Fighting and manhood. From “The Iliad,” with its tale of ancient Greeks who prove themselves on the battlefield, to “Fight Club,” with its contemporary fantasy of office workers who regain their dignity by battling one another bloody in basements, the two ideas are often entwined. According to Mikey Walsh’s harrowing memoir “Gypsy Boy,” nowhere is this more true than among England’s Romany Gypsies, whose passion for bare-knuckle fighting infuses their culture.
“It would be impossible,” Walsh writes, “for any Gypsy man, no matter how much he might wish for a quiet life, to be in the company of other Gypsy men without being asked to put his hands up.” To turn down such a challenge, he suggests, even when you know you’ll lose, is to cover yourself in shame.
In the hands of a more swaggering writer, the description of what it’s like to grow up in such a macho milieu might have focused on the courage and physical discipline that sparring can breed. But Walsh is no Rocky, and his story, which climbed the bestseller lists in England after it was released there in 2009, exposes disturbing connections between culture and abuse — connections that Walsh may wish he could wave away.
The problems arise early, when Walsh’s father, the less-loved son in a family of renowned Gypsy fighters, begins Walsh’s “training.” Walsh is 4 years old, and his first lesson is how to take a punch. The toddler must withstand a series of blows without crying or dodging. “That session,” Walsh recalls, “like all those that were to follow, ended with ‘real’ punches, tears and at least thirty minutes of my father raving about how ashamed of me he was.”
As the years go by, the violence and humiliation of Walsh’s so-called training escalate rapidly. When his mother tries to intercede, his father beats her unconscious. Outsiders may see this upbringing as a clear case of sadistic abuse, yet “Gypsy Boy” argues that the core problem was not Walsh’s father’s temperament per se, but rather something that developmental psychologists term “goodness of fit.”
Had Walsh been a little more butch, he suggests, had he not been the kind of boy who loved singing Barbara Streisand songs and playing with dolls, his father might have treated him more humanely. But even as a young child, Walsh sensed that his father, and his culture, abhorred his most instinctive qualities. “I would spot [my father] from the corner of my eye as I played,” he writes, “looking at me with an expression of irritation and dislike. His glare made my heart feel as though he had crushed it with a rock.”
The crushing begins in earnest, however, when Walsh turns 12, the age of Gypsy manhood, and it becomes harder for him to hide, from himself and from others, that his natural attraction is not to women but to men. By then, his father’s training has evolved into regular, undisguised beatings, including by shovel. Had Walsh not found a way to escape the Gypsy community when he was 15, I wonder if he’d be alive today.
Elsewhere, Walsh has explained that he began “Gypsy Boy” as a kind of therapeutic project, a way to exorcise the self-loathing that has dogged him “for failing as a Gypsy man.” Yet, oddly, England’s outcry against his abuse has made him defend his father. As Walsh explained to the Daily Mirror last fall, “It hurt me when people started saying my father was a monster. . . . He was trying to make a man out of his kid.”
In fact, indictment and defense are scattered throughout “Gypsy Boy,” which both raises questions about Romany values and brushes such questions aside. “Left to themselves,” Walsh writes, “the Romanies live peacefully and quietly, away from the spotlight.” But there’s no way to believe such a claim after reading his blunt, cathartic memoir, or after learning that “Mikey Walsh” is a pseudonym adopted to avoid exposure and ensure the author’s safety.
Contradiction, however, may be a mark of authenticity. For as Alice Miller explained in her landmark study of violence in childrearing, “For Your Own Good,” beatings corrode children not only by instilling feelings of helplessness but also by demanding that they “show gratitude and respect to the parents in return.”
My Life in the Secret World of the Romany Gypsies
By Mikey Walsh
Thomas Dunne/ St. Martins’s. 278 pp. $24.99