Private Lives: Positive things come out of chaos

A Family Affair; When Virginia discovered that her husband of eight years was having an affair, and a divorce was imminent, the person she turned to was her mother, Jill. Now the two have written a book which they hope will help others in similar straits
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Jill Curtis, 62, is a psychotherapistand author of `Making and Breaking Families' (Free Association Press). She lives in London. Her daughter Virginia, 37, who works with antique jewellery, is divorced with two children - Thomas, 10, and Georgina, 9. They live in London. Virginia and Jill talk about a book they wrote together on divorce, `Where's Daddy?' (Bloomsbury), which grew out of sharing the anguish of Virginia's marriage break-up.


When I discovered my husband was having an affair, it was our eighth wedding anniversary and we were about to exchange contracts on a big family house in Hampshire. We decided that he should move out, and I would go into our new house alone with the children. That was a good decision, and I was doing quite well until the next body blow, when he told me his girlfriend was having a baby. It was only a few months on, and I suppose in my head I had wondered whether he might still change his mind.

Through it all, Mummy kept me afloat by being there on the end of the phone - we spoke sometimes three or four times a day. She let me unload all my feelings, and being a psychotherapist she understands how clouded everything gets with emotions. The most important thing was that she helped me answer the questions that the children asked, without overloading the answers. There's such a temptation to do that, because you are so full of feelings about what's going on.

This was really the beginning of doing the book - addressing how you answer some of the most difficult questions, such as "why has Daddy gone?" And, "why can't I stay the night with him?" You have to think of some positive way to frame the answer, rather than just: "because the girlfriend you see with him may not be the same one as last week".

That, and the fact that almost all my friends in Winchester seemed, suddenly, to have been left by their husbands. Mummy said, almost as a joke, that we should get together and do the book, and I kept saying I couldn't get involved in that. Then when we returned to London, which we did after two years, she had the offer of a contract and it seemed a good idea. I'd have killed to have had a book like ours, which is a collection of people's stories and feelings, and a look at different issues, such as how things will be organised for children when you split up. It's very much a combination of Mummy's technical knowledge and my experience of going through the split.

It started off quite ad hoc. We did some brainstorming, and each wrote down what we felt. We sent out questionnaires and got some shattering stories back. Then I would write, and Mummy would put it into the computer, changing a few things, and I'd do the same with her writing. We were absolutely on the same wavelength. It still amazes me that a book came out of what really seemed like a conversation.

It was very good for the children, because they saw something constructive coming out of an experience that was, of course, very painful for them. We would ask them for quotes about what you should tell people to tell children when splitting up, and they did drawings for the book. When it came out, they were so proud. They love saying Mummy and Granny have written a book. It certainly reinforced the close relationship I have with Mummy, and even my ex-husband approves - he bought a copy and said, "I'm very proud of you two", and that was nice because I know Mummy feels sad to have lost him as part of the family.


I felt skinned alive when Virginia was telling me what she was going through, and how she felt. I watched her getting very tense and worried before she found out about the affair, and it was so distressing. Your children's pain is worse than your own, and I just wished I could make things better for her. I knew Virginia had to take her own time going through the grief, and just be there for her. It would have been so easy to side with Virginia in getting angry with her husband but, in fact, I didn't want to do that, and although he will probably never realise it, my ex-son-in-law had a good friend in me. But I have tears in my eyes when I remember the children, who were very little when their father left, screaming and kicking because they didn't want to have to go to visit a man they really didn't know.

I suppose my psychotherapy training has been valuable. Also, I've had to redefine my role as a grandmother: to see that extra support is needed, to be there when Virginia needed me to help with the children, and to help her with parenting herself. There were times when she would ring and say, "Thomas is asking this or that. What should I say?", and I had to not tell her, but help her work out what was appropriate herself. The worst moments were when she would try to prepare the children for what was going on, and then they'd be faced with something they hadn't been warned about - such as meeting the girlfriend.

So what's wonderful about doing the book is that not only did it strengthen things between us, but we had a lot of fun, and it is a happy memory to come out of all the chaos. People remarked on our closeness while we were working together. I think doing the book was a way of helping Virginia contain what happened, but I didn't think it through in that clinical way. It just seemed obviously a right thing to do.

When we got down to it, we did different things - Virginia degutted a lot of the questionnaires - but we worked very equally. Then, as it got known that she was doing it, people kept coming to her asking for advice, which was very good for her. We wondered whether she should set up a stall...! We did try working together again when I was doing my latest book, Making and Breaking Families, but her heart wasn't really in it.

Publicising Where's Daddy? was enormously enjoyable. I remember one signing at a local bookshop when I rushed down there, only to be ignored; all I could see was a young woman perched on a stool signing books with all the staff around her. It was Virginia - and I thought, "she's on her way now".