A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah--A Psychological Analysis

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Book Summary

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier is a heart touching biography of an amazing young man, Ishmael Beah, during his years of growing up as a child of war in Sierra Leone, Africa. His story begins in 1993 while in his hometown village of Mogbewemo. Ishmael, his brother Junior, and his childhood friend Talloi had started a hip-hop dance and music group. They had left their village one day to travel by foot to a neighboring city to perform in their friend’s talent show. During their absence their village is attacked by rebel forces and destroyed. Ishmael and his friends never make to their friend’s talent show; they hear the news that their village had been attacked and quickly make the decision to return and find their families. Ishmael was ten years old when the horrors of war became his only reality. By the age of thirteen the Sierra Leone’s government army drafted him. Then at sixteen he was placed in a rehabilitation program by UNICEF, a program dedicated to returning war-stricken children back to mainstream society. Ishmael’s memoirs are essentially divided into three periods and during Ishmael’s accounts he is a very different person in each one of these periods. The first period was his life before he had to literally fight to stay alive—before he became a soldier. This time is marked by memories of being a child, growing up in his village, and running from rebel forces in hopes of finding safety and being reunited with his family. The second distinct period of Ishmael’s life is characterized by unspeakable acts of violence, but at the same time a determination to survive. Ishmael and his friends: Alhaji, Saidu, Kanei, Jumah, Musa, and Moriba, in search for safety, make their way to a village controlled by government soldiers, and in exchange for food and shelter they are recruited into the army.  Ishmael soon realizes that he is capable of truly horrific things. Wielding an AK-47 and hopped up on a cocktail of drugs, killing becomes as natural for Ishmael as playing soccer. The final period begins when he is placed in a rehabilitation center and finally accepts that he is still very much a child. At first, he is hesitant to trust, feel happiness, or accept the fact that he is not responsible for the many killings that he had done. He fights to hold on to the militaristic life that he had grown accustomed to, a life that had brought him safety and had given him a sense of purpose and belonging. Once off the drugs and out of the day-to-day routine of killing others, Ishmael becomes haunted by his own thoughts.  It is only through time and a loving environment that Ishmael begins to finally trust and accept the fact that he truly was not responsible for his previous actions or his current situation. Esther, a nurse at the rehabilitation center, shows Ishmael that he is still a child, a child that had simply experienced horrible thing. Esther brings Ishmael a Walkman and some hip-hop tapes, reigniting a passion for his childhood interest. This is a breakthrough in Ishmael’s rehabilitation and allows Esther to get close enough to Ishmael to help him let go of his demons. With Esther’s encouragement Ishmael performs a Shakespeare monologue and one of his hip-hop acts at the rehabilitation center’s talent show. Representatives from UNICEF, the European Commission, and NGO are in attendance. They become so inspired and impressed with Ishmael’s progress that they extend the opportunity for him to become a spokesperson for their rehabilitation program. Ishmael accepts and soon is talking to gatherings in Freetown, Africa, New York City, and many other places about the importance of these programs, as Ishmael said in his biography “…I believe children have the resilience to outlive their sufferings, if given the chance” (p.169). Although Ishmael’s mother, father, and siblings were never located, he is taken in by his uncle’s family who lived in Freetown. There he finds a new family, and a place to call home once again. The war, however, was still very much a reality and soon found its way to Freetown. Ishmael’s uncle dies from sickness and Ishmael make the decision to leave Sierra Leone. He is fearful of returning to the life of violence that he had worked so hard to overcome. One week after his uncle’s death, he makes arrangements to stay with someone in New York City, packs a bag and heads out of Freetown. Ishmael makes it out of Sierra Leone to New Guinea, and eventually to New York. When Ishmael arrives in New Guinea he has the realization that he will never have to be a soldier again.

There is theme throughout Ishmael’s memoirs, the theme of fear. Fear motivates his actions consistently throughout the book. Survival is driven by this fear and Ishmael becomes a victim to his own conscience. The simple fact that Ishmael survived his gruesome reality is amazing. I was on the edge of my seat through this entire story. I first listened to the audio book, which is read by the author. This added another dimension to the book. I could feel the intenseness of Ishmael’s accounts by the emotion heard in his voice. When I finally read the book I could hear Ishmael’s voice in the words as I read them. Throughout Ishmael’s story he is critical of his own thought and behaviors, often questioning his desires to live. However, he remains a voice of resilience and true courage.

I chose this book because I have always been intrigued by the many cultures in Africa, but especially the idea of a child being a soldier. After reading this true story, I feel I have a better understanding of the topic. I am truly inspired my Ishmael’s courage, resilience, and desire to live. Ishmael’s culture is rooted deeply in storytelling and this is evident in the literary force that this book is written. It is rumored that a sequel is in the making and I cannot wait to read about Ishmael’s journey to self-discovery here in America.

        As mentioned above, Ishmael’s story can be divided into three distinct periods. This is largely due to the circumstances that Ishmael finds himself in, but even more so in the way that Ishmael views himself as a person and the identities that he assumes during these periods. It must be mentioned that each of these identities are interconnected and help shape each other. We start Ishmael’s journey when he is eleven years old; this is a critical time period for the development of his identity. Below, I will apply Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Development Theory to Ishmael’s journey, the journey to finding his place in the world.

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        Erikson proposed a useful framework for the development of identity consisting of eight stages, each with a psychosocial crisis that one must resolve before moving to the next stage (Gardiner, Kosmitzki 2005). He particularly emphasized the adolescence period, he believed that the primary task of this stage is establishing a sense of identity—a feeling of who one is and ones place in the larger social order (Crain 2005). Ishmael’s biography explains in great detail this process in establishing his identity, even in a world of utter chaos. As he critically analyzes his internal motives, thoughts, and emotions he offers rare ...

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