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What ‘something’?

28 March 2013

This is a moving story of a family tragedy, says Sue Atkinson

Kicking the Black Mamba: Life, alcohol and death
Robert Anthony Welch
DLT £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT602 )

ROBERT WELCH's son, Egan, died tragically. In a note to his father Egan wrote: "If I die it is not alcohol that killed me. It's something else." It is pursuing that "something else" that Welch writes about, as he documents his son's alcoholism, asking that most scary of parents' questions - how much of his son's confused life was his fault?

Welch's startling honesty, alongside his intense love for his son, is woven into this book of uncomfortable questions about life and death, particularly the sense of meaninglessness with which so many people struggle. It is a book of great depth, and into the mix go Irish folklore and legends, poetry, depression, mania, alcoholism, drugs clinics, mental hospitals, anorexia, Tarot cards, Sardinian witches, and a startling level of violence.

Egan was clearly a bright, intuitive, and perceptive child; but he became yet another victim of the awful 11-plus, failing the exam and suffering the irreparable blow of low self-esteem which blights the life of many children. He was bullied and beaten up at school - perhaps the basis of an awful fear that blighted Egan's life. His father observes that there is "little space for those who cannot fit in", as he describes the chaos in Egan's life with schools, doctors, friends, police, and mental- health workers.

There were too many people around Egan who saw alcoholism as something that he could have overcome if only he had been more strong-minded. This view of addiction, whether it is alcohol or drugs, is very common - and hopelessly misguided and damaging. Welch knew that addiction is an illness and that his son needed help. Egan and his family were let down by all the "systems" surrounding them, and the raw pain of a devoted family is heartbreaking. But it isn't a sad or depressing read, because powerful and uplifting love permeates each chapter.

This book is beautifully written, with fascinating reflections on a range of literature and on modern culture, making it a book that is likely to stay in the memory for ever. This is a "must" for anyone who tries to help those struggling with addiction.

Sue Atkinson is the author of several books, including Breaking the Chains of Abuse (Lion, 2006).

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