As soon as I started reading Lemn Sissay’s My Name Is Why, I couldn’t put it down. The book is not a thriller, it is a memoir of growing up in care, but it reads like a thriller. Page after page, I was gripped, holding my breath, unable to comprehend the horror and injustice of what was unfolding.
Born in 1967, Sissay and his mother, a young Ethiopian student, were taken to St Margaret’s Home for Unmarried Mothers in Wigan. Against his mother’s wishes, social services placed Lemn into long term foster care with a white Christian family.
He thought it was a home for life, but when he was just 12 years old, he was sent to a children’s home, being told that he was to blame. I wanted to put my arms around 12-year-old Lemn, desperate for someone to show some care, compassion and love.
He spent the next five years in care at different homes including Wood End, more a prison than a home, where beatings and abuse were part of daily life.
Sissay writes about his experience of the care system, of how he became invisible and his sense of self-worth depleted.
Memories in care are slippery because there’s no one to recall them as the years pass. In a few months I would be in a different home with a different set of people who had no idea of this moment. How could it matter if no one recalls it? Given that staff don’t take photographs it was impossible to take something away as a memory. This is how you become invisible. It is the underlying unkindness that you don’t matter enough. This is how you quietly deplete the sense of self-worth deep inside a child’s psyche. This is how a child becomes hidden in plain sight.
The memoir includes reports and letters from the social workers responsible for his care. The documents highlight the many failings of the system that was supposed to have his best interests at heart.
When I finished the last chapter, I cried. I cried for the teenage Lemn and for all he endured but also for his resilience and triumph.
There is no doubt that this is an emotional story of neglect, but it is also one of hope and determination. It is a story to inspire.