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Book Review

Abused Foundling Who Managed to Bloom

FINDING FISH By Antwone Quenton Fisher; William Morrow 340 pages, $25

February 13, 2001|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The thing not to do, in reading a book like Antwone Quenton Fisher's memoir of his journey from abused foster child in Cleveland to screenwriter in Hollywood, is to argue about who had it worse.

Fisher may have gotten off easy compared with Dave Pelzer ("A Child Called 'It' "), but Lord knows he had it bad enough in the home of the Rev. Ulysses and Isabella Pickett. He was molested sexually from age 3. "Mizz Pickett" whipped him unconscious with a switch when he was 8 and frequently tied him and other foster children to a post in the basement for long periods.

A sensitive, imaginative boy, Fisher survived by constructing an elaborate fantasy life around his real parents, who he hoped would someday rescue him. It's no denial of the much greater horror of the Holocaust to observe that he tapped some of the same spiritual resources that Viktor Frankl, in "Man's Search for Meaning," credits with keeping prisoners alive in Auschwitz.

The most heartbreaking moments of "Finding Fish," in fact, are those in which the fragile supports of his fantasies were snapped. Mr. Pickett, for example, was quieter and more detached than his wife, and Fisher imagined, on the slimmest of evidence, that he had a secret ally--only to discover that Mr. Pickett, after 10 years, couldn't remember this particular boy's name.

"A feeling of being unwanted and not belonging had been planted in me from a time that came before my memory," Fisher says. "And it wasn't long before I came to the absolute conclusion that I was an uninvited guest."

What Fisher didn't know until many years later was that members of his real family lived nearby, in the black, working-class Cleveland district of Glenville. But his mother, a 17-year-old drug addict, gave birth to him in 1959 in jail, two months after his father had been shot dead by a rival girlfriend. The baby was made a ward of the state of Ohio, and the family lost touch with him. At 2, he was transferred to the Picketts. At 16, he dared talk back to them for the first time, and they returned him to the state. He was placed in a reform school and, at 18, turned loose on the streets.

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The mystery of Fisher's story--the mystery of all such stories that have happy endings--is what kept him from the life of crime and degradation that seemed inevitable. He was capable, it seems, of extracting maximum benefit from the few kind people who came his way: his fourth-grade teacher, school friends, a couple of social workers Mizz Pickett was unable to fool.

In reform school, Fisher set for himself--and adhered to--stringent rules: no drugs, no sex, no criminal activity. Somehow, in response to Mizz Pickett's insistence that he was worthless, he conceived a vision of himself as "a family man, a good provider, a strong, loving husband and father, in a secure, love-filled home," and proceeded to make it come true.

Eleven years in the U.S. Navy helped him immensely. Then he was a federal corrections officer at Terminal Island and a security guard at Sony Pictures, where his research into Ohio child welfare records bore fruit. Applying for leave to visit his long-lost relatives, he told his story, which intrigued producers. A movie version of "Finding Fish," he says, is in the works, to be directed by Denzel Washington.

What we can do, since Fisher is now a professional writer, is wish that this book were better. It isn't bad, but--compared to such memoirs as Tobias Wolff's "This Boy's Life"--it's ordinary. Fisher's prose veers from stiff formality to street crudities to a gushy lyricism. Only rarely does it seem to find the precise words, the exact tone, to render the life it cost him so much to live.

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