A plague of “harrowing”, “gritty”, “searingly honest” and “inspiring” memoirs descended on the publishing world somewhere over the last decade, at least if book reviews are to be believed.
The trouble with such cliches is that they render all attempts to describe a memoir like the one Deborah Somorin has written sound jaded. But here goes anyway. It is a story of a woman who has lived too many lives in her 29 years; a book that makes you cry for her lost childhood, and feel dismay at a system that didn’t know what to do with her. It is also a memoir about the transformative power of finding just one other person who believes in you.
Somorin’s book – appropriately entitled Believing In Me – was nearly something else altogether. A year ago, she and her publisher Gill were ready to hit print on another version, one which had been ghostwritten. All the edits were signed off. The cover had been designed. But she was having misgivings. It just didn’t feel like the essential truth of her story. “I think the natural Irish thing is to just let it go because so many people were involved. I didn’t want to let anyone down.”
So she said nothing until “the week before it was going to print. We were on a call and I was just like, I’m so sorry, I don’t like this book.”
The problem wasn’t with the writing or anything in it. But she had come to realise “it was unfair to ask somebody else to reach into my brain and my heart to try to get at” the core of what had happened to her and her family. “I really wanted to tell my mum’s story in a certain way. I really wanted to tell my story in a certain way. I eventually decided I needed to write it by myself.”
Luckily, her publisher was completely supportive. The publication date was pushed back a year. As a numbers person – she is a chartered accountant and manager at EY Ireland – she had very little confidence in her writing ability. But she sat down every day at her computer until it was written.
You’re trying to put yourself back there and trying to feel what you were feeling – not only yourself as a very small child, but also what your family was feeling as well
She is deservedly proud of the book that has been published. “I put my blood, sweat and tears into it. I think I cried writing nearly every chapter. You’re trying to put yourself back there and trying to feel what you were feeling – not only [yourself] as a very small child, but also what your family was feeling as well.”
She has also written a picture book for children, I Believe In You, which is illustrated by Grace Enemaku, and is the kind of book she never got to see as a child in Ireland, a book featuring a brave little black girl.
The bare facts of Somorin’s life – homeless at 13; pregnant and in care at 14; suddenly motherless and a mother at 15; a chartered accountant at 24, and a TED X speaker, founder of a charity, Empower the Family, and someone named on the Forbes 30 under 30 list since – suggest she must have extraordinary determination and self-belief. But it wasn’t always like that.
Writing the book involved going back to some of the darkest times in her life, opening up feelings and experiences she had avoided examining. It meant going through her own Tusla file and trying to relate the bald factual statements she was reading to her worst memories. “Seeing those reports as an adult, I just want to go and hug my like small self.”
It was important to her “to be honest. I didn’t want to shy away from that stuff. I didn’t want to come across like my mum just started doing these things. That was why I was like, I need to write this.” As a mother herself, to 13-year-old Liam, she is better able to “understand what my mum was dealing with at the time”.
The “these things” she is referring to, the reasons she ended up being taken into care, are hard to talk about. Somorin wants to explain the context for why her relationship with her mother, Oriyomi, became so strained. She wants readers to understand how it must have been for Oriyomi, trying to navigate the tensions between the traditional value system that determined her early life in 1980s Nigeria, and the freedom she later had in the UK and Ireland.
Oriyomi met and fell in love with Somorin’s father, a chartered accountant and pastor who had been married twice before, and Deborah was born in London in 1993. Two more children followed. The family settled in Nigeria so her father could be close to the children of his previous marriages, something that would come to cause a lot of friction.
When Somorin was eight, her parents began to argue frequently. Her mother was spending all day in her room. As a child, Somorin didn’t understand this was a symptom of depression. “It couldn’t have been easy for my mum to have my dad’s other family living down the road, you know?”
Through a series of events that were confusing and distressing to the young Somorin, she ended up living with her father for a year after her parents’ marriage broke down, before she was sent to Naas, Co. Kildare, to live with her mother, who since had a fourth baby. It was there, when she was aged 11 and in sixth class, that Somorin began to rebel, hanging around with friends who were drinking and smoking. Any time she fell short of her mother’s expectations of how a young Nigerian girl should behave, she writes, “she would scream at me or hit me. Hitting disobedient children isn’t unheard of in Nigerian families... but my mum always took it too far with me.”
The worse things got at home, the more she wanted to be with her friends. By the time she went into care, “I had scars all over my body”. One terrible night when Somorin was 11 and didn’t come home in time for her curfew, her mother called the guards – a decision that would shape almost everything about the rest of their lives.
Somorin was initially taken into care primarily, she suspects, to give her mother a chance to cool down. But a few days later, “I got a medical... That’s when the doctor noted injuries and scars consistent with physical abuse”.
