My Name is Why is a heart-wrenching memoir that recounts the journey of a black child through the care system in the UK. The glaring failures of the organisation in ensuring a child’s needs – health, educational, emotional, and social – are brought to light through the experiences of the author. We, the readers, live this reality with him.
When Sissay’s mother, a young and unmarried Ethiopian student in the UK, gave birth and placed him in foster care she believed it would just be for a short time. As the narrative unfolds we realise that he quickly, and all too easily, became a part of “the system” – a healthcare system in which there was little caring.
Sissay narrates the events as they unfold. Interspersed throughout his story is the official documentation that makes his story all the more infuriating. This is the life story of a child that and serves as an introduction into the realities of a system fraught with faults and indifference.
The issue of race remains a constant and recurring theme threaded throughout the book. We follow Lemn’s early years as the token ‘coloured’ child of a white family. Placed into long term foster placement and named “Norman” after his social worker, he believed the people he called Mum and Dad were his parents. Indeed, they, whilst religious and somewhat alternative, served as such for the first part of his life. As his story unfolds, we witness all of the positive and negative social interactions attributed to his race. We are apprehensive bystanders as the political scene changed in the 1980s. Racial tensions hit an all-time high and our protagonist meandered through those charged streets. At the age of 11 his “parents” decide they no longer want him and then his heartbreaking and fragmented journey through “home” after home with less care, less love and less compassion in each one. It would take a hard heart not to break as Sissay recalls that he was never touched after this time except in violence, a young boy in a world devoid of hugs, cuddles and safety.
Each chapter is introduced with an incisive and insightful poem, setting the scene for the pages to come. Following the publication of “My Name is Why” he has become known for his speaking out his truth about the deficiencies of the care system and the lack of compassion within it. The poems are unique to the author, vibrant yet grounding, full of sorrow yet hopeful. They ignite the passion within yet calm you at the same time. How the author manages to capture so many emotions within four small lines of a poem is astounding and a highlight of this book.
When Lemn finally moves into his own flat at the age of 18, we rejoice as he reclaims his identity and his name. Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of this story is that the story doesn’t end on the last page of the book. Lemn Sissay is an inspirational speaker and poet. His story is still ongoing as he continues to encourage discourse and debate, continues to challenge the organisations and change attitudes to children in care and continues to push for change, one hug at a time!
Why am I recommending this book?
The deficiencies of the care system are familiar to many GPs. What is so powerful in this book is the raw humanity with which we are taken on a journey by the writer. He compels us to see the world through his eyes, they eyes of a small boy who was truly, utterly let down by a system that claimed to be something it was not. Sissay’s ebullience and energy shine through every page. It is such a treat to see that he manages, beyond all predictions, to make something very special of his life and never to let go of hope. The story of how he fought the authorities for the basic details of who he even was is not a story of an isolated incident. We may all have patients experiencing similar scenarios. The value of touch, of hugs and of love and attachment figures is illustrated brilliantly as is the way in which far too many children have been written off and failed by a brutal system filled with so little love. I have recommended this book to so many people, all of whom have been glad to read it and I’ve been lucky enough to hear Lemn speak live on more than one occasion. He truly is a hero and a champion for all young people in the care system.
Tara George – GP
This book is an almost spiritual experience in literature and highlights the struggles faced by a child due to deficiencies in the care system and the complicity of society as a whole perpetuating and propagating these flaws.
Children are innocent and vulnerable. As parents or guardians, we have a moral and legal responsibility to care for and guide them safely through their childhood to independence. This book serves as a guide on how not to do that. Whether not seeking advice on the right choice of comb to use on his African hair or choosing his foster brother over him, the foster parents make blunder after blunder. They invoke such anger that it is almost too easy to blame them for everything. Sissay, by providing some insight into his foster mother’s background, reminds us that they were a product of the society we live in. This is a society with an undercurrent of racial intolerance, neglectful of ‘looked after’ and ‘disabled’ children and indifferent to questions.
As healthcare professionals, we are always looking to improve the care of our patients. When we come across children in care, there is often some discomfort in addressing or acknowledging their background. We are encouraged to show empathy, but can we truly empathize with them if we do not know what they have been through? It is not easy, nor is such empathy always welcome. Awareness, being kind and offering a hug, can go a long way.
Within our field of paediatrics, it is inevitable that we might need to address concerns around safeguarding. Abuse, physical and emotional neglect are rampant within the system. Being aware of these risks, as well as recognising and raising these concerns is important. Sissay talks about his mental health as a teenager, and emphasizes that the impact of poor care doesn’t end at childhoods end, but can affect someone through their life!
When people ask me why I want to pursue a career in paediatrics, I always respond with ‘Because I love children!’. In this book, Sissay questions staff in much the same way but recognizes the superficiality of their response. Perhaps the most important and immediately actionable lesson I have taken away from this book is that I should strive to show every child, whether in my professional or personal life, that I do care and that when I care for them, they will never be invisible.