Why does one succumb while another endures? On trauma, loss, and learning to hit back.
By Pauline Dakin
Photos by Riley Smith
World heavyweight boxing champion, 1919 – 1926
The first time I wrapped my hands for boxing class I made a mess of the job.
I’d wound the long strips of beige cotton around my hands too loosely, and they soon bunched up in my gloves, rubbing my knuckles raw as I punched the bag. On that first day, my coach, Jo-Jo Jackson, watched me take off a glove and peel back the sagging wrap to inspect my knuckles. He shook his bald head, loosing droplets of sweat, and motioned me aside.
“Here, undo them.” He shook his head again. More drips. He unraveled the wrappings, and gruffly showed me the right way to wind them. Around my knuckles tightly, at the base of my fingers. A few turns and then down to circle my wrist. A loop to reinforce the thumb, and then repeat until the full length of cotton tightly enshrouded my hand. Wraps are a prophylactic bandage to protect the hands when you punch. There is a meditative comfort in winding them on, in taking steps to safeguard yourself. Jo-Jo took care to make sure they were taut but not cutting.
I started boxing in 1996, a couple of months after my first daughter was born. I felt a great tenderness for this small person who depended on me so entirely, mixed with a new and overwhelming sense of responsibility and vulnerability. Physically, I felt flabby and tired. Emotionally I ricocheted between joy, amazement, and feeling exposed and raw. Lying in bed at night I’d plan escape routes from my daughter’s bedroom in case of fire or some other crisis. Driving over a bridge I’d obsess over how to get her out of the car seat and safely to shore if the car somehow went over the railing and into the water—a hangover from a previous part of my life spent looking over my shoulder, always anticipating disaster.
Jo-Jo seemed to sense something of this. “Dig in, dig in,” he’d holler as I attacked the heavy bag with a flailing series of jabs, hooks, and crosses. Jo-Jo knew I’d never be a contender, but he wanted me to punch harder anyway. He was then in his early fifties. His last professional boxing match had been 15 years earlier. Coaching was now his dream, and this boxing class in the basement of Halifax’s North End YMCA another attempt of many to realize it.
“He’s coming for your baby. Protect that baby!” Jo-Jo’s urgent growl in my ear made me laugh, but it worked. I dug deeper and punched harder. For months that year I went to that cramped basement space. It was low-ceilinged, faintly musty; I could smell years of stale sweat seeping from the bags and pads we used to drill each other. Jo-Jo pushed us, helped us hone our skills with exhausting rounds of combos.
“Jab, cross, left hook, duck, right uppercut!” He called the punches. I complied, driving at the black and red leather hand pads he held in position to receive the blows. The practice made me feel stronger.
One night, a few months after I started boxing, I walked alone to the store near my house. In the dark, I realized someone was following me. When I went into the store I could see him across the street, watching me, waiting. I left with my purchase and began walking home. He followed. I felt a surge of adrenaline. Fear, but also something else: Part of me wanted him to grab me. I wanted an excuse to put my newfound skills to work. I craved a chance to protect myself, fight back, take charge. But at the last minute I ducked into my neighbour’s brightly lit driveway, and my stalker disappeared down the street, looked back once, and moved on.
Jo-Jo describes boxing as a way to impose control and stand up to a difficult world—in and out of the ring. “If you stand up to the punches, it toughens you up. If you fall to the punches you’re not going to keep going.” His description of the sport—the “sweet science”—rang true for me too. He says boxing helped control fears that sometimes threatened to overwhelm him, to stay in the fight.
Psychologists and social scientists call that resilience: the capacity to keep going in the face of adversity, to adapt in the face of trauma, tragedy, or threats. Why does one sibling in difficult circumstances succeed in life while another struggles? Why do some people respond to war, violence, abuse, hardship, or loss by developing PTSD, when others can cope and move on? Can resilience be learned?
Halifax therapist Michael Ungar is the Canada Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience, and heads the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University. He’s studying resilience in youth, and identifying the factors that influence resilience in times of trauma or stress. Resilience, he believes, can be found where we expect to find it, in family and community. As well as where we might not expect it.
The bleakness of a reformatory school basement.
A table set for Sunday dinner.
A boxing ring.
I turned 10 in the summer of 1975, the last year I thought of my family as having any relation to normal.
