Book review: Shattered Lives
Jessica Kingsley, £13.99: ISBN 1 84310 434 2
Camila Batmanghelidjh is the founder of Kids Company, the organisation which works with the London children who the rest of us prefer to despise, evict, punish or ignore – hoodies, children who have attempted suicide, children who steal in order to eat, children whose parents have forced them into prostitution to feed their own drug habit, children who carry weapons, children who have never been to school, children who fight back against the society that has so brutalised them. An abstract list like this removes some of the horror. When you read, for instance, of the twelve-year-old girl caring for three younger siblings who was forced by her mother to 'suck dicks for money' and then insulted as a whore, it comes alive.
The backbone of the book is a number of letters Batmanghelidjh has written to particular children, describing their lives and praising them for their courage and determination to survive in a world of terror and despair. The first letter starts like this: 'Dear Chardonnay [not her real name], I first came across you when you lay flat on your belly, relentlessly slamming your face into the pavement. I sat beside you, putting my hands between your forehead and the concrete, cushioning you against the blows.' And after that the revelations get worse and worse.
Batmanghelidjh asked the children she wrote to to choose their own pseudonyms, and she read them the letters she had written to have their comments and corrections and permission for publication. One child had died before there was time.
These narratives are enclosed by descriptions of other similar behaviour, passages of psychological explanation and practical advice for people who find themselves in a position to help. It is always essential, she says, to support the tiny amount of self-esteem that these children somehow manage to retain. Criticism and punishment can only make things worse. A theme that runs through the book is Batmanghelidjh's rage at the sometimes disgraceful responses of the social services, the care homes and the police.
The book includes so many strong ideas that it is impossible to do it justice in a short review. This is one of Batmanghelidjh's attempts to sum it up herself in her conclusion:
As usual, childlike wisdom has intelligence. These young people [to whom she wrote the letters] courageously took the first step in truth- telling. They share with you their life stories so that your two-dimensional picture can acquire more depth. No child is born a criminal or a killer – something happens to generate hate in them.
And later she draws attention to the way professionals deliberately hold back from affective relationships with their clients:
We are afraid when others show care, when they stand up for something valuable. We mistake homogeny for efficiency and force our services to lose the brilliant contribution of those who are kind. The committed individual is perceived as too involved, as if feeling is somehow an indication of incompetence, of inferiority, or weakness.
Our structures are failing children because we are scared of love.
""First and foremost and all the time," wrote David Wills fifty years ago in The Barns Experiment , "the children must feel themselves to be loved." It is good to see the people who mock this statement as sentimental once more corrected by someone who can prove its truth from her own experience.