I arrived at my mother’s house in Jamaica, just before Christmas 1993, frazzled after the 10 hour flight and dying to go to bed.
“I’m not having you mess the place up,” she said, as I walked through the door. “Your clothes look messy, you’d better go and stay in a hotel.”
“I’ve come 5,000 miles to see you, I am not going to stay in a hotel,” I said, trying to muster up sufficient outrage which was difficult as I was ready to drop. I say outrage but in fact this “welcome” from my mother was familiar, every time I arrived in Jamaica to see her the first thing she would say was “go and stay in a hotel.” I was very messy, a consequence of having severe mental health problems all my life. That the messiness was connected to her and my father’s behaviour never crossed her mind at all. When I was fifteen, my mother took me to a solicitor’s office and said she was evicting me from the house. Because she said, “all you need to do is leave one cup in the middle of the room and the whole room looks like a slum.” The solicitor said that to evict a 15 year old, for creating an imaginary slum, would land my mother in problems with social services and the psychiatric unit as well. My mother was totally silent but the threat of eviction remained.
There were other reasons why I was in Jamaica, apart from to be un-welcomed by my mother and visit my family. I was furthering my reporting career by covering a story on a new police task force – the Anti-Crime Investigative Detachment, or catchily, ACID for short. ACID had notoriously shot two suspected criminals inside a hospital in Kingston in front of all the patients and staff. Perhaps the police were being humanitarian and thought the men might survive, despite being shot in the back of the head, if they shot them near A and E. A doctor I interviewed said the policeman had put his boot on the (unarmed) man’s head, in the middle of the maternity ward, and shot him at point blank range. The words, “you’re under arrest,” never came out of his mouth. At that time the police in Jamaica were killing 150 people a year which in a population of just over 2 million was one of the highest rates in the world. It was five times the rate of police shootings in 1990’s South Africa where the police don’t exactly have a reputation for TLC. Although the Jamaican police said all those shot were armed criminals who’d got into confrontations with the police, in fact most of them were shot in the back of the head. A senior police officer later explained this, saying it might be “to prevent them shooting someone in front of them” or because they were “running away.” It wasn’t just human rights groups that said these were extra-judicial killings and that these police units operated as death squads.
These special police squads started to be set up in the 1970’s when there was almost a civil war going on. Squad after squad were formed and then disbanded after they hit the headlines for excessive brutality and failed to make a dent in the country’s extremely high murder rate. ACID was the latest of these squads. Jamaica was at that time facing a crack epidemic with around 20,000 crack addicts in a population of only 2 million. The government blamed much of the violence in society on drugs and gangs and said that targeting the drug dons and gang leaders would cut the violence out.
The situation was complicated by the fact that human rights groups said that many policeman were involved in drug dealing themselves. A contact I met, an English aristocrat living in the countryside in Jamaica, woke up one morning to find six bodies on his lawn. Realising that the dustmen would not clear this away, he phoned the police to find out “what the f*** was going on.” He was told that he should be pleased as the police had foiled an attack on his house from a group of men trying to steal his cash. “I don’t have any cash” he replied bemused. He’d given it all to teenage strippers he’d met in dodgy clubs. He told me he later found out the police had made a deal with some local drug dealers which went sour. The police had asked for $50,000 dollars to turn a blind eye. The dealers had given them $50,000 but Jamaican and not US. The police had egged the criminals on saying there was cash at my friend’s house. As the men approached the house the police shot them all dead, proclaiming their civic duty in foiling an attack.
I thought the figures for police shootings were bad in the 1990’s but was horrified to find out that they’d practically doubled in recent years with almost 300 killed in 2013. Apart from drug deals gone wrong, the reasons for the killings has stayed the same: the police can’t get convictions against criminals in court. Juries are intimidated, the courts have huge backlogs, and cases are dismissed as the police evidence isn’t good enough. Most of the people shot probably do have some connection with crime. But some are entirely innocent passers-by or people in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Police violence in Jamaica is inflicted on the underclass. But there were other forms of violence that were much more middle class. Throughout the West Indies there was, during colonial times and for decades after, an excessive attitude to “disciplining” children. My grandfather, the head of the Jamaican civil service, left the family home to live with another woman but would return to the house to beat the shit out of his son. His son later developed schizophrenia and became totally dysfunctional. During my teenage years my uncle apparently decided that he “owned” the whole of Knightsbridge, leading to tiny problems with the law. The police would call our house after he’d eaten stratospherically expensive meals and expressed astonishment at being asked to pay or started removing all the furniture at the end of the meal. He ended up in Brixton prison which he apparently announced was “the best hotel I’ve ever stayed in in my life.” They didn’t keep him there he was too nuts. While at home he hacked down the rafters of his house, to remove bugs planted by the ninety year old neighbours who were clearly a sleeper CIA cell. I don’t know where my uncle is now or if he is alive. My mother always blamed his schizophrenia on the beatings and never forgave her father. She refused to visit her father while he was dying or go to his funeral.
Another friend of mine, and a neighbour also developed serious mental health problems and addiction after their parents repeatedly beat them. In later years, my drug dealer told me that his father, a senior legal figure in Trinidad, had disciplined him by hammering nails into his hand. A raging crack addict and dealer it’s not hard to see why. Some have blamed this excessive attitude in Caribbean parents on slavery and the harsh physical punishments inflicted on the slaves. But when I mentioned it to a friend of mine of Bangladeshi origin, who’s grown up in Britain, he said his parents were the same and so were most of his friends. There are countless other examples of this among parents not just in the Caribbean but in other developing countries and in Britain as well. I also have a white Scottish friend whose mother repeatedly beat him who unsurprisingly developed an addiction to smack. In fact as someone who knows an inordinate number of addicts it is amazing how many, even middle and upper class addicts in Britain, grew up with violence in their homes.
My mother would try to beat me with a belt when I was young but was largely unsuccessful as, from the age of 8, I was stronger than her. The last time she did this, for something that wasn’t even my fault, I pinned her down on the floor, and ran away. Unfortunately I took my carefully crafted departure note, along with bicycle and Bunny with me to the park when I left. So my strongly worded outrage and promise to “never come home” was not delivered to my parents until I got back, bored, that night. My father rarely smacked me, luckily in fact, as it had no effect on my discipline or obedience simply leading to kinky sexual fantasies in later life.
All these parents who beat their children excessively were probably beaten themselves, or grew up in violent homes. But there is light at the end of the tunnel as many of these parents, now forty something, have broken the cycle and treated their children with love. Thus many people I know who are alcoholic, drug addicts or have serious mental health problems have had children who are perfectly normal and have none of these issues themselves. This gives the lie to theories that alcoholism and addiction and mental health problems are genetic or inherited: some of the people I know who are most disturbed have the most balanced children now. Trans-generational trauma is my explanation for families with generations of alcoholics, mad people and drug addicts. If you grow up in a chaotic, violent, alcoholic home, where whisky is on the menu at 9am, you are likely to become an alcoholic or some kind of addict too. A significant number of people who have eating disorders have been sexually abused. “All You Need is Love” sang the Beatles and you do need boundaries with children as well. But if children are sure they are loved and valued by their parents you can break the cycle of madness, alcoholism and addiction now.
Believe it or not I miss my mother and wish she was here now. She wasn’t bad but she was mad and dangerous to know. If she was here, I’d sit her down in a chair and say “what the fuck was all that about?” Unfortunately her answer is something I’ll never know.
Next Saturday: Big dicks in Buenos Aires and the biggest f*** up of my journalism career