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CYC-Online Issue 11 DECEMBER 1999 / BACK
Listen to this

VOICE OF YOUTH

Rebuilding my life

Anthony Anderson

A tragic message from a children 's home boy

"Attitudes start at a very young age. A child's mind is like a computer which has not yet been programmed. The data it receives and stores is everyday life. The information may be correct. But if the input is wrong at the start, the mind, like a computer, will work with the information stored in it “and the end result is wrong."

As a child in care “I was separated from my five brothers and sisters “my strongest memories are of Spinney Walk, a private children's home. I thought life there was normal but I had not been anywhere else to make a comparison. My training was harsh. I remember we had to sit on potties and if we did not use them, we were smacked. The same applied to learning to fasten your shoes. You sat there with a pile of shoes till you got it right. There was very little individual care and attention since no-one had the time. There were twenty children from babies to 17 year olds. We slept seven to a room. One punishment was to be locked in the basement for two hours. I spent quite a few hours alone down in the basement. Most of the other children knew they had families and visited them on occasion. I had no-one as far as I was aware. I even started calling the woman in charge 'mum'. While the others were away visiting, their chores fell on us remaining at the Home. I felt neglected and used to seek attention in all the wrong ways. I was always in trouble “not on purpose, but it became a way of life for many years. I think now that then I had no feelings: they were all taken from me either by actions or attitudes towards me: it comes to a stage where the mind shuts off and cannot absorb important things such as affection or education. You try to like someone and trust them but when that trust is broken, the barriers go up. I've had chances in my life to change, I have had friends and people who cared for me, but I had so many knocks in those early days that, like an apple, (which if you drop it will bruise “and no amount of time will remove that damage) the mind becomes rotten. I learned from a very early age to bottle up my feelings and not to respond fully, for fear of losing love and attention. If I ever showed warm feelings, I was pushed to one side “so I learned to control them.

When I was about 10, Mrs Knapp came on the scene as the new cleaner at the home. She started taking an interest in me. I responded with caution. She took me to her own home where I met her husband and children. They all tried to shower me with attention, which I still accepted with caution. Mrs. Knapp knew about my doubts but still she decided to foster me. She took me from the Home, gave me my own room and a place in her family. It was a new world and I couldn't understand the freeness of all this love and attention. I could not read or write: I attended a special school in an effort to catch up, but it was useless because my mind was unable to cope with the subjects. To express my gratitude and gain people's affection, I used to steal small items: I once saw an advert for Oil of Olay and stole a bottle to give to Mrs Knapp as a present and to make her pretty, as the advert stated. I stole a wall clock to give to her son Roger as a wedding gift.

From my early days this petty crime “though I didn't think of it as crime then “became part of my life. The items of property grew in size and value as I got older and realised I could buy things and, as I thought, friendship with it. I got very attached to Mr Knapp, who used to take the time to teach me things, like a father to his son. He involved me in woodwork and took me out with him on little jobs of work. I had a secret bond of affection for him. But he became ill and died a few months later. Mrs Knapp put me back in care. At the time, I thought I had lost all the friendship and love of these people. I felt unwanted and lonely. I used to sit alone on the swing in the garden watching the road for Mrs Knapp to come for me. After about a week she took me back into her home. I understood what had happened but as usual put up barriers to blank it out. I stayed with Mrs Knapp to the age of 16. Those were the happiest years of my life. I think the world of her and cannot thank her enough for what she did for me. I think of her as my true mother.

I was growing up and needed to find an occupation. My social worker arranged for me to spend a year as a Community Service Volunteer in a home for the disabled. My task was to care for two men confined to wheelchairs. I did everything for them, bathing, feeding, shaving, dress and toilet needs. I became very close to all the residents and crime was a thing of the past. I was offered and accepted a paid post there, but due to change in management, it fell through. I returned to Mrs Knapp but at 17 I thought I knew it all. I resented being told what to do. She would give me advice but I rejected it and we had rows. In the end I ran away without even saying goodbye, to London to trace my family. Through persistent enquiry I found them and went to live with my mother. I was looking for normal family love and attention I thought other children had. I found the complete opposite. My mother was a bitter woman who hated authority. She was involved in crime as were my sisters. My older brother had died as a baby: the second brother of drugs. My father was an alcoholic. I felt confused and after a few months, asked to be put back in care. I lived in a Home for six months till I was 18 and then moved to a council flat on my own. Though I had been clear for the previous year or two of crime, I drifted back to it and in the end I was living comfortably on it. Things began to go down and down for me. I met a girl and we set up home together in my flat. We had a baby girl. I stopped stealing, trying to build a normal life for us for about three years. But it was not to be. I found out my wife was involved in crime and having many affairs. At first I didn't believe it “I wanted a normal upbringing for my child, unlike my own. But then I saw my wife out with my best friend. My dreams were shattered. I was devastated. I had no future, my world was in ruins, my family was gone. I turned to drink, cannabis and back to crime.

I am writing this from prison where I am now serving a long sentence for the deaths of two men. I did not mean to kill them during the course of two different incidents. I can never forgive myself for what happened: such guilt never leaves. In prison I have been reflecting on my life and why it has come to this. I lost a great deal: my family, a normal childhood, my foster father, my education, my chance of a good job, my wife, child and best friend. To this day I still tend to keep myself, my thoughts and feelings, to myself. But it is wrong to bottle it all up because one loses out. To succeed in life you have to join in and become part of society. I realise this because when I worked with handicapped people I got great pleasure in caring for them: they could not fend for themselves. I applied for a full-time job with them, but I was a few months too young to get it. Among the thousands of people in the prison system, I have now found one person I can trust, confide in and feel secure with. I have no pride in myself but I am trying to rebuild my self-esteem and hope one day to lead a much better and more constructive life.

I know I will carry my load of guilt for the rest of my life but I can lighten it by giving of myself for the benefit of others. For those of you who may be in similar circumstances, I am sure there is someone out there somewhere who is prepared to listen to you. All I can say is, go out and find that person and do not be afraid to express feelings to them openly. In this way, you will clear your mind and begin to make room for other things of importance to enter.

This feature: From Who Cares' the English magazine published for youngsters in care

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