This is a book review of Challenging Parental Alienation – New Directions for Professionals and Parents, edited by Jean Mercer and Margaret Drew and published by Routledge. It is £23.99 in paperback or ebook.
This has been a challenging book review to prepare for a number of reasons. Partly because it has taken me a long time to find sufficient chinks in my schedule to read this book, chapter by chapter over several months. Partly because each of those chapters is pretty heavy going in its own right. And partly because of the tricky subject matter. By ‘tricky’ of course, I mean contentious. And by ‘contentious’ I mean pretty toxic. There is no review I could write of this book that will not upset someone.
So I have got my flak jacket on and I’m going to tell you what I really think.
I think this is a bloody good book, notwithstanding some structural irritations. And I think it’s a bloody good book whether you are a parental alienation sceptic or someone who subscribes to the doctrine, or someone who is just not that keen on labels and prefers to look at things on a case by case basis.
Let me get the niggles out of the way. Although it is also one of the strengths of the book that it is a collection of chapters all written by different authors, I found the stylistic differences from chapter to chapter were sometimes quite discombobulating. In addition, because each author was writing a pretty self-contained essay, by the end of the book there were certain points and themes which I had read about repeatedly.
My other bone of contention was that whilst it was actually really valuable to have input about what was happening in a range of countries and court jurisdictions – to see parallels and differences and trends – it wasn’t always completely clear which jurisdiction the authors of a particular chapter hailed from or which jurisdiction they were discussing (though I was mostly able to work it out).
Finally, although the introductory chapters were at pains to develop a working definition or dictionary for parental alienation I wasn’t always completely sure that all the authors of all the chapters meant the same thing when using particular terms. That of course is one of the central themes of the book – that parental alienation is a sort of shape shifting phenomenon, plastic enough to fit the purposes of whoever wants to deploy it, and impossible to either define or escape. The absence of shared language and understanding is it seems as much of a problem for those who seek to challenge the parental alienation lobby as those who seek to advance it.
I wrote the above section of this review weeks ago. And then life got in the way, and once again I have found myself slotting other more time-sensitive items above this one in my ever-replenishing to-do list. But all the while I have been mulling this book over, noticing how some of the things that are described within it are played out in my own caseload and in the language used by others – and I’ve not changed my mind.
Across its pages the book demonstrates the mechanisms through which PA can often shift professional and judicial focus from the recognition of domestic abuse and safeguarding, to criticism of the victim parent for a refusal of contact or for a child’s rejection. These mechanisms are not easy to articulate concisely or capture in the abstract and require to be set out with care to be fully understood – they are often met by insistence that PA is a real phenomenon, and in effect force a false choice between PA and DA.
This book implicitly rejects that false choice. It doesn’t deny that parental alienation exists. It doesn’t pretend that children don’t become estranged from their parents, and it doesn’t suggest that this is never because of some malign or intentional conduct on the part of the preferred parent. (And, for the avoidance of doubt, nor do I).
A passage by Joan Meier towards the end of the book demonstrates this point and sums up the overarching approach:
“at the heart of the alienation concept is an unquestionable truth: parents sometimes do try to turn their children against their other parent, perhaps particularly when breaking up. However, before the alienation label became treated as scientific, this kernel of human reality could nto and did not imply the dire assertions embedded in ‘parental alienation’. For instance, it was only after parental alienation syndrome (“PAS”) and parental alienation (“PA”) claims – as scientific constructs – became ubiquitous in court that it became conventional court wisdom that children subjected to such conduct would be permanently and irrevocably scarred, potentially permanently losing their relationship with the ‘alienated’ parent. Prior to the reification of an undesirable parental behaviour into a ‘diagnosis’ or scientific condition, parents and children’s allegations of paternal abuse were not automatically reframed as evidence of alienation, as they now routinely are. And before the pathologisation of parental denigration or exclusion, the reality that parents do sometimes use their children to hurt the other parent did not imply that an ‘expert’ could objectively know when one parent’s negative views of the other were legitimate or illegitimate, nor know whether and to what extent those views may have caused a child’s estrangement from the other parent. In short, assumptions like these, which are both implicit and explicit in the alienation label, are not a matter of common sense. Arguably, they defy common sense. Such bold assertions, then, should only considered plausible if reliable scientific research bears them out. The remainder of this chapter explains why there is no such reliable research to underpin these speculative beliefs.
