If Jamaican poet, children’s book author, and appointee to the nation’s Task Force on Character Education, Juleus Ghunta had his way, all 44 million people living in the Caribbean—from Barbados to Guyana to Grenada—would become PACEs-informed in the near future.
To start off, everyone—including children, parents, teachers, social workers, doctors, and policymakers—needs to read his new book, Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows: A Story about ACEs and Hope, due out this December, just in time for a new year.
The book is partly based on Ghunta’s childhood traumas of physical and verbal violence as well as displacement, poverty, and abandonment, resulting in his ACE score of 15 to 20.
The second of four children born to his mother who herself had been abused, Ghunta was constantly beaten by her. Because he struggled in school, his mother gave his teachers permission to beat him as well, so both school and home became torture to him.
Moving frequently because of financial and other difficulties, at 14, he was forced by his extended family to live on his own. He moved to another community and stayed in a small house with one of his grandmother’s former partners. To supplement what his mother was able to give to him, he worked at a supermarket 30 miles from his home, sometimes until 12 a.m., packing bags and mopping floors.
Looking back, Ghunta says, “It was a blessing in disguise to be on my own when I was 14. I don’t know if I would be alive today if I hadn’t been thrown out by my family. It gave me a chance at surviving childhood.”
An Adult Who Cared
Not only did he often break down and cry in despair, he also developed terrible nightmares that prevented him from sleeping. He became suicidal. But at a critical time, one person offered him life-saving support. That person was a Texan and Vietnam veteran, who had survived an abusive father and PTSD, and had moved to rural Jamaica to heal.
“Mike became my friend and mentor. I watched his property and animals, and he introduced me to books and treated me like I was a human being. He saved my life and said I saved his,” recalls Ghunta.
The books that influenced the young Jamaican included the Harry Potter series. “I identified with Harry Potter because of his place in the Dursley family. Beyond that, the magic in these books was important because I used my imagination as a tool to survive.”
“I created imaginary parents, and had conversations with them,” he says. “They helped me with my homework, tucked me in at night.”
He says that other people came into his life and encouraged him. But even though he had a difficult relationship with his mother, he would not have made it without her. “I know now that she did her best,” says Ghunta. “She nearly ruined us but gave all that she had. She had a terrible childhood and was abused as an adult by men and by her employers. She was so broken, so traumatized, that she couldn’t even bring herself to say ‘I love you’ to me.”
She did tell him for the first time when Juleus was 16. He fell on his knees and begged her.
Of this experience, he says, “It took me a while to understand my mother and to forgive her. To see her courage, her strength. I’m glad I was not too damaged to appreciate these things.”
Ghunta’s process of resilience and forgiveness was long and complicated. After earning a B.A. in media and communication at the University of the West Indies, Mona, in 2010, he moved to the Eastern Caribbean, trying to escape his family and country. He returned to Jamaica in 2012 and moved to the Blue Mountains when the physical impacts of his trauma became unbearable. He migrated to Japan in 2014, which he says was the worst year of his life because his body broke down. He lost consciousness several times and fell in the street and had to be rushed to a hospital, where diagnoses were inconclusive.
The “aha” moment in what might be triggering his dizziness, chronic neck pain, and sleeplessness came in 2015 when he watched the TED Talk about ACEs science by Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris. “I started to make connections between my ACEs, toxic stress, and health challenges. I read as much as I could on ACEs. This knowledge gave me hope that I could get out of this rut that started when I was 16. Every day was terrible and hard for me. There were moments in my life when I would have given a limb to have one day of relief from pain, dizziness, and nightmares.”
Making Sense of the Past
In 2017, Ghunta received a Chevening Scholarship from the British government, enabling him to earn a master’s in peace and conflict studies at the University of Bradford in Great Britain. One of his professors, Dr. Ute Kelly, showed particular interest in their students’ personal experiences of trauma, since many of them came from countries in which conflicts, disease, and poverty were rampant. After nearly two decades of intense struggle, Ghunta was determined to attain internal peace at Bradford, which would include learning to sleep. To achieve this, Ghunta spent his year at Bradford studying his life. In his autoethnographic dissertation, he examined five of his ACEs.
“It was an opportunity to write about the dreadful things that happened to me but also to examine some of the terrible things I did in order to survive,” he says. “One of my great achievements is that I went through my whole life without murdering another person. I am genuinely proud of that.”
Throughout his time at Bradford, he realized that “people are much more complex than how they are generally labeled in society. Each of us is capable of remarkable generosity, but forced by harsh circumstances, we will also do unspeakable things. Without this understanding, approaches to sanctioning deviance will be punitive rather than rehabilitative. We need to offer people opportunities for redemption.”
Healing through the Imagination
Ghunta’s latest book, Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows, published by CaribbeanReads and illustrated by Rachel Moss, is about a child who is haunted by “sinister shadows that fuel his fear of reading.” Based on himself and a childhood friend who was also bullied and beaten, the story describes Rohan’s friendship with a special book that helps him conquer his fears and develop a love of learning.
This tale, says Ghunta, should be used as an entry point into conversations on PACEs, literacy and trauma-informed care. It shows how books and the power of literacy can change our lives, as they did with him. The story includes lines from Jamaican activist, publisher, and orator Marcus Garvey and is full of magic and hope, with an overview of ACEs at the end for adults as well as suggestions for activities that can help develop resiliency. A review of the book by Dr. Veronique Mead, is here.
Ghunta’s first book, Tata and the Big Bad Bull, a picture book published in 2018 by CaribbeanReads, is also about how to overcome bullying. He is the co-editor of two issues of Interviewing the Caribbean Journal, focused on children’s literature and ACEs in the Caribbean.
Changing the Caribbean PACEs Scene
A few people, Ghunta says, are trying to get a PACEs movement going in the region. His latest book is the first of its kind taking on this issue in the islands. He says that since the COVID pandemic struck, people are becoming more open to having discourses on trauma.
The Caribbean’s first national ACEs study was conducted and published in Bermuda in 2020. It was based on the original 1998 Kaiser Permanente-CDC model, but the research added racism and traffic accidents as ACEs. Burke-Harris, who is from Jamaica, visited and spoke in her homeland in 2016. Ghunta is also a part of the Caribbean PACEs Community, which is led by Adrian Alexander from Trinidad and Tobago; Dr. Richard Honigman, who works for Reach Within in Grenada; and Mark Nicoll, a Canadian social worker volunteering in the Cayman Islands.
And Ghunta is now editing an issue of PREE Magazine with a collection of essays on ACEs published in the Caribbean for release this November. Ghunta has received several awards for his advocacy, including Jamaica’s Prime Minister’s National Youth Award for Excellence in Service, and the University of Bradford's Social Ambassador Prize.
Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows is published by CaribbeanReads. Visit www.caribbeanreads.com/rohan to learn more about this book and to pre-order copies. For bulk orders, contact CaribbeanReads at email@example.com. Contact Juleus Ghunta at firstname.lastname@example.org