After the age of 7, I admit to never feeling comfortable with teenage boys. I avoided them, especially at night. Today, in my imagination, I was 12 years old again, in an old homework room at boarding school. Hot tears were running down my face from painful homesickness for my Mum and the wild I missed, whilst hugging a 14 year old boy from a care home, himself lovesick for a loving family he never truly had.
Lemn Sissay’s fearless memoir My Name is Why is a book of love by its absence. Lemn is the name given to him by his birth mother from Ethiopia, and means Why in the language of Amharic. Read the book for why she left him in a mill town in Lancashire, but it wasn’t intended to be forever.
An English name was super-imposed over his identity; Norman, Man of the North ~ and his blood ties to the south were soon smothered. He grew up like a coral tree through the hardest floors and walls of the places of a State trying to box him in. The Baby home, the Foster home, the Care homes, an ‘Assessment Centre’ which was really a cover for a borstal without trial. He reveals all in brutal evidence, printing the original letters and reports into the pages of his book ~ click click clack goes the typewriter ~ the documents slotted into four files were eventually surrendered to him years later in middle age.
Placed at just a few weeks old with a white religious foster family with their own unsoluble pain and enmity, this beautiful black child was expected to grow into a good Christian white boy. They collaborated with The Authority, as he describes those working for the State, to stop him from returning to the arms of his mother as she had wished. Not only was he separated from her, but from her culture and his roots. The foster family went on to have three children of their ‘own’, and the stresses of that would begin to tell in intolerance and un-lovingness. Just when he was entering a most vulnerable emotional time ~ puberty ~ they ejected him totally from their lives.
He was 12. That renunciation. The kick in the stomach. It would make anyone question whether love was ever real.
When I was 12, I was sent away to a boarding school, entrusted to Catholic Nuns by my parents to care for me, and they made me an emotional wreck. I began pulling my hair out with anxiety (now called Trichotillomania) and it is only since chemo last year that I have stopped.
I have not written about this before, and shared with only a very few people I know, but I’d been attacked five years earlier by a teenage boy when staying with relatives as my mother was sent away to a mental hospital to recover from a deep depression. I told no-one. As I read of Lemn’s teenage resistance to the callousness of his so-called carers, and the emotional turmoil they caused him, and the twisting of truth to fit a heinous racist steriotype, I think my imaginative hug was a yearning to feel that immense Lemn-strength, and at the same time quell my own rage. I was supposed to be cared for too. Care means the opposite of abuse. I wanted Lemn to feel the love he should have always felt.
It must have been traumatic for him, and also crystalised within me, like the salts formed from an evaporation. An evaporation of what we deem ‘secure’; what we deem ‘love’. I loved my Mum and she loved me, but she left me three times; to go away to hospital, to leave me in boarding school, and to commit suicide. Each time wasn’t her fault but I am scarred. Lemn survived the next few years by an incredible depth of resolve, knowing instinctively that things were just wrong. On each page of the book, he shares his hopes, and we witness them smashed, and then he rebuilds them again with enigmatic barefoot rebellion, night time wanderings, Bob Marley, and an explicit trust in poetry. He had been searching for love and freedom, and found more than the sum of both within himself. He escaped to a life of passionate devotion to the written and spoken word. And the story has not ended.
I feel the Unity of Opposites have been at play once more, in the tension between what is love and what isn’t, and the point along that plane inbetween, where justice lies or does not. We all need love in full-blooded fury ~ healing love ~ and Lemn did not get it.
Love exists in changling forms, from eros to agape and especially in storge, the parent/child love that may also exist between those not blood related. Imagination is a part of love. We experience in the ‘now,’ yes, but we remember the past and imagine the future. We formulate how we express love both in private and in public.
Lemn’s book is of private and public love unsentimentally described by its absence in the past and search into the future. This is a wisdom harshly earned and generously shared. We all want a better world and My Name is Why is as loving as a book can ever be. I hope he has received true love since, and tenfold.