Published The Mail, You magazine 01/07/2023 Vikie Shanks and her family tell their amazing story KINGDOM OF US Netflix
The Power of Us. One family’s struggle with the repercussions of suicide.
Five years after the groundbreaking Netflix documentary Kingdom of Us aired, we speak to the family at the centre of it about love, grief, illness and coping with life after suicide.
The award winning Netflix documentary Kingdom of Us follows the Shanks family as they try to process the tragic suicide of Paul Shanks in 2007, which left his wife Vikie caring for their seven children, aged between six and sixteen at the time of his death.
The documentary weaves old VHS footage which glimpses into an apparently happy, close knit family growing up in idyllic, rural England, mixed with more recent clips and direct-to-camera interviews (filmed over a period of eight years after Paul Shanks' suicide) to reveal a layered and complex picture. During these later, intimate scenes of daily life, we watch Vikie and her family struggle to process the horrors of suicide and their near financial ruin, while lovingly supporting each other, creating a better understanding of mental health issues among themselves and later, through the documentary, sharing with a much wider community.
Through the film, Vikie shows an understated strength in dealing with the repercussions of her husband’s death. His illness remains undiagnosed because he refused professional help, something she had pleaded for throughout their marriage. Paul’s mental health issues are slowly revealed by his dramatic attempts to keep his family isolated and away from the many ‘bad influences in society'. When the family discovers his detailed secret diaries, some documenting every minute of every day, frantically trying to control and monitor their lives, we see the children pour over them, searching for clues to understand their father’s fractured mind. One notebook provided evidence of what further tragedy might have occurred had he not made the decision he did that fateful morning. It was a chilling, detailed plan on how he might kill the whole family. It is hard to imagine how such a revelation could ever be processed fully.
Getting to know the creative, talented children, five of whom are on the autism spectrum, is a highlight. We watch Osborn, the only boy, and sisters Jamie, Kacie, twins Lorie and Mirie, Nikita, and Pippa sit through old home movies together, piecing together their previous relationships with their father. Pippa, the youngest, doesn't have her own unique memories of her father, which makes her feel disconnected from her siblings' collective grieving. Her battle with anorexia and concerns that she has inherited her father’s illness are explored with candour.
What the documentary didn’t disclose is Vikie’s own deeply unhappy childhood, where sexual abuse and a violent father played a part. Her childhood ended with the death of her mother when she was just sixteen. This childhood trauma may help explain why she tolerated decades of Paul’s casual cruelty, spying, and sudden violent outbursts, as well as his growing obsession with having more and more children. She even stood back and allowed him gut their family home, tearing down most of the internal walls and removing almost everything but their basic furniture.
In the documentary, she leaves herself open to criticism from an audience who may not have experienced trauma like hers. They might ask the age-old question, “Why stay so long?”. We learn that Vikie’s attempted separation from Paul caused his countermove: to file for divorce. Four days before the divorce became legal, Paul took his own life.
2023, over 15 years since her husband's suicide, Vikie has become a published author and a TedX speaker, but sadly, her main source of income as a keynote speaker and her work as a mentor and campaigner for autism awareness has been cut short due to chronic illness.
Vikie told us, “Before my illness, I mentored families and individuals who needed support related to the autism spectrum. I have lived with a mother, two brothers, and now six children on the autism spectrum, so I have a huge amount of practical experience. I've developed a good understanding of how the autistic brain works and understand certain behaviours in a way some psychologists maybe can’t, on a very practical level.”
Her illness has been mostly stress related as the family was left in a terrible financial situation after Paul’s death. During the film, the children discover that their house has been remortgaged several times, leaving them close to bankruptcy.
Vikie tells us “People assumed we were paid for the film, but we didn’t get paid. We spent four years filming because we believed it would help so many people, and it has. But I had a heart attack just three weeks before the premiere, on the 10th anniversary of Paul's suicide. After further surgery on my heart in July 2020, I had to have part of my colon removed due to a form of colitis. Then with my double hip replacement last year, it’s been an incredible amount of stress, so as a result, I haven’t been able to work as a speaker or mentor recently.”
