I grew up in Pell River, a rural community in western Jamaica. In my early years, Pell River was known for its green hills, clear springs and winding streams. My friends and I spent much of our time battling imaginary monsters in Pell River’s woodlands and swimming for hours until the grey-blue water in streams turned dark-brown. Some days, we walked for hours in search of guavas or firewood or played tag in mango trees while our goats grazed in the undergrowth. These activities taught me to use my imagination and to be adventurous, but unfortunately, they represented only one side of my childhood experiences. The time I spent in nature was often my only relief from the other side, which was characterised by poverty and abuse.
Poverty impacted every aspect of my life. By the time I was five years old, I had lived in six homes. Some days, when we had nothing to eat, mother sent us to our neighbours in the hope that they would feed us. They often did. To make ends meet, mother hand-washed clothes for families in nearby towns and sold fish from a bucket she carried on her head across Pell River. The money she earned was never enough, so she had to make some tough choices, including keeping me at home while my older sister went to school.
I started basic school at age five. My struggle to perform at a similar level as my peers frustrated my teacher, who punished me regularly, often by beating me with a switch. My teacher and other adults, including my parents, seemed unable or unwilling to communicate with me in ways that did not involve violence. When I visited my father, who lived a few metres from my school, he was often aloof and unkind. One day he packed up and left. His refusal or inability to be supportive made mother’s life extremely difficult. Some days, when she felt stressed, she would compare me to him, calling me ‘worthless’, and beating me until I was unable to breathe.
Mother told teachers at my primary school to beat me whenever I misbehaved. I felt unsafe at home and school. I was not the only student who felt this way. Some of my classmates, including Rohan Peterkin, were repeatedly beaten and shamed. After a while, unlike the rest of us, Rohan stopped crying when teachers whipped him. We nicknamed him ‘Bullkin’ – meaning bull’s skin – to imply that he was unable to feel pain. We suffered in other ways too. Some days we had nothing to eat. We used second-hand books or simply went without. We felt misunderstood and unseen and often failed to imbibe lessons despite our best efforts. I could barely read at age 11 and was forced to repeat the 6th grade.
During my second year in grade six, I enrolled in a special reading programme with Miss Sheryl, a trainee-teacher who had been placed at my school by the Ministry of Education. Miss Sheryl did not ask anything of me, except that I work hard and believe in myself. She was creative and patient, and my reading improved significantly. I felt dejected when her programme ended, but I was grateful that she’d left me with the gift of literacy and with a deeper appreciation of my personhood and value as a human being. I held firmly to my memory of Miss Sheryl, and I became more self-aware and felt less alone when I read books with characters who were facing similar hardships. But many of my challenges remained.
A couple of years after I left primary school, I moved into my ninth home, and shortly after that, at age fourteen, I was forced by my extended family to live on my own. Throughout this time, I endured paralysing mental deterioration. When I entered university at age eighteen, I was afflicted with numerous illnesses, including chronic depression, dizziness, auditory hallucinations, and blackouts. Despite sharing stories about my traumatic childhood with doctors, there was no mention of a possible connection between my experiences and my health challenges. I began to connect the dots – years later while I lived in Japan – after reading The Body Keeps the Score, a book about developmental trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
ACEs refer to sources of intense stress that many children experience, including poverty, physical, emotional or sexual abuse, neglect, community violence, racism, and peer victimisation. These experiences can have harmful effects on children’s brains, immune system development, and overall well-being, even when they become adults. Researching the links between ACEs/toxic stress and academic underachievement and poor health outcomes helped me identify and understand the sources of my illnesses. I learned too that my early struggles with illiteracy had been caused by the hardships I had endured at that time. This knowledge has been helpful, but I’ve also needed to find ways to examine and express my memories and emotions. Writing has helped me to unpack my Shadows, but it has been extremely difficult to capture what I think and feel.
My new book Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows: A Story about ACEs and Hope – which is published by CaribbeanReads and illustrated by Rachel Moss – aims to help child and adult survivors of ACEs by giving them a medium through which to explore their experiences, including possible links between their ACEs, toxic stress, and challenges with reading and academic work. Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows also highlights the need for us to find transformative ways of engaging with perpetrators of ACEs, and the role families and communities can play in helping survivors develop resilience and hope.
For much of my life, I couldn’t imagine making peace with myself, or with my parents or others who made my childhood years insufferable. Fortunately, my research and writing have helped me to gain an appreciation of the nature and impacts of intergenerational trauma. Both my parents are survivors of multiple ACEs. Their harsh and irresponsible child-rearing practices were shaped by their own shadows. Understanding some of the reasons they treated me as they did has made it possible for me to forgive them and to forgive myself.
In addition to my lived experiences, Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows draws inspiration and text from ‘How to Read’, an essay by Jamaican human rights advocate Marcus Garvey. It also has an appendix that provides a brief overview of ACEs. I hope this book will help survivors of ACEs make sense of their experiences, behaviours, and choices, as well as of the actions and choices of others. I hope too that it will inspire many people to do further research and to join communities that are working to reduce the prevalence of ACEs around the world.
Juleus Ghunta is a Chevening Scholar, children’s writer, a member of Jamaica’s National Task Force on Character Education, and an advocate in the Caribbean’s adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) movement. He holds a BA in Media from The University of the West Indies, Mona, and an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Bradford. His poems and essays on ACEs have appeared in 30+ journals across 15 countries. His picture book Tata and the Big Bad Bull was published by CaribbeanReads in 2018, and he is the co-editor of the December 2019 and March 2020 issues of Interviewing the Caribbean (The UWI Press), which focus on children’s literature and ACEs in the Caribbean. His new book, Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows: A Story about ACEs and Hope will be published by CaribbeanReads in December 2021. His Notebook of Words and Ideas, which features prominently in Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows, will be published in 2022.