DOUGLAS Galbraith hasn’t seen his two young sons since they were abducted by their mother and taken to Japan in 2003. His new book serves as a letter to them, filling in those missing years
I TRAVEL to Edinburgh to meet Douglas Galbraith shortly after taking my two sons to school and nursery. It’s part of the morning routine, a mundane chore that one must get through before the day proper begins. Yet today, aware of the brutal severing suffered by the man I am about to interview, the school run takes on a new significance as something to be cherished. Galbraith once had two sons. It is not quite true to say he still does.
At some point during the first week of July 2003, while he was away from home on a short business trip, his boys – Satomi, six, and Makoto, four – were abducted by their mother Tomoko and taken to her native Japan. He has not seen them since. “It’s grief which is almost the equivalent of a police officer turning up at your door and saying, ‘I’m sorry, I have to tell you the worst thing imaginable – your children have been killed in a traffic accident and you’re never going to see them again.’” Galbraith explains. “It’s like that. They vanish from your life as completely as a literal death.”
Galbraith is a tall man of 46 with neat brown, side-parted hair, pale blue eyes and an air of cultured reserve. His tidy, unflashy, slightly fogeyish clothes might, if one did not know already, allow for a successful guess that he is a writer. Born in Glasgow, he now lives in Edinburgh. A few years ago he was in all the papers when it was announced he had secured a huge advance for his first novel, The Rising Sun. Now he is returning to the public eye with a book – My Son, My Son – which details not a financial gain but this tremendous personal loss.
It is a fascinating read – full of rage and sadness, though expressed in a very controlled way, all the rough emotional edges smoothed down by intellectual insight and elegant prose. Galbraith, a writer of literary fiction, regards the misery memoir genre with disdain and has a horror of his work appearing on the ‘painful lives’ shelves of bookshops. My Son, My Son is not, therefore, a simple wallow in his own unhappiness; what begins as a straightforward account of an extraordinary individual experience warps and torques into a polemical analysis of everything from international child-abduction law to filicide to the way society – both culturally and legally – seems to favour mothers over fathers.
Not that Galbraith skimps on moving personal material. On returning home to the house from which his wife had run away with their children, he finds his boys’ pyjamas lying on the floor “in vaguely child-shaped heaps”. He can smell them and fondly imagines he can still feel their warmth. It’s a small intimate detail to which any parent who has ever picked up clothes from a bedroom floor will relate.
“To some extent, the book is like a message in a bottle,” he says. “I am someone who has lost contact with his children. I can’t communicate with them at all. So this is one possible way of filling in what will for them be quite a wide blank in their lives. I don’t know what they have been told, whether they’ve been told one side of the story. I think people do best in adult life if they have a clear understanding of their childhood. So this book has two readerships – one readership is just two people, my children. I don’t know if they’ll ever read it. I think they’ll find their way to it eventually. If you know there’s a book out there somewhere which has got you in it, photographs of you in it, they will be curious."
Just two people? Not his ex-wife as well? One of the most compelling aspects of his book is that he makes no secret of his hatred for Tomoko. “Yeah,” he says. “My guess is she will read it. She has perfect English, and how could you stay away from something like that? I’d be surprised if I heard from her to tell me what she thought about it, but if she did then at least that would be some conversation rather than none. So, yes, you’re right, it’s for that group of people but mostly the two children, I think.”
Sitting, waiting for Galbraith, I hadn’t been certain what sort of broken man was going to turn up. I had thought it might be a tearful interview, and had questioned the wisdom of meeting in public. Surely his home, with tissues and hot, sweet tea to hand, would be more appropriate?
But in fact the cool tone of the book is embodied by the writer himself. He isn’t cold, exactly, but he does have a stiff-upper-lippish air of detachment from his own circumstances that is – all at once – surprising, impressive and disconcerting.
I mention how calm he seems and he says he is glad to hear it as he likes to think of himself as “lucid and self-controlled”. It’s as though he wants to be an expert witness to his own life, and refuses to allow the authenticity of his testimony to be thrown into doubt by any flashes of anger and glimpses of sorrow. In the beginning, when the children were first taken, he was “emotionally completely floored”, he says. “But you can’t keep that up. You get exhausted. I think that’s part of the natural recovery process from any catastrophic blow.”
So we sit there in the café with coffee and scones, a serene still life, talking of the boys he loves and the woman he loathes so much that when watching news footage of the Chuetsu earthquake that struck Japan in 2004 he believed, for a few excited moments, that he had seen her corpse. “It was immensely traumatic,” he says of the abduction. “It’s one of the most difficult things that could happen to anyone. But I have survived.
“To some extent, it’s like serving a long prison sentence. I could have murdered someone and I’d have been in prison for less time than I’m going to be away from my children, and at least murderers get family visits. But with every year that goes by, I think we’re getting closer to some sort of possible contact again. So there is something to be hoped for. It is speculative. It might not happen. But I feel I need to be there for the boys. I feel that damage has been done to them, and I can’t help repair it other than by keeping myself together and being here and available if that day ever comes, and try to give these people a solid, stable adult life.”
Galbraith admits he himself has been damaged, and now and again during our conversation it is possible to get a sense of how this loss has got into his bones. He tells me, for instance, that one reason he has not had any further children is fear of another separation.
He is also presently engaged in writing a children’s book in which a wartime child is separated from its parents by evacuation. Given the pain he has experienced, does he ever regret having children at all? He shakes his head. “It’s impossible for me to regret their lives.”
