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°.
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Out of curiosity, do you agree with that current thinking you opened the review with?
I’m inclined to be on the fence but with two legs on that side.
I have limited experience in that area but overall, I’d say yes, that I agree. Being separated from a parent (and siblings) has significant long term outcomes – at the minimum, the kids have problems forming relationships, problems feeling safe/ secure and these problems often lead to other issues (including substance abuse because they’re self-medicating). White speculates on what his life might have been like had he stayed with his mother – it was an interesting part of the story but I didn’t include it in my review because of spoilers.
I was fortunate enough to have relatives – grandparents and aunts – I could rotate between when not able to live at home as a child. I do believe my life would have been quite different if I’d been placed into foster care instead of this keeping it in the family arrangement. My home life was very uncertain on account of my mother self medicating her bipolar with alcohol instead of her medication. My father was violent (to her) and unpredictable. I’m not sure though, without extended family to live with in long stretches, that remaining with my mother would have been best for me while young. It tested me enough during my teenage years. She was a very draining, toxic, and unreliable parent. Hence the fence sitting!
Thank you for sharing your story Theresa.
Within the definition of ‘staying with family’ is extended family – it’s about knowing where you belong and identity – kids put in foster care often lose that. Ultimately there’s no perfect way to test this but I imagine that with your own history you must have asked a lot of ‘what if…’ questions over the years.
I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be completely disconnected from my family. I really feel for kids in that situation.
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THis sounds incredibly powerful – with some beautiful writing. I can confirm though, that they might say the temperature here is between 17 and 25 but it doesn’t feel it. Plus, it’s raining…all the time.
You’ve had a wet summer and we’ve had an unusually cold winter (I’m counting down until summer).
This sounds so tough. The humour is unflinching. I’d definitely want to read this but I’ve have to choose my moment for sure.
Yes, not one to be picked up on a whim. I am going to hear the author speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival in a few weeks, so will be very interested to see if it make me feel differently about any aspects of his book.
That will be very interesting! Will you be blogging about it? I’d really like to hear what you think.
Like Madame B, I’d love to hear more about the author event if you have time to write a post about it. The memoir sounds fascinating, but clearly when the reader is feeling strong.
Yes, I will blog about the author event – stay tuned!
You’re reading some gritty books lately. People I know were in homes for a while, but it was a temporary thing while stuff was sorted out with the parents. Being removed must be another thing altogether. So often in reading you seem to be barracking for the children to stay with the dysfunctional parent (not that an example comes to mind off the top of my head). And then for generations of Aboriginal children to be taken from functional, loving parents … It beggars belief. And the monster in the White House is doing it to refugees as we speak.
I have had a string of challenging reads (and all have been excellent). I won’t say too much about why White was removed but even as a child, he knew it was a permanent arrangement. He also reflects on how his life might have been different if he’d stayed with his mother – there’s no perfect experiment and there’s no real answer however, as you have pointed out, there are many examples of why taking children from their families is incredibly damaging.
The difficulty is quantifying the damage that is being done by a child staying in a home – neglect, exposure to drug use, physical violence, sexual abuse – what level is ‘tolerable’ (zero when it comes to sexual abuse)? What impacts one child, might not impact the next how and who should be the judge of that? It’s horrible that these are decisions have to be made. It also explains why social workers burn-out relatively quickly.
I am going to read this soon. Like Theresa (and for broadly similar reasons) I sit on the fence.
I think if you know what’s ahead, you can mentally prepare. It took me a while to write this review because I really did have to order my thoughts – it was certainly an emotionally overwhelming book.
I love a good memoir but not sure whether I could handle this one?
I found the parts about domestic violence the most difficult, mostly because of White’s almost offhand descriptions – but that’s also what makes this book memorable.
Sounds like a tough but fascinating read. I’ve never heard of the author though; is he quite well known in your part of the world? (Also, this is unrelated but I’m from Canadian and so had to look up potato gems! We call them tater tots but I think I like your name better!)
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