Published: 29 November, 2012
by PAVAN AMARA
OF the hundreds of thousands of people who have been in local authority care as children, few write about their experiences.
But, most will have arrived in the library – at some point – with a list of names, a list of people just like them. It’s a rite of passage, and it takes months to get through the list: Marilyn Monroe, Catherine Cookson, Charlie Chaplin, Coco Chanel, Ella Fitzgerald, Cary Grant, Damian Hirst, Kriss Akabusi, Rudyard Kipling, Lemn Sissay, Eddie Murphy, Edgar Allen Poe, Vanessa Mae, Fatima Whitbread... There are barristers, authors, chefs, poets, athletes, architects, comedians, journalists, doctors. Because for all the one-dimensional publicity, the same negative statistics lazily printed again and again, the “misery memoirs” publishers love to profit from, care leavers are a pretty successful bunch when they choose to be.
Jenny Molloy included. She is the author of Hackney Child, published last year under the pen name Hope Daniels. It tells the heartfelt, honest, and sometimes funny story of her childhood in the care system. The Sun named it 2011’s Best Memoir, and the book’s word-of-mouth reputation has quickly spread through the UK’s network of care leavers and organisations.
“In my 20s I was a mass of confusion and turmoil,” said the 38-year-old. “I’m through that now, I’ve built a successful life for myself, but it’s taken some doing.”
Born in Hackney to her mother Mary, who eventually took up sex work to support alcoholism, and her father Alfred, who funded his problem through petty theft, Jenny paints a picture of “two people clinging to each other, a bit like in a tragic but real love story”.
“Addiction took them to such low depths. They were characters of good and bad with six kids and life throwing them a lot of trouble in between. They weren’t evil people, the neglect was never intentional.”
Aged nine, she arrived at Highgate West Hill children’s home – “a fairytale castle.”
“It was a beautiful place, far from the stereotype. Our home in Hackney had been smashed to bits. When we arrived the children were all on a walk to Hampstead Heath, and coming over to me going ‘All right, new kid!’. I was scared to go in, and they got me inside by enticing me with beans on toast. I was so relieved, we would go for walks on the Heath, have new activities to do all the time, it felt like being in a Disney animation compared to before. But I kept worrying about my dad who had been out drinking for days when we were taken to the home. I worried he wouldn’t know where we were, but he did and he knew it was the best thing for us.”
The next nine years moved Jenny through four children’s homes in London and the south-east, and six foster placements. Until, on her 18th birthday, she discovered she was pregnant, and almost homeless with a baby.
The mother-of-two recalls: “I met a housing officer who found me somewhere just in time, otherwise who knows where I would’ve ended up. I really believe care leavers have guardian angels.”
The next 10 years saw Jenny overcome her own alcohol problems, another child, a marriage, a divorce, a chance meeting with her current husband.
Now she manages national contracts for the Citizens Advice Bureau, and has opened a winter night shelter in Tunbridge Wells.
But, Jenny’s very happiness made it difficult to get published.
“I wanted to write an accurate reflection of life in care and afterwards. But that just didn’t make for a miserable enough book. There was one big publisher who was very interested, but kept saying to me: ‘This is for the misery memoir genre, you need to make it more miserable.’ I said: ‘No chance, because I’m not a miserable sap, I’m very happy, I’ve been through tough patches and I’m through them now. Why can’t it be about that?’”
Jenny’s friend Morag Livingstone, who helped ghost write the book, published it, and on release it hit number two in the Amazon Kindle chart. Currently at number eight on the chart, it’s maintained its position in the top 10 for a year.
She says there are a lot of myths about care. “In reality, social workers are so hard working and loving. Out of the 147 names I remember, I adored 145 of them.
“Also, in reality, care leavers are far from another misery memoir. I hope people read it, and see that.”
• Hackney Child: the true story of a neglected but resourceful child surviving poverty and the care system. By Hope Daniels and Morag Livingstone. Kindle edition £4.99. Published by Livingstone’s Photos, £9.99. Available online at www.hackneychild.co.uk/