Half a world and a whole universe away from where I was starting out on life with all the advantages of knowing I was loved and wanted, my now-husband Shawn was 19 months old and already a seasoned survivor.
Shawn’s mother, Rita, was raised in Idaho with her two older brothers, her salesman father and housewife mother. She was beautiful, spirited and volatile and, by her early teens, her behaviour was getting her into serious trouble. Diagnosed years later with bipolar disorder, there are clear signs her mental health struggles began early; she attempted suicide at 16. There followed two years shut away in an institution. On her release, she hit the hippy trail, finding escape in alcohol, drugs and free love. After a near-fatal motorbike accident when she was 21, doctors told her she would never bear children. Shawn was conceived a year later during a brief fling. He met his father when he was 12 and they’ve had intermittent contact since, but nothing substantial.
Rita’s parents were horrified to discover she was pregnant and begged her to abort the baby. Shawn has seen journal entries and poems Rita wrote at the time as she wrestled over whether to keep him in the face of strong opposition. The story told to Shawn, therefore, is not only that he wasn’t planned, but that his future grandparents were so afraid for him they’d rather he’d never been born.
Shawn was born two months prematurely in Minneapolis. His middle name, Douglas, was given to him by a friend of Rita’s who visited them in hospital. He was one of her group of friends who’d shared needles and given each other hepatitis, and he’s since died. Babies have a 50 per cent chance of contracting hepatitis from their mothers; dodging yet another bullet, Shawn was one of the half who don’t. Rita went home after a couple of weeks, but Shawn had to stay until he grew bigger and stronger. She visited when she could, but the hospital was several bus rides away.
Shawn doesn’t have many photographs of himself as a baby. The couple he has show a solemn little chap in a grubby baby-grow – big blue eyes, wide, serious and direct. It breaks my heart to think about what he’d already had to overcome, what those eyes had already seen.
Rita became involved with a violent alcoholic, Rick, and they entered into an ill-judged marriage when Shawn was two. Rita once told me the story of how she tried to escape out of the bathroom window on the morning of her wedding. Her father pulled her back inside and marched her weeping down the aisle, presumably convinced this marriage was in his daughter’s best interest. Rick disappeared on a three-day bender as soon as the vows were exchanged. The marriage lasted four years, and they had a son and a daughter together.
Shawn’s earliest memories are of being left alone in frightening places, of seeing his mother beaten and feeling powerless to defend her, and of perpetual hunger. The family survived on food stamps and welfare hand-outs, but where drug and alcohol dependency is concerned, milk, cheese and fresh fruit are never the priority. Rita loved her children, but her addictions played havoc with her good intentions and she wasn’t able to provide them with adequate care. When I first became a mother, I had to deal with some strong emotions about Shawn’s early life. The fierce instinct to do whatever it took to protect and nurture our tiny newborn daughter was overwhelming, and I had moments of profound anger that the person who should have shielded Shawn put him at risk over and over again. It took me time to forgive the wrong that had been done to the man I loved. The irony of Shawn comforting me as I wept about what he’d gone through as a child did not escape us!
While much of Shawn’s childhood was chaotic at best, there were interludes of sanity spent with his grandparents and with Scott and Debbie, his aunt and uncle and their two children. The wider family had some awareness of the context he’d return to after these visits, but Rita was careful to conceal the full picture. When Shawn and I have talked with Scott and Debbie about what Shawn’s childhood was like, they’ve expressed shock and regret that they did not do more for him at the time, but they’ll probably never fully know the positive impact they had on his life. I sat next to a lawyer at a wedding last December who represents vulnerable children in court cases. He told me dysfunction escalates generation to generation, unless a child has a reasonable degree of exposure to a healthy model of family. I’m sure the times Shawn stayed with his grandparents and uncle and aunt are the reason he is such an improbably wonderful husband and father, and I will always be grateful to them.
The family lived for a while in a remote farmhouse, scene of some of the worst horrors of Shawn’s childhood. He was able to roam where he pleased, and there was a tree he’d climb, spending hours in its leafy sanctuary. He says now that this was where he first experienced the presence of God, there in the tree; wrapping the small, traumatised boy around with peace and comfort. On a trip back to Minneapolis with our girls, we went looking for the tree. The farmhouse is long gone and the suburbs have sprawled over the wilderness, but we still looked for it. Alexa, our older daughter, was four at the time, the age her dad had been when he’d moved to the farmhouse. We wouldn’t have allowed Alexa out of our sight, let alone let her disappear for whole days at a time.
Eventually Rita found the extraordinary courage she needed to take her three children and flee. They lived for a while in a women’s refuge, before being allocated government housing. But it wasn’t long before Rita became involved with another abusive man, and then another, and the drama continued. Over Shawn’s childhood there were restraining orders on three different men. They moved constantly, from one bleak estate to another in the suburbs of south Minneapolis, sometimes living with several other families, other times in apartments barely fit for habitation.
Shawn had to learn fast about how to look after himself. He began earning his own money when he was 10, using it for food, clothing and toothpaste. He joined the Crips, a US-wide street gang, when he was 16. He told me this on our first date, as we walked along the beach below West Point Grey in Vancouver in the dead of night. I was suddenly hyperaware of the fact there were no other people in earshot and I had only known this man for three weeks. He assured me, however, that he was no longer the dangerous gangster of his youth, and I decided to believe him – the alternative being to make a run for it, crying for my mummy and/or a Mountie. Shawn became a Christian when he was seventeen, through the ex-girlfriend of a fellow gang member, whom he’d followed to church in an effort to impress her enough to become her next boyfriend. On his second visit, he heard for the first time that he could have a clean, forgiven start because Jesus had died for him. He went home, prayed a prayer from a booklet he’d been given at the end of the service and flushed his entire supply of pot down the toilet. That night his life set off on a new trajectory – one that would one day put him, against all the odds, in my path.
Shawn is an extraordinary person. He is strong, bright, focused and very funny. A reference for a job he went for in his mid-twenties said he was ‘a trophy of God’s grace’. Only God’s intervention and Shawn’s God-given character could possibly account for the man he has become – a loving and committed husband and father, a church leader and degree-level theology lecturer, an emotionally healthy and sunny-natured human being. Rita also met God along the way. These days she’s doing well, living a quiet life in North Dakota near Shawn’s sister and her grandchildren.
I’m so grateful Shawn allowed me to tell his story here, because he is testament to the fact that no one is a slave to any principle of cause and effect. Finding home is more challenging for those with a rocky start, but it is entirely possible.
This is an extract from Home by Jo Swinney, published in June 2017, and available from Amazon and Christian bookstores around the country.