Memoir: a group of street thugs became my surrogate family—until one of them betrayed me

Memoir: a group of street thugs became my surrogate family—until one of them betrayed me

Memoir: when I was a teenager, a group of street thugs became my surrogate family. I felt powerful and fearless—until one of them betrayed me

I grew up in the Vineways, a townhouse in Willowdale populated largely by immigrant and working-class families. It was a low-income housing development, with walls so thin you knew what your neighbours were having for dinner—but it was home. The Vineways was one of several projects in the area, all with similar names (the Willoways, the Briarways, the Fernways). It always seemed funny to me that every complex nearby had the suffix “way,” as if we were going somewhere.

I was born in Barbados. When I was just a few months old, my parents split up. My mother wanted to start a new life on her own, so she and I came to Canada while my dad stayed in the Caribbean. She tried her best to be both mother and father, but that double duty was exhausting and overwhelming for her. Occasionally, she took out her frustration on me, yelling and screaming excessively.

From the ages of five to 12, I was sexually abused by a family friend who looked after me while my mom worked. He threatened to hurt me if I told anyone. Keeping that painful secret made me an angry, often violent and sometimes profoundly sad child. I blamed my absent father for my traumatic youth: dads are supposed to protect their little girls, give them self-worth, make them feel safe. I was left unprotected.

The abuse finally stopped when I was old enough to stay on my own, but I was damaged by then. At the age of 13, I started seeing the wrong guy, a member of a local street gang. The group hung out in the Sparroways, a nearby government housing complex packed with single moms and families on welfare. There was always a full house and lots of booze, which older gang members stole from the local LCBO. I started drinking, and smoking weed and hash as well as cigarettes. At first, I was just “the girlfriend,” but eventually, I carved out my own identity, earning the respect of my fellow gang members and a reputation for being fearless.

The gang was run like a business. We generated income by pulling B&Es, stealing cars and dealing drugs—they sold anything and everything. Everyone had a role: the girls were in charge of keeping lookout and creating diversions, the boys handled the robberies and trafficking. I had my own moral code—I was conflicted about stealing but had no problem fighting. In fact, I enjoyed it.

I felt powerful in a gang, like nothing or no one could touch me. We protected our turf—intimidation was our ammo. We would beat people up, not because of anything they did or said, but because they came from rival territory. I followed the rules and tried not to stick out for fear of retribution. The gang became my surrogate family—for the first time, I felt like I belonged, like I had people looking out for me. That was the attraction for many of us.

When I was 16, a gang member whose advances I’d rebuffed forced his way into my house and raped me. Once again, I was violated and betrayed by someone I trusted. In the following months, I cut off my ties to the gang, suffered recurring violent nightmares and became increasingly belligerent. After one too many fights with my mother, we became estranged. We barely spoke for three years. I spent that time on and off the streets, where I struggled with feelings of self-loathing and worthlessness. I began to cut myself and contemplated suicide.

During my years on the street, a few of us kids started hanging around the Eaton Centre. One day in 1991, I met a young street preacher outside the mall. I was moved by the joy on his face—I wanted to feel that. He spent the next three months wearing me down with kindness. Whenever we saw each other, he offered me meals, any money that he had, encouragement and affirmation. Eventually, he invited me to his church, where I fell in love with gospel music and the arts. That was the day my life began to change.

I started counselling sessions where I began to work through my hatred of men, and my anger and aggression, but it took me a long time to be able to trust again. I saw the world through my own emotionally crippled lens. For years, everyone I met was an enemy, out to hurt me. I was ready for a fight at all times. I felt like I had to hustle for anything I needed. After years of therapy, I was finally able to escape survival mode: every day, I opened up a little bit more, slowly allowing myself to love.

Now I spend my days running a theatre company for at-risk youth. I hope to help them find solace in the arts the way I did in gospel music. My greatest joy is when I can help gang members, drug addicts and survivors of sexual abuse. I get them, and they get me­—pain is universal. I now have a real family; I live in Durham Region with my husband and our three children. Every year, I celebrate two landmarks: the day I was born, and the day I stopped surviving and started living.

Cheryl Nembhard (@CherylNembhard) is a playwright and filmmaker.

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