Pub date: May 02, 2006
Publishers: Harper Element
After the brouhaha with James Frey I had vowed to myself not to read another memoir, but when HarperCollins (UK) dropped this ARC in my lap I couldn't resist reading the first chapter of the book and soon I was hooked.
This is the story of Judy Westwater the unfortunate child of a spiritualist-healer father cum con man. Her father despised little Judy but kept her around because she was an essential cast member in the little tableau vivant he presented to the world - in particular his church clients, who supported him with cash donations - of a family man with a loving wife and a well brought up, beautifully mannered child. No one knew his dirty little secret - that he and his live-in girlfriend, Freda, starved Judy and locked her up like a dog in the backyard of their house every single day, brutally thrashing her anytime she escaped to scavenge for food in the neighbour's garbage bins. They treated her like a work slave, never permitting her to have friends or to take part in school activities and when they left Manchester (UK) for South Africa, they did so without informing Judy's mom, or the authorities, as to where they were taking her...
Judy bore the abuse as best she could, finding joy in the littlest things like a stuffed teddy bear given her by a kindly elderly couple and then a pet dog, Gypo, who unfortunately was given away by her dad (with no thought to how she felt) when he decided to move the family to South Africa. She read a lot because books were her way of escaping to a place somewhere, anywhere but where she was. She also took pleasure in the gymnastic tricks she could coax her supple body to perform.
Judy's dad moved the family to Durban in South Africa when Judy was 11 years old. They lived in a one-room dump of a boarding house and the strict and demanding school she was placed in was sheer torture for her. Her descriptions of apartheid Africa in the 1950's are well worth reading. When Judy found she just couldn't take the abuse and the loneliness any more she escaped to a visiting circus. I shall end here because I certainly don't wish to spoil the remainder of the book for you.
The sort of abuse that Judy went through would have damaged any weaker person, but Judy's resilience, perseverence and her ability to constantly visualize a better life for herself saw her through. She also incorporated one very important tool in her daily life and that was to set goals for herself - achieving them gave her a sense of accomplishment and self-worth which was a life saver because abused children rarely have an good sense of self.
She writes without self-pity and melodrama and none of the incidents in the book are set up to wangle tears out of the reader, infact, often she comes across as feeling sorry for Freda and her mom even though they ill treated her - having said that however,there are a couple of passages that will cause a lump to form in your throat and to reel from a force of sheer gratitude for the childhoods we had.
Related links:Judy Westwater is interviewed by BBC Radio 4 "Home Truths"Street Kids