As someone who spent most of the last five years either working or volunteering to support young people who had been through the care system, I might not be as shocked by Lemn Sissay’s memoir as I should be. As others will be. I have, unfortunately, heard a range of similar stories during my recent employment. But that fact itself is a stark reminder of why it is so important that these tales are told. If I’ve been desensitised slightly, it is nothing compared to how aware I have become of the ignorance in society when it comes to the travails that Looked After Children face. Many people didn’t even understand what a Looked After Child or Care Leaver was when I told them what I did for a living.
Lemn Sissay has been doing his best to change that for a while now. He wears his status as a Care Leaver proudly on his sleeve, fights for the rights of those who have followed him through the system, imbues his poetry with the memories of his past, and has hosted some fascinating documentaries in recent years. But My Name is Why is the first time that he has delved so deep into his own tribulations. Sparked by his recent acquisition of the files that document his time under the care of Wigan Local Authority, this devastating memoir ends up questioning whether he should have even been there in the first place.
Over around 220 pages, Lemn gives accounts of neglect by those who were supposed to care for him, betrayal by foster parents who had made him feel part of the family, and move after move after move once they decided they could no longer care for him. He discusses abuse in care homes. The ease with which those who were supposed to be on his side would take the side of absolutely anybody else. And, throughout, he shows how he strived for independence and was constantly held back. Even with one good social worker who seemed to really care, there were too many hoops to jump through. Too many blockages. All these stories are far too familiar to those who know the system, but Lemn deserves huge praise for bringing them to the fore.
One thing that does differ between the stories I have heard and Lemn’s is the treatment of his race in the era in which he was in care. It influenced everything. From racial abuse, to a refusal to recognise his intelligence and talent, and, perhaps most devastatingly, the hints that his foster parents eventually got rid of him because they didn’t like to see a black child doing better than their own, whiter, kids. It adds another layer of sadness to an already sad story.
Any Cop?: Despite all I’ve said, this does end up as a story of redemption and triumph over adversity. This is Lemn Fucking Sissay, for god’s sake. The man’s a true legend, an inspiration, and an example of how difficult early years can be a springboard rather than a chain. And it is, of course, beautifully written. It’s Lemn Fucking Sissay, after all.