We lived in North Vancouver, a suburb within Greater Vancouver, at the foot of the North Shore Mountains. School had just finished, it was late June, and we were packing up our Volkswagen camper van with all of our gear, games, and books. We—me, Mom, and my brother Ted—were going to visit my mother’s family on the prairies. At least, that’s what we told our relatives, friends, and my dad, whom my mother had divorced when I was seven, after years of terrorizing abuse and alcoholism.
Mom strapped our bicycles to a rack on the back of the van. This usually involved some under-her-breath cursing as she wrestled them onto the brackets and secured them. Our dog Pixie, a small mutt, weaved between her legs, barking and yapping. I was in the van, reading. My brother Ted, two years younger, was fooling around in the backyard with his friend Randy, who’d come to see us off.
“Ted, where’s your bag?” Mom was using her trying-to-be patient voice.
“In the kitchen.”
“Well, get it!” Her patience was waning. Ted and I didn’t know it then, but her anxiousness was about far more than trying to get us on the road. This was to be the first time we disappeared.
The morning we left North Vancouver the sun was struggling to break through low, misty clouds. As we pulled away from our little storey-and-a-half stucco house, with our bedrooms under the eaves and the cherry tree in the backyard, Randy waved goodbye. We drove over the soaring Port Mann Bridge that straddles the Fraser River, along the TransCanada Highway towards Abbotsford, and beyond to Chilliwack. Blue sky finally gained the upper hand. Ted and I sat in the back with the fold-away kitchen table dropped down before us, alternately playing cards or watching the landscape flash past out the windows.
We followed the blue-and-white camper of our family friends, the Sears, who were coming with us. Stan Sears was a minister whom my mother had met after she’d been referred to him by Al-Anon, a support group for the families of alcoholics. He’d counseled her as she left her abusive marriage; he and his wife, Sybil, had become friends several years earlier.
After we arrived in Winnipeg, Mom explained that we wouldn’t be going home, and we couldn’t contact anyone back in British Columbia. When we asked why, her answer was baffling, unfair, inexplicable: that she couldn’t tell us until we were older.
My brother and I grew up knowing there was something very strange about our family, a threat lingering over our childhood—Ted would sometimes, in the years that followed, refer to “normal families”, not critically, just in acknowledgement that we were not. We had no explanation for it, and for years I wondered what the people we’d left behind thought. Later, as an adult, I re-encountered a few. They’ve described how in the days after our disappearance my teachers and friends questioned each other. Did anyone know why I hadn’t turned up for school, if I was sick? As the days went on, they wondered: had I moved away? Eventually their curiosity dimmed.
We stayed in Winnipeg for a few years, but then once again, we snuck away from our lives. Again, the Sears snuck away with us, without any apparent explanation. Again, we didn’t tell anyone where we were going. This time, we ended up in Saint John.
Jo-Jo’s real name is William Joseph, but no one has called him anything but Jo-Jo since he was a little boy.
The diminutive name doesn’t quite fit the small, strong man whose body, even at the age of 72, is testament to the hours he spends in the gym. If you mention his fit physique, he slips easily into boxing stances and poses, eager to show his form is still good. A few years before I met him, Jo-Jo was inducted into the Pictou County Sports Heritage Hall of Fame, to honour his professional boxing career.
On the day of his boxing debut, 55 years ago, Jo-Jo weighed in at 126 pounds. He was classified as a lightweight but he was wiry and fast, dominating a bigger fighter, Al Carpenter, in just four rounds. It was the first of 44 professional fights.
Jo-Jo grew up in a tiny, mostly Black community called Jacksonville on the outskirts of New Glasgow. “I was 12 days old and my mother just dropped me on my grandmother,” he says. She’d come back to visit sometimes, usually drinking and often trailing a trick. “She took money from white men to go in the back room.” Decades on, Jo-Jo still looks pained as he remembers: “I couldn’t understand why my grandmother would let her daughter do that.”
Pictou County in the 1950s was particularly beset by racial strife. Older people there still vividly remember the sunset laws, essentially curfews that restricted Black people to their own areas, usually on the outskirts of town, after dark fell.
“Pictou County is notoriously one of those communities where Black interaction with the police was horrendous,” says Robert Wright, an African-Nova Scotian social worker and sociologist who works with organizations to improve their cultural sensitivity. “These communities were segregated, marginalized, impoverished…and for the poorest families in those marginalized communities, violence and substance abuse was epidemic. So poor kids in those situations suffered tremendously.”