Vikie’s daughter Kacie-Kimie, who’s still chasing her dream of becoming a fashion designer, remembers back to 2017, when her mother had her heart attack. “At the 10 year anniversary of our father's death, as we were all reflecting on how far we had come, no one could believe we ended up at the hospital with mom.” She continued, “Some questionable choices were made throughout our childhood financially, so with no financial planning, there’s nothing for mom to fall back on now that she’s seriously ill.”
Lorie-Lanie, now 28, is an actress who has appeared in several independent films told us, “When mom had her heart attack just weeks before the documentary came out, she almost didn’t make the premiere. It’s been battle after battle regarding her physical and mental health. From the heart attack to having diverticular disease and developing sepsis twice, she had part of her colon removed. Then, in 2019, an ablation was performed on her heart due to an alarming number of ectopic heartbeats. Her mobility deteriorated, and when she could only walk for a few steps at a time, she had both hips replaced. In September 2022, she had a psychotic break and was admitted to the hospital for six weeks.”
Lorie continued, “Most of the health ailments are due to the financial stress our dad left us in. We’ve been fighting to keep the house and pay the bills. HS2 hasn’t helped the stress as it’s running through our land and has reduced the value of our home drastically.”
Despite all the stress of illness and financial hardship, the family has carved out careers for themselves including on stage and behind the camera. Music appears to be an important therapeutic tool, helping connect the children with their father, who had an early career as a singer.
Vikie tells me the children are all pursuing various careers, and two are engaged. Osborn is joining the police this year and is really excited about it.
Osborn still worries about his mom’s precarious financial situation “As much as we are looking forward to our futures and don’t like to dwell on the past, we are still within the grip of what we have experienced and witnessed. We do our best to help each other, and those around us, but we are only human and we have our limits. Nothing leaves me in awe more than the bravery of those who confront their suffering. To do that yourself is to live as though you are always in the presence of something truly beautiful, like a sunrise, a sunset, or the night sky.”
Nikita adds “Although mom is managing to pull off the odd talk here and there and delivers them so well that she gets standing ovations and amazing testimonials, she is not ready to go back to key-speaking full time. I would love to move out of the family home but I just can’t leave mum until she’s well again. My rent each month helps pay the five mortgages my dad took out when he was alive so my life is on hold for the moment”
Mirie joins the conversation. “If there is one thing I know about the human body, it's that stress plays a huge part in someone's health. It's been devastating to see the decline in mom’s health and not be able to successfully alleviate all her stresses and burdens. Unfortunately, we, as her children, have also started life with stress and trauma, a lot of it stemming from before our father died, with full awareness of the financial problems we faced as a family and witnessing his own mental health decline. I hope that we can find peace in this world and heal so we don’t face a similar fate to our mum.”
Jamie-Jodie “We are just bearing the burden of bad financial decisions, but it's our labour of love.”
Vikie offers some advice on raising children after trauma, and how autism affected the processing of emotions within her family. “Children are incredibly resilient, and they can come through such a devastating tragedy. If I’ve learned anything from watching my children’s grieving process, it’s that they all grieve in very different ways. There is no right or wrong, and some of them only started grieving properly years after the event. All I could do was be there for them, let them know that I loved them, and reassure them that I wouldn’t leave them in the same way (something that became a massive fear for them). If I could find appropriate outside help, I would, but help for children bereaved by suicide is very thin on the ground. Most of the time, all I could do was hug them and hope that that would be enough, and a lot of the time it was enough to get them through another day.”
Kingdom of Us is a chaotic but brilliant depiction of the consequences of mental illness and how such tragic events can scar and shape children as they grow up. Could the BAFTA nominated director Lucy Cohen be persuaded to create Kingdom of Us Part 2?. After watching her poignant, honest and moving film, we can only assume everyone is rooting for a happy and successful onward journey for the whole family.
Kingdom of Us, Netflix
Vikie Shanks' book Unravelled is available nationwide.
She is available now as a speaker on mental health, suicide, and autism. (google Vikie Shanks Speaker Bureau to find her agents)