fresh starts don’t erase trauma, autism spectrum disorders, or unusual neurological wiring, especially not in a single therapeutic session. Plus, attachment therapists go to extreme ends to achieve catharsis, including elaborate rebirthing rituals that have actually resulted in fatalities. (For the most complete and succinct accounting of attachment therapy and its potential for harm, see the report of a task force assembled from APSAC [the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children], available here as a PDF.)

In The Quelling, attachment therapy manifests through Dorian and Addie spending nearly every waking moment together, supposedly to help them feel safer with each other (although this move seems, instead, calculated to make them sick of each other, and more prone to hostility). The sisters are also subjected to holding therapy—being physically restrained, one-on-one, for long periods, even after a fit of violence has passed—and to weird rituals like staring for an entire therapy session into a fish tank full of seahorses they are meant to care for. One of the other narrating characters grows interested in attachment therapy, and provides some useful, fictionalized background. Candace Newmaker, a ten-year-old who died of suffocation during a rebirthing session in 2000, is presented to the reader under a different name and a slightly different set of circumstances. Her death and the resulting trial was the subject of a book, Attachment Therapy on Trial, by a trio of psychiatrists.

Attachment therapy pervades the novel, but without a tablespoon of existing information about it, the reader will find it hard to believe that the sisters’ doctor is practicing a therapeutic technique with any structure to it at all. The therapy meanders and does not progress for years on end, and the sisters’ illness is vaguely defined and not apparent in their behavior. This makes the asylum less realistic and more symbolic, and it increases the book’s links to Gothic fiction, where madwomen are locked in attics for slim reasons. Further, the sisters have no concrete prognosis, no potential for release from their asylum. As Addie narrates,

The life outside the ward is not an available life. Its mountains, its sunshine, its movements of people and traffic are like the dumb projections of a television screen, actors and sets that switch off as abruptly as the television does once we pull back into the gray gravel parking lot of the ward.

Permeating the events of the novel are drifting, dreamy movements across time and place (it seems as if the sisters are living inside a single traumatic childhood event for years on end), as well as that deliberately fictional sense of events—the open secret that this is a novel, not a chronicle. Attachment therapy may be all too real, leveraging therapeutic techniques ranging from misguided to sinister, but the story Barrow tells in The Quelling is wildly unlikely. It’s no less enjoyable for that. Barrow writes beautifully, and not one of her characters is either a hero or a villain: all are flawed, troubled, and proceeding on incomplete information. Such qualities make this an unusual, involving novel, enticing and imperfect and entirely readable.

Meticulous research by its author gives the book a backbone, but doesn’t confine it into unnecessary specificity. Attachment therapy inspired the novel, but doesn’t define it. “I was shocked to learn about the abusive techniques that some doctors had used on children with attachment disorders,” Barrow says. “Those stories remained with me and I wrote a short story about Addie and Dorian that eventually became the novel. I consulted Colby Pearce’s A Short Introduction to Attachment and Attachment Disorder (2009) and the ‘Report of the APSAC Task Force on Attachment Therapy, Reactive Attachment Disorder, and Attachment Problems,’ from Child Maltreatment. I also consulted coverage of the trial of Connell Watkins and Julie Ponder [for the death of Candace Newmaker] and their deadly ‘rebirthing’ technique in the Denver Post, The Telegraph, The New York Times, and on the Advocates for Children in Therapy website. The novel takes inspiration from research, but ultimately the research works in service of the story world.”


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