On Friday, February 4, I was sad to read the news that Mandy Allwood had died and would be cremated with no mourners.
Unless you’re of a certain age, you wouldn’t know who Mandy was. But she was known as Octomum as, in 1996 aged 31, she became pregnant with, then miscarried, six sons and two daughters at 24 weeks. The story was huge and not everyone was kind to Mandy – least of all the newspapers with which she hadn’t signed an exclusive deal. Her pregnancy provoked a huge medical and ethical debate about fertility treatment. Mandy decided not to abort any of the foetuses, which might have given the rest the chance of survival and was judged for her decision.
11 years later in 2007, I had just left Woman magazine to go freelance as a journalist. I was working on a story that would go on to become the first memoir I ghosted. My best friend Jo was still at Woman and was contacted by Mandy wanting to do an interview, which they ran. Mandy mentioned to Jo that she was writing a book and needed a writer. Jo mentioned me and Mandy and I had a chat. She said that she’d spoken to a literary agent, Robert Smith. I rang Robert and said I was going to meet Mandy to see if she thought she’d like to work with me. He asked me to let him know how it went.
I went to meet Mandy in her home, and we spent the day together talking through her story, about the babies she’d lost and the impact this had had on her. The three children she’d had since were taken into care. She very much wanted to go ahead but by the end of the day, it was clear to me that she was too vulnerable to put herself in the public eye again. She told me how brutal it had been before and I explained to her that in the intervening years, newspapers had gone online, and readers were able to comment on stories. Online comments were part of the reason I was thinking of leaving journalism. I’d had more than a few interviewees phone me up in tears after reading vile comments. I couldn’t protect them, and I couldn’t protect Mandy either.
I could see that Mandy was struggling with her mental health. She sipped alcoholic drinks the whole time I was with her and her main motivation for doing the book was money – never a good starting point, in my opinion. She also wanted to vent. This is a terrible reason to write a memoir. I told her as kindly as I could that I felt it wouldn’t be wise to go ahead, that it could cost her her privacy and take its toll on her. I didn’t know the phrase at the time, but in retrospect, I think reliving it all and opening herself to public scrutiny again would have re-traumatised her. Thankfully she agreed. She actually seemed relieved. We said our goodbyes.
I told Robert that I’d encouraged Mandy against writing a book and he agreed this was best. Not long afterwards, I spoke to him again. This time about the story I’d had in The Sun, which I felt could become a book. Robert agreed to represent me. He is still my agent today. That book, Home From War, about a soldier’s recovery after sustaining horrific injuries in Afghanistan, was published by Mainstream, then an imprint of Random House.
After the incredible experience of writing Home From War (in 2008 and in about five months – I still recall taking calls from Robert during my honeymoon!) I knew that this was where my professional future lay. I worked with Robert on other projects and in 2011, I created my company Your Memoir. I wanted to help everyone who felt compelled to write their story – whether they wanted to be traditionally, independently, or privately published. I love my work and have found it to be enriching and rewarding beyond expectation. My brave, brilliant and sometimes beautifully eccentric authors are the most incredible teachers.
It was Mandy who led me to Robert, for which I will always be grateful. Strangely, our lives are connected and always will be. I hope I did right by her. I still feel sure that I did.
Mandy’s death was announced the same day that her cremation is taking place. I do not judge her family for not attending. They have their reasons and people have to maintain the boundaries that are right for them. But if I had known sooner, I think I would have gone. I would have wished her peace – we all deserve that – and I would have thanked her for her serendipitous appearance in my life.