When the poet Lemn Sissay was 14 years old, he carved the initials NG into his hand. The letters represented what he believed to be his name: Norman Greenwood. Years later he discovered that was a lie and his real identity had been deliberately buried for most of his life.
An even more painful discovery followed. He’d always felt unwanted by his natural mother, given to understand by social workers and foster parents that she’d put him up for adoption. Only when he left the care system did the full extent of the deception come to light. Within his case files was a letter from his mother, written in 1968 when he was one year old, pleading for social workers to return her son.
Life Built From Lies
“They lied to me. Someone did love me. My mother”, Sissay writes in his deeply affecting memoir My Name Is Why.
The book recounts a 34-year campaign to retrieve his entire case file from Wigan council, the Yorkshire authority into whose care he was placed upon his birth in 1967. He was finally granted access to the file in 2015.
The documents revealed his true name, that his mother was Ethiopian and had put her son in the care of social workers when she was forced to return home to care for her dying father. But she had refused to sign any adoption papers.
In Sissay’s eyes, the care system completely failed him. It had stolen him, imprisoned him, placed him with inappropriate foster parents, moved him from one institution to another and spat him out at the end without family, name or history. It left him feeling unloved, lacking in self worth, and questioning whether he was to blame for everything that had gone wrong in his life.
Questions Of Care
His memoir is an attempt to answer how this could have happened. How a state could steal a child and keep it secret. But Lemn Sissay is also asking why. A significantly appropriate question because in Amharic, the language of his mother’s people, the surname Sissay means why.
My Name Is Why places Sissay’s recollections – in chronological order – of his experiences in the care system, alongside grainy extracts from social workers’ reports and letters. The juxtaposition reveals the gaps between the official interpretation of “Norman’s” behaviour and his own account, with inconsistencies repeatedly challenged and rebutted by Sissay.
Placed as a black child in a white, middle-class deeply religious family, Sissay was repeatedly told by his foster parents they were the only people willing to take in a “coloured” baby.
Tensions within the home were evident from a young age but became more prevalent as Sissay grew older, particularly after his foster parents had their own children. Sissay felt increasingly estranged from the family, accused of everything from stealing biscuits, to losing his temper and threatening to kill his brother. An accusation that Sissay rejects utterly.
Home was now hell. I couldn’t do anything right. The better I did, the worse I was treated. I was deceitful. I was tricking everyone into thinking I was a good kid. For the life of me I didn’t understand.
Life Without Love
When he reached the age of 12, his foster parents said they’d had enough. The boy would have to go. The day Sissay left for a children’s home he tried to hug his foster mum. But she and her husband were already disappearing inside the house.
It was the last time he saw or heard from them. No birthday cards. No Christmas presents. None of his clothes or books from his first home were ever sent to him. Sissay spent the next five years in a succession of homes, his mental health suffering under the weight of bullying, feelings of utter rejection and alienation because of his colour. The physical cruelty and strip searches experienced in his final institutional “home” caused Sissay nightmares until he reached his forties.
Every page of this book speaks of a social care system that was meant to help and support vulnerable children, proving singularly inadequate to the task. Though the official records do show a few sparks of sensitivity, particularly from his main social worker, they are few and far between. In the main what we find is his every stage in life recorded “click, clack, clack” in cold officialise.
“Staff meeting with appropriate social workers regarding control,” reads a typical report. Another reads:
The child has an extrovert personality and is attention-seeking. He is bright academically but unable to sustain long periods of concentration and is therefore disruptive in classroom situations.
No questions are ever posed in this report about why the child sought attention in school and was there any connection with the lack of attention he felt he received at home. School officials and social workers just view him as a problem child who has to be dealt with, rather than understood.
Blistering Indictment Of Care System
My Name Is Why is a blistering, unputdownable memoir that touches on the nature of social care, identity and family and how it feels to grow up believing no-one loves you. I was engrossed from the first page until the last, alternately feeling deeply sad and incredibly angry at the inhumane treatment of this child. The UK social care system does undertake some fantastic work, often in the most trying of circumstances, but when it gets it wrong – as it so evidently did in this case – the scars last a lifetime.
It’s astonishing to contemplate the extent of Sissay’s resilience, the strength that enabled him to come through this ordeal without irrevocable damage. No-one, least of all Sissay himself, could have imagined this troubled, disruptive child would become a renowned poet, a university chancellor and a Booker prize judge. But I couldn’t help reflect as I got to the end of the book about all the other youngsters subjected to the same institutional care system but who never made it.
My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay: EndNotes
About the book: My Name is Why was published by Canongate in 2019
About the author: Lemn Sissay released his first book of poetry in 1988 at the age of 21. Since the age of 24 he has been a full-time writer, performing internationally.
He became the official poet of the 2012 London Olympics, has been chancellor of the University of Manchester since 2015. He was awarded the 2019 PEN Pinter Prize, a prize awarded to writers who take an “unflinching, unswerving” view of the world.