The life of eight-year-old Jennings Michael Burch changed the rainy day in 1949 when his mother, Rita Catherine Hogan Burch, took him to a strange place in Brooklyn and told him, “I’ll be right back.” For the next four years, Burch spent most of his time in a series of orphanages and foster homes with only a few brief interludes when he was able to live with his mother and five brothers. In his autobiography, They Cage the Animals at Night, Burch again becomes a child and recalls his life during those years.
Burch begins his first-person, chronological narrative on the day that he was left at the Home of the Angels, for it was there that he learned some of the basic rules of all orphanages. First, it is important to remember one’s number: It is one’s place in line for all things, including meals. Second, there is a difference between “lifers” and foster kids; some foster kids have parents and can go home again. Finally, one should not make friends; it is necessary to learn to survive on one’s own. Yet Burch was determined to survive and to have friends. His one comfort was a stuffed animal that he named Doggie. One night, a friendly nun gave him the stuffed animal to sleep with, and he was surprised to find that Doggie had vanished the next morning. When he asked what happened, another boy explained that “they cage the animals at night! It’s the rules.” Later, after Burch broke the rule and hid Doggie, the stuffed animal became a constant companion throughout the uncertainties of his life.
Without warning, Burch was taken from the Home of the Angels and placed in a foster home with a middle-aged couple who wanted him only for the money that they would receive. After being beaten several times by the wife, Burch was returned to the orphanage, where he remained until his mother, who was recovering from an illness, finally came for him. Thus began the cycle that would be repeated over and over...
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