Kevin Lewis

This first appeared in the Sunday Independent in June 2006

Kevin Lewis couldn’t bring himself to tell his wife Jackie what had really happened. Why he woke in the night with flashbacks. Why he suffered from bulimia. Why he could never talk about his family. Eventually when their son was born Kevin, gripped by fear that he would harm the new baby and a need to ‘exorcize the horrors in my own head’, decided to write it all down.
‘I was still ashamed’ he tells me ‘But she needed to know who I really am. I wouldn’t have been able to tell her face-to-face. So I just gave her the pages and went for a long drive.’
With increasing astonishment Jackie spent hours reading about the horrific, scarcely believable childhood abuse Kevin, eldest of five Lewis children, had suffered at the hands of his mother, Gloria, and father, Dennis. ‘She was angry I hadn’t told her sooner’ Kevin tells me. ‘But a lot of little things finally made sense for her. For instance when Gloria would ring the house Jackie would always ask me to come on the phone to her. Now she knew why I wouldn’t.’
As a child, Jackie learned, Kevin had spent his childhood living in complete squalor, ‘sleeping on piss-soaked sheets in a room with human excrement smeared on the walls’. He never had enough to eat and was forced to steal food from other children in the school. Both his parents, but especially Gloria, savagely beat him. She stood over six feet tall and would tear into Kevin for the tiniest infraction. He once arrived to school covered in bite marks inflicted by her.
‘I suppose what was even more shocking’ Kevin, (a dead ringer for Chelsea footballer Frank Lampard) tells me ‘is that this isn’t the ‘bad old days’ we’re talking about. I was born in 1970. There were lots of people – care workers, doctors and teachers – who turned a blind eye to what was going on in our house.’
At the age of seven Kevin as a result of pressure from one of his schoolteachers on social services Kevin was removed from the family home. He stayed in a children’s home for two years until Gloria and Dennis won back custody of him. ‘That was the worst thing of all’, Kevin tells me. ‘Before that I hadn’t really known any different. But then I had two years of relative stability. And suddenly I had to go back to live in that hellhole. The smell of those sheets on the first night will stay with me always.’
Once he arrived back it became clear nothing had changed. After one particularly savage beating Kevin fled the house and ran to the local police station. The officers in charge told Kevin, still a small boy, that he would have to go home and what he was describing was a domestic matter and there was nothing the police could do. Finally, a few months later at the instigation of one of his teachers Kevin was once again taken into care. As he was lead from the family home the only thing his mother said was ‘does this mean his child allowance will stop?’ ‘That was the only reason she wanted me back in the first place,’ he remembers.
Kevin was placed with a middle class family where his foster mother would deride him for his ‘council house mentality.’ As he grew older he became involved with criminal gangs who knew him as ‘the kid.’ He left school at 16 and after running out of money fought illegal bare knuckle prize fights and stole cars to make ends meet. He lived life in a perpetual state of crisis, unable to pay his bills and wracked by self-doubt. It was also around this time that he began to suffer from bulimia. ‘Because we never had food at home when I was a kid, I fell into this habit of binging when there was food and swallowing without chewing. And then afterwards I would feel horribly bloated and sick and throw it all up again.’
When he was 24 Kevin tried to take his own life. ‘I just wanted to go to sleep and not wake up’ he tells me, quite matter-of-factly. ‘I wasn’t like I hadn’t tried. I’d tried everything. This was the end of the road.’ Kevin took a bottle of paracetamol and half a bottle of scotch fell unconscious as the room swam around him.
He awoke three days later feeling strangely calm. ‘I thought to myself ‘I’m still here this is another chance’ he tells me. After a spell on the dole he got a job selling photocopiers. Around this time Kevin received a file in the post from social services. He learned that Gloria had been sent to a mental hospital at aged seventeen. She had been diagnosed as being ‘mentally deficient.’ She had remained there for five years before she was discharged after which she met Dennis and started a family. When Kevin was two years old she was convicted of defrauding the DHSS (the English Department of Health). ‘To say the least’, the report read, ‘the parents’ limited intelligence and lack of understanding of childcare has resulted in a very turbulent style of life.’
‘A lot of what I read in that report gave me a new insight into why everything was so bad at home. It explained it but it didn’t excuse it.’
Around this time Kevin also met his future wife Jackie. ‘I finally found someone who really loved me’ he tells me. ‘Unfortunately there were lots of little things about me that I couldn’t really explain to her, Kevin tells me. ‘Until I wrote it down.’
Kevin wrote the original letter to Jackie in longhand but sent it to a friend to be scanned and typed up. ‘He suggested that I try to get it published’ Kevin tells me. Unbeknownst to either of them the letter would form the basis of an international bestseller, ‘the Kid’, which described Kevin’s horrific upbringing in London. It sparked a media outcry and its success established a publishing trend of gruelling childhood memoirs such as David Pelzer’s ‘A Child Called ‘It’’ and Richard McCann’s ‘Just a Boy’. ‘I never imagined it would be so successful’ Kevin tells me. ‘We didn’t change any of the names. Gloria is her real name. She’s not going to sue me. What can she say? What she did was mind boggling.’
Even more mind boggling was the news Kevin received after the publication of the ‘the Kid.’ ‘I got a phone call, my sister was screaming crying down the phone. One of my sister’s friends said that the kids had been hit with towels and social services were going to take the kids away. Gloria had applied to keep the kids and social services were considering it. I went to the court official who was in charge and sat her down. She was helpful but social services were still arrogant. The woman I spoke to was talking to me and her phone would ring and she’d walk off and leave me waiting.’
Kevin also rang Gloria. I said to her ‘if you touch these kids again there is going to be serious trouble’ and I put the phone down. She rang back, having gotten the number from one of my sisters, and she was screaming down the phone at me that she was going to kill herself. I just said ‘if you’re going to kill yourself then do it.’’
Eventually the kids were moved into care. Kevin didn’t feel able to take them in. ‘Jackie and I may foster later but at the moment I sort of feel I have to live my own life. I hope that makes sense to people.’
‘Words’, Quentin Crisp once wrote, ‘are a salve for the wounds that life inflicts’, but Kevin did not find writing the memoir cathartic. ‘It opened another can of worms for me, ‘and brought up a load of unwanted memories. What stays with me still is the shame. Being washed in the sink in front of our house while the other kids (in his school) watched. Talking about it, even with you now, brings me back there’ Kevin tells me, ‘his eyes bright with tears. ‘I know I’ll probably have a few nightmares tonight.’
The success of the Kid has allowed him to write full-time (although he cannot type because of the damage to his hands from bare knuckle boxing, which he tried to make ends meet after leaving home) and he has moved into fiction with his latest book, Kaitlyn, a twisty thriller set in London. His life now revolves around his work and his family. Dennis has since died (Kevin did not attend the funeral) and the woman he cannot bring himself to call ‘mother’ lives out her days alone in a flat in London. ‘I can never forgive Gloria,’ he tells me. ‘I don’t have a mother and I don’t want one. Up until I was seven years old I always cried for my mummy even while she was doing what she was doing. It got bashed out of my brain.’
These words look angry in print but Kevin utters them with a weary, turn-the-other-cheek dispassion. ‘It’s a waste of energy being bitter’ he tells me. ‘It doesn’t help anyone. I’m looking to the future. You know, because I never had any real parenting and I had to fend for myself there was no limit put on what I could achieve. I’m still as optimistic as a kid’ he tells me smiling broadly. ‘I’m making up for lost time.’

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~ by Donal Lynch on January 21, 2008.