This blog is about emerging author Melissa Wray and her journey into publication. It also includes some writing tips and useful links.
Melissa hopes there is enough time in her life to write all the stories she wants to write and read all the books she wants to read. Both lists are long!
The young girl on the cover is Lyn Rowe who was born in Melbourne in 1962 entirely without limbs as a result of her mother Wendy taking thalidomide for morning sickness early in pregnancy. About 40 years later, after decades of poverty and struggle, Lyn led a legal action that exposed the astonishing truth about the global thalidomide disaster.
I was one of the Rowe family’s lawyers from 2011 to 2013. The case ended in a $100 million settlement for Australian survivors of the drug, including a multi-million dollar settlement for Lyn and her family. Silent Shock grew out of that litigation. Frequently while fighting the legal battle, I thought (and repetitively told everyone in the office) that Lyn's story, and all that surrounded it, deserved a proper, public telling. Thalidomide's immediate victims were the babies and their families. That in itself was appalling and heartbreaking, but there was much more to the thalidomide story: disgraceful corporate behaviour, warnings ignored, World War II medical experiments, massively profitable companies and poverty-stricken victims. And then there was the Rowe family and their struggle over fifty years with the damage caused by the drug.
As a former journalist (The Age, The Australian, ABC television) I knew this was a compelling and important story. So when the litigation ended, I turned to the book. Writing late at night and early in the morning for almost two years, I drew on documents unearthed during three years of research plus countless interviews.
Globally, thalidomide was responsible for up to 15,000 dead and malformed babies as a result of their mothers taking the drug in early pregnancy, and the book details the world-wide disaster. Silent Shock also reveals secrets covered up for 50 years. For example, an elderly drug salesman detailed to me (in an affidavit and on film) how the Sydney branch of the UK thalidomide company Distillers privately knew that the drug may be killing babies yet for another six months kept selling it, including specifically for use in pregnancy. That unfathomable decision cost thousands of lives globally.
The German thalidomide giant Grünenthal – which had invented thalidomide - behaved in a similarly disgraceful fashion, promoting a drug it knew was dangerously flawed as exceptionally safe. In the late 1960s its executives were charged with negligent manslaughter but escaped with a slap on the wrist. Yet Grünenthal was so unfazed that during the 1970s it appointed a man who'd been convicted and jailed for mass murder at Auschwitz as the chairman of its board.
And there are, of course, heroes in the story. The US was saved from disaster in 1961 by a brave and wise female doctor at the FDA, Frances Kelsey, who refused to licence the drug for sale. Kelsey resisted ferocious pressure from the US thalidomide licensee and even questioned what possible effect the drug might have on an unborn child. Once the drug was unveiled as a killer, Kelsey was feted at the White House by President Kennedy and the FDA was given new powers to regulate drugs. Kelsey is still alive, though in failing health, having just celebrated her 100th birthday.
Hear Michael speak at the Belmont Library on September 3