For Jorel

VLADIMIR LUCIEN

That night she watch the door,
she watch she watch she watch
the hours of the door, her foot blinking
like a eye on the floor; she wait
she wait she wait, wasting
her time and her mind waiting
for this small boy she send to buy bread ever since,
waiting for this small bread of a boy
to come inside and be broken softly
under her hot hand of anger and love,
and the burn, the blès on his broad back of learnt lessons.
But all she could do that night is watch
the door like a gwan nom in front her,
all she could do was watch the time
increasing on the unopening silence,
all she could do was watch the clock,
make her son grow before his time,
making him come home so late
so late, so she wait, and she know
he must be on the road, playing
marbles and doing things things things
on the government road that he eh suppose
to do. “But the other boys was doing it too.”
“But I don’t care about the other boys, I care about
                                                YOU!”
And all the talk she talk to herself, all the mop
she mope, she couldn’t find no kind of comfort,
no explanation from clock,
and in the middle of her mind, she could see
a cock coming, a cock like a cop coming to her door,
with another day close up tight in it beak,
and before it could speak, she see herself start
lashing her thigh and she crow, “No! No! No!”
and the door turn to a mirror, and she walking
and he walking toward her, and she walking
and he walking toward her from inside the mirror,
and she inside the mirror too, but on the next side,
and they couldn’t touch the boulder of each other
shoulder to roll away the reality.

Now she walking out the road,
with her curlers curl up nice on the bed
of her head, and she out in the jumping night
of her nighty, and her ol’ slipper on her foot,
and she wishing she wishing she wishing
she could take it back, wishing the cock
could uncrow the day, wishing she could
take away the chores from his hands, take
back the poverty that feed children hunger
until they think they big big big, but they really big
with gas like imagination in their belly. But
she on the road now, woman alone, no man
to raise the boy, no high chest to brace against,
when the world has come, just she womanly on the road,
in the uncertain morning of midnight.

But he shoulda know to come home straight,
to not wait for no Tom, no Dick, no Harry,
to pass his ass home early so none of this
could happen; he should have come home
in the thick of his skin, smelling of bouk & ram-goat
as usual, with the piece of grass between his teeth
and bleat under her beating as usual; he should
have come home to cry and sleep and wake up
wiping the lasi from his eye, and say good morning,
with the sun in his eyebrows, and the world in his ears
and the trees and flowers in his nose;
he should have come home to where the tropical storm
of his mother love and lessons was brewing,

he should have know, he should have no
                                                                 no
                                                                           no
because dying was an adult thing
to do, something children should
be scolded for doing.

Previously published in Sounding Ground by Vladimir Lucien (2014, Peepal Tree Press)

Vladimir Lucien is a poet from St Lucia. He is the author of Sounding Ground which won the 2015 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, and co-editor of Sent Lisi: Poems and Art of St Lucia.

My Soul Has Holes in It

ROLAND WATSON-GRANT

Is childhood religious abuse a thing? You bet.

I remember Errol Taylor (name changed).  He was that boy who came back to school one Christmas term with spots all the way down one arm. ‘Chickenpox’, he told us, but there had been no known outbreak in Jamaica to spoil the summer.

Later, in the self-conscious years of my teens, while staring at my face in the mirror during an encounter with the disease, I observed with morbid fascination how chickenpox presents itself randomly, how the vesicles don’t avoid your eyelids and earlobes – or even have mercy on the tip of your nose.

In retrospect, Errol Taylor’s spots were quite the opposite. They sat in a straight line, equal spaces apart, each one shaped more or less like the tip of a burning cigarette. Turns out his old man was more calculated than the varicella-zoster virus and had developed a dual-purpose for a ten pack of Matterhorn.

The teachers knew. The Guidance Counsellor got involved after Errol was caught smoking the same brand in the boys’ restroom. Errol’s father showed up at school half-drunk for an intense discussion that disrupted nearby classes, but at the end of the tirade the man never took responsibility for branding his son. Then just before Common Entrance Exams, Errol Taylor disappeared.

