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American novelist, Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995), was in kinship care as a child. 

Patricia was born Mary Patricia Plangman in Fort Worth Texas. Her father, Jay Plangman (1889-1975), divorced her mother, Mary Plangman (1895-1991), shortly before Patricia’s birth and Patricia saw little of him growing up. 

Mary and Patricia lived with Mary’s mother, Willie Mae Coates, in Willie Mae’s Fort Worth boarding house. While Mary, a commerical artist, went out to work and to look for work, Willie Mae raised Patricia. 

 According to biographer Joan Schenkar, the absence of Mary had a profound effect on Pat: 

…Pat, for the first few years of her life, also lost [in addition to her father] a mother: figuratively, because of the circumstances of their housing, and then actually, because Mary travelled far and wide to get work, and then remarried. Although Pat frequently blamed the loss of her father on her mother, it was the repeated loss of her mother, Mary, that threw Patricia Highsmith into a persistent mourning for her life (Schenkar, 71). 

Mary Plangman remarried in 1924 and for three years Stanley Highsmith joined the Willie Mae household. Then in 1927 Mary and Stanley took Patricia with them and moved to New York. A couple of years later they returned to Fort Worth for a year or so, and then they returned to New York. 

Mary and Patricia moved back to Forth Worth again in 1933, but this time Mary returned to New York without twelve-year-old Patricia who was left behind for twelve months in the care of Willie Mae. 

Being left behind felt like an “unforgivable betrayal“, one Highsmith never recovered from.

“I repeat the pattern, of course, of my mother’s semi-rejction of me,” she wrote. “I never got over it. Thus I seek out women who will hurt me in a similar manner” (Highsmith cited by McDougall).

On graduating from Barnard College in New York City in 1942, and unable to secure a position in one of the high-end outlets, such as Vogue, Patricia Highsmith spent seven years writing in the comic industry. She then traveled to Europe in 1949 and in 1950 published her first novel, Strangers on a Train, which was adapted for film by Alfred Hitchock the following year.

In 1955, Highsmith published the first of a series of anti-hero books featuring Tom Ripley – an orphan character raised in kinship care – several of which have been adapted for both television and film.

Given the history of Mary’s (and Jay’s) absence from Patricia’s early years, and the twelve months of being abandoned at Willie Mae’s, it is not surprising, Schenkar argues, that: 

…adoptions, actual and figurative are a recurrent theme in much of Pat Highsmith’s work, beginning with her first, unfinished novel, The Click of the Shutting, and continuing on through her posthumous novel, Small g. (Schenkar, 81). 

From 1946 and after seeing two snails locked together while walking in New York City, Highsmith became fascinated by the gastropods. She took to breeding them, apparently, in her Suffolk, England garden and even took some out to dinner in London with her in a “gigantic handbag that contained a head of lettuce and a hundred snails” (Currey, 12).

When she later moved to France, Highsmith had to get around the prohibition against bringing live snails into the country. So she smuggled them in, making multiple trips across the border with six to ten of the creatures hidden under each breast (Currey, 12).

A restless woman, Patricia Highsmith lived in Italy and Switzerland after England and France. All the while she was writing “brilliant, disturbing novels and short stories” inspired in part by the work of Edgar Allan Poe and Joseph Conrad.

Writes Scott Bradfield:

...Highsmith grows more filmable every year, perhaps because our world is so swiftly catching up with the sort of people she wrote about: men and women who lie, commit forgery and develop manipulative fictions to damage everyone around them.

Deep Water (2022) is an adaptation of Highsmith’s 1957 novel of the same name. The film stars Ben Affleck as Vic Van Allen, a retired robotics engineer, and Ana de Armas as his wife who takes a number of loves. One of Vic Van Allen’s hobbies in the film is breeding snails.


“‘Avoid sadists!’: Patricia Highsmith on sex, women and writing Mr Ripley.” The Guardian, 13 November 2021. 

Bradfield, Scott. “Murder most casual: why Patricia Highsmith’s thrillers are so chilling.” Spectator Australia, 16 January 2021. 

Currey, Mason. Daily Rituals. How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work. Basingstoke, UK: Picador.

McDougall, Rennie. “The Many Faces of Patricia Highsmith.” T. The New York Times Style Magazine, 19 April 2021. 

“Patricia Highsmith.” Britannica. 

Schenkar, Joan. The Talented Miss Highsmith. New York: Picador, 2009 

 Image available here.