We need to talk about Blood Brothers

Yay! It’s another adoption post.

One thing I bang on about a lot is the number of adoption-related texts there are across the various GCSE English Literature specifications. I’ve written about this in my article ‘Images of Adoption: Adoption in Literature and in the English Classroom’ (in Teaching English, issue 16) and I’ve spoken about it on the Loco Parentis podcast and for a forthcoming edition of the Adoption & Fostering Podcast. Of all of these texts, the one that crops up most frequently is Willy Russell’s 1983 play Blood Brothers, which you can study for GCSE English Literature with AQA, Edexcel, Eduqas and CCEA. It’s one of the most popular texts with all of these boards, coming second only to the classroom stalwart An Inspector Calls. It also appears as a text for study in GCSE Drama with AQA, OCR and CCEA, where it’s consistently the most frequently-studied play. In theory, you could end up doing Blood Brothers for both GCSE English Literature and GCSE Drama. You’d hope that English and Drama departments would coordinate things so that students weren’t doing the same play for two different subjects, but then again, some English departments introduce texts at KS3 and then teach them again at GCSE, so nothing would surprise me.

Thicker than water? (Source: Creative Commons)

I’ve been meaning to write about Blood Brothers again for a while now, largely because I continue to be astonished by how many schools teach it and how unproblematically it’s viewed. Recently, in response to the discussion about Kate Clanchy’s book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, Alex Wright tweeted that ‘If one reads a depiction of another, who, for whatever aspect of their personhood is depicted in a way that lessens them, one can and will internalise these depictions. If one has no narrative to the contrary, these internalisations take root.’ This really nailed what’s at the heart of my discomfort with Blood Brothers. It’s a play about social class, inequality and injustice, and all of these are important themes to explore. But at the heart of all of this is the adoption of a child, and it’s the use of adoption as a plot device – and the simplistic way in which it’s treated – that, for me, makes Blood Brothers a really troubling text.

The plot of Blood Brothers is simple. Mrs Lyons is unable to have children: her cleaner, Mrs Johnstone, has found herself pregnant with twins even though she already has ‘seven hungry mouths to feed’. Mrs Lyons persuades Mrs Johnstone to give one of one of the twins to her, but insists that this has to remain a secret, as twins who are secretly parted must never learn the truth: ‘If either twin learns that he was once a pair, they shall both immediately die.’ The two boys – Mrs Johnstone’s son Mickey, and Mrs Lyons’ son Edward – grow up in different households, with different opportunities and expectations. Nevertheless, the two become friends, each unaware of the relationship between them. Together with Mickey’s neighbour Linda, they form a trio who play together, roam the streets and get into trouble with the police, who treat Mickey and Edward very differently. Edward does not know that he is adopted, but – like the vast majority of adopted people – he struggles with his sense of identity, and feels much more drawn to Mickey and Mrs Johnstone. Later, Edward goes to university; Mickey and Linda get married. Mickey loses his job in a factory and goes to prison for his role in an armed robbery. On his release, he is depressed, unable to cope without antidepressants. An exhausted Linda turns to Edward for comfort, and Mickey confronts him with a gun. Mrs Johnstone appears, and tells Mickey that he and Edward are twins, but the inevitable happens: Mickey’s gun goes off by accident, killing Edward, and Mickey is then shot dead by armed police.

It’s easy to see why Blood Brothers became so popular with schools. It’s a play that works on uncomplicated stereotypes about social class and privilege, with plenty of opportunities for students to compare and contrast the presentation of Mickey and Edward, Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons, and the ways in which life has treated them. Take the incident where the children are apprehended by a policeman for throwing stones. Mrs Johnstone is told that Mickey was ‘about to commit a serious crime’; Mrs Lyons is reassured that ‘it was more of a prank’. Or the conversation between Mickey and Edward when Edward returns after his first term at university: Edward has had a fantastic time, and is looking for parties and a chance to celebrate: Mickey has just been made unemployed. Edward tells him that ‘if I couldn’t get a job I’d just say, sod it and draw the dole, live like a bohemian, tilt my hat to the world and say “screw you”’. Edward doesn’t have a clue. But on a more complex level, the play offers scope for the exploration of political theatre and classical tragedy. The disturbing figure of the Narrator, for instance, breaks the fourth wall at crucial points to underline the theme of superstition and fate that runs through the play, reminding both Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons of the consequences of their actions. The message the Narrator offers is clear: the separation of the twins has disrupted the order of the universe, and the balance will only be restored with their inevitable deaths.

We studied Blood Brothers in GCSE Drama when I was fifteen, back in 1988, when the play was still relatively fresh. I have a vague memory of playing Mrs Lyons in the scene where she persuades Mrs Johnstone to give up one of her twins, doing my best to put on an RP accent and holding a cushion up to my front, pretending to be pregnant, Oh, the irony. We loved Mrs Johnstone – salt of the earth, of course we did – and hated Mrs Lyons, with all her middle-class selfishness. We were teenagers, and this was Merseyside in the 1980s, and our sympathy was always going to be with the underdog. Of course Edward was really Mrs Johnstone’s son: of course Mrs Lyons was possessive, grasping, wanting what she couldn’t have and using all the force of her social and economic privilege to get it. What’s the problem?

