The current thinking in social work circles is that there are better long-term outcomes for children left with their family in an unstable home, than those removed and placed in foster care. This was in the back of my mind as I read comedian Corey White’s recently published memoir, The Prettiest Horse in the Glue Factory.
The details White shares of his childhood made me sick with fear from the first page. His father adored him but belted his wife and daughters. His mother, a drug addict, would disappear for days at a time. White was sexually abused by a ‘friend’ of the family, and as a young child he was violent toward his mother and sisters.
I drink in my father’s anger, see how it makes him glow and other people cower, and I repeat it. I punch my mother in the stomach and call her a stupid slut.
At age nine, White was in and out of foster care, separated from his sisters and placed in a series of different houses and schools. White was bullied, abused and ignored. He rarely experienced kindness and ‘love’ was not even in his vocabulary. His time with a woman named Tracey, who had her own children as well as fostering a few, was particularly traumatic.
While Tracey’s own children swan about, living the high life, the foster children have entered a bizarre arms race of grovelling.
Tracey was my penance. That’s not to say there weren’t other ways I could have been changed. Therapy, love, kindness. But cruelty can also save.
White’s dry humour is evident through out the book but is never overdone –
Poverty was a part of life, but it was Australian poverty. There was always enough money to chuck two dollars in a chocolate bar skill tester. No matter how poor we were, we could afford to pay money to not win chocolate.
The humour is combined with violence – brutal and raw – and some arrestingly beautiful writing.
My father takes me to the pub where he drinks beers and bets on horse racing. He speaks of systems, quinellas, exactas, trifectas, quaddies. It is our special paradise. Most of all I adore the smoke, the way it unfurls in the air like ghosts from cigarettes. I love the silence of the men with the occasional eruptions of hope.
The second part of White’s book focuses on his adult years and his addictions. He starts with ice, but notes ‘…I kicked ice by replacing it with alcohol because life isn’t a fairytale.’ However, this isn’t an addiction memoir, it’s a story about how a child learns to love when they have never been shown what love looks like.
I was contaminated, mutilated. For years I had believed that love held out the one hope of cleaning me and making me whole. Now I knew the truth. Love was just another way I’d wished in vain to be fixed. There was no salvific silver bullet. What was taken from me when I was young could not be replaced.
What do I look for in memoirs? The hero’s transformation – that defining moment when the course of their life changes direction. Do I think that happens in ‘real’ life? Yes and no. It’s usually a bunch of moments (and memoirs focus on one). In this book, it’s hard to pin down that moment. White’s ‘transformation’ is fragile, perhaps a work in progress (and that makes this reader a little worried – I had the same thoughts when I read Liam Pieper and Nic Sheff’s memoirs) but it’s fair to say that he finishes on firmer ground than that of the first twenty years of his life.
Am I a liar? No, I’m not a liar. I’m an unreliable narrator.
I wish I were a liar. Liars know the truth.
4/5 Not for the faint-hearted.
I’d been doing ice for about a year when I nearly died. I didn’t suffer a stroke or a heart attack, or receive a beating from a dealer – I nearly choked to death on a potato gem.
Potato gem nachos are a real thing and I don’t know whether to laugh and tuck in, or cry…
As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (July 22): Belfast 17°- 25° and Melbourne 8°-17°.