If Donna McLean’s Small Town Girl: Love, Lies and the Undercover Police were a work of fiction it would most likely be dismissed as far-fetched or fanciful. The fact that it reports on and relates to real events from McLean’s life, and that she was not alone, makes her story all the more extraordinary. Over 40 years, British police units acted undercover to infiltrate activist groups, often deliberately targeting women and entering into relationships with them. Donna McLean was one of those women, and SNACK spoke to her to learn more.
How do you describe Small Town Girl to people?
My elevator pitch is it’s a memoir about love, lies, and undercover spies. I tell the story of how I, as an ordinary person, a small town girl, ended up at the centre of one of the biggest anti-democratic scandals of our time. It’s about me reclaiming my truth. And emerging stronger as a result.
It tells a quite remarkable story. Why did you want to set it out in a book?
I never set out with the intention of writing a book. Initially I needed to put words on paper to try and process the unbelievable story that was unfolding. Not just a story, but my life, my narrative. It began as fragments of memories. It was a way of renegotiating the truth. I wrote when I was a child and that urge came back so strongly. I think it was a coping strategy, at least at the beginning. I joined a six-week writing course called Write Like a Grrrl and my tutor, Kerry Ryan, read some of my work. She encouraged me to write my truth. I applied for a mentoring programme with Penguin Books called WriteNow and that really began to focus me. I effectively joined a peer support group with other writers, and we’ve maintained a strong connection ever since.
It also proves that real life is often stranger, or more incredible, than fiction. As you wrote, did you ever feel that these were things which happened to someone else? Did the act of writing it make you reassess all that had happened?
Reassessment was an intrinsic part of my writing process. Two years of my life had been unveiled as a complete lie. That made me question everything I did or had done, not just during the relationship but afterwards. The jigsaw that was my life had been upended, pieces scattered everywhere. Writing became a way of putting it all back together.
There’s a key section in the book where you break the news to your family. Did you have an expectation as to what their reaction would be? And if so, did they fit those expectations?
I knew my sister would be pragmatic and righteously angry. My mum, I was a wee bit more worried about. Their response has been immeasurably supportive. They’ve given me time and space to write, especially in the form of childcare. My sister and I were always very much in tune politically and I feel that my mum has joined the activist ranks as a result of this!
You form strong bonds with others who have been through similar experiences. Have they read Small Town Girl, and what has the feedback been?
I’ve had a lot of feedback from people who are portrayed in the book – that was probably one of the more anxiety-inducing things about publication. What would people think? One woman who experienced the same cruel deception said she felt like a fog had lifted. That was extremely moving for me. I’ve had lots of messages of support and solidarity from people who have experienced abuse at the hands of the state, all talking about the book in very emotive terms.
They’ve laughed, cried, got angry. I suppose that is what I want as a writer, to not only convey feelings but to have the reader join me, to feel as though they’re having a conversation with me.
You became a central figure in a media story, with all that entails. Did you ever get the feeling that you were ‘the current story’ which would be forgotten when the next one came along, and did you write Small Town Girl in part to make sure that that didn’t happen?
It never occurred to me when I was writing the book. The act of writing is such a private endeavour. I’d already been in the media a fair bit, as an activist, and in many ways it felt like an extension of that. I wrote the book primarily to tell my truth, as the state institutions create their own narrative. I also wanted it to read like a novel, although it’s memoir and frequently pops up in the true crime section of Waterstones!
It’s a book which is about more than just the SpyCops scandal and your role: you also visit other events and relationships in your life. Is that to give readers further context, or was that part of your own investigation into who you are and what happened?
I have another 30,000 words of life writing that was edited out! Thank god for brilliant editors (shout out to Harriet Poland at Hodder Studio). I’ve tried to explain the process of writing memoir as being like a memory portal opening up. You end up excavating everything, regardless of how connected it is to the core story. Those 30,000 words certainly aren’t wasted, whether I use them elsewhere or not. They allowed me to investigate my decisions and motivations, and fundamentally that has shaped my life over the last couple of years.
Small Town Girl: Love, Lies and the Undercover Police is published on the Hodder Studio imprint of Hodder & Stoughton.