To be clear, rejecting the scientific legitimacy of parental alienation does not mean that courts should not care about a parents efforts to turn children against the other parent. IT does, however, mean that they should be modest in their assumptions about the impact of such behaviour, about a child’s reasons for an estrangement from a parent, and about any third party’s ability to accurately assess these things. And it does mean that no ‘treatment’ for ‘parental alienation’ can be considered scientifically supported.”
What the book does do is to apply some real focus to what different people mean by parental alienation, what its background is, and what the politics are behind it. And by politics I mean how it is used in real lives and real litigation to shift the direction in which the case goes and its outcome, not always in evidence based or demonstrably safe ways. Through the various chapters in the book the chapter authors scrutinise what is done by courts and by ‘experts’ and therapists under the umbrella of parental alienation, and it considers what evidence there is both about the causal link between the behaviour of the preferred parent and the child’s rejection, and what evidence there is about the efficacy and benefit of the treatments that come as part of the PA package. This book is rigorously written, properly referenced and detailed (I’ve taken the citations out of the above passage for ease of reading). When properly analysed, as it is here, the evidence base on both fronts is alarmingly slender.
In our courts in England & Wales there are many experts professing expertise in this phenomenon of ‘parental alienation’. A phenomenon which has never managed to demonstrate a sufficient evidence base to make it into diagnostic manuals in order to gain recognition as a condition. I have seen in my own caseload a tendency on occasion on the part of parents, lawyers, social workers and judges to oversimplify the rejection of a parent by a child – into a simple binary – caused by abuse or caused by malicious / mad parent. And if it’s not the other then its alienation by default, perpetrated by a dangerous parent. This book is a useful reminder that the reasons children start rejecting one of their parents is often so much more complex than that. In particular, I found the chapter that considered the role of a child’s normal developmental stage quite striking. I am at a stage in my childrens’ development when small hills become immoveable mountains in the blink of an eye and the wrong word can provoke a storm out of the blue (even without the complication of parental separation), so I can well see how it is easy – perhaps even developmentally normal – for a child to align in a direction that causes them the least amount of cognitive dissonance. Of course, some parental rejection is much more deep-rooted, enduring and entrenched than a teenaged phase, but here I can only sketch out a caricature of what I took from a really thoughtful and thought provoking chapter. (Dare I add my own unscientific and entirely anecdotal contribution here – I’ve seen a good few number of cases where possible neuro-divergence (of parent or child or both) seems to have played a part in the unforeseen entrenched rejection of a parent over what seemed initially to be some trivial matter – where child and parent seem to get stuck over something which is subjectively insurmountable but objectively unimportant. This developmental, neurological context of rejection is, it seems, sometimes an important part of a complex picture that sometimes gets lost in adversarial binaries.)
It would be easy to discount this book as a partisan attempt by the feminist / domestic abuse lobby to discredit PA and its proponents. It is clear that the majority of its authors write from an explicitly feminist perspective and share a deep concern about the often harmful ways in which parental alienation is often deployed in post-separation litigation about children, in particular where concern about PA serves to divert professional and judicial focus away from proper analysis of the reality and impact of domestic abuse – but each chapter is a careful and detailed analysis of evidence, not a press release or a campaign document. In mapping the evidence and the gaps in the evidence base about causation and efficacy of treatment the book presents a challenge and a useful starting point for what is required in order for parental alienation experts, treatments and interventions to be accepted as valid, beneficial and safe for children and parents (or if they are not any of those things, for alternative and better approaches to be identified).
PA provides an overarching narrative that is enormously attractive to both rejected parents and to their lawyers (and dare I say it, to judges). It enables a rejected parent to locate blame with the other parent, and to reassure themselves that they have not contributed to the problem, which is much more emotionally and psychologically manageable than acknowledging their own contribution to a complex and messy situation.
For advocates it can provide a neat way of presenting a case (telling the story) so as to offer the judge a compelling ‘unifying theory’ that he or she can adopt in deciding the case. However, the adversarial process invites and lures a judge into choosing between mutually exclusive versions of reality – Version A or Version B – when the problems in many families cannot be so neatly categorised or separated out.
This book though, is not an easy read with a pleasing narrative arc – it’s a collection of largely harmonious but distinct analyses of different aspects of its topic – much more like a kaleidoscope than a linear journey. But it confronts the uncomfortable complexity that characterises so many of the families we work with, and asks some challenging questions about how we can really be confident we are not mistaking one thing for another, and how we can know that our decisions in ‘PA’ cases are actually benefiting the children they are intended to protect. And all of us should be interested in hearing what they have to say about that, whatever our personal-professional experience is or our instinctive leanings may be, and regardless of any ‘camp’ we or our clients may be aligned to.