Yesterday I was talking to the lovely Julia Bell who works as a DNA detective to individuals and also for the TV Programme Long Lost Family. She helps people find their birth families, a bit like Winnie Siu Davies of Look4mama who helped me find mine. We were talking about another Hong Kong adoptee who Julia and I have been working together to help. Julia said that the adoptee and her adoptive father’s stories (he was a Chinese refugee) would make an amazing film. That the fellow adoptee, also an an enthusiastic amateur writer, needed to get the story written. I made the following observation:
(Cut and pasted from Facebook messenger). “But knowing my own stuff around writing the story, where to start, what story needs writing, I think sometimes what others perceive as the story that should be written isn’t always the one you want or need to write”.
I realise now this thinking stems from my years as a therapist and trainer in primary education, working directly with children who had SEBD, social, emotional and behavioural difficulties and as a trainer working to promote emotionally healthy schools. One of the interventions I used to help children, and also trained staff to use, was Therapeutic Storywriting. The idea was that you allowed the children to write freely, not worrying about spelling, grammar or punctuation or whether it was good writing, to encourage the children to process difficult feelings or events through the metaphor of the story. The intervention has been evaluated and shown to significantly help children’s mental health, and also has the benefit of engaging reluctant writers and those struggling with other learning difficulties e.g. dyslexia. One of the key features was that you wrote alongside the child and she saw you thinking, crossing out, struggling and succeeding with your own writing. To start the session off, you might give a writing prompt and set the story outside of the real world using animal or mythological characters, to help the writer feel more secure in writing about difficult things.
During my recent Covid self isolation I read Lemn Sissay’s My Name is Why.
Lemn’s story: a story of neglect and determination, misfortune and hope, cruelty and triumph. Sissay reflects on his childhood, self-expression and Britishness, and in doing so explores the institutional care system, race, family and the meaning of home.
I cried a lot as I read it. All in one big blubbery sitting. Perhaps it wasn’t a good choice to read this when alone, for it opened up so many memories and childhood wounds. Although, after my brief stint as a baby in an orphanage I was never again placed in institutional care, Lemn’s account of being an Ethiopian boy placed with a white British family in the 60s, and his fight to get his records and the suffering at the hands of his foster Mother seemed to echo my own story. And as I read, the main thought I kept having was ‘I wonder if his foster family have read this?’ How did he get past any block he might have had about hurting and upsetting them if and when they read the book?
And during those 14 days of isolation I pondered on my own story/ies. Why wasn’t I able to write my story, and why was I so stuck?
Today, drawing on all of this thinking, in a style much less courageous than Lemn’s, I wrote this.
Baby Bear has a bad day
Once upon a time there was a bear family that lived in a small town in middle England. Daddy bear was a stores man and Mummy bear was training to be a teacher. They had three small bear cubs. This story takes place one Autumn in the woods, when the eldest boy cub was about 8, the middle girl cub was 6, and the littlest baby girl cub was 4. The family didn’t have a lot of money, so a walk in the woods to go blackberry picking was a treat that they could afford. Everybody had sturdy boots on and warm woollen coats. Baby bear was wearing her big sister’s old coat and boots, that didn’t quite fit but ‘would do for now’ for a family outing into the woods. The bear cubs were all excited and the two eldest cubs had already talked about what Mummy and Daddy bear might make with the berries they would pick. Baby Bear heard the words “Apple and Blackberry pie” and she could see that her big brother and sister were very excited at the thought of it. She had no idea what pie might be for she was from a different country called China and had been brought up on rice porridge and noodles. And when Baby Bear looked in the mirror she could tell she wasn’t quite the same as her brother and sister but nobody ever talked about where she had come from or why. And her Mummy and Daddy had told her she would not be going back any time soon and she would stay with her new family for ever and ever. Sometimes Baby Bear puzzled over why Mummy and Daddy had got her from China, for it seemed they were always worried about not having enough money to feed everybody. She knew it had taken a lot of sorting out for them to get the money they had been given for having her come and live in their house. And that somehow because of her, every now and again a Social Worker Bear would come and visit the family to check that everything was alright and all the bears were happy and would talk to Mummy Bear and then send her a letter, to say they could keep Baby Bear.
Mummy bear gave each of the bear cubs a cup to collect the berries in and told them not to eat any, especially the green ones as they weren’t ripe. Baby bear didn’t know what ripe meant either but did not ask as she was so excited to be allowed to go by herself in the wood. She wandered off and happily picked some berries, and of course, you’ve guessed it, she couldn’t resist trying a few. She was very proud to fill her cup with the shiny blackberries and went running back to Mummy Bear to show her.
But Mummy Bear was not pleased. She saw from the stains on Baby Bear’s mouth that she had eaten some berries. “Why does she never do what she’s told?” She shouted to Daddy Bear. “I expect you’ve eaten some green ones as well, haven’t you?” Baby Bear was very confused, she didn’t know if she had but thought her Mummy would be pleased if she confessed. She cried and said “Yes, I did”.
“Well” said Mummy Bear. “Then you are going to die. The green ones are poisonous, I told you not to eat them and now look what you’ve done. You’re going to die.” And the other two bear cubs started to dance around Baby Bear chanting “You’re going to die ‘ie, you’re going to die!”.
Baby Bear might not have known what pie was, but she did know what die and poisonous meant. The bear family’s pet cat had died only the other week. Mummy Bear had said somebody had poisoned it, when the bear cubs had found it all manky and stiff with blood coming out of its nose in the garden.
“I don’t want to die” sobbed Baby bear. “Please take me to hospital”. But none of the Bear Family comforted her, or said they would and the two bear cubs continued dancing around singing “You’re going to die” at the tops of their voices. Even Daddy Bear, who normally was kind to Baby Bear when Mummy Bear wasn’t around, just stood looking on, doing nothing.
Baby bear continued to sob. She was screaming and crying so much that there was snot all over her face and hands and it was purple because of the blackberries she had eaten. This made Baby Bear even more scared. “Please take me to hospital” she screamed again through the sobs. She knew hospital was where you went to be mended, as Mummy and Daddy Bear had had to take her there to get her eye stitched up when her family had tickled her so much, even though she had begged them to stop, she had cut her eye open on the corner of an electric heater.
Baby Bear fell to the ground and curled up in a small ball sobbing. Why wouldn’t somebody save her. She felt two big hands on her back and someone picked her up. It was Daddy Bear. She heard him say “It’s alright, they’re only joking, you’re not going to die”. Baby Bear smiled with relief through her tears. But after that she never ever trusted that Bear family again.