An Offensive Read That Stigmatizes Victims of Childhood Trauma

A page-turning debut of suspense about a young couple desperate to have a child of their own—and the unsettling consequences of getting what they always wanted.

Christopher and Hannah are a happily married surgeon and nurse with picture-perfect lives. All that’s missing is a child. When Janie, an abandoned six-year-old, turns up at their hospital, Christopher forms an instant connection with her, and he convinces Hannah they should take her home as their own.

But Janie is no ordinary child, and her damaged psyche proves to be more than her new parents were expecting. Janie is fiercely devoted to Christopher, but she acts out in increasingly disturbing ways, directing all her rage at Hannah. Unable to bond with Janie, Hannah is drowning under the pressure, and Christopher refuses to see Janie’s true nature.

Hannah knows that Janie is manipulating Christopher and isolating him from her, despite Hannah’s attempts to bring them all together. But as Janie’s behavior threatens to tear Christopher and Hannah apart, the truth behind Janie’s past may be enough to push them all over the edge.

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Quick Take

As someone who works in the mental health field and has worked with children who are victims of abuse and trauma, I found this novel incredibly offensive and inaccurate. It got to the point where the professionals and other characters in the book were portrayed so inappropriately that I was fuming. For an author who claims to be a doctor in the mental health field, her portrayals of mental illness and trauma, as well as mental health and childcare professionals, were so far off that I am forced to deeply question her experience in this field at all. This is not a horror novel. This is not even a thriller novel. It is a completely ill-informed, slap in the face to anyone who has ever experienced childhood trauma or mental health issues. I cannot ethically recommend this novel as a professional in the mental health field, and I am so angry and incredibly disappointed at the author for writing it. She claims to be a “leading researcher in childhood trauma”, but based on having written this novel alone, I do not trust her as a colleague.

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* I want to preface this review by saying that no, I am not a doctor like Lucinda Berry is, but my experience in the mental health field and working with victims of trauma – including childhood abuse victims – is notable. In no way am I insinuating that I know more about the mental health field and childhood trauma than Berry does. What I am trying to say is that the way she presents various aspects of foster care, social work, mental health, mental illness, and childhood trauma and abuse are not accurate as to what I have seen and worked with – as well as what I have personally experienced as someone with severe mental illnesses myself. I have been hospitalized on various occasions for my mental health and can report on what it was like to be in the position from a patient’s standpoint. It is up to you as the reader to determine for yourself if you would like to proceed with reading this novel after becoming aware of the inaccuracies present. My job as a reviewer and a mental health professional is to just bring to your attention the potential damage this novel does to victims of childhood abuse, as well as those with mental illness. *

The Perfect Child by Lucina Berry is marketed as a thriller novel, but it has been described as a horror novel in some reading circles. I picked this novel up after seeing it posted around some horror book groups that I am in on Facebook and Instagram. As a reader, I tend to like horror novels that feature demonic, or “creepy”, children, so I thought this book would be entertaining.

The Perfect Child is described as a “picture-perfect” couple who have everything they could ever want, except for a child. The husband, Christopher, is a surgeon, and the wife, Hannah, is a nurse. One day they come across an abandoned six-year-old girl named Janie who immediately bonds to Christopher. They learn that the child has been abused, and fight to become her foster parents. However, Janie doesn’t bond well with Hannah, and she frequently acts out in severe ways. When Hannah becomes pregnant, things take a turn for the worse (and the weird). Janie becomes increasingly violent, while Hannah’s mental health deteriorates. It is from here that the novel becomes further upsetting and unrealistic as the author tries to blur fact with fiction.

