A Place Called Home: A Memoir

I was listening to NPR’s 1A when I heard part of an interview with A Place Called Home author David Ambroz. The show that day was about adults who grew up in the foster system and as Ambroz told his story I stopped what I was doing to listen. He said that once when he was living with a foster family they went to Disney – a dream come true! Only when they got there he wasn’t allowed to go on any rides. In a Disney villainess move, his foster mother made him hold all their coats and bags while everyone else had the time of their life. Can you imagine how terrible that would feel?

But the thing is, Ambroz vowed to come back one day. Right then and there he told himself that he would someday work at Disney and he would help kids like himself. And he did.

And with that his spirit got to me; I knew I had to read his memoir.

When you start reading A Place Called Home and come to the first horror you will want to stop. Please don’t. Bear witness. Listen.

That being said, if you are on the lookout for trigger warnings related to child abuse and neglect, this book might be too much.

Ambroz’s memoir describes his life from age 4 through his twenties, and opens on a freezing winter day. He and his two older siblings and his mother are walking around New York City, hungry, not dressed for the weather, with nowhere to sleep. He’s a natural and expressive storyteller and describes the scene so well you’re there with them. It’s heartbreaking and it’s just the beginning. What follows is a childhood no child deserves.

Ambroz’s mother is a trained nurse who occasionally finds work for a while. In these good times they can afford a tiny apartment and the kids get to go to school. But this stability never lasts because she’s mentally ill and has no treatment, no medicine, no guidance. So in time off they go again, packing their things into black trash bags and heading back out to the street.

This is a difficult book to read because of all the abuse and neglect. It’s horror after horror after horror for these kids: Infections. Beatings. Burns. And that’s just some of the physical things, the psychological injuries are just as bad.

Ambroz realizes early on that while there are adults in their lives – social workers, church volunteers, teachers – and even though they’re well-meaning (most of them), they always send the children back to their mentally ill mother. Despite the bruises, the malnourishment, the missed school, the constant lice, the bad teeth… hardly anyone ever follows up and no one rescues them.

Interspersed with Ambroz’s stories are short statements and essays about America’s foster system, social services, mental health resources, and more. They balance the difficult parts with concrete facts and ideas to improve things for children today.

Ambroz is remarkably self-aware. Perhaps it’s part of his storyteller side that allows him to be able to see himself from outside his body and mind. This ability to disassociate is a survival mechanism. Take, for example, the absolutely appalling and harrowing time when his mother decides he needs to be Jewish. You read that right.

He’s around eight years old when she claims that David’s father (who he does not know) was Jewish and his life will be better since the Jews ‘have all the money and power.’ (This is her conspiracy-minded mental illness speaking.) At the time they are in a semi-stable situation, living with an older Jewish woman who employs their mother as a live-in nurse. And so one morning his mother takes him to a doctor to get circumcised and to my amazement the doctor and nurse go along with it, no questions asked.

You can imagine his confusion. He had no idea, gave no consent and wakes up from the surgery in pain, bandaged in his most private area, unsure of what happened. And then his mother just brings him back to the house. That’s it, no after care, no antibiotics. She’s a nurse but doesn’t nurse him. He’s just a child and has no idea what happened and how to care for himself so the original bandages stay on for days. The owner of the house insists that he needs medical help but Ambroz’s mother won’t take him. In an excruciating scene she finally soaks him in a bath and manages to peel the bandage off.

As with other devastating things that he endures in his youth, the fact that he clearly survived to thrive and write a memoir helps the reader push through these scenes. Sadly, there are so many.

Thankfully there are also bright moments. One thing that made me smile was the cassettes: Ambroz finds a working cassette player and starts getting tapes from the library – self-help tapes with subliminal positive messages that he listened to while he slept. He seemed to always be on alert for things to learn and ways to better himself. And in the meantime he does what he can: he compartmentalizes, he suppresses, he refuses to cry.

“I live in a cycle: homelessness, hunger, housing, welfare, and homelessness again.” But his awareness and determination kick in:

I’ve had a glimpse of what I want, one day when I can look beyond today. I don’t know what I can do to make my way there, but I’m going to figure it out.

Ambroz and his siblings endured so much. He ends up separated from them – they’re in one foster home while he goes to another. And then another. As if being the child of a mentally ill homeless parent isn’t enough, Ambroz is gay and that was a problem.

When I got to this part in his memoir I became even more disheartened. This innate part of him was a problem to his own mother and the foster community. And this has nothing to do with sex, he wasn’t doing anything physical. He was just being himself and was told that it’s hard to place “your kind” to “tone it down, son” and to “try to fit in.”

At one point he gets the courage to tell an adult about the abuse. He’s so tired of it and is at a breaking point. When the social workers come to the apartment he’s amazed that they question him about his mother in front of her. He says “I’m steps away from freedom yet I feel trapped.” He can’t do it.

Ambroz was able to see that his mother, with her mental issues, was not equipped to take care of them. She wanted the best for them and instilled the importance of a good education but lacked the ability to provided consistent care and love.

Amboz ends up spending time as a summer camp counselor and he’s a natural with the children. There’s a scene when they’re playing with a colorful parachute and he has a moment of clarity:

I realized this is what childhood could’ve been…eyes of wonder looking up at a candy-colored world, gentle nudges of guidance, snacks and naptime, laughter and games…this is what childhood is mean to offer – pure joy.”

When Ambroz goes to Disney with his foster family he has another moment of clarity. He realizes this isn’t forever and that he will eventually become an adult and get out.

A Place Called Home is sad, for sure, but in the end it offers hope. Ambroz works incredibly hard at school because he knows that an education is his golden ticket out of poverty and homelessness. Through persistence he secures a yearlong high school study abroad trip to Spain and in the luckiest break he gets the best mother in the exchange. She is patient and kind and loves him exactly how he is. Yes!

Ambroz makes it. He sets his sights on Vassar College and manages to get in and get funding for his college life. All three kids ended up with undergrad degrees. Because of their mom and in spite of their mom.

In the end this memoir is a call to action. Ambroz wants us to take steps to do what we can for the homeless families in our communities. If we can’t foster then we can donate. We can advocate. We can speak up for those with no voices.

And the thing that drives all of this according to Ambroz? Hope. He says it’s not a choice but a moral obligation.

I’m glad I stumbled upon his interview which led me to his memoir. David Ambroz has a lot to say on behalf of himself, his siblings, and homeless children in the USA. They all deserve to be heard.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s