A life redeemed

After a childhood filled with misery, underdog author fosters his story

By RACHEL KRAMER
On January 17, 2013

  • Nigel Brown-Ward, a junior applied mathematics major, wrote and self-published his book titled The Life of Me, which is based on the true and inspirational story of his life growing up through the foster care system. Alexa Strudler /// The Spectrum

Anthony's foster parents abused him sexually for as long as he could remember.

Junior applied mathematics major Nigel Brown-Ward's foster parents abused him as well.

Anthony ran away when he was 6 years old and was raped on the streets of Niagara, N.Y. Shortly afterward, he spent the night in a crack house where an older woman molested him.

Brown-Ward had the same fate.

Anthony is a figment of Brown-Ward's imagination and is the main character of his self-published novel, The Life of Me. While Anthony's life is fictional, it is based off the events that occurred throughout Brown-Ward's childhood.

Brown-Ward has sold 1,800 copies of his first novel - a majority of them as eBooks. He hopes to continue to spread the message of what can happen to kids within the foster care system.

Brown-Ward describes one of the many times he suffered sexual abuse from his childhood through Anthony's eyes:

"Every time he penetrated me, an abusive blow from my past struck me ... I had no tears, only a rush of hate at the world I was thrown into and a hunger for vengeance to all who injured me mentally, emotionally and physically. It seemed like hours as I lay there bloody from my a** being ripped apart. He got up and simply left like he just finished a business proposal."

Brown-Ward, who considered himself a difficult child, was tossed through 39 different foster homes before he turned 14 years old.

His parents were declared unfit to raise him and his two siblings due to drug abuse when he was 11 months old. Brown-Ward was then split up from his 3-year-old brother and 1-year-old sister in the foster care system; while he went to Niagara Falls, they were sent to Rochester, N.Y.

Similar to Anthony, the main character, Brown-Ward would run away from his toxic home life only to be placed right back into the system and into yet another abusive and uncaring house.

Events like this caused an immense amount of anger to build inside Brown-Ward. 

While he couldn't speak about the events he endured when he was a child, he began to write poems at the age of 11 to escape the "hells" in his mind.

It was his way of imagining a better future.

"I wrote very emotional poems that expressed the hard times I was going through," Brown-Ward said. "I wrote about the pain I was going through and the hate I was going through from my past. I wrote about the hope that one day I wouldn't be in that situation and one day I would do better than where I came from."

This is a trait he passed on to the characters in his book.

Anthony explains his need to relieve anger using poetry: "[My poem book] was my best friend, and my rage got jealous because writing my pain down was the only way I didn't have to deal with [it]."

  It wasn't until Brown-Ward was 14 that he decided to share his poems and story with the world. This was the same time he moved in with his last foster parent, Annette Knight, and his life started looking up.

Knight, now 72 years old, had already been a foster parent for 26 years before adopting Brown-Ward.

As a biological mother to five children, to Knight, being a foster parent isn't about the money - it's about the difference she can make in the lives of the children she adopts.

Brown-Ward accepted Knight as his grandmother, a name he uses to describe her to this day.

She is characterized in his book as Anthony's grandmother, Ms. Green. Anthony and Ms. Green maintain a very similar relationship to the one between Brown-Ward and Knight: familial and loving.

When Knight first read the book, she was in tears.

"I started crying when I read his book because there were so many things in there that were a part of his life," Knight said. "Even though he wasn't able to talk it out face to face, he was able to put it in the book. To me, that is a process of healing and being able to move on in your life. I am so proud of that man."

To this day, Brown-Ward is thankful for the time and energy Knight put into raising him. While other foster parents didn't care about his mental health, Knight went to counseling with him until he was able to keep his anger under control.

"He was quite challenging and I was always thinking, 'How am I going to deal with this kid?' But when a person tells me, 'I don't want to deal with this kid' it makes me want to deal with it more," Knight said. "I have a lot of love to give and God knows I love that child."

Her tough-love approach to parenting allowed her to become one of the few people Brown-Ward could trust and look up to. Knight was the driving force behind Brown-Ward's education. She helped him get through high school and into college because she considers education to hold enormous value in her life even though she never went to college.

"[Education] is the biggest key of all and I believe you can do it no matter what," Knight said. "You can become successful. Don't use the things that have happened throughout your life as a crutch. Rise above all of that and you can be even better. That's what I tell my children: Don't be like me when you can be better."

These values are reflected in The Life of Me through Ms. Green's conversations with Anthony. She encourages him to stay in school despite multiple suspensions. Brown-Ward was suspended and expelled in high school due to fighting and talking back to his teachers. According to Knight, he was a challenging, argumentative student and many teachers didn't understand what he had gone through. Anthony is the same way.

While Anthony is portrayed as an only child in the book, Brown-Ward's older brother, Talmage Brown-Ward, played a major role in encouraging him to continue with his education. Talmage paid out of pocket to help with the application and enrollment fees to make sure his brother was able to go to college.

After being apart for nine years in different foster families around the Buffalo/Niagara region, the two eventually found each other and reunited at the age of 9. They have formed an "unbreakable bond," according to Brown-Ward.

