It was something which my nan said, shortly before she died a couple of years ago, which made me think about the secrets people take to their graves. Particularly women, who for so long have carried the shame which society has heaped on them for their supposed ‘transgressions’ from what is deemed to be acceptable behavior, for what men had done to them or simply for the workings of their own bodies.
My nan, who was 92, gave us a clue as to what her secret may have been, but we will never know the truth or the story behind it. When I told friends about it, I found that many of them had stories to tell of women in their family who had lived with the secret burden of children lost, taken or given away, forbidden relationships or terrible abuse which was never spoken of.
It got me thinking about the sort of things women were made to feel ashamed about in the past, compared to the things women are shamed for today. Because although having a baby out of wedlock is not a secret young people would take to the grave today, there are clearly plenty of new ‘crimes’ they are shamed for.
I had the idea of writing a novel focused on four generations of women from the same family in which I could examine how this played out and how the secret shame of one generation could impact on the next.
Betty, Irene, Nicola and Ruby have all grown up at different times and with different challenges. But although younger women have many hard-won freedoms which their grandmothers could only have dreamed of, they now live with the prospect of being shamed on social media, and face issues such as body shaming and sexting.
During the process of writing The Last Thing She Told Me, news stories around the world illustrated this perfectly. While it was wonderful to see the Magdalene laundry girls, who had been forced to give up their babies after being sent to workhouses run by Catholic nuns, receive a public apology and being applauded in the streets in Ireland, and to have the historic ‘Yes’ vote in the Irish abortion referendum, there was still plenty to be concerned about. Not least the appalling stories coming out of the #MeToo campaign and the horrific rape case involving the rugby players in Belfast, whose texts joking about women being ‘roasted’ and the abuse the complainant suffered on social media, illustrated how the shame goes on.
My hope in writing this novel is to spark conversations which encourage more older women to share their secrets and remove the terrible burdens they have carried for so long and to inspire the next generation to ensure that women are finally freed from the shackles of shame to live their lives without judgement.
THE LAST THING SHE TOLD ME by Linda Grant is published in ebook by Quercus on 26th July, £7.99