This is where I go back to Alex’s words. ‘If one reads a depiction of another, who, for whatever aspect of their personhood is depicted in a way that lessens them, one can and will internalise these depictions. If one has no narrative to the contrary, these internalisations take root.’

Adoption as a whole, and adopted people in particular, aren’t served well by popular culture. There are so many hackneyed tropes, so many predictable storylines. Adopted people threaten the natural order of things. They’re cuckoos in the nest. Think of Mrs Rachel Lynde in Anne of Green Gables, warning Marilla Cuthbert of the horrors that await her if she adopts a child, telling her of adopted children who put strychnine in the well and set fire to the house while their adoptive families were asleep. Think of Heathcliff and Edward Cullen. Adoption might bring material advantages, but it also means that – like Edward in Blood Brothers – you’ll never really fit in. And as for adoptive parents – well, they’re just weird. There are very few positive representations of adoptive parents in contemporary fiction and drama. The Brinks in Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, the appalling Averys in John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, the Donaldsons in Anne Tyler’s Digging to America: adopters are naïve and selfish at best, loveless monsters at worst. No wonder they couldn’t have children of their own, you can imagine people saying. When you look at Mr and Mrs Lyons, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that they were never really meant to be parents in the first place.

Blood Brothers does not make any claims to realism, and the Lyons family is – obviously – light-years away from the average adoptive family in the UK today. Edward’s adoption is both unofficial and illegal, and Mr and Mrs Lyons escape the lengthy process of assessment and approval that all prospective adopters in the UK have to undergo. Nevertheless, the fact remains that this play represents the most significant fictional model of adoption that many of our students will have encountered at this point in their lives. If one has no narrative to the contrary, these internalisations take root. Many teaching resources choose to focus on the play’s adoption theme and hold it up as an oddity, something outside students’ own lives. One resource on Teachit asks ‘Do you think that it is ok for women to give up their babies for adoption? What reasons do women have for doing this?’ Another asks students to ‘create a short improvisation in which a teenager discovers that he/she was given up for adoption at 1 week old. He or she only discovers the truth when going through an old shoe box kept in the loft. How do you feel when you are told that your mum and dad are not your real parents?’ Imagine being an adopted teenager in this classroom, faced with this activity: lives like yours reduced to outdated stereotypes, painful family histories turned into an exercise for open discussion. Adoption, and families formed by adoption, are persistently othered: adoptive families are weird. (Adopted children are actually told this, by the way, by other children. The Dude certainly was. I have no idea where the other kid got it from, but it must have been from somewhere. Another kid told him that all adopted people end up in prison. That kid must have got that from somewhere, too. I have lost count of how many misconceptions I had to correct during the Dude’s school career.)

And adopted children have quite enough to cope with already, thank you. All adoption is rooted in trauma, and this is particularly the case in the UK nowadays, when the vast majority of adoptions involve children who have been taken into care because their birth parents were unable to keep them safe. The effects of this trauma can be lifelong. Some children will have very vivid memories of the events that led to their removal from their birth parents’ care. Others will have been very young, but early trauma – including that which is experienced prenatally – leaves its mark on the developing brain.

And yet, even now, adoption provides a seemingly endless set of tropes for entertainment. Just this week, a post shared on my Twitter timeline spoke of social media posts by parents joking about coping with their children during the long summer holiday, and how they were tempted to ‘have them adopted’. There’s a children’s novel called The Unadoptables, a supposedly ‘joyful’ Gothic romp about a group of orphans in nineteenth-century Amsterdam who are rejected by prospective adopters for a variety of reasons: one has big ears, one is south Asian, one has twelve fingers, one is mute and one is a girl who happens to be feisty and outspoken. Memes and jokes and plot devices, all riffing off a topic that is hugely complex, with no idea of the ramifications involved. (The Unadoptables was widely criticised by adopted people, adoptive parents and child welfare professionals when it was published in 2020: this Twitter thread, by Nicole Chung, will give you a sense of the debate. It was, nevertheless, bought by Penguin Random House for a ‘significant’ six-figure sum that would have paid for many hours of post-adoption support.) How long will we have to put up with this kind of thing?

So, as we approach the new school year, a favour. If you’re going to be teaching Blood Brothers, please think really carefully about how you’re going to handle the adoption-related elements of the plot, whether you have adopted or care-experienced students in your class or not. Pay these parts of the story the same kind of attention that I hope you’re paying to problematic depictions of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability – anything, in fact, that might cause students to feel less valued and less important, singled out because of their difference. If one has no narrative to the contrary, these internalisations take root. For many of our children, the education system is difficult to negotiate. Texts like Blood Brothers make it a whole lot harder.

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