Ottawa author Kathy Dobson puts poverty front and centre in two compelling memoirs

Carleton University PhD candidate Kathy Dobson has written a second memoir about growing up in poverty.

“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.”

Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes

Kathy Dobson knows what Frank McCourt is talking about. She, too, was raised in poverty in the Point St. Charles neighbourhood of Montreal. She doesn’t live in the ‘Point’ any more, but apparently one never really leaves the place.

For Dobson, the Point lives in her memories of life with her mother and five sisters. Those times have now spawned two books, The first is called With a Closed Fist: Growing Up in Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood. The second was recently released. It’s called Punching and Kicking: Leaving Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood. Both are published by Vehicule Press.

These days, Dobson is a PhD candidate at Carleton University and a member of the ALiGN Media Lab, created by Dr. Merlyna Lim, which “works with marginalized communities and groups engaged with challenging dominant narratives.” Dobson was a journalist for more than 20 years. 

Her first book won several awards including the National Post Readers Choice Award and Literary Press Group of Canada Staff Pick for 2012. But it turns out she had more to say about The Point. 

“In the first book, I wanted to share this amazing stuff my mother had done,” Dobson told ARTSFILE in an interview. Her mother was a single mom on welfare with six kids “who was this incredibly militant social activist.”

“I’m older in the second book. In the first book, you can tell that I resented her. I think the first one was written to celebrate her. I wanted to also be honest and not pretend we had this perfect relationship which we didn’t. It’s only as an adult that I can fully appreciate was she did and what she intended to do.”

The second book happened because Dobson had more that she wanted to say.

“The response to the first book made me want to show that the way out of poverty is not a straight line. We tend to treat poverty as if it is a choice in some ways. And we blame people for being in poverty, thinking they are lazy or they don’t want to work.

“I thought if I could bring people into the life and really see it they might get a new appreciation for how complicated it is.”

As a result the book is a compelling chronicle of a place, a situation, that is not investigated all that much.

This really is a family story and true to that Dobson’s oldest children, who are in their 20s were her first readers.

“They wanted to read the book, but I also knew that they would be honest.”

It is also revealing of her life and the lives of her mother and siblings something she was aware of.

“I kept thinking that I didn’t want to hurt anybody with this story so I left out a lot more than I put in.

“In the opening of my first book I have a scene that shows me as a kid. I had forgotten to put the brick on the toilet seat and I could hear a rat trying to get out.

“When first I wrote that scene I ended up deleting it because I thought it was stupid. My older kids talked me into putting it back and made me promise I wouldn’t delete huge scenes without talking to them first.”

Her sisters have been amazingly supportive, she said.

“One said she was so angry that as kids we felt so invisible. It makes me happy that people are hearing that is what happens to children growing up in poverty, that they are marginalized in every way possible.

She said she was glad the story is getting out there.”

Point St. Charles is south of Atwater, southwest of downtown, “looking up at Westmount,” Dobson said.

In Montreal, “if someone asked you where you were from, you would hate to tell them you were from the Point because you knew you would be treated differently.”

Dobson says there is no road map to getting out of the Point or out of poverty.

“I would get out and go back. Even now, I am afraid of falling back into poverty; I’ll probably be afraid of it forever.”

Her key started with education.

“My mother got me into a pilot study when I was in Grade 7 to leave the Point and go to another school. At the time it seemed like it didn’t work because I was fighting with kids. I was a jerk when I was a kid, I really was.

“I was going through a stage when I was really mad at other kids who would throw away their lunches because they didn’t like them.

“I would have brought that food home and we would have eaten tonight. I went through a stage when I hated rich kids. I thought, ‘You don’t know how lucky you are. You have everything and you don’t even know it’.”

Anger fuelled Dobson then.

“How come my sisters and I didn’t get to throw away a lunch? We weren’t bad. That experience planted a seed that I didn’t have to accept my fate.”

Her mother kept stressing education and eventually every single one of her sisters went to nursing school.

“They worked minimum wage jobs and some had to save up for years. Every one of them fought their way to nursing school.”

She didn’t. “It wasn’t for me. I didn’t think I was smart enough.”

Instead Dobson began working at a social services agency in Montreal and eventually became the executive director.

“After that I realized had to go back to school.” And she started writing.

The books are raw and they are funny. The language is of the Point. It is profane..

But Dobson is unapologetic.

“When I went on a tour with the first book, the language was the thing that was brought up. There were attempts to have the book banned including by a library that had invited me to speak to their book club. Once a year they discussed banned and challenged books.”

When she showed up she made her feelings clear.

“I said ‘I find it offensive that instead of you being offended by children living in poverty in Canada and being abused and hungry to bed each night, the word f**k is what offends you.”

Dobson doesn’t drop F bombs these days; she has trained herself.

She still is angry about the treatment of the poor. She feels that the life story of Canada’s poor is under-reported and not well-described.

“For one thing, we want to like our poor. Poverty is ugly. If you make someone uncomfortable with your poverty, they won’t want to help. You don’t hand something to a homeless person because they are personally worthy, you either think that it is important or you don’t.

“We feel we have to admire our poor. Then they fell into category of deserving poor.”

Poverty affects all sorts of decisions.

In her second book, Dobson recounts an abortion story.

“I shared the abortion story which is getting me into some trouble. But it’s important to me to show the hypocrisy. We think we are so progressive but at the time, you could only go to a Morgenthaler clinic if you were rich, if you could afford to pay $450. Which, in 1979, was like a gazillion.

“Instead I had to go through the humiliation of standing in a johnny gown in front of three guys who had the power to decide if I could go to the left, which meant I could have the abortion, or to the right, rejected and forced to leave. I was a dumb 19 year old who was terrified. I thought I had to convince these guys I was going to kill myself.”

It was intimidating, she said.

The second book takes a shot at social workers, while the first book honours them. Her mother was radicalized by social work students from McGill who gave her the tools to speak her truth and to protest.

In the second book Dobson changes course.

“These people went into social work as do-gooders and ended up having contempt for the people they had wanted to help. They had power and they could judge you.”

Dobson’s mother has passed away. Now that she is a mother herself she has great admiration for her own mother.

“She had the bigger picture. She cared about other people. She finally got a job and she got a washer and drier. But she gave them away to a family that she thought needed them more.”

There is a plan to turn her first book into a film and she is working on a history of whistleblowing and a short story collection.

Opening sentence of Angela’s Ashes. He was able to laugh at stuff. That’s the thing. I want people to be think the book is funny.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.