How the love, optimism and resilience captured in My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay adds so much to our understanding of childhood
The most magical moment of the holiday season for me was seeing A Christmas Carol at New York’s oldest functioning theatre the Lyceum on Broadway. Way up in the rafters, I couldn’t help but ponder whether everyone has a ghost of past, present and future. Everyone knows an Ebenezer, if they are not indeed one themselves. I am not talking about his prolific miserliness. But rather how his adaption to survive an early trauma becomes a maladaption over time. And how that rigid maladaption distorts and derails his whole life course.
But like most of Dickens stories, a Christmas Carol in the end is a joyous tale. It acknowledges human trauma, which as James Baldwin once wrote is a major purpose of literature. “The suffering and struggling person finds great liberation when they realise something they thought was only happening to them, happened to Dostoevsky 100 years ago”. But A Christmas Carol then takes that trauma and shows how magical and resourceful humans can be in overcoming it. And old Ebenezer breaks through in the end because of love, optimism and resilience.
A Christmas Carol probably did more than anything to shape the modern narrative and aesthetic of a western Christmas. Dickens grew up in a rare decade when London winters were bathed in snow. Thats why we yearn for a White Christmas. The concept of a warm family hearth and a shared feast as a buffer from unresolved trauma and winter cold. But Christmas is ruthlessly painful for those with no such buffer.
No-one knows this more than poet and Manchester University Chancellor Lemn Sissay, who has created a whole national movement of volunteers across the United Kingdom providing communal Christmas dinners for young adults who have lived in care of the state.
In any given year, the list of Lemn’s accomplishments is remarkable. But this year he contributed something that may have even inspired Dickens. With astonishing dignity and courage he completed his 30 year struggle to acquire the social work files from his own childhood in care and shared them in his memoir: My Name is Why.
In addition to Dickens, Maya Angelou, Edgar Allen Poe and Maxim Gorky wrote painful stories of childhood. The general narrative on violent, neglectful or otherwise unjust childhoods has evolved over decades and centuries-faster than our political will and technical ability to address it. I think Lemn’s writing has added something profound and new to it.
When interwoven with his own memories, the social work files run through My Name Is Why like a real time set of MRI scans on a childhood struggle. They are accounts of Lemn’s interaction with the so called “care” system and the social workers who drift in and out of his life. Combined they represent the culture of that system. By sharing them he exposes a deeper level of vulnerability than most would have the courage to do. He does this from a position of strength and it serves as a powerful antidote to the toxic masculinity and superficial egocentricity of our time. He is courageous beyond belief.
I believe he shares the files to illustrate one of the most original and poignant themes in his book. The importance of memory for all of us. As we saw from Scrooge, the struggle for recovery always requires bringing the memories back into one comfortable place. For Lemn, a childhood neglectfully dispersed and disrupted by multiple carers in scattered locations eats away at the sense of self-hood and deprives you of a “valid persona”. The impact of this fragmentation is profound and: ” quietly depletes the sense of self-worth deep inside a child’s psyche. This is how a child becomes hidden in plain sight. Family is just a set of memories disputed, resolved or recalled between one group.” But what happens when the family is not there?
The care system could have been the buffer and the hearth. A loving space for recovery and a platform to build a better tomorrow. But the social service files show how the children in its care were treated with suspicion and mistrust. As a teenager Lemn wrote poetry, had a Saturday job and bought a guitar with the proceeds. A good parent would be proud of this. But rather than assets, each of these activities were viewed negatively by the care workers. He devoured Bob Marley biographies, when “there were no books and consequently no encouragement to read” in the children’s home. He described these adolescent passions as his “flagpoles on the mountainside”. They told the story of someone whose identity and self was formed without compromise. Of someone who would one day soar. I wondered how many readers laughed out loud, as I did, when the school report from the sadistic quasi-prison Wood End file said Lemn had “average intelligence”
The cruelty of these institutions and Dickens workhouses before, are the tip of a very big iceberg. Adverse childhoods are more common than we ever thought them to be and occur mostly within families-not institutions. The more we make it normal to talk about it and understand it, the better chance we have of building a society and world that lives up to the best hopes of a Charles Dickens story. That is one where we acknowledge the lasting impact of trauma-but always seek to defeat it through love, optimism and resilience. A society where every child is connected and matters on an individual level.
Lemn’s book, and much of his life’s work contributes to the understanding we all need to achieve that goal. He personifies a spirit of love, optimism and resilience, and we could all do with more of that.
Merry Christmas from New York