A Conversation With Anne Harrison

Call Me Auntie: My Childhood in Care and My Search for My Mother by Anne Harrison

Anne Harrison was brought up in care. She was a shop assistant before she joined the Warwickshire Police. From there she became a residential social worker and social care manager for local authorities in the West Midlands and Warwickshire. She lives with her husband in Coventry.

Anne’s story is a compelling account, not just of her search for her birth mother but of her extraordinary journey from being a child in care, then qualifying as a social worker and finally becoming a magistrate…I read it at a sitting and could not put it down. Her account of life in a children’s home in the 1960s and 1970s deserves to find a place on every social work training course‘– Retired Judge Robert Zara.

Call Me Auntie: My Childhood in Care and My Search for My Mother is a truly original story of life in and after care. The author’s own account of being left behind by her mother as a one year old and her life in foster homes and institutions. When eventually traced, ‘Call Me Auntie’ was the best her mother could offer, but this was just the start of a bizarre sequence of events.

Call Me Auntie is a telling account of abandonment, ‘Heartbreak House’ care homes, family history and survival. It is also one of resilience and personal achievement as the author discovered she also had a brother left behind in the same way, forged a professional career, searched for her long lost relatives in Barbados and eventually came to understand that she ‘may be a princess after all’.

A story of survival, Call Me Auntie charts the resilience and changing attitudes to racism and ethnicity as the author forged a successful career beginning as a Woolworth’s shop girl before joining the police, then moving into social work.

It is an absolute pleasure to welcome Anne to the blog. I’d like to thank Anne for writing about her memoir Call Me Auntie – which I am sure will be a fantastic contribution to care experienced literature.

Tell us of your journey as a writer.

Because I was brought up in care, I didn’t have parents or family to tell me stories about my childhood. Unlike other children leaving care, I was not given my care file when I left care, and later I was told it had been destroyed. So I had lots of blanks.

I had my own memories, as well as some letters and photos. I’ve always had my own stories to tell about my life in care and afterwards. I had no plan to write a book. Then, when I was already in my late fifties, my care file turned up with hundreds of pages of records. With the urging of my family, I decided to put into order all the stories that I thought I knew and match them up to my records. I wanted to fill the blanks and correct my own misunderstandings. For the first time I was able to put it all together. So, the reason I wrote my book was in order to know my own life story.

What made you choose to write about care experience?

I wrote about my childhood in care because my story is my own, and it is different. It doesn’t play out in the way that anyone would expect. It pulls together so many issues. I was an African-Caribbean baby, abandoned by my mother at birth, eventually fostered by a very loving white family, but then abandoned again when they emigrated and left to the mercy of a depersonalised and brutal care home regime. In the middle of all this, my mother was found, but the most important thing she had to tell me was: “Call me Auntie.”

Do you have any personal experience with the care system, fostering, children’s homes etc?

For the first months of my life, my mother made a private arrangement for me to be looked after by an unregistered foster carer. After that I was taken into care. After a short spell in an orphanage, I was placed with white fosters carers, and I stayed with them until I was nine years old. When my foster family emigrated to Australia, I was moved into a children’s home, where I stayed until I was 17.

Orphans, those in foster care or children’s homes, often feel they are stereotyped by their past. How aware of this were you whilst writing your memoir?

These are things that I understood long before I began to write. In my foster home I was just treated like a member of the family. I became more aware of my “looked after” status in the children’s home. How we dressed, how we were treated in the home, at school, or at church, we were the kids from the children’s home. We were not treated as individuals. We were not expected to amount to much in life. We were just required to conform.

For me at this stage, being black was an unwelcome complication. I understood that I was different, but not in a good way. I didn’t want to stand out in that way; I would rather have been white. I also understood that being black was one reason I couldn’t accompany my foster family to Australia. I was full of denial about being black. While my social worker could see this, no one helped me with it.

What is the meaning of the title?

My mother was found when I was 12. She wrote to me at the time, but we were not to meet for another twenty years. In her first letter, she probably realised she would have to sign it somehow, and she did not want to acknowledge that she was my mother. So, she signed it with her given name, adding: “Call me Auntie.”

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

Now that I know how, I might write a book about the funny and memorable things that happened to me or that I did after leaving care, briefly in the police, then over many years in social work.

If you could recommend one #diverse book for your readers, what would it be?

Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I can’t help adding Lemn Sissay, My Name is Why.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

As a child I loved to lose myself in Enid Blyton’s “Famous five” and “Malory Towers” stories. These are the exciting adventures of white middle-class children; Malory Towers is a fictional girls’ boarding school. Like me, the girls at Malory Towers had to negotiate an institutional environment that was imposed on them. But in every other way their lives could not have been less like my own. Today these stories are rather disdained, but for me at the time they were the perfect escape.

What advice would you give young people leaving the care system today?

Learn about your history – who were your parents, how you came into care. This is part of who you are. Don’t trust everything to memory, because sooner or later, you will forget. Write it down or get someone to help write it down.

Find a buddy.

You will move accommodation many times. Find a safe haven or a trusted keeper for your most precious belongings, so that you do not risk losing them with every move.

Learn to cook and learn to budget.

Find a hobby – especially one that involves others.

Call Me Auntie was published by Waterside Press in October 2020.

Follow Anne on Twitter: @anne4harrison

Join Anne at the Care Experience & Culture, Memoir and Autobiography Book Club, part of Care Experience History Month Event.

Saturday 9th April

10am UK / 6.30pm Adelaide / 7pm Melbourne. 

More details here.

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