A very good and heartbreaking book to start the year with. Lemn Sissay’s powerful memoir My Name Is Why details his time in British foster care and shows the casual cruelty of the authoritarian system he was placed in. He had to fight the government for thirty years to get access to his records and he uses the paper trail of comments by his social worker, reports on his progress, and other pieces of the puzzle to show the gaps in the record and how easily and heartlessly a powerful system can work to destroy someone’s life. Every time I think I have a handle on all the terrible things the British government has done, I read another book that shines a light on a new low.
I got this book from the Foundling Museum in London, which he is on the board of trustees for and is another example in a long record of social organizations purportedly set up to help children but which end up abusing them. In Sissay’s case, the British government stole him from his mother and then put him in the care of a family that ended up rejecting him when he was 12. He spends the following years until he turns 18 being institutionalized and traumatized until he manages to escape his way out of the system into his own apartment, but not without a fight and at the cost of so much of his self-image, emotional turmoil, and deep trauma. Sissay is an excellent writer, as evidenced by his highly successful career as a poet, and his spare, clear prose here makes the weight and horror of the inexorable care system that much more striking. The clarity with which he sees the machine makes the reader confront it with him and face the human cost head on. His descriptions of the cost of the all-pervasive structural racism (and straight to his face racism) and the personal cost it takes from him, as well as his struggles to discover his identity after being raised in an all-white environment, were extremely striking. I think this should really be required reading for almost anyone, as it brings you face to face with so many aspects of society that people tend to want to skate over. I’m personally very interested in the moral and ethical issues of interracial adoption/fostering, the foster care system in general, and British problems, so this was a thought-provoking read for me that hit all those interest areas.
Warnings for: racism, physical/mental/sexual child abuse, institutional abuse