I live my life in a goldfish bowl. I am observed and monitored from all sides. The things I do – and the things I don’t – are recorded. The things I say – and the things I don’t – are written down. I am carefully studied. All my actions, except the important ones, are deemed to have significance. My private conversations are the subject of people’s discussion. My flippant remarks are kept on file for a century. People interact with me in a choreographed manner: the state, books and others tell people what to say to me, what to do, and when to do it, all in an attempt to steer (or manipulate) my relationships. Those relationships that I do have need Official Approval to exist. I have no privacy. I say something – or I don’t say something (I am not told the rules) – and a game of whispers seals my fate. State representatives make decisions and hang them on my words. I must tread carefully: I am surrounded on all sides. Microphones are everywhere, ready to magnify my words beyond my intention. I am being observed. I am being scrutinised. I am being watched.
Who Am I?
Like most graduates of the care system, I knew very little privacy when growing up. I spent my time in a goldfish bowl being monitored by parents, carers, the school, social services, and everyone else I came into contact with. Everything I did was carefully studied and recorded. Actually, let me correct part of that: some things I did were carefully recorded. Actual facts (often irrelevant ones) were recorded alongside half-truths, blatant fabrications, bizarre interpretations, benign misunderstandings, and… whatever it is that got redacted. The post-truth era really was alive and well back then.
But I am not talking about the lies, the half-truths, and the redactions. I am talking about the horror of living in a goldfish bowl. Because let me tell you something: constant observation is horrific for the observed.
(Do I exist if I’m not being observed? I sometimes wished I didn’t exist. I wished I could be invisible like other children. Like normal children. Like actual children.)
Living in a goldfish bowl causes a lot of strain. Your relationships are affected as you know that all adults can and probably will inform social services about everything. The state’s thirst for knowledge about you is more important than your privacy. Every time that you speak, you must remember that it’s not a private conversation: you may in fact be speaking to your social worker (or indeed any other similar person), who may write down a garbled version for posterity. It doesn’t matter if what you said is a safeguarding issue or not, it will have made its way to be recorded in Your Files.
It is particularly stressful if you are aware, as I was, that one wrong movement and your life might blow up in your face. When you are a child of the state, great weight is put onto everything you do (or don’t do – who even knows) by pseudo-psychologists. I once made the mistake of getting out a book and reading it to my birth mum during a contact session. This was of course recorded, and then interpreted negatively with regards my relationship with my sibling. Of course! No child in care ever liked reading! And no child in care had a contact session where – gasp! – the birth mother encouraged reading! Nope: it must be that there is something wrong with the sibling relationship.
And, of course, there is also the state representative – with no particular qualifications – who observed me for an entire hour and then came to a conclusion which they then repeated several times, with increasing authority each time. For, as we know, if you say something enough times it becomes true, and if you type it on official paper it becomes true quicker.
Observation doesn’t necessarily stop if you’re adopted. I found to my horror that adoptees can be gawped at and written about just as much as children in care. My parents would write things down about me (in my presence) and then put it into their file about me (without letting me see what they wrote). I found this odd then and I still do. I remember wondering if they were using it as a power thing. Of course, they interpreted most of the things I said or did (and also anything I didn’t say or do that was on their criteria of things I should say or do) as relating to my adoption, which is not only incorrect but utterly bizarre. But the effect was to make me feel as though I was not in a family home but in a psychiatric setting. That, in fact, goes for a lot of my care experience: you are constantly monitored and analysed, as though you are in a clinical, and not a domestic, setting.
These (mis)interpretations can have life-changing consequences. As an older child, I was acutely aware of this; I wasn’t stupid, even if some people assumed I was. The stress was exhausting. I remember trying to figure out how to act in contact sessions so as to get more contact sessions, and how to act around my new adoptive parents so as to have contact with my previous foster carers. It’s unbelievable when you think about it. Especially when you realise that no, it wasn’t paranoia: I was being observed, and important decisions were being made on the basis of these observations.
(How far does being observed change the thing being observed?)
(Are you paranoid if what you’re paranoid about is true?)
I remember being watched (sorry, ‘supervised’) during my Goodbye Contact. For the uninitiated, a Goodbye Contact is when a child who is going to be adopted says goodbye, for the last time, to their birth family. My Goodbye Contact is the last time I ever saw my own mother. (Goodbye Contact deserves capitals for this reason, Goddamit. Although my preferred name is Funeral Day. It is the day you say goodbye). Imagine, for a second, that you are seeing a dying relative for the last time and that everything you are doing and saying during this meeting is being watched and you know that it will then be recorded, discussed with other people, and then left on a file somewhere. (And, of course, that this whole scenario has been dreamed up by The Powers That Be for your own good. And, of course, that years later you have to fight The Powers That Be to see the records of this day, for reasons that remain obscure). Insult, injury, and kicking a dog when it’s down all come to mind.
There is no such thing as a private moment when you are a child in care. There is no such thing as tenderness, grief, privacy, or emotion. We are all robots, ready to take on whatever exterior is demanded by our latest set of carers, whether they’re atheist, Jewish, Catholic, strict, easy-going, Tory, Labour, or rich or poor.
There is also no such thing as a normal relationship. I was very aware, at times, that the adults around me were acting in a particular way because they wanted to cause a particular effect. People attempted to control or re-orientate my relationships by choreographing my interactions with them. For example, I was painfully, excruciatingly and embarrassingly aware of how everyone was acting during my Goodbyes (sorry, ‘introductions’): they were all acting as they were ‘supposed’ to act in order to make it easier for me (newsflash: there is nothing that can make it easier). This was of course all confirmed when a month after I moved in with my new parents I came across a book about children moving from care to adoption. My parents had underlined some parts about where and when visits with the previous foster carers should be and that sort of thing. I felt sick – sick and controlled. I felt sorry for them that they had to look at this book rather than talk to me. But I’m glad I found that book because it helped me understand where my parents were coming from. But above all it made me realise that they really didn’t get it. I could see through the manipulation (I am not making a value judgement with this word, just describing) before coming across this book and it was, to use a phrase I didn’t know at the time, to rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic. I felt that they were trying to stick to a script in a desperate attempt to make everything go right: – if only we do P in X, Y, Z order, then all will be fine. Alas, that’s not how it works or how it worked. I don’t doubt their sincerity of intention, but all it did was add to my feelings of being watched, monitored, and manipulated.
But we all participated in this. I was also conscious of being observed, so I read the book in order to figure out how I should act (and not act) so that my parents would understood what was going on. We all participated in the dance – dancing in the goldfish bowl.
My experience of being constantly observed affects me even now. I cannot stand it when my GP makes notes: it is, again, someone in a position of power making a record about me. Interviews are hard for the same reason! I once picked up a book because of its title ‘panopticon’. I didn’t even know what it was about but the title struck me like a truck-load of falling bricks. I knew what the word meant but had never come across a book with the title. Why did it strike me? Because I felt that the word encapsulated my experiences as a child in care – my experiences of being under constant observation. As it happens, the book has a theme about care. Who’d’ve thought?! When I saw the title, I thought about care – and it had a theme about care. That shows not only the power of words but it also suggests that I am perhaps not the only person to have ever made such a connection.
But what strikes me most is this: in spite of all their watching, they did not really see.
Answer: I am, of course, a child of the state. I am a LAC, a CIC, a PP child. I have corporate parents and am a public child. But I am, really, just a child.