Jo-Jo was one of those kids, and between the pervasive racism in the rural community and the dysfunction within his own family, his childhood was chaotic and frequently frightening. It essentially ended when he was eight, after he hit his teacher in the stomach, payback for some unremembered slight. He says his grandmother found out and came to the school. She beat him so badly the teacher had to pull her off him.
For that crime, Jo-Jo was sent to the infamous Shelburne School for Boys—one of several reform schools in the province later besieged by complaints of physical and sexual abuse. It was his first incarceration; there would be two more youth sentences in the following years. It was at Shelburne that Jo-Jo learned to fight.
Jo-Jo describes going upstairs alone, to the dormitory area one day, “maybe to get my toothbrush or something,” he says, when two of the older boys, in their late teens, followed him. One held him down while the other sexually assaulted him. Jo-Jo was eight years old. He took the assault as a lesson: No one else was going to protect him, not at home, and certainly not in the care of the province. He would need to do it himself. And his lessons in self-protection came from an unlikely place.
Separate from the main part of the school, the “boot room” was where supervisors took the boys to stage fights—as diversion for the boys, to teach them self-defence skills, or simply for the supervisors’ own amusement. Jo-Jo remembers, when he was 10 years old, being brought there and physically pitted against other boys. Many of them were much bigger. Supervisors presided over the secret sparring matches, making light of the bloody noses and colourful bruises.
The legacy of violence and abuse that has emerged from the Shelburne school is well-known, and this at first seems like another chapter in that story. But Jo-Jo remembers it differently. He even describes one particular supervisor as a mentor, recalling, “He said I was one of the tough ones. He said I was tough, and that felt good, because I was only small…he was strict, but I admired him. He took an interest.”
The image of a grown man shouting encouragement to young boys, who had no choice in the matter, pummeling each other between rows of boots, does not match any classic idea of support or nurturing. But for Jo-Jo, at least, the contests were a way to assert himself, to exercise control. In that dark place, they were an introduction to a life not always lived on the defensive.
In Saint John, I grew into a raging teenager, hoping to punish my mother for twice dragging us away from our lives.
I hoped to punish her as well for the constant imprecations—don’t talk, don’t tell—that reverberated through our childhood. As children, my brother and I didn’t have the language to express how the secretiveness of our family isolated us, or how the unnamed menace made life feel chaotic and uncertain. As a teenager, I was able to horrify my mother with drugs, partying, and a motley social circle of underachievers.
But it wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that my mother and Stan Sears, who by then had become like a father to me, provided an explanation for our disappearances: we’d been on the run from the the Mob, they said, claiming that my real father had been an organized-crime kingpin in Vancouver.
It was a complex story about my father’s wrath, and his belief that my mother was teaming up with Stan to reveal information she’d gleaned about his Mob contacts and activities during their marriage. Stan, they told me, was working with a secret anti–organized-crime task force that was providing us all with protection. Stan said he’d initially been targeted because of a gangster who’d gone to him for counseling and told him too much. Mob leaders thought it was no coincidence that my mother and Stan had become friends, perceiving them as a threat to be eliminated. At the time, this incredible explanation made a strange kind of sense, explaining the relocations, the secrecy, my mother’s mysterious behaviour.
It also explained why Stan and his wife moved both times with our family. Stan told me about a secret world, hidden in remote, rural areas of the country, which included prisons for those convicted of working with organized crime figures. These were also places where people targeted by the Mob could find safety, a kind of protective custody they described as peaceful and beautiful. It was unbelievable, though because of my trust in my mother and Stan, I finally chose to believe.
By the early 1990s, sick with ping-ponging between belief and doubt, I tested the story, setting up a sting. I told my mother and Stan that my house had been broken into. I made it up and waited with a pounding heart for the response. When it came, I felt life once again shift and shatter. “Yes,” Stan’s message to me said. “We picked up two Mob guys in a car down the street from your house. They’d been following you, were looking for things in your house. We have them in custody now.”
I’d expected to feel relief, but nothing came—except a profound sense of loss, for all the relationships severed by our disappearances, and for the trust I’d had in my mother and Stan. Anger followed. I confronted first Mom, and then Stan, but they stuck by the story. They were sad that I no longer believed, and worried that if I didn’t take precautions I’d put myself in harm’s way.
It was a devastating betrayal. I didn’t know how to channel my futile, toxic anger and my terrible sadness. