Wednesday, September 4, 2019


Hiding in Plain Sight: The Inspiration for A Girl Named Anna 

It was the mid-2010s, and women kept being found in basements. At least that was what it seemed like to me, not in a basement, but in the middle of Central London, on my daily commute.

There was Jaycee Duggard, kidnapped, aged eleven, by Phillip and Nancy Garrido. There was Elisabeth Fritzl, help captive by her own father in a concealed area of her own home. There were the multiple abductions performed by Ariel Castro. In Germany, there was Natascha Kampusch, kept prisoner in a secret cellar for 8 years. And, not so much in a basement but nonetheless abducted and kept hidden in striking distance of her own family, there was Elizabeth Smart, stolen through her bedroom window by a drifter and religious fanatic her gentle Mormon family had given work to.

I read their stories: these brave, courageous women who had been through terrible ordeals and lived to tell their tale: and I tried to imagine what it must have been like for them; the daily horror, the claustrophobia, the never-knowing if they were going to be free; and I couldn’t even come close to contemplating it.

But their experiences resonated with me, and I was struck by two very distinct facts:

Firstly, these women were all taken by men (albeit sometimes aided by women), and they all seemed to have a sexual motivation to them.

Secondly, they all remembered being taken; they emphatically knew who they were.

And I thought: what if that wasn’t the case?

In A Girl Named Anna, Anna Montgomery is a sweet and somewhat naïve young woman living with her strictly religious mother in the heart of North Florida. We meet her waking up to celebrate her eighteenth birthday; everything is calm, the mood is serene. And then her world is shattered when she sneaks away to a theme park she is forbidden to visit and has a shocking revelation that makes her doubt her true identity.

I often say that the book is not a ‘who done it’ but a ‘why done it,’ as the reader will know (this isn’t a spoiler alert, I promise!), that Anna’s mother, ‘Mamma,’ is at the heart of the mystery.

With Mamma, I wanted to explore was what would motivate a woman to abduct a child: reasons that I would like to think are complex and conflicting, that give Mamma more light and shade to her (and perhaps even more compassion) than the villains of these other true-life cases.

For Anna, the search for truth is also the search for identity, and again this creates a tricky push-and-pull: she has only known one life; she has only known and loved one mother, however complicated that love might be; how will she cope when all of that is cast asunder?

As a reader, you are sitting on Anna’s shoulder as she makes these discoveries – you have the benefit of dramatic irony, knowing the truth before she does, and at times that makes you want to shout at her, shake her, tell her, ‘stop being so stupid!’But I hope this also makes you sympathize with her. I hope you will see that the journey she goes through is not easy, and that just because she knows the truth, it doesn’t mean she wants to accept it.

Anna may not be surrounded by the same physical walls as the girls who inspired her, but sometimes emotional walls can be as thick as concrete.

Lizzy Barber studied English at Cambridge University. Having previously dabbled in acting and film development, she has spent the last ten years as head of marketing for a restaurant group. Her first novel, A Girl Named Anna, won the Daily Mail and Random House First Novel Prize 2017. She lives in London with her husband, a food writer. 

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