Gypsy Boy: My Life in the Secret World of the Romany Gypsies
(St. Martin's Griffin)
US: Jan 2013
Gypsy Boy: My Life in the Secret World of the Romany Gypsies is the memoir of Mikey Walsh, a Romany Gypsy living in England. This text is more than a chronicle of a subculture, it’s a record of a young man who was alienated and Othered from the onset.
Mikey’s childhood was non-typical: he infrequently attended school, acted as a prop for his father’s con-jobs, and often roamed freely around the trailer park with other Romany children. The only interruptions to this schedule are the frequent scenes of abuse delivered from the hands of his father and uncle.
Walsh’s father, Frank, was the bare-knuckle boxing champion and expected his son to follow the legacy. However, Walsh was not interested in fighting nor in the pugilistic success associated with beating opponents. Despite endless boxing failure, Walsh’s father was determined to turn Walsh into a victor. His father resorted to daily extensive beatings to physically and mentally strengthen his son. Ultimately, Walsh was convinced that his upbringing and the abuse he faced was “punishing me for failing [his father]. I wasn’t the son he dreamed of, and he was never going to forgive me for that” (72).
As the memoir develops, Walsh divulges that he is gay and must learn to negotiate his sexuality against the hyper-aggressive and brutal Romany understanding of masculinity. At age 15 Walsh ran away to join his lover, who is not only male but also a Gorgia, a non-Gypsy. Any contact with the Gorgia world was strictly forbidden. Strike three.
Frank ultimately tried to kill his son, thus Walsh is forced to use a pseudonym and to excommunicate himself from his family. Accordingly, the final section of the book showcases Walsh’s attempt to join a world that was cut off to him. Here he gains knowledge of reading, writing, and job skills. But most importantly he ascertains that the expression of genuine emotion and affection will not result in a beating. Thus Gypsy Boy is written from a space of sanctuary where Walsh learned to accept himself. Nevertheless his agency will always be compromised by his familial and cultural loyalty.
Violence and abuse unfortunately become the mainstays of the memoir. Throughout the text Walsh was physically abused by Frank and sexually abused by his uncle. The recollections of violence are graphic and grim and at first evoke a great sense of sympathy for the author. But Walsh endured violence daily and the written reiterations of the abuse seem, at times, endless. Readers eventually become desensitized and as the moments of violence approach it becomes easier to skip over than read it.
It’s important to acknowledge that Walsh could not simply skip over his abuse and patriarchal trauma was an inseparable part of his upbringing. However, that turns this memoir more into a story about abuse rather than Gypsy culture. In an attempt not to seem too glib or cynical, I even wonder if the abuse was sensationalized at times for the sake of storytelling and shock value. Walsh himself suggests that he grew up amongst relatives who “would outdo themselves in telling far-fetched stories…” (34). Who’s to say if the author was conditioned to perform this trait or not?
Sadly, one of the lasting questions Gypsy Boy evokes is not about Gypsy culture but rather why no one attempted to stop the abuse. His mother tried to intervene but also experienced her husband’s violence. Teachers observed bruises, family members witnessed scenes of violence, and “other Gypsies who lived around us were aware of my father’s violence; no one could have missed the thuds and crashes that echoed from our trailer daily” (47).
Here Walsh engages a larger conversation on abuse, violence, and advocacy especially as it occurs within the privacy of an individual’s home. With the author’s story in mind, readers are forced to question if it is the responsibility of the victims, the neighbors or the state to intervene. For Walsh the abuse was the family’s problem and stayed a Walsh problem. In spite of that, this negligence also served to demonstrate the blasé attitude of the state towards Romany culture in general. Therefore, Gypsy Boy acts as a call for intervention especially as it affects those who have isolated themselves either involuntarily or those who “live peacefully and quietly, away from the spotlight” (276). Arguably the legacy of abuse serves to turn the spotlight rather than a blind eye upon the violence.
Walsh’s pride is paradoxical. At once he finds gratification in evoking the Romany heritage and traditions while also acknowledging the oppression and cruelty. He even lovingly remembers family members, including his mother who he “loved spending time with and saw her as magical” (21). Yet Walsh’s entire focus is on the toxicity of this culture and utilizes recollections that corroborate his reasons for “dreaming of escape so many times” (246). However, since the focal point of the memoir is downbeat and violent, it’s lost on the reader as to what is so astounding about Romany of life. Here he demonstrates a type of internalized oppression that sheds light on his motivations.
Readers realize that Walsh writes this memoir in order to validate his departure from the Romany while also serving as a tool enabling closure. Throughout the final stages of his leaving he expresses guilt and grief especially when he realizes he’s abandoning his mother and sister. Clearly, this is the familial bond that Walsh cannot sever. As a result readers are forced to take his side without casting blame or guilt. These are sentiments Walsh never experienced as a child but gains through his readership.
I read this book because I was looking for new insights into Romany culture. But this is not a sociology book nor is it a cultural history. Accordingly, the book falls short in changing or complicating any major conceptions of Gypsies. On one hand, the book does revisit some interesting aspects of Romany culture. Readers learn of the rituals associated with funerals, specific superstitions, or quintessential Romany cuisine. For example Walsh describes “a traditional Gypsy favorite known as Jimmy Grey, which consisted of swede, onions, animal fat, liver, beefsteak, chicken, and pork, all shallow fried and served up with a heavily buttered crusty loaf, with a ladle of leftover dripping from the tray to dip it in” (34).
On the other hand, positive recollections are few and in some cases, Walsh reestablishes Romany stereotypes rather than debunking them. Every Gypsy archetype is present: tricksters, swindlers, kleptomaniacs who are illiterate, violent, distrusting, gaudy, and itinerant. For example, his “Aunt Minnie [was] a chain-smoking kleptomaniac” (25) who stored her floor length fur coat in the trunk of her car when she went on a shoplifting spree. Or stating that his “father’s reputation as a great con man almost surpassed his family’s infamy as fighting man” (13). His father and many others would target the elderly “until they’d stripped them of their last penny” (13).
Throughout the book Walsh expresses perplexity as to why Gypsies’ reputations are colored by ghastly illusions. Yet by failing to interrogate these stereotypes, Walsh recuperates the negative images and proudly rewrites their existence.
It’s important to acknowledge Walsh’s strength. The fact that he revisited his horrific upbringing is not an easy feat. More so, readers must recognize the education Walsh masters in order to go from illiterate to best-selling author. As he recalls, “in between shifts, I began to educate myself. I read many books and learned new words everyday, lapping up a world I had been denied as a child” (259). Finally, Walsh’s negotiation of his sexual identity in relation to his culture displays extraordinary courage.
Without a doubt Walsh’s memoir aptly demonstrates his resilience and power and serves as a narrative to those who might have or are experiencing a similar situation. Moreover this memoir becomes a text that serves to untangle Walsh’s complicated relationship with his family and heritage while honestly constructing his own identity. Thus, Gypsy Boy is primarily a memoir of abuse and trauma and the development of identity set within the mysterious world of the Romany Gypsies.