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Terrifying Tale Of A Childhood

Author Returns To Hartford With Messages For Kids And The Adults Who Raise Them

October 16, 2005
By MARK SPENCER, Courant Staff Writer

Mary Cameron Kilgour grew up in Hartford in the 1950s in a home full of physical and verbal abuse, borne on the wings of the whiskey and port wine her parents drank.

Orphaned at 14 and unable to adjust to a foster family, she found herself about to be shipped off to a juvenile home and facing a future that was, at best, bleak.

Kilgour wrote, "Me, May, Mary," her childhood memoir published this year, to tell people about where she came from, but more importantly to let them know where she ended up.

Even some of her closest friends from those days were unaware of the life she lived within the walls of her family's apartment near the intersection of Woodland Street and Albany Avenue.

"It was hidden from everybody," Kilgour said. "Back in those days, you didn't reveal family problems out of loyalty to the family."

At 65, she says she has long since come to terms with her childhood. Now a volunteer court-appointed advocate for children in Gainesville, Fla., she wants children in troubled homes to know there is a way out and she wants adults to know how to help.

During a visit this week to Hartford, she spoke to students at Rawson Elementary School and Weaver High School, her alma mater, and on Saturday a small group of people at Hartford Public Library.

Kilgour talks in a smooth and fluid style, articulate and engaging without being animated or emotional.

Perhaps, that's a legacy of the long career that took her to the top levels of the U.S. Foreign Service, where control and analysis are valued over hubris.

It's the stories she tells that pack the punch.

Like the one about the time her mother cracked her over the head with a thick, wooden cutting board.

Or the night her father stumbled into the living room where she and her older brother slept and collapsed. They clicked on the light and saw blood on his face, then more blood gushing from his wrist - almost completely severed - then deep gashes to the bone higher up his arm.

Her parents' drinking that night had ended in a fight and her mother had attacked her father with a broken wine bottle. As usual, she and her brother Jack were left to clean up the mess.

Her mother died of pneumonia and soon afterward her father died of a heart attack. Kilgour was placed at the House of the Good Shepherd orphanage on Sisson Avenue.

It was there she began to put the pieces together. Under the eyes of the nuns, she had to study one hour a day, so her grades began improving and eventually she made the honor roll.

"I started getting positive reinforcement," she said.

A small student-sponsored scholarship enabled her to enroll in the University of Connecticut's Hartford branch; more scholarships and part-time jobs took her to the Storrs campus.

From there, the simple facts of her life are stunning: Two undergraduate degrees from UConn, a master's and a doctorate in political economy and government from Harvard, service in the Peace Corps, and a career in the Foreign Service that took her to Colombia, Pakistan, Costa Rica, Philippines, Liberia and Bangladesh, and gave her high-level policy-making assignments.

After she retired from the Foreign Service 10 years ago, she began taking writing classes. She had never talked about her childhood during her working years, but eventually decided to show one of her classes a piece that evolved into a chapter in her memoir, "Me, May, Mary," published by the Child Welfare League of America.

"The thought of showing it to those people, revealing this for the first time, was a huge step," she said.

Kilgour is a realist and knows there is no silver bullet of salvation for children from troubled homes. The advice she gives, she says, sometimes must be direct and practical.

"You shouldn't sneak out the window and sleep with the neighbor, because you're 14 and he's 26," she recalled telling one girl.

And she tells them about the path she found.

"Education is your escape," she tells them.

In meetings this week with officials from the state Department of Children and Family Services, she also advocated for the creation of orphanages, which have been widely abandoned in favor of foster care.

For some kids, she argues, an orphanage gives them some needed space to heal themselves, while providing structure, security and nurturing from adults.

To the small group at Hartford Public Library Saturday who listened to her story with rapt attention, she offered one more piece of advice: Whether in ways great or small, pay attention to children.

"I remember every single one of them, any adult who showed me attention," she said. "I assume you do it, but be kind to children."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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