That evening in July nine years ago when everything changed, Galbraith had returned from London and expected his wife and children to pick him up at Leuchars train station. But there was no one to meet him. He had known it might come to this. He had hidden the children’s passports as a precaution. His relationship with his wife, whom he had met when they were both students, had been bad for some time. She had, Galbraith says, grown to be unhappy living in Britain and wanted them all to spend much more time in Japan than the holiday trips they had been making. He felt these visits were risky, however, that his wife might refuse to return to Scotland, and might keep the children there; that the end of their marriage would be accelerated.
To argue over where the family should be raised is one thing, of course; to abscond with two small boys and leave no forwarding address is quite another. What was it that made Tomoko believe the children would be better off without their father? “You know, I’m not really sure that she did,” Galbraith replies. “I think she thought they would be better brought up in Japan.”
Home life, as Galbraith describes it, was a culture war; his eldest son’s first name is Finlay, but Tomoko insisted he be called Satomi; Japanese came to be the language spoken in the house between mother and children; English was talked over; the television was tuned to Japanese broadcasts.
Galbraith, keen to rationalise these behaviours, has come to believe his wife became drawn so intensely to her native culture as a reaction to losing her own mother at a very young age. “I married a cosmopolitan who had come to Cambridge to study English and I ended up with a Japanese cultural nationalist,” he says. “I think my main failing was that I wasn’t Japanese.”
Frustratingly, of course, Tomoko isn’t around to ask for her side of all this. Anyway, Galbraith was left with few mementoes of the father he had been. The lock of Makoto’s baby hair had been taken, as had the identification bracelets the boys had worn in hospital, and even the ultrasound picture of Satomi. He became, as he describes it wryly, a sort of Miss Havisham figure, surrounded by toys “and the smudged remains of the crayon drawing on the wall that had caused such a row”.
Working from home, he had been a hands-on dad – feeding, bathing, playing, making them laugh. “One of the things that increased the likelihood of this abduction,” he believes, “is that my sons had a very close relationship with me, and I seemed at times to be the more favoured parent. I think that was disturbing to Tomoko and probably brought the whole thing forward.”
One might think, based on simple faith in human nature and society’s mechanisms, that Galbraith would be able to find and re-establish contact with his children fairly easily. Not so. The Fife police, he says, were reluctant to get involved (“They’re with their mum,” he was told, “they’ll be all right”) and the Japanese Consulate in Edinburgh was mistrustful and unhelpful. Through his own efforts, pretending to be someone else and contacting Tomoko via her old university, he managed to get an address for his wife and children, in a suburb of Osaka. Still, though, he was unable to get them back, and was reduced, eventually, to phone calls.
The law in these matters is defined by the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction, which says that abducted children should be returned to their place of usual residence. Japan, however, has not signed the treaty, though there are signs that it is now considering doing so.
If it does, and if the treaty proves effective, which is doubtful, it will have come too late for Galbraith. He is no longer seeking to have his boys returned to Scotland. “My children have been living a Japanese childhood since they were four and six. I don’t think it would be in their interests for me to disrupt that.” He just wants contact. “There hasn’t been any for three years.”
That was when he last spoke to them on the phone, and already by then their ability to speak English (Galbraith speaks little Japanese) was fading. He sends Christmas and birthday presents to the address that he thinks is theirs; to do otherwise would feel like abandonment. But he doesn’t really know where they are. They will be almost 13 and 15 now, very different from the little boys with open faces and milk-tooth grins of memory and dreams. Galbraith admits he might pass them, unknowing, in the street.
What kind of relationship could he hope to have with them now? “It would be difficult. It would have to be taken patiently. A lot of explaining would have to be done. A lot of trust would have to be rebuilt over time. Reunions in these situations probably don’t go as well as some people hope, I would imagine. I may find that they have a world view that’s entirely that of their mother.
“I just don’t know. That’s the answer to most of the questions, unfortunately. But I’m not naive about that reconnection, if it ever happens. It would be difficult and there’s no guarantee that it would go well.”
He has considered employing a private detective in Osaka, but feels that all it could accomplish would be to verify the address. But what about going to Japan himself? Has he done so? “Not since the abduction, no. I’ve thought about that, of course. But I can’t see that I would get any further than this locked apartment door.”
There are risks, he says, associated with turning up in person. He knows of a man who was arrested when he tried to get his daughter back. Still, though. One of the saddest moments in the book is Galbraith’s account of scanning the neighbourhood with Google Street View, hoping for a glimpse of his sons.
He did that because of an instinct to see them and be near them – “Yeah,” he nods – so surely that same instinct would drive him to actually go to where he thinks they are? “It’s tempting,” he says, “but I just think it would end badly. The purpose of going would be to get contact. If that was possible, I would go. But it’s not on offer and you can’t force that. Also, it would mean approaching a 15-year-old on the street and saying, ‘I am your father’ without any preparation or consent. So there has to be some sort of agreement. I think eventually what will happen is, if they’re interested in finding out about their father, they will contact me, probably through the internet. This book, of course, increases the chances of that.”
His instinct, then, is that he will see them again? That this isn’t forever? “Within Japan, they look like half-Japanese children,” he replies. “Every time they look in the mirror they know their personal history started somewhere else. And even at four you’re going to have some vague memories of another country. They have a personal story and the only way it can be explained is by connecting them with their father. So I think there’s a good chance, and I hope it does happen because it would be an opportunity to repair things. But whether it will or not is impossible to say.”
• My Son, My Son, by Douglas Galbraith, is published by Harvill Secker on Thursday