Granta, Lizbeth Zornig Andersen
"I didn’t grow up in an orderly middle class family with cosy Sunday lunches, people laughing and talking. I was brought up in a shabby cottage outside a remote Danish village, with cold water and a lavatory in the back garden. Hot dogs were a special treat on Sundays. My mum and stepdad were always drunk and didn’t work – they lived off benefits. It was not the sort of environment that teaches you universal moral values and ethics.
And yet, I learned – mostly from my three brothers – that people look after one another. We help each other. Even if we don’t have much, even if we wear hand-me-downs to school and dig up raw potatoes for dinner, we still help each other. It’s when life is tough and your back is to the wall that we matter the most to each other.
When I was introduced to the Bible and Christian teachings as a teenager – nobody ever took me to church as a child – I learned the story about the good Samaritan. I knew what that meant already. Where I grew up, if you saw somebody walking along the road and you were fortunate enough to have a car, you stopped and offered them a lift. That was normal – it’s what we all did.
My brothers were removed from our family home one at a time and put into institutions. All three turned to crime and drug abuse. Two are dead, much too young; the third has AIDS. They never had a real chance at life. Not really. The abuse and the beatings they took at home – they protected me from that – crippled their hearts, their minds and their souls.
For some reason I managed to escape and make it through school. I graduated from the University of Copenhagen as an economist, and got a job at Danske Bank, the largest bank in Denmark. At school I was lucky enough to meet good people, who understood how to coach the aggressive and emotionally disturbed young girl that I was – believe me, it was no easy task. At one institution for especially difficult girls, I met Karen, who saw through my anger and loathing, and was patient enough that I eventually came to trust her. She became my mentor. Today, thirty-four years later, she still is. She was the person who pushed me on to university – I would never have thought it possible without her.
Karen always believed that I could do anything. She’s a follower of the developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, who writes: ‘In order to develop normally, a child requires progressively more complex joint activity with one or more adults who have an irrational emotional relationship with the child. What do I mean by “irrational emotional relationship”? Well, somebody’s got to be crazy about that kid.’ I think that’s Bronfenbrenner’s way of saying ‘love’. Which is a difficult thing to implement in a professional institution where many children would never have experienced it at home. But Karen managed it for me."