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Holding Out For A Hero

August 24, 2017

I had a short Twitter conversation last night with Ermintrude. She had written an excellent piece about her unease of the framing of a social worker as a “hero”. She rightly pointed out that the title infers sacrifice and other noble qualities, which in truth, are really just a social worker doing the job they’re paid for.

We all need another hero, so this type of narrative is endemic across many different fields. It’s not new – the nurse has often been portrayed as an angel. But the modern trend demands more powerful adjectives to describe us going about our business. It’s like our lives are scripted by a Marvel comic. And it reduces our humanity into the crudest terms of heroes vs villians; the powerful and the weak.

My great friend Shelley, who sadly died last year, wrote a brilliant blog about her experiences with cancer. She eschewed the usual war-like vocabulary associated with cancer, battling, fighting, and called her blog “Tangling With Cancer”. It cut through the heroic narrative and presented something far more messy.

The Marvel language is there standing tall in the carer world. Every yawning article written during National Carers Week will rely on the contradictory images of the “beleaguered” carer and the “heroic” carer. If, as a carer, you buy into those images, it becomes a serious headmelt. She spend your whole life fluctuating between Clark Kent and Superman. The reality is that a carer is both and neither and many other less flattering things too.

The powerful and weak polarity is regularly played out in the presentation of families of learning disabled people. Nobody gives themselves the title of “victim” but it is commonplace to see a parent get up to all sorts because they’ve classified themselves as “broken”. And it unconsciously sets up a brutal competition as to who is the most broken victim. The opposite can be even more dodgy – the self proclaimed “warrior”. It’s a title nobody in their right mind should ever claim, not least because it sets yourself up for an almighty fall. But if I’m tangling with the messiness of being a carer and you’re a warrior carer, it sets up an unhelpful and unhealthy comparative.

Mark Brown wrote an interesting blog yesterday where amongst other things he touched upon what may have been his “unpure motives” for being part of the 7 Days of Action campaign. It was a coincidence, because since the campaign ended on Monday, I’ve been lying on my psychiatrist’s couch, making copious notes about my unpure motives. It’s been uncomfortable but necessary because as another good friend often reminds me: “we should always keep an eye on that part of ourselves that is up to no good”. It doesn’t mean that all the good things we do are voided. It doesn’t mean I am “two faced”. It just means that I am human and alongside my ultraistic motives, there is probably also something less attractive, less heroic at play.

My unpure motive in relation to the campaign can probably come under the heading “vanity”. A regular stroke of my ego. I noticed something from the very start of the first campaign. As the original mums sent me their stories for me to write about, I did experience an emotional, empathic response to the sadness and injustice of the stories. But that feeling lasted about five minutes. Very quickly, I became detached and saw my opportunity to stretch my writing muscles. What was the hook for each story? How can I frame this to gain maximum impact? I found that part of my job very exciting but should I be feeling excitement out of other people’s misery? I remember, during the 3rd campaign, becoming totally immersed in uncovering an unethical responsible clinician. Once again, my investigation felt very exciting and I was less bothered about the poor sod who had fallen foul of the unethical psychiatrist. Basically, the campaign allowed me to act out my Marvel fantasy – Great journalist. SuperWriter. I’m not flailing myself alive here – I did a lot of bloody good work for the campaign, all stemming from a good place in me. And the campaign facilitated my inner Clark Kent to have his ego massaged regularly.

None of this is criticism of myself or others. Most of the time, we’re just acting  a out our unconscious. The hero social worker does many good things in their work but needs to keep an eye on that part of themselves that is attracted to the power their professional role allows them. We all like power. We all have an internal Mussolini. One unconscious move can shift the professional from hero to villian with disastrous consequences.

And the heroic, warrior parent? Most of the time, we’re just doing what it says in the parent’s job description. If your kid is in trouble, you help them out. It’s not about jumping into the Batmobile. It’s about love and duty. Nothing more. Nothing sexier than that. Succeeding and failing.

(But keep an eye out for our inner Batman).



Ermintrude’s blog is here:

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Mark’s blog is here:


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  1. shirley buckley permalink

    Hallo Ermintrude I wish Martin and I could meet you. Mark – your writing has given me much pleasure, and much insight, and you should be proud and egoistic about it. Thats what makes it good. Your relationship with Steven has made autism more understandable to us all. I think you are a great journalist, and if Batman plays a part all the better – you have him well under control.

  2. Jayne knight permalink

    We definitely have to question ourselves constantly about what draws us into this type of environment when we are paid or voluntary.
    Agree totally it’s about who it’s for and whether it’s our own fight with authority or a big hole in me that im probably dealing with
    But even if it is it’s better than doing nothing but yes very important to check out but at the same time acknowledge at least it fires me up

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