I think I know where he went. Not a geographical location, but to that place where children go when they feel they don’t fit in or that no one really understands, inside themselves, with all the shutters down like a midday curfew on Princess Street. Perhaps Errol’s sense of alienation wasn’t helped by the fact that some kids called him E.T. – after the summer blockbuster movie of 1982.  

These days, sometimes a version of Errol Taylor stares back at me in the mirror. Alien. Distant.

I might not have had cigarette blisters trailing out from under my khaki shirt sleeve. The single mother who raised me was not the type, but somewhere between seven years old and adulthood, I felt a different kind of heat. Most of it came from the pulpit of the church of my childhood.

Yes, I grew up on fire-and-brimstone sermons, but these were not your ordinary ‘come-to-Jesus’ type preaching. Nah. These were blazing diatribes fuelled by prophecies from a 19th-century movement called the Millerites, an American Baptist sect obsessed with plotting a timeline for the end of days. In the 1980s ministers in my denomination were still launching these Molotov cocktails into their congregations, stoking fears of yet another impending apocalypse.

So yeah, I might not have burn marks on my skin, but I think my soul has holes in it. Is there such a thing as childhood religious abuse? You bet.

I know what you’re thinking. Maybe I’m being extreme. Surely, growing up with fiery religious dogma is not the same as abuse with a lit cigarette, is it? Surely, we cannot equate the physical abuse of minors every year to the rantings of a firebrand preacher, can we? Maybe not, but make no mistake, spiritual abuse and religious trauma are real, and they are not things you simply shake off as soon you get out from under your mother’s roof.  

Get over it. Move on. That’s easier said than done for spiritual Errol Taylors like me, still recovering from blisters inflicted during childhood. Easier said than done if people fail to recognise the more insidious forms of abuse in the world, some disguised as spiritual succour. Easier said than done when the toxic control of a religious organisation over one’s life, mirrors the very signs used to recognise psychological abuse.

  1. Enforced social isolation. If you think curfews are bad, imagine being free to move about in society but having a life-long No Movement Day in your mind. No Movement to the cinema or any other ‘counsel of the ungodly’.
  2. Preventing someone from meeting their cultural needs. At the church of my childhood, your Jamaican identity was secondary to your church membership. Reggae music was rubbish. Dancehall was reduced to the devil playing drum and bass.
  3. Preventing the expression of choice and opinion. Not much else needs to be said here.
  4. Failure to respect privacy. A cult polices itself. Watchers are everywhere. They reserve the right to investigate you, pointing out all things foreign to the organisation. Wear no jewellery except for your wedding ring. Marry a person from another denomination and you might as well leave the church. Do not drink green tea. Consuming any caffeinated beverage could have you vilified among the faithful.
  5. Infantilisation of the individual. You are incapable of making decisions for your own life. The church will provide guidelines for every step. Please wait for instructions.
  6. Atmosphere of co-dependency. You need the organisation to assuage your fear of what is happening in the world and the organisation needs to validate its existence. An organisation can only lead if people follow.
  7. Gaslighting. “Your loved one died because of your sinfulness. God doesn’t answer a sinner’s prayer.” This was an actual statement I heard from a member of the congregation.

The fundamentalist church of my childhood was like an abusive parent – a manipulative, anxious, delusional parent. Interestingly, research has shown that abusive parents were in many cases, victims themselves.

The church of my childhood started life as the victim of a self-inflicted blow, a failed prediction that Jesus would split the skies over New Hampshire, USA, on Tuesday, October 22, 1844. When that precise prediction failed, the dates were reset for April, July and October 1845. Jesus still didn’t show.

This failed prophecy has haunted the church for 177 years, and with it comes a serious denial, the refusal to admit that those playing prophet back in the day were just plain wrong. Instead, when members of the Millerite Movement left in droves, the faithful ‘few’ who were left, decided to change the meaning of what happened on that day.

Jesus wasn’t coming to bring the world to a fiery end in the fall of 1844. No. Instead the Good Lord was simply launching a pre-judgment – a kind of heavenly spring-cleaning to make it easier to decide who goes to hell when Judgement Day finally arrives. This is the dubious Adam’s rib that remains a fundamental belief of the church.

