Lemn Sissay asks why
Lemn Sissay is a British author, poet and broadcaster. His memoir My Name is Why has just been published, and describes his life as a child in the care system from the age of 12.
The book is an important reminder of the damage an
uncaring society does to young people who should be its most cherished members.
It is a moving account by somebody with a special ability to communicate his
personal experience, but it surely can’t be read without it reminding us of a wider
picture of mistreatment: sexual
abuse of children in care and the brutality of Young Offender Institutes are
part of the same story and anybody who has worked in mental health will have
seen its victims.
There’s another equally depressing aspect to the book, and that is the readiness of those around Sissay to attribute his emotional state and behaviour to individual characteristics rather than to try and understand him in his world. At primary school he cops for racial stereotyping as a charming lad, amiable but feckless. At home the friction with his devoutly Christian parents is attributed to his evil nature. In his teens in institutional care his uneasy rebelliousness is treated as the sort of delinquency that sees him guided to the start of what could easily have been a young adult life of crime and detention. With a history of self-harm, drug use and rule-breaking it’s a miracle he didn’t graduate to adult life with a diagnosis of personality disorder.
The degree to which we lean on personal attributes for our understanding
of people is the degree to which we risk a biased neglect of their personal circumstances.
Sissay gives us another reminder; the message can’t be repeated too often.