Humanists sit up and take notice—The Children Act is a cautionary tale for those of us who would encourage people doubting their faith to explore those doubts.
The book begins benignly enough, with the protagonist, family court judge Fiona Maye, working through the nuances of some of her recent custody cases. She laments how greed and anger between divorcing couples cloud their judgment about what’s best for their kids. Many of her cases directly involve religious differences between the parents, and the drumbeat theme of the book—encapsulated in its title—is that the so-called Children Act should prevail when judgment gets cloudy. This book is an exploration of what might constitute children’s interests in several extreme scenarios.
The Children Act, as interpreted by Fiona, states that whenever there is doubt in a ruling, the interests of the child prevail. So it is that Fiona rules that the daughters of a Haredi Jewish man and a woman less committed to Haredi isolationism go to their mother for custody, so that they may be exposed to a wider culture and have better opportunities for self-actualization as they mature. She sets precedent that puts limits on the Children Act, ruling in a case of tragically conjoined twins that the one whose deformities would doom him to die—and in so doing kill his otherwise viable brother—has no interests of his own to be fought for. The moral ramifications of this decision—and the outrage and harassment Fiona endures from religious conservatives who would rather have seen both boys die, still conjoined, per God’s will—haunt her so badly that her marriage begins to unravel.
This is the state of events at which the reader is brought into the story. When it is revealed that Fiona’s next case is to decide the fate of a Jehovah’s Witness boy in need of a blood transfusion to save his life, the reader can well anticipate the direction her ruling will take. What happens on the way, though, and afterward, is a bit of an awkward surprise. Before committing to her ruling, Fiona visits the boy—just three weeks shy of his eighteenth birthday—in his hospital room. She learns that just days before expecting to die, he has taken up the violin and continues to write poetry. When she meets him, his mind is vibrantly alive inside his dying body. He is also devoutly religious, clear in his comprehension of and committed to the principles of his faith. He is ready to die for his beliefs and has made peace with that outcome.
Fiona listens to his poetry and his violin playing. She even sings a duet with him. Then she goes back to the courtroom to rule that the boy’s interests—his well-being and his potential for development—outweigh the religious objections of his parents, and even those of the boy himself. This is her ultimate interpretation of the Children Act—that even a person’s own wishes can be overruled if that person happens to be under eighteen years of age and those wishes—or religious beliefs—would interfere with his or her potential development.
The boy gets the transfusion and lives. Fiona returns to her own introverted life, and her failing marriage. As she goes about her business, she starts receiving letters from the boy, indicating his gratitude and his growing doubts about his religion. He recalls that as he lay recovering in the hospital, his parents shed tears of joy at his bedside that he would live. Yes, he was getting a blood transfusion against God’s will, but only over their united objections. It was the state that was forcing him to have this transfusion, which therefore represented a kind of miracle to the parents. The boy describes how as he began to articulate his doubts to his parents, they would shut down the conversation; he had no one but this judge who had forced him to live with whom to share his new confusion. Fiona does not reply to any of the letters, although she keeps them. McEwan makes the point that despite being childless, Fiona has effectively brought about this boy’s rebirth.
This is where McEwan’s rebuke begins. After Fiona has interfered with a human being’s life to the point where he finds himself unexpectedly alive, alone, and doubting his faith, she turns her back on his need for mentorship. Her own desire to protect her reputation completely obscures her ability to see any emotional damage she may have inflicted through her actions. She is part of an elite class of public servants, struggling with a rough patch in her marriage, and it simply wouldn’t do to have gossip going around.
The drumbeat throughout the book is Fiona’s application of the Children Act to overrule the religious objections of parents in order to ensure the well-being of their children. All of these decisions have consequences, to which the judge Fiona seems indifferent.
One case stands out as an exception to her pattern of ruling. It concerns a young girl whose devout Muslim father abducts her to Rabat, Morocco, where he eventually settles. The case progresses, almost as an aside, in the background. The reader first learns of it on page five, when the mother pleads with the court that she fears her daughter might be taken away by the father, despite his assurances to the court that he would not do so. For reasons McEwan never explains, Fiona chooses to believe the Muslim father’s assertions that he will not take his daughter to Rabat, and erroneously does not intervene for the girl’s safety. The mother’s worst fears are confirmed, and the girl’s safety is now in the hands of the Moroccan courts. This one exception makes Fiona’s other applications of the Children Act seem all the more selfish and arbitrary.
McEwan’s narrative style weaves in and out of the past and present, in and out of Fiona’s personal emotional drama, and in and out of her casework in equal measure. Most of the book lives inside Fiona’s head: her motives, her emotions, her reactions to developments outside her control. By forcing the reader to live inside that space, the narrow boundaries of her world become claustrophobic: her flat, her judicial chambers, her privileged excursion to a country manor for regional court duties, her music recital.
Even though McEwan focuses on Fiona’s constant internal moralizing about how the Children Act is supposed to put the child’s needs above all else, she exhibits little willingness to consider that others may have different views about what’s best for a child. After making her rulings, she removes herself from the lives of those about whom she just ruled. Despite her own tortured thoughts following the ruling on the conjoined twins, for example, she makes no effort to follow up to see how the family is adjusting following the consequences of her action.
In the end, the only one who suffers no real consequences from those actions is Fiona herself—even her struggling marriage shows glimmers of healing—and this is the heart of McEwan’s rebuke. Taken allegorically, Fiona represents the secular movement’s recent focus on coming out and actively encouraging people to explore their doubts and possibly reject their religious beliefs in favor of a more rational life stance. We’ve launched national campaigns like Openly Secular and Normalize
Atheism. However, we don’t have the infrastructure that a religious community does to support these human beings once they’ve left their folds. Sure, we have Recovering from Religion and its hotline volunteers for some emotional support, but the physical support just isn’t there. At the 2012 American Humanist Association conference in New Orleans we honored a boy who had been kicked out of his home for standing up for his secular beliefs. Who took him in after that? McEwan is quietly asserting that the secular movement’s focus on coming out without the infrastructure to support our newly freed minds makes us as selfish as Fiona. Now that we’ve opened the door for those with doubts to join us in the secular community, we are obligated to follow through by building robust infrastructural support to catch our newest members as they fall from their faiths.