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Twenty Years A Stranger by Deborah Twelves

Lies do not erase the truth, they simply delay it’s discovery.

This turned out to be quite a difficult read for me, because I spent some time in a relationship with someone who had narcissistic personality disorder. By the end of our relationship I was thousand of pounds in debt and had found out he had been trying to bully a vulnerable member of my family into an affair. It was like we’d been living totally separate lives, with his only intent to further his own interests and leave my confidence in tatters. I felt like I’d had a relationship with someone who didn’t exist. Years of gaslighting had left me doubting my own experience, my version of events and even my ability to make decisions. I thought this novel explained the concepts of narcissism and gaslighting very well and I think the accuracy is down to this being a true story at heart. The author wanted get this right for other survivors. I think she did a great job.

The style took me a while to settle into, but once I did I found it hard to put down – mainly because I was furious with this man. I needed him to be found out and get his come- uppance. The story is told through the narratives of several different women, each of them having an intense relationship with a man. What soon becomes clear is that all of these women are talking about the same man and the breath-taking audacity of his schemes start to become clear. This is not just an emotional catastrophe waiting to happen, it’s a financial disaster too.

Deborah Twelves

This man uses each women’s personality and vulnerabilities to his advantage. His wife of twenty years, Grace, wants to have a child but he is not at all keen, so their relationship follows a pattern of arguments followed by him buying something to keep her quiet. These gifts range from a puppy to a an incredibly expensive Portuguese horse for dressage and holidays in St Barths. All I kept thinking was ‘how on earth is he paying for these things?’ They are already over-leveraged thanks to a house purchase that his wife has sunk all her cash into – he had promised to pay her back as soon as a big deal came through at work. They’ve also bought a barge, which was meant to be somewhere quirky and fun to live temporarily while the house was renovated. Now he doesn’t want to let go of it. There is barely any cash left, and at least one family member has voiced their doubt that he will ever pay her back.

With Jane, who he finds via an online dating app, he presents himself as the busy businessman, travelling all over the country. They have sex on the first date and he seems to sense in this woman, someone who will be manipulated or even exploited. From a light smack during sex, he is soon initiating her into bondage, role play, and creating videos. She seems willing to do anything to keep him, even going one further than Grace and getting passed his ‘no children’ rule by throwing her contraceptive pills away. She figures that if she’s the mother of his child, she will have more of a hold on him and his many assets. In fact, she’s clever enough to start working on getting some of those assets into her name – so he can hide them from Grace should he ever leave. What Jane and Grace don’t know is that there’s also a Lorraine, and a woman in America who already has a daughter with a man she knows as Matthew. His cheating is international. It only takes one woman to find out about the others. To take action and expose everything. Then Daniel/Matthew’s house of cards really will collapse. This reckoning comes in an email, informing the others of his deceitful ways. From here, each woman behaves very differently and I found myself desperate, particularly for Grace, that Daniel would pay.

I really did recognise some of the tactics used by Daniel in his fight to keep his assets. My ex also sought to represent himself in court and when it wasn’t going his way claimed to have been too mentally ill to represent himself and wanted to overturn the proceedings. He withheld his agreement on certain things to try and get me to pay off his debts. When he was diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder, it was not a surprise. One thing I learned in therapy after this relationship was that the only way to deal with a narcissist is to ignore them, keep any direct contact minimal and assert a right to privacy in all legal matters. As a result he never found out where I moved to, I had to cut off mutual friends and avoid social media. I soon realised any contact lead to attempts to manipulate, gaslight and cause harm. It took a long time to de-program myself and start to trust other people and even my own judgement. This man had come along when I was a widow, I was vulnerable and I had money. It turns out this was a pattern, and the women before me and after me were also widows. Therapy really helped me understand how to deal with him during the divorce and why he had been able to manipulate me the way he did. I had to realise my role in the relationship, why I’d accepted his behaviour and why I’d stayed.

Grace needed to have the same advice and support. Any attention from her, even negative attention, would feed his ego. I really wanted one of the women to realised just how dangerous he really was. The money would be nothing next to the sense of freedom gained from simply walking away and starting afresh. I felt that the writer really captured Grace’s pain and bewilderment at what was happening, whereas the other women felt less fleshed out. They mainly existed as a counterpoint to Grace – the main woman in his life. One of the creepiest things for me was when she visited one of Daniel’s other women and found the house an exact replica of her own, they even had the same type of dog. I found the response of Grace’s friends very true to life – it’s amazing, once the deception comes to light, how many people admit they never liked your partner or suspected he wasn’t all he seemed. In this case friends had noticed his bragging and arrogance, the dodgy business practices and the fact that they never really seemed to know what he did for a living. Grace is shocked to find out that most of their social circle only tolerated Daniel for her sake. Would she have listened if they’d said something sooner?

I won’t reveal the ending, but will admit to a bit of a surprise when the truth of Daniel’s business came to light. Whereas a lot of the book felt more like a memoir – someone conversationally recounting their experience – the ending felt more like fiction, perhaps a case of wish fulfilment in some way? I think there were areas where characterisation could have been better and where I wanted to be shown a place or experience rather than being told about it. I think in this case the most successful parts were the ending, the experience of sailing and Grace’s time spent with her animals in the country. In these parts I felt really immersed in Grace’s experience and they felt the most real. I hope that the author gained some closure in writing the book, because as a writing therapist I can really understand the healing that comes from putting your experience on paper and even from imagining different endings to the story. It’s a fascinating study in coercive control and psychological abuse in general. I kept hearing Grace wondering why there was no legal punishment for Daniel’s treatment of her and I remember feeling the same rage. There is also the concern that this person will move on and do it all over again. The Government published guidance on coercive control and emotional abuse in 2012, but it took till 2015 to bring this guidance into law. I have no doubt that had this law been available, Grace could have easily provided enough evidence of emotional abuse to take the case to court. Whether this would have made her feel better, I’m not sure. However, books like these, relating the experience, can raise awareness of just how damaging it can be.

Meet The Author

Follow this link to an interview with Deborah Twelves.

Deborah Twelves was born in Sheffield, but raised in Ponteland, Northumberland. She studied French and Spanish at Edinburgh University and taught languages for some years while living in France, Spain and Northern Quebec. She now divides her time between her  home in Pwllheli, on the Llyn Peninsula of North Wales and her family home in Northumberland but often travels abroad. She has a black Labrador called Nala and a black Lusitano horse called Recurso (Ric), who take up a lot of her spare time, although yacht racing, which she began at an early age with her father, remains her great passion.

Deborah has written many articles for the sailing press over the years and Twenty Years a Stranger is her debut novel, based on true events in her life.

It is the first book in the Stranger Trilogy. The other two books, Ghost of a Stranger and The Boy Stranger will follow soon.

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Published in paperback and digital formats by Fortis Publishing on 27th July 2020


Hello, I am Hayley and I run Lotus Writing Therapy and The Lotus Readers blog. I am a counsellor, workshop facilitator and avid reader.

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