My name is why?

Session 10 - Lemn Sissay 2024

by Sam Leith @ OffGrid Sessions 2024

Presenting his 2019 memoir My Name is Why to Offgrid, the mighty Lemn Sissay gave something between a book reading, an improvisational comedy routine and a revival meeting – complete with raucous jazz-gospel acapella reprises of “All Things Bright and Beautiful”. 

As he said at the outset: “I’m not supposed to talk about this. It’s a book about my story. As in Baby Reindeer, this is a true story. I was both detective and witness to a crime, which was the murder of a childhood.” But that murder was of his own childhood – My Name Is Why describes Lemn’s growing up in the care system until he was eighteen (as a child he was called Norman — “I look like a Norman, don’t I? I know what you’re thinking: it’s uncanny!”), and his thirty-year struggle to get from “The Authority” the records that would tell him who he was and where he came from. 

And as Lemn said, “I had to write this.” But he did so in the face of what he saw as societal expectations: “You can’t be a writer and have your own story. You have a story which you must suppress and a career you must make shine… Right?” No. “It’s bollocks! It’s bollocks! It’s all bollocks!” He laughed: “Are we strapped in?”

We were, and it was a ride. As Lemn explained before reading the preface to his book, his experience of never having known anyone for longer than a year between birth and adulthood, of not having had a “proper” family…. it was precisely that that as he sees it gave him a greater insight into what family means. “The privilege of having a family is that [when at 18 you’re arguing with your parents, and you’ve decided “you hate the people you love”] you can with you were in a children’s home. Being in care gave me an unprecedented insight into what family is. If you can crack on without having to think about the fact you have a family, that’s family doing its job.”

Lemn’s birth mother came in the late 1960s, and was put in a mother-and-baby home, along with young Irish women in the same situation. (“However unique you think your story is, it’s a bridge – it’s a bridge to other people all over the world.”) Unmarried mothers, Lemn said, were “oestrogen terrorists” — they struck fear into the hearts of the patriarchy because they thought they might “explode” and splatter the patriarchy with hormones. She refused to sign the adoption papers. She didn’t want to give him away. But he was renamed – and he was fostered, and that was that.

There was anger in Lemn’s talk, when he commented on enduring societal attitudes to looked-after children. Those “selfish” parents, for instance, who talk of the “rush of love” when they have their children (“I cry at adverts!”) and fail to imagine that love – as strong or stronger – can kindle a different way, “that adoptive parents can’t feel the same love”. That, he said, was “the hypocrisy right at the heart of family… the beautiful dysfunction of function”.

As he went through his story in passages from his book, Lemn triangulated what he remembered with what he didn’t know – the perspectives from the local authority files that (unknown to him) had tracked his whole childhood with bureaucratic thoroughness, but which he didn’t obtain until three decades later. He held up a picture of himself as a baby, taken from those files. “I would steal that baby! I was a cute kid!”

The question that haunted him, he says, was “what did I do?” We all, he said, still have what he calls “one of the last unchallenged prejudices in our society – against children who’ve been in care”. You feel it too: imagine your child brings home someone they’re intending to marry, and they tell you that they were in the care system as children. “Check yourself! What’s the reaction you feel?” People see “children in care – already traumatised people – are seen as a problem waiting to happen – and a threat to their children”. But he adds: “Traumatised people often have a deep insight into the human condition.” 

He pointed out our literary models for looked-after children: “Superman was a foster child… Harry Potter… Lisbeth Salander… X-Men… Oliver Twist.” The prejudice against looked-after children, he said, often manifested in discipline. “Discipline without love, for children, is emotional fascism.” He described his own experience – as a child he stole biscuits and cakes, and lied about it, and was caned for it. “The lies bothered them more than the cakes. It was the crack in the dam… there was something bad in me.”

“I have therapy,” he said near the end of his presentation, raising an uneasy laugh. “I want you to know that I’m fine. I’m sharing with you a story. And from my perspective this is a true story. […] I might not have written this. I might have been one of the thousands who can’t write their story, who can’t afford therapy, who are on the streets.”

“Bitterness rots the vessel that carries it,” he said. “None of this is in the files.”

Key Takeaways

  1. You can learn a lot about family by not having one

  1. You’re allowed to be a writer, and to have a story, and to be funny too.

  1. “A story is a bridge.”