Thursday, March 01, 2012

What We're Reading: Gypsy Boy

Gypsy Boy: My Life in the Secret World of the Romany Gypsies, by Mikey Walsh

This memoir was a bit of a sensation when it was first published in England, and it was on bestseller lists for a long time. It’s got all the ingredients for making the transition to a major feature film. Indeed the writing of the book has a cinematic feel and pace. Walsh’s story has physically distinctive characters, the individual scenes are cut with a certain directorial style, and it even has a suggested soundtrack. Mikey Walsh (a pseudonym) tells a compelling story about his boyhood growing up in a family of Romany gypsies in England in the 1980s. There is drama in his story, but certainly the attraction for readers here is not only one of plot but also the revelations made about a culture that is hermetic and unknown to outsiders. We learn about the furnishings of a gypsy trailer and gypsy trailer parks, the fashion and decorating style of gypsy women, the itinerant work scams of gypsy men, the favored foul language in expression that is oddly coupled with conservative sexual mores, gypsy weddings and funerals, gypsy cuisine (delectations involving boiled pigs’ heads which alternate with visits to the roadside McDonald’s) the hostility to schools and literacy, and the endless smoking, smoking, smoking (so much that you feel you need to put down the book and go out for a breath of fresh air). It’s a life that’s weirdly neat yet trashy and colorful, filled with the charms and oddities of a Fellini film.

There runs through this fascinating exposition, however, a very dark side to gypsy life, one of disturbing physical violence and abuse, and in this case, one of childhood sexual abuse as well. Gypsy society is a very old-world, male-dominated culture. Women do not work outside the home, and wives and girls are often beaten. Women are expected to remain virgins until they marry, but men and boys can experience pre-marital sex with Gorgia (non-gypsy) women. Girls who have not married by eighteen or nineteen years old are likely to be spinsters the rest of their lives. A gypsy woman who divorces becomes unmarriageable for the rest of her life, and if she has had a child, she must raise it with her parents.

This is a “macho” male culture in which cock fighting is a favored sport and the social hierarchy is built upon the prowess of men in bare knuckle fighting. Fighters seeking to make a reputation for themselves (and a social ascension) travel from camp to camp to challenge other boys and men. And unluckily for Mikey Walsh, the men in his extended family have a reputation as champion fighters. From the age of four years old, his father puts Mikey in training. This training seems to consist mostly of his regularly pummeling his son, a practice that occurs first as a program of training and then as a way of showing contempt for his son’s apparent ineptitude and weakness. Mikey is temperamentally and physically unsuitable to this code of aggression and violence. His father finds him to be a humiliation, and his rejection and disinterest in his son makes Mikey an easy mark for abuse from a sexual predator in the family. As he becomes older, Mickey realizes that he is gay and that there is no place for him in his culture, that to lead any kind of life he must leave behind his family and the world he has known. His escape and the courage he finds in himself to make that escape are both the heartbreak and triumph of this affecting memoir.

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