"If I could say I looked up to anyone or if anyone was a father figure to me, [someone] who always taught me to follow my dreams or take risks because you never know what's going to come out of it, it would be my older brother," he said.

This is where the lives of author and character separate. Anthony never gets the chance to further his education due to the dramatic events that unfold throughout the book.

While this story originated as an autobiography, Brown-Ward decided there could be a deeper meaning than just sharing his personal struggle. He believed a fictional representation would be more relatable to a general audience.

He wanted his book to be about the situations people go through on a day-to-day basis, about what people may not know their fellow peers go through daily.

Brown-Ward values the importance of writing about what he knows. That is why the struggles Anthony goes through, the relationships he forms and the poems he writes all come from Brown-Ward's life experiences.

 "There is a difference between an imaginative writer who can write off of their imagination versus a writer who can work off of his or her experience and who can also make it knowledgeable and a great read," Brown-Ward said.

Even though he doesn't write about his years in college, Brown-Ward takes his opportunity to further his education seriously. When he was accepted to UB, he was awarded scholarship money through the Education Training Voucher (ETV) program. ETV awards grants to current and former foster youth to help pay for college or specialized education.

Brown-Ward met Denise Hare, a senior academic adviser, when he was admitted to UB. According to him, she changed his life and made it possible for him to thrive in Buffalo. She helped him find a place to live and find food when he couldn't afford it. Hare never expected anything in return. She said his graduation would be enough of a reward.

Even though writing is a major part of his life right now, Brown-Ward is at UB to earn his degree in applied mathematics. He plans on getting his Ph.D. in applied mathematics, cryptology or statistical analysis.

He said he has a mind that needs to be constantly challenged and changed.

However, depending on how everything pans out with his writing, he may never end up using his degree. He said it will enable him to be able to have a career as an educator of math and not just an author.

"I am going full-fledged [with my writing], but I know I will always have my degree," Brown-Ward said. "Writing is a gift. It is something I am naturally good at. Being a voice to people is something I know I'm good at."

Most of his time goes toward producing his book. He self-edits, self-publishes, self-markets and self-promotes.

Brown-Ward has never taken a college English class but doesn't consider that to be a disadvantage to his writing. He said a lot of great authors - such as Zane, an erotic novelist - started out as self-publishers.

Create Space, an independent publishing company, prints The Life of Me on demand. The company also set up a connection between Brown-Ward and businesses like Amazon and Barnes & Noble so he is able to sell his book online.

However, Brown-Ward takes it upon himself to promote his book and expand his readership. He uses social media outlets such as Facebook and his website, lifeofmee.com.

"[Word of mouth] spreads fast," Brown-Ward said. "It doesn't matter if someone finds you annoying because you are always pushing your book. That's just what happens. You can't be afraid of anyone. In reality, it's your job as a self-published author to market and advertise for your own book."

Beyond sharing his story, Brown-Ward wants to help other foster children who share similar experiences as he did while growing up by founding a charitable organization.

This organization will target foster children starting in ninth grade and teach them the importance of staying in school, applying for college, getting involved and "having a life outside the system." Brown-Ward estimates a project like this will cost around $85,000 to get started and be initially successful.

Knight isn't surprised Brown-Ward wants to make a difference. It was one of the values she instilled on him as he grew up with her.

"He has a heart as big as this world, but for it to really open up, it's hard," Knight said. "He puts that tough-guy attitude up sometimes but I always tell him, 'come down a notch and come down, baby.' I told him not to let his good looks run him over or go to his head."

Knight said it is important to give back because she believes "someone along the way gave to you."

Brown-Ward hopes his book will serve as a start to change the way people look at children in the foster care system. Hare believes even though Brown-Ward told an engaging story, a fictional book is not likely to have the same impact on society as an autobiography.

"[The book] provides no real documentation," Hare said. "However, it does expose some real concerns about foster care and growing up around a criminal and dysfunctional element."

This is the mindset Brown-Ward wants his readers to develop. He wants the average person to see what some children go through when they are lost or uncared for in the foster care system.

Because Brown-Ward has decided to self-publish his book, he noticed some errors since the initial release. In order to give his books a more polished feel, Brown-Ward has enlisted the help of a professional editor.

He doesn't think the existing errors have hindered the story and the point he strives to get across. Brown-Ward believes people will understand the meaning of The Life of Me as long as they read without a critical editing lens.

A second version of the story was released with many of the errors fixed. Brown-Ward hopes to eventually take classes and more successfully edit his own work. For now, he doesn't mind paying someone to help him with the technical aspect as long as he can tell his story.

 Brown-Ward is currently working on editing the sequel to The Life of Me,titled The Unexpected Happy Ending, which continues the story of Anthony's life, relationships and struggles.

He hopes the ending of Anthony's story will be available for purchase in early February. When he is completely done with the two books, he hopes to gain the support of a major publishing company and eventually turn the story into a play or a movie.

Until the world hears his message, he and Anthony will continue striving for a life of peace.

 

Email: features@ubspectrum.com


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