But let’s get back to my mirror. The church of my childhood left enough holes in my soul to send a trypophobe into shock. When the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989, I remember one soft-spoken church elder tapping the microphone and predicting that the anti-Communist revolutions in Europe and the Tiananmen Square Massacre were clear evidence that before the end of 1990, we would see Jesus appear in the eastern sky.

1992: One church member’s wife saw an angel in a dream soaring above Queens Hill in St Andrew, ripping the 1992 calendar to pieces. For some, that was it, a clear sign. That year would be the new end of the world.

For a year I watched every suspicious cloud hanging over Portland and St Thomas, anxious as hell. Never mind what the Bible said about no man knowing the hour. Not one Bible-believing adult member in a church of hundreds shouted down this man’s prediction. So, to an impressionable teen, this mad utterance could very well have been true.

And there we were, a hundred and forty-five years after the Great Disappointment of 1844, still making predictions that would spoil the coming week’s binge-watching of Dynasty and Falcon Crest. We were addicted to prophesy like it was Christian crack. Once you huff and puff on predictions, you can’t go back to normal.

And there was nothing normal about the 1990s. Never mind that the world did not end in the first year of the new decade as predicted. The signs were everywhere.

1991: Prophecies popped up all over as the First Gulf War began with a bang. New military tactics were in the air and the revolution was televised live from Baghdad. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait and promised America the ‘mother of all battles’ if they intervened. The collapse of the Soviet Union and an earth tremor in Jamaica sent local wannabe prophets into a frenzy. My denomination churned them out in record numbers. Every late-night stewpeas and rice induced dream became a prophetic warning.

1992: One church member’s wife saw an angel in a dream soaring above Queens Hill in St Andrew, ripping the 1992 calendar to pieces. For some, that was it, a clear sign. That year would be the new end of the world.

The fever of pre-1844 was rekindled on a smaller scale in the church of my childhood. Prophetic sectarianism infected local branches from Kingston to Montego Bay, gaining fever pitch in the summer. Church leaders scrambled to counter the schisms. In one particular sect, wedding rings were banned. Neckties were abandoned as the knot was declared an ‘upside-down triangle’, a sign of Satan. I wore a purple-and-white tie to school every day, so I was doomed.

That summer saw many a church service disrupted by sect members leaping to their feet in the middle of a sermon to call out the preacher’s transgressions, ramble off a dream or a ‘word they received from the Lord’ and end with a deafening scream: “Behold I come quickly!” before storming out, leaving the church abuzz.

Then while the world was watching, things got real.

April 1993: David Koresh, a cult leader from Waco Texas and his followers had a standoff with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) on the compound of his Branch Davidian group in Waco, Texas. The siege, which lasted nearly two months, was perhaps watched more keenly by members of my denomination than everyone else in the world. That’s because the Branch Davidians cult was an offshoot of the church of my childhood. That’s because the Branch Davidians believed in the same basic prophecies that trailed a straight line back to the Millerites of 1844.

What unfolded when the FBI got involved after a deadly gun battle between believers and the ‘hosts of hell’ was understood by members of my church to be a nightmarish perversion of a familiar prophecy: that the forces of the world would advance against the faithful in the battle of Armageddon, only to be destroyed by a returning Jesus. The Lord did not intervene.

When the Branch Davidian compound exploded into flames, I cried. Long, private tears. Tears like the ones I shed in the shower when I finally decided to leave the church of my childhood for the sake of my sanity. I was not supposed to be able to understand the mad religious fervour of those who were incinerated inside the compound at Waco – but I did, even from a distance. I had seen this insanity somewhere before, not fully grown, but a monster, nonetheless.

After 76 people died in the Waco siege, the church of my childhood launched into crisis management on an international level. For weeks, sermons tried to distance the denomination from the Branch Davidians. However, the two groups will forever share history. They are inexorably linked by Millerite interpretation of the Bible. Even light commentary on Wikipedia will not let the church of my childhood sufficiently distance itself from what happened in Waco.

It took me a while to get the smoke out of my eyes. But over time, I wanted nothing to do with the mayhem of multiple interpretations of the same Book from a church babbling in several voices and sprouting so many heads, it was beginning to look like a beast from the Book of Revelation.

I left the church of my childhood long after I became an adult. And where do the faithless go when preparation for the hereafter fails again and again? Back to building a life in the here and now. That was easier said than done because you weren’t supposed to still be here.

It’s like being three years old waiting for your parents to pick you up from school. Your father is late, you feel a hole in your stomach, and you don’t know which way is home.

By the late 90s I had given up. Walked away. Lost my religion. Apocalyptic anxiety and prophetic reflux had burnt ulcers into my understanding of spiritual things. While the Hale-Bopp comet was zooming past the planet, influencing the Heaven’s Gate cult mass suicide in ’97, I was dealing with my own beliefs that could not be reconciled with reality.

It takes courage to leave a dysfunctional relationship. Leaving is also a process. I went ‘cold turkey’ and found that even after cutting the umbilical cord, my eyes needed adjusting. My worldview had been so coloured by the stained-glass windows of the church, I would still see everything through the lens of an approaching apocalypse. The nightly news hour – including weather and sports – were all related to doomsday. Maybe even the Reggae Boyz qualifying for the 1998 World Cup was one of the signs and wonders of the end times.

When we were teens, my best friend Horatio, a real wise guy, told me that the most honest snake in the world was a rattler. He’s working that rattle to tell you from afar: “Stay away. I will punch holes in you.” A mind-controlling organisation has no rattle. You cannot feel the negative vibration. You cannot always sense the toxicity. I got bitten, the poison was persistent, but by the time the Y2K scare was triggering global doomsday anxiety in ’99, I felt nothing. I had heard it all before.

In 2001, I walked out into the world, needing fresh air. Horatio and I would hop on a Greyhound bus for a two-day journey from Miami to New York City and then on to Tolland, Connecticut. My Walkman blasted Bob Marley’s Legend until the batteries died. I was an adult when I finally went to the Bob Marley Museum on Hope Road to see the bullet holes in the walls from the attempt to murder Marley. Trying to understand his legacy after leaving a Reggae-rejecting church was culture shock and redemption at the same time.

Prophecy-fatigue calls for peace and quiet. I wanted that trip up the East Coast to New York to be a healing balm, calamine lotion for spiritual blisters. No such luck.

On Tuesday morning, on our way back into New York City, two jetliners ripped into the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan and ended the world as we knew it. Televisions across the world showed holes belching smoke and fire, two more gaping holes poked into our collective consciousness by extremist belief.

We never made it back to Manhattan. We got close enough to see the ashfall, hear the distant sirens and smell the acrid air. I spent the rest of September 11, 2001, in the boondocks of Connecticut watching fighter jets and Chinook helicopters thunder overhead. All commercial flights were diverted to Bradley Airport and grounded, clearing the air for more military patrols.

Days later, I would leave Connecticut and fly back to Florida by way of Bradley Airport. Early in the flight the captain advised us we were in good company. An F-15 hung in the air just off our right-wing. It sat there, matte metal under morning sun, then flipped to the side and zoomed off. Seconds later our pilot, in as normal a voice as he could muster, assured us that there were air bases in New York and Boston, so this sighting was “routine and quite expected”.

For the entire flight, I watched clouds, caught between Heaven and Earth. Flying at upwards of 30,000 feet gives you time to think. I realised I had come full circle. The state of New Hampshire is just next door to Connecticut. We had climbed into the sky over Hartford, so perhaps we were suspended for a while in the empty expanse into which the Millerites stared with fading hope on October 22, 1844. Now the horizon only brought machines. Now the eastern sky promised only war.

I thought of extreme belief, and what would make a person shower, pray, eat, dress themselves, board a plane with other passengers and then kamikaze into the side of a building. On the ground, 20 years later, I still have questions about the compulsions of belief.

How many people are waiting so patiently for Heaven that they hardly participate on earth? How much art remains incomplete? How many manuscripts languish as the writer experiences arrested development, caught in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome by belief? How many sports records remain unbroken because physical talent got benched in church? How many musicians have compositions stuck in second verse? How many singers are still trying to find their voice?

How many businesspeople today kick themselves because someone else launched the start-up they had dreamed of a decade ago but never started because ‘we’ should have been in Paradise by now or ‘God did not approve’ of the blueprint according to the church rules? I know of folks –  then newlyweds – who abandoned yearnings for a family because a preacher quoted the Bible saying: ‘Woe unto those who are with child in the last days.’ Those kids would have been thirty years old by now.

To be clear, the focus of this essay is not the fiery rhetoric triggering end-of-the-world scenarios or cults that end in mass killings. This is about those left behind, those who are hiding undetected wounds, those spiritual E. T’s with private scars, those crushed between two worlds, those angry at losing time on earth because of eternity. I know people like these. I am one of them. I have the marks to show for it.

According to psychologist Jill Mytton: “Second-generation adult survivors of high-demand groups face particular difficulties, not only during their childhood but also upon leaving the group, because they face assimilation into a culture that is not just alien to them but also one that they have been taught is wicked and to be hated.”

I went to therapy after my sister died and the subject of losing my religion came up. I asked why others did not view the church the way I do. The therapist had a knowing smile. “Maybe that’s their reality”, she said, “What’s yours?”

These days people invite me back to the church of my childhood. But I couldn’t go back without lying to myself; without opening the sores again. I did go back once, and after a very warm welcome by the many, a fanatical few came out of the woodwork like termites, ready to bore more holes. I didn’t know that the famous Prodigal Son story had an alternative ending, so I left again.

But maybe the fanatics are right after all. Maybe I’m too far gone to become a sheep again. Maybe I am that leopard among the flock. I cannot be herded. I cannot follow orders. I can never change my spots.

Image credit: Taj Francis

Roland Watson-Grant is a Jamaican novelist, screenwriter and travel writer. His first novel Sketcher (2013) has been translated into Turkish and Spanish. Roland is the recipient of a Musgrave Award for Literature in Jamaica and his non-fiction work has been archived by the Smithsonian Libraries. In 2021, Roland won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Caribbean Region.

Trauma and Enforced Disappearances in the Sri Lankan Civil War    

In this original interview done for PREE’s special issue on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and storytelling, Laura Tovar, a conflict transformation specialist from Colombia speaks with Thurka Krishansamy, a development practitioner from Sri Lanka. Thurka is a Sri Lankan Tamil and a survivor of the country’s prolonged civil war during which she experienced displacement, extreme poverty, and lost her father and her voice. She talks about familial dysfunctions and structural violence in Sri Lanka and how her early experiences continue to affect her life.

Thurka Krishnasamy is a development practitioner from Sri Lanka. She has 15 years of experience working at International NGOs and holds an MA in Peace, Resilience and Social Justice from the University of Bradford, UK. Thurka is a Sri Lankan Tamil and a survivor of the country’s prolonged civil war. Studying in the UK and writing an autoethnographic dissertation on her lived experiences of voicelessness and powerlessness helped her to understand and overcome some of the impacts of her early trauma.

Laura Tovar is Colombian. She holds an MA in Peace, Conflict, and Development from the University of Bradford, UK. She works at the National Center for Historical Memory, reporting and analysing the consequences of Colombian armed conflicts on individuals, communities and the natural environment. She is interested in peacebuilding, gender studies, conflict transformation, and Theatre of the Oppressed. 

Image credit: Thurka Krishnasamy

What Rohan Bullkin Taught Me About Reading

UTE KELLY

Among the things I enjoy most about working in a university setting are the opportunities for conversations that prompt us to ask new questions, see connections between diverse themes and experiences, reconsider assumptions and explore the implications for our thinking and practices. I am lucky to be able to have conversations of this kind with people from all over the world. My conversation with Juleus Ghunta has been one of the most sustained of these, one that has deepened and evolved over time. Quite a bit of it has revolved around ACEs and Rohan Bullkin.

I first came across Rohan in Juleus’s MA dissertation, an autoethnographic exploration of his ACEs, their impacts on his life, and the potential of storytelling as a form of resistance and a path towards healing. In that first encounter, Rohan was a real-life childhood friend, one of the other boys assigned to the ‘dunce row’ at their primary school. A boy who earned the name ‘bullkin’ because he stopped crying when teachers hit him. What his peers picked up on, I think, is the way traumatic experiences can lead to numbing, shutting down the capacity to feel. What might it take, from such a place, to recover this capacity, to feel like a person again?

The second time I met Rohan was in an early version of what became Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows. From the start, the fictional Rohan’s story was a form of resistance – a determination not to give in to numbing, to imagine other possibilities, to dream. Often, such stories – whether real-life or fictional – are told in ways that suggest that with determination and hard work, anyone can triumph over adversity. In his dissertation, Juleus called this ‘the agency fallacy’; this too, a kind of resistance against narratives that end up blaming people like the real-life Rohan for not making it out. And yet, the early draft of Rohan’s story felt a bit like that. Learning to read seemed a bit too easy, a case of following Marcus Garvey’s instructions on ‘how to read’: “Use every spare minute you have in reading… Read through at least one book every week.” Its benefits seemed too narrow, more focused on academic achievement than the wonder of discovering other worlds or the possibility of developing a deep understanding of self and others.

Over time, Rohan’s story became richer, more complex, more honest and courageous. The process of crafting Rohan’s story was shaped in part by conversations, questions and responses. I have not experienced childhood trauma or struggled with literacy. So, for me, some of the most important questions were about what these experiences feel like from the inside. How might this be captured and conveyed, both to help others who have lived them to feel seen, and to give those of us who have not a meaningful understanding? How does it feel to be too overwhelmed by toxic stress to focus on trying to read? What is it like to experience the shame of illiteracy, and then the excitement of discovering a new superpower? How can psychosis – making friends with a talking book – be not only scary but also helpful?

Both Juleus’s attempts to articulate these experiences and my attempts to listen have been iterative, work-in-progress. One writing or reading or a single conversation, we have found, is often not enough. There is value in revisiting questions and responses that matter, in giving them space and letting them sink in. There is value in going beyond single stories, including those we tell about ourselves and each other.

At times, I wondered whether Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows is one story or two – one about literacy and the other about ACEs. And yes, telling separate stories about these things is of course possible, as is recovery from trauma via other routes. But over time and while watching Rohan evolve, I have become more conscious of how deeply the two can indeed be intertwined. Much of this, I think, is to do with finding words. Words that can soften numbness and sharpen understanding. Words that inspire explorations beyond the immediate contexts in which we live, that suggest other possibilities. Words that allow us to connect with ourselves, each other, and the world around us. Words that expand what can be said and heard and understood.

One of the things that I have come to understand but will never fully know is how much it has taken for Juleus and I to be able to have this conversation at all, for there to be a context in which we could meet on a basis of equality and dignity, in which we would share words and ideas and argue over narratives and metaphors and commas. And yes, how much of this was indeed determination and hard work and a kind of heroism that I have never had to exercise. How much reading, and writing, takes courage.

In her TED talk What reading slowly taught me about writing, Jacqueline Woodson makes a case for taking time with reading. This too feels to me like a kind of resistance. An important part of her case for reading stories slowly is the knowledge that “some author ha[s] spent months, maybe years, writing them.” Helping to edit Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows has taught me something about the value of words that take time and effort and care to make it onto a page. I think this is especially true of words that emerge from places that had been numbed. For those of us who have not ourselves experienced trauma or illiteracy, perhaps the challenge lies in learning to read more slowly, to listen more carefully, to be more conscious of how taking care with words can also be a way of taking care of each other. Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows is a good place to start.

Ute Kelly is an Associate Professor in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, UK. Much of her work revolves around the question of how to encourage meaningful conversations about difficult and potentially divisive issues. Currently, she is trying to encourage such conversations on our individual and collective responses to climate change, ecological crisis, and the social justice issues they raise, on difference, otherness and inequalities within and beyond the University, and on how, in difficult times, we might cultivate and practice ‘the moral imagination’ in ourselves and others.

Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows: The Backstory

JULEUS GHUNTA

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 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.