In the beginning stages of the novel, I found that Janie’s described behavior was fairly accurate regarding children who have suffered through abuse. Some of her more extreme behaviors may be hard to read for some readers to process, but I can say that having personally worked with children who exhibit similar behaviors, I found it to be more psychologically accurate and informational than disturbing. Unfortunately, it was soon clear that Lucinda Berry was portraying Janie as a monster and morally corrupt, with an inability to be “saved”, which created a lack of empathy for the child in the reader. While it is mentioned that Janie is seeing various professionals in her treatment team for her care, it was clear that Christopher and Hannah were not properly prepped or given the necessary support to care for a child as traumatized as Janie. I found this to be inaccurate, because as Janie’s behaviors intensified, her therapist and social worker should have identified her need for a higher level of care, or at least provide the family with more information and support for handling her extreme behaviors. When Hannah became pregnant, she decided to get Janie a pet to try and give her something to care for so she wouldn’t feel left out with the new baby. But if Hannah had been given the proper support, she would have known that Janie’s violent behavior could insinuate that she was possible of mistreating animals. After abusing her new cat, and ultimately killing her, Janie is completely cast aside by Hannah who further detaches herself from the child and sees her as “evil”. At this point, Janie most certainly should have received more professional help as animal abuse is a dangerous symptom of past abuse and trauma, and intervention would have been necessary. Unfortunately, Berry used this very real symptom and behavior that occurs with many children who have experienced abuse to further demonize Janie.

In terms of her writing, Berry’s character portrayal and development of Christopher and Hannah was poor. I had a hard time caring about them or connecting to them as individuals. Hannah’s judgement of Janie from the beginning simply because Janie did not immediately bond with her like she did with Christopher felt petty and childish. But as Janie’s behaviors become increasingly problematic, Christopher’s attachment to her seemed very unrealistic. He did not listen to his wife’s concerns or care for her like he should have. He almost appears to become obsessed with Janie and neglects Hannah in the process. Both Christopher and Hannah seemed very plastic and flat, and I had a hard time for caring about either of them.

But one thing that absolutely needs addressing is Hannah’s deteriorating mental health after she has her child and faces further conflict with Janie. Berry claims that Hannah experiences postpartum psychosis, but she utilizes this claim of psychosis to introduce a poor thought out supernatural element to the story. Hannah claims to be seeing a demon in Janie’s eyes and tries to drown her in the bathtub, before being admitted to a psychiatric hospital. The way that Berry describes the psychiatric hospital absolutely infuriated me. She wrote Hannah as being stuck in a unit without any windows and tied up to a bed in a cement room. Once Hannah is given more freedom, she describes the unit as being dull and grey, likening it to a prison. Having spent time in a few psychiatric hospitals due to my own psychosis because I am a survivor of schizoaffective disorder, I can attest that this description of psychiatric hospitals is terribly inaccurate. There are windows, you are allowed outside, and you can walk around and partake in different activities. A psychiatrist meets with you essentially each day that you are in the hospital, and you spend the majority of your time attending therapeutic groups with the other patients. While I am aware that in various horror movies and books psychiatric hospitals are portrayed in a similar manner to how Berry described them, I found her description terribly inappropriate for this story. An author and mental health professional with her experience needs to decide if she is writing a realistic novel featuring mental health issues and childhood trauma, or a thriller/horror that is more of a fiction.

At the end of the novel, Janie is sent away to a group home that cares for troubled children. But the way her leaving is portrayed is as though she was given up on since Hannah refused to ever see her again, and Christopher is the only one left to care for her and visit her. In this way, Berry portrays severely abused children who exhibit violent behaviors as evil and unlovable. Janie being put away is almost portrayed as a “happy ending” in this manner, which deeply saddened me.

Based on Berry’s bio, she claims to use her experience to write novels featuring the human psyche. While I am aware that she states she blurs “fiction with nonfiction”, she should not claim to be using her clinical experience to write her stories if she is going to portray mental health, mental illness, and trauma is such negative ways. Readers who are not familiar with the behaviors that traumatized children often exhibit may see them as evil after reading this novel. Mental illness is stigmatized enough as it is, and we do not need more novels that demonize psychosis and trauma responses, especially from such “professionals” who have worked in the field.

The Perfect Child is a severely ill-informed take on childhood abuse and mental illness. The fact that a mental health professional wrote this novel and took the liberty to demonize mental illness, trauma, and psychosis angers me more than I can say. I cannot recommend this novel, because I find it to be incredibly dangerous and harmful to children who have experienced abuse, as well as those who are impacted by mental illness. I expected more from Lucinda Berry after her claim of working in childhood trauma and mental health, but I was severely disappointed. Skip this one. It’s not worth your time.

To learn about an actual child who suffered severe abuse and exhibited dangerous behaviors, watch the following documentary on Beth Thomas.

Learn more about how Beth Thomas is doing now:

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