Book review - My Name is Why

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that writing poetry as a teenager saved Lemn Sissay. It validated his sense of self and helped him out of the pit of depression which threatened to overwhelm him. Words continue to shape and define Sissay. He was the official poet for the London 2012 Olympics, has been Chancellor of the University of Manchester since 2015, and was awarded the 2019 PEN Pinter Prize.  His astonishing memoir is dedicated to the foster family who took him in for the first twelve years of his life, before rejecting him on the cusp of adolescence, and to his Ethiopian birth mother.

From the moment he was born in May 1967, Sissay’s life was documented by Wigan council. Reports and letters from The Authority responsible for Sissay comprise half the book. The remainder is made up of Sissay’s memories, his attempts to make sense of what happened to him and the hurt and rejection he was ill-equipped to process. He prefaces each chapter with a stanza of his poetry.

When Sissay finally got hold of the documents about his eighteen-year journey into adulthood he learned that his mother had refused to sign him over to adoption. As a single mother, she was pressurised to give up her baby. Told her father was dying she returned to Ethiopia without her son. However, in 1968 she wrote to The Authority asking them to help her bring Lemn to Ethiopia. Meanwhile, Lemn had been renamed Norman and was already being fostered by Catherine and David Greenwood who had no other children at the time. Six months later, Catherine gave birth to a son, followed by two daughters. The photograph of Sissay on the front cover suggests a happy childhood, a mischievous nature, and a warmth between siblings. His own account of the twelve years he lived with the Greenwoods supports this.

By the time Sissay was approaching adolescence his parents had three of their own children. Cracks in their relationship had started to appear. The Greenwoods were strict Baptists and their foster child’s high spirits appeared to wear them down. How ordinary familial rifts were transformed into deep chasms is shocking. Sissay had a sweet tooth – he had a tendency to steal biscuits and extra bits of cake. For Catherine this indicated that he was a liar and a thief. She nicknamed him Macavity – a fictional character from T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats who, Sissay later learned, is “dark, quiet and a thief” Worse was to come. An argument over cricket stumps apparently left the family reeling when Sissay, in a fit of childish pique, shouted that he wanted to kill them all except for Baby Helen. How many children have not behaved badly in a fit of frustrated anger? Sissay writes “I didn’t threaten to murder the family. I have no history of threatening to murder people. Full disclosure: I probably said to my brother, ‘I’m going to kill you.’ Brothers say things like that in the heat of the moment.”

Sissay was twelve when his foster family – who in all this time had not formally adopted him – decided that they could no longer deal with him. He was placed in a children’s home. His foster parents tried to assuage their guilt by pretending that it was his decision.  Brutally cut off from the only family he had known and loved, Sissay recalls his shock at being abandoned. He was shuttled between children’s homes - fitting in nowhere - until 1984, when he was placed in Wood End Assessment Centre in Wigan, effectively a remand centre where children were routinely abused. We don’t have to rely solely on Sissay’s testament here – he has received countless emails and letters detailing similar mistreatment and includes some affecting extracts.

Alongside Sissay’s retelling are the accounts from his social worker, Norman Mills, a sympathetic man who Sissay includes in his acknowledgments. Mills evidently did his best in the face of an unremittingly bleak and prejudicial system. His reports and personal reflections bear witness to Sissay’s ill-treatment. When his parents “demanded that Lemn be removed,” Mills commented: “Mr and Mrs Greenwood showed a great deal of inflexibility and lack of tolerance, in being unable to accept Lemn’s rebellion against their Christian beliefs.”

It is no surprise to learn that Sissay has since dedicated himself to helping young people in care 
express themselves through poetry. He reveals the meaning behind his book’s title on its final page. 

Read and weep.

Originally published by New Humanist