• We are pleased to announce Welldoing's Book of the Month for May is Wavewalker: Breaking Free by Suzanne Heywood

  • It describes the traumatic childhood of a British girl who spent 10 years on a 70-foot boat in the South Pacific, without friends or teachers

  • We have therapists and counsellors who see clients whose family background has left them with traumatic memories - find them here

Suzanne Heywood’s book Wavewalker: Breaking Free tells the shocking story of a seven-year old girl who set sail with her family from Plymouth stayed, unhappily, afloat in the South Pacific for the next 10 years. 

Wavewalker has been likened to best-seller Educated by Tara Westover, with Heywood’s parents portrayed as self-absorbed and deaf to their daughter’s pleas for a secure, more ordinary life. The journey, on a 70ft schooner, was often dangerous, under-supplied with food and water, and Heywood and her brother could never be sure of what was happening next. At one point, during a terrible storm in the Indian Ocean lasting several days, Heywood, then seven, was knocked unconscious and had to be repeatedly operated on in a tiny island hospital to avoid possible brain damage.

From early on, Suzanne Heywood felt trapped. She craved friendships and companionship with other children her age. More importantly, she felt she was missing out on education, something she couldn’t make up later on. The trip had been planned to last three years, but it didn’t actually end until she was 17. It was only by her own efforts, often thwarted by her mother, that she received any level of secondary education and then, remarkably, got into Oxford University on a “wild card”.

As an adult, Heywood became a high-flying civil servant, and married Jeremy Heywood, cabinet secretary to four British prime ministers. Sadly he died when their three children were still teenagers, but he had always urged his wife to write about her dysfunctional childhood, even though they both knew it would cause real ructions with her parents, who insisted that the whole trip had been one long happy adventure.

After a year of mourning her husband, Heywood’s friends suggested therapy might help. She engaged “a great therapist to help me, but I found that after one session I didn’t really need to keep talking about Jeremy. It was not an emotionally complicated loss, but just very, very sad.”

What she did talk about was her childhood  and how she came to feel “trapped in someone’s else’s dream”, with her education ignored, and embroiled in increasingly antagonistic relationship with her mother. “The therapist explained two things that helped me understand my childhood. The first was that my mother was probably narcissistic and for me that helped me understand a lot of things. 

“She also explained why, as a child, I found it so difficult to understand my parents. As children, we don’t want to feel negative things about our parents, to criticise them as we are so dependent on them, and if we question that it is questioning our whole existence. She showed me that it takes being an adult, with the resources of adulthood, to be able to look at that situation from a point of security and be able to understand what had happened. Therapy was incredibly useful to me.”

As she told her husband when they discussed having children, “Children have to know that whatever they do, their parents will love them. I didn’t know that — my parents disowned me multiple times, actually dumped me on an island once, as well as leaving me in New Zealand for a year when I was 16, and then refused to support me at university. 

“I knew, even as quite a small child, that if I pushed my parents more than an inch beyond what they would accept, anything was possible. There was no safety net. And that's a hard thing to live with,” says Heywood, now 52, and chief executive of a major business in London. 

As well as being an adventure-filled account of a South Pacific sailing trip — it was originally designed to mark the bi-centenary of Captain James Cook’s third and final voyage of discovery — Wavewalker is a strong and heart-felt appeal for the rights of children, and a warning that safeguarding must always be a concern for adults, especially when they are parents. 

Wavewalker: Breaking Free by Suzanne Heywood is Welldoing's May Book of the Month

Further reading

Boarding School Syndrome: 'Children in boarding school are actually children in care'

What is the lasting impact of childhood trauma?

The birth of the false self: surviving a difficult childhood

The lasting impact of emotional abuse in childhood