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My Name is Why (Social Work book review)

Posted: February 04 2021

Student & staff projects, Social Work

Interested in Social Work and want to learn more about the subject? The book reviews written by our Social Work students and staff help you identify the best literature to advance your learning.

This week:

  • Title: My Name is Why
  • Author: Lemn Sissay
  • ISBN: 9781786892362
  • Publication: Edinburgh, Canongate Books Ltd, 2019
  • Extent: 193 pages
  • Reviewed by: Agnes Conteh & Corin Fraser-Brown, (originally published online on 23 Nov 2020 in Social Work Education: The International Journal: https://doi.org/10.1080/02615479.2020.1853008)

‘My Name Is Why’ is a memoir written by Lemn Sissay, a BAFTA-nominated, award-winning writer, poet, performer, broadcaster, and chancellor of the University of Manchester. The book ‘My Name Is Why’ tells the story of Lemn during his time spent at foster homes.

In the book, Sissay reflects on his childhood journey and the challenges and struggles he went through growing up in foster care. From the ages of 12 to 16, after leaving his first foster parent, Lemn went on to four other children’s homes, where he was physically, emotionally, and racially abused. At the age of 17, Sissay was finally given his birth certificate and a letter dated 1968. Upon reading the documents, Lemn discovered that the name he was known as ‘Norman Greenwood’ throughout his childhood was not his birth name and that his name was Lemn Sissay which was given to him by his birth mother ‘Yemarshet Sissay’ who is Ethiopian. The name ‘Norman’ was given to him by the social worker who was assigned to his mother, ‘Norman Goldthorpe’, while his last name, ‘Greenwood’ was given to him by his first foster parents. Digging deeper, Sissay also discovered that his mother never wanted to give him up for adoption and that she fought for him to be returned to her after social services took him away from her while living in a home for unmarried women. All this was shared by Lemn on the first few chapters of the book. Reading further, the book reflects on his adoption and self-expression, while also giving an insight into the British care system and how it worked. The fact that Lemn’s name was changed by his mother’s social worker and that the social worker gave him up for adoption without facing an adoption panel or applying to court for an adoption order said a lot about the British care system, the social services system, and the practices of social workers back then. Reading the book did not only show how careless the social service system was and how he was let down by his foster family and the government, but it also shows the bad side of social work. Even though social work is often portrayed as a profession which protects and fights for people, some of the practices displayed by the social workers who dealt with Lemn’s case were questionable and looking at Lemn’s story makes us question the motives and actions of not only the British care system and their legal frameworks, but of other care systems around the world, as many more children might be facing the same fate as Lemn.

Currently in England, when a child is placed for adoption, social workers are expected to present the case in front of an adoption panel and then to present the case in court for an adoption order to be granted and the birth mother must give consent before her child is placed for adoption. Where the Local Authority has had a plan for an adoption confirmed by the court (where parents have the right to representation), if the parent do not then agree, the Local Authority can apply for the consent to be dispensed with. The adoptive parents are expected to treat the child as their own and should bestow on the adopted child all the rights and privileges that a biological child would enjoy. But in many cases adopted children tend to feel rejected and abandoned by the people they see as their parents and some may feel a form of disconnect or even face discrimination especially when they are raised by a family of a different race. But the fact is that adoptive parents are still allowed to change a child’s name and in England children are still being put up for adoption by social workers without the consent of their parents. Although issues relating to this have been raised and condemned, Fenton-Glynn (2016) shows that the legal frameworks, polices and safeguards set out by the Government are not being enforced and the social care professionals and Government are not ‘practising what they preach’.

Looking at the way the book was structured, the writing style used was very clear, interesting, and easy to follow, as the narrative is interspersed and accompanied with screenshots of social workers’ reports, documents, and letters, which allowed the reader to create an image and be part of the story. Besides, it takes the reader on an emotional journey; feeling angry one minute, frustrated the next, and yet interested at the same time. Each chapter was very informative and well detailed and was prefaced by gnomic poems, which speak on the author’s hurts, struggles, hopefulness, and resilience. Overall, the book was well structured as half of the book was made up of letters and documents while the other half was made up of memories making it easier for the readers to follow and understand Lemn’s story.

As social work students, reading the book has brought on different emotions. There is disappointment as well as frustration in reading reports of the social workers who were supposed to be supporting and nurturing Lemn Sissay, yet turning a blind eye and allowing him to be subjected to discrimination, hurt, rejections, and to live a lie. One particular strength that really stood out while reading this book is the original documents and letters produced by the care systems being displayed throughout the book, which allowed readers to believe that this is a true story and also played a big part in understanding what happened, showing where the care system went wrong and to help future social workers further understand the duty of care they have for any case and the importance of observing and recording appropriately. Sissay’s aim for the book was to tell his story, not only to allow readers to get an insight of how the care system and the Government failed him but to also connect with his people. It has been successful in meeting its aims, as Lemn evidently connects emotionally with his targeted audience.

Overall, reading this book has taught us to never overlook or perpetuate discrimination and oppression, but to rather challenge it. As social work students, we are taught to protect the vulnerable people in our society from harm or abuse and to follow the ethical code of conduct to ensure that the best care is provided; however, these expectations were not fulfilled by the social workers who dealt with Lemn’s case. The book is a valuable resource for social workers irrespective of their country of practice: our key message is to always support service users to make their own choices and to empower them by providing information and advocating on their behalf to achieve social justice and people empowerment.

Reference:

Fenton-Glynn, C. (2016). Adoption without consent. The Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs. Retrieved November 15, 2020