My new focus was this little human being who I needed to provide for. I don’t like to think about how my life would have gone if I didn’t have him
What follows was the hardest section of the book for her to write. She recounts a traumatic journey through one short-term placement after another in the foster-care system, and eventually into the residential care system. She was put in a care home where she was so badly bullied by two older girls that the care staff took to sleeping outside her room to protect her.
When she was 12, she was groomed and sexually abused by an 18-year-old she had met through the same older girls. She disclosed the abuse and was moved on again. After another period of turbulence, and a brief time back with her mother, she wound up in a homeless hostel for young people in Dublin’s north inner city where “they had to lock me in my room to keep me safe while I slept”.
Things began to turn around for her in December 2007 when she was 14 and placed in a home called Dún na nÓg in Drumcondra, where she finally found safety, a sense of stability and adults who believed in her – including Ciara Marjoram, its owner, and Alan Buckley, the home’s manager.
During that first year, she was in a relationship with a boy and became pregnant with Liam. If Ciara and Alan having faith in her began to ignite something inside her, it was the unplanned but very welcome arrival of baby Liam that set it alight. “My new focus was this little human being who I needed to provide for. I don’t like to think about how my life would have gone if I didn’t have him,” she says now.
I wonder if writing this book demanded that she forgive her parents, but also herself?
With her dad, who continued living in Nigeria at this time, “I’ve always felt like he had my back. But then I’ve kind of given him a free pass and on a lot of things, you know. We just don’t talk about them and I just don’t think about them, because if I did, I would get upset and I would get angry. And I would have a different relationship with him. He’s my only parent that I have left. So I don’t want to think about these things. I don’t want to open Pandora’s box.”
Where her mum is concerned, “we started to get really close when Liam was first born. She used to make food and bring it up to the house. That’s a different relationship than we’ve ever had before, you know? I think that healing started then, and I think I just understand [her] a lot more. I wish things worked out differently.” Her voice is full of pain.
“Like I wish so much she was here. I wish so much that I had a mum, especially the mum I had during those last few months.”
At this point, Somorin becomes so emotional that it is momentarily difficult to continue. “It’s just my mum is my trigger spot. It’s okay, I have tissues.”
In September 2009, her mother took her own life. “I think for a long time, I really tried to, I put a lot of blame on myself. I felt like me going into care added to her problems. A lot of the work I did in counselling was to try to understand” that it was not her fault.
I understand why I needed to be in care; I know it was the safest thing for me. But I don’t want to have been raised in care
She is disappointed that more wasn’t done to try to help make things work within the family, and she wonders how much of that is attributable to a “cultural communication barrier”. Reading the reports, “I got the sense that if my mum maybe hadn’t come across as assertive, things might have gone differently after that first night. I understand why I needed to be in care; I know it was the safest thing for me. But I don’t want to have been raised in care. I want to have grown up with my family.”
She is grieving “the years I didn’t have with my mum. I just really, really, really wish that more had been done to try to support us to deal with what was going on in our relationship at the time.”
Imbued throughout the next chapters, in which she describes working hard for her Leaving Cert, and then getting into college against the odds and eventually landing her dream job as a chartered accountant, is “a sense of thankfulness that I didn’t let this period in my life determine what the next period of my life – what my adult life – would be like. I’m very thankful to all of the people that helped me. The people who did believe in me absolutely determined the trajectory of my life.”
She hopes that other people – especially those working with children – might read the book and decide to be “that ‘disrupter’ for someone else”. Her message to other young people in trouble is: “You need to learn to believe in yourself. You need to accept all the help. It definitely takes a village.”
Just one small act of kindness can make a big difference in the trajectory of someone else’s life
She intends to be part of that village for other young people. She founded a charity, Empower the Family, to create accommodation for single parents and people from disadvantaged circumstances to allow them to go to college. The charity has Approved Housing Body status, the site for the first development in Ballymun is secured, a planning pack is ready and €750,000 of “pro bono support” has been committed to it. She hopes the first accommodation will open in September 2025.
Life is better now than she ever dreamed possible. Liam is in his teens and thriving at school. “It means the world to me that I’m giving him a life that is so different from the one that I had.”
She comes back again to the message of the book, to the handful of people – social workers, care workers, education liaison workers, Shelly from Focus Ireland, Sherie from One Family – who believed in her. “Just one small act of kindness can make a big difference in the trajectory of someone else’s life.”
Believing in Me by Deborah Somorin is published by Gill. I Believe in You by Deborah Somorin and illustrated by Grace Enemaku, also published by Gill, is out on September 29th. Visit empowerthefamilyireland.com if you’d like to donate. If you are distressed by any of the issues in this article, please call The Samaritans’ 24-hour helpline on 116 123.