Shipwrecked.



 “At twelve an a half years old” she tells me widening her eyes “nearly thirteen” .   The
nearly-ness of six months  had great significance . “And how long did it go on” I asked “a year and an half” she replies.  So that takes me to eleven years old.  I was just a child I said to my foster mother.

I wanted to know. I had always wanted to know how a child to whom they had declared themselves parents in  unconditional love forever,  a child who knew them to be mum and dad could be so unceremoniously dropped in care at “twelve and an half years old, nearly
thirteen”   never to be  contacted  again except  an occasional unhinged birthday card.  None of them contacted me. I was left in childrens homes…. to rot from their lives.   And now thirty years later I am told it was I who chose to go into childrens homes

 “you were violent” she tells me.

“How was I ‘violent’?” I asked. 

“in the things you said.”

“what did I say?”

“you threatened to hurt Sarah?”

Sarah was my sister, my foster sister.  And ofcourse it is ridiculous.  The conversation was not as clipped as I am telling it. I listened  to long tracts of narrative from Catherine which
ended in the aforementioned. My  enquiries were as short though.   I could 
see what was happening before my eyes. Catherine Greenwood was continuing a narrative she had upheld for many many years.

 “and you chose to leave us”  

It is unlucky for them that I became a writer.  I am told that at twelve years old after being with them for eleven and an half years I knew I had a way out in the children’s homes
and I was taking it.   

“Greg tried to convince you otherwise” she   continued.

Greg is  Greg Haslam,   now the senior pastor of Westminster Chapel,  the husband of
Ruth who is  the sister of Catherine my foster mum  sat before me now,  a sixty seven year old widow at The Southbank centre’s canteen.  

I remember distinctly a child trying to convince my foster parents  that I did not know about children’s homes.  I had been with them since I was 6 months old. The only time  I remember hearing the words childrens homes  was from them telling me that I was using the idea of childrens homes  to rebel against them.

But I was entering adolescence is all.   I remember feeling distraught by a narrative being built inside me  to which I did not understand.  I remember being told and believing that the devil was working inside me. This is something which Catherine Greenwood denies though she admits to believing  that “satan” was upon the family. 

“We were young.  We didn’t know who you were becoming, or what your genes were” she said.

I looked at Catherine across the functional tables of  Canteen at southbank centre,  in a shock. I was cast into children’s homes and they never called. I was as good as dead.  I remember very clearly how meticulously they set up the deceipt.

They were  a starving family  shipwrecked upon  an island.  The parents had to decide which child must be eaten for the survival of the others.  So terrifying was the process
that they convinced themselves God would choose who must be eaten. When the children enquire after their brother they tell them   He must have left us and tried to get break free of the island  The parents cried in front of their children as they ate.  And their children secretly resented their brother for this.  where is this food from asks one of the children. God provides  says  the mother,  tears filling her eyes.   

Not having reached adolescence themselves they soon forgot the boy who left and built their lives accordingly.  It is poisonous as the memory seeps back .  I was a child.  The social services does not document any violent behaviour and in fact quite the opposite. I  have since befriended the social worker who was with me at the time and have proven as such.

“Did you make any mistakes?”

“ I did ofcourse I did” she said and paused “I listened to you. When you said you wanted to go we should not have listened to you.”

And here I was thirty years later sat in Canteen at Southbank Centre asking how it was that they never called.  You see I remember it as clearly as yesterday.

“We were young” she reiterated .

They were in their early thirties.  They had just had an extra child, a suprise addition to the family.  “ You were suffering post natal depression.”   They  put me into care. They  tried to
blame me. And they  left me to rot with these conceits and they  never called and    I was twelve years old after being with them for eleven and an half years under the belief given to me from them that they were my parents and would be forever. It was the most viscious betrayal that any person can do to a child.  The evidence of  my time in care and since leaving care refutes everything she has said.   And,  in documented fact,  quite the opposite.   But at least now I could hear it from the horses mouth.

We’d met at 10.30pm. It was now about noon. As we stand to leave I hold out my arm for Catherine to link me – she finds it hard to walk these days. I escort her to the bus stop “where are you going” I ask “a birthday party in westminster.”  She says. I hold no malice towards her. I shall not forgive nor foget.  The idea that one must be done for the other to happen is not something I have experienced.  Not having a family is made me know that bitterness rots the vessel that carries it and that depression is anger turned in on the self.  One of these I have experienced but the other thankfuly I have not.

I stand at the bus stop, wave goodbye to her and  cycle home. I’m so tired.      Later  that day on I travel to Kings Cross train station and take a train to Derby where I stay in an hotel over night for an event I am giving tomorrow. It is for Foster  Children and their parents. It’s called The Big Book Bash.  Last year the special guest was JK Rowling and this year it is me.


15 thoughts on “Shipwrecked.

  1. I feel sick just reading this, it's so twisted, like a nightmare. That you came through as you did and continue to do is just astounding.

  2. I watched your TED talk today. It was so dumbfounding I wanted to know more. As a parent of five children, two of whom are not “mine”, this is just incomprehensible. We are their world. They live us and breathe us whether or not we deserve it. Their little hearts and minds…I realize this may seem harsh, but in some ways I believe Mrs. Greenwood was correct, Satan was in the home. And I am not a religious person – spiritual, but not religious.

    You are a great speaker and poet. And definitely someone with incredible fortitude. Thank you for telling your story. I don’t know what to do with it yet, but it scares me to think of children being discarded.

    • Nothing can be said that would be as harsh as it was. It’s important to make a distinction. They were not saying Satan was in the home. They were saying satan was in me.

  3. This is very powerful stuff, Lemn, not least because it echos so much of my own life, though in ways very different from yours. And it gave me comfort to see your views on forgiveness and forgetting, for whilst I can see the psychological argument in favour of forgiveness, I stand with the words of a Holocaust survivor, ‘There is no such thing as closure; it is a word invented by people who never experienced bad things.’

    From my experience, families keep secrets and therefore lie to their children from the start – this observation from one who was labelled the family liar pretty much from infancy.

    I was well into my thirties when I told my brother and mother, that I was writing a novel. Mother asked ‘What’s a novel?’ When I explained it was, essentially, a work of fiction she shouted back, ‘And Fiction is a LIE!!’
    Today, I’m nearly 71, and although I still write a bit, I don’t trust the world enough to share it.

    But you do and we are all the richer for that. Thank you.

  4. I am listening to you read My Name is Why at the moment and am in turns horrified, appalled and in awe of how you have climbed out of such an awful start. But mostly, as a mother and grandmother I am so sad. I came here to find out if you had met up again with your foster parents and you are very gracious and dignified in how you portray it.

  5. My son read private Peaceful, after which he said ‘I have a book hangover’, bemused I asked what a book hangover was.. ‘the feeling from the book stays with you after the book has finished’, he told me. I think the feeling from this book will stay with me for a long time.

    Your story is both heart breaking and affirming. Against the greatest odds you have shown the power of both the mind and the spirit. What an incredible example you are to human kind. Even when the greatest of odds were against you, you found a way to shine brighter than the rest and go on teach us all the most valuable of lessons.

    I hope in adulthood you found the happiness that was stolen from you as a child..

    • I think I have found the happiness I deserve and it is equal to the happiness we all deserve. We all experience loss over our lifetimes.
      My loss is no more than others. I cannot grieve what I never had BUT I can describe the moment it was taken away! Yes I can describe the moment
      what I never had was taken away. I can recall the unremembering. I can remember wondering if it could even be possible that someone
      would wipe the floor after my footsteps as I walked away. Much later I realised that this cleanliness was not about hygiene. It was done
      to deny I’d ever been there. Scrub scrub scrub.

      I can not be hurt from a wound which I wasn’t deemed worthy of having. They ‘lost’ me or in the modern parlance they “ghosted” me, they gaslit me.
      I love the idea of a book hangover. May I quote you and your child Lizzy Binder. Thankyou.

  6. I have just finished your book ‘my name is why’. Although my family has not experienced the specifics of your experience, your story resonates on many levels. My son has challenged our family to the core over his 20 years on this earth in a myriad of ways. We have tried and failed, we have cried and shouted and smashed and crashed called in help and neglected our duties at times. He is, however, loved and adored. He has always had a him shaped space amongst us. He is now broadening his horizons and treading his own path, albeit with the odd begging phone call.
    Through all the horror and strain we have all encountered on his journey, there is now a deep, heart felt, sigh of relief that he is still with us. He is a wonderful, creative, funny and complicated human.
    The people you saw as your family have missed one of the greatest and most beautiful things that they could ever experience. Witnessing the growth and development of a talented child to adult. Thank you for sharing yourself with me, you are very much appreciated.

  7. I’ve read your poems, I listened to you on Desert Island Discs, I followed your story on Radio4 and I have just watched Imagine. You are wonderful, amazing and an inspiration. Thank you.

  8. I live very far away from my family. I will not forget what it was like growing up with the relatives I spent most of my time with.

    Last week, I went away on a short break and read “My Name is Why”. Very sad. Now that I’ve read this report of a conversation with the foster parent, I think it’s a bit like my family.

    My parents shouldn’t really have had children as they were messed up by their parents, who in turn were messed up by theirs. (Very much in line with that Philip Larkin poem.) My mother couldn’t wait to get away from her mother, a strict disciplinarian, moving country when she got married. And then she and my father treated me in such a way that I also live in a different country from them. Fortunately, these days, a woman can live independently, which is what I do. I’ve never had any good emotional relationships as I’ve never had any good models. If love means hitting someone and screeching at them, count me out.

    It sounds as though the foster parents were not adequately developed to cope with what life gave them, especially not for the responsibility of children. When life got hard, they looked for a scapegoat (a particularly biblical solution) and picked on ‘the odd man out’. They could then make believe that they were doing the family some good by that action. A fairy tale.

    I’ve come to understand that my parents’ treatment of me was something almost inevitable as they had no inner resources and weren’t shown how to behave towards other people without snapping, shouting, getting violent and demeaning me as that was the way their parents and grandparents had controlled them – especially my mother’s side of the family.

    It took a lot of reading to understand all that.

    Thankfully, it sounds like you are very much sane and able to cope with what life throws your way. I just wish you had someone nice to share life with and make lovely memories with.

    • What a beautiful erudite message. I say ‘erudite’ because you elucidate the complexity. I believe you are right.
      Thankyou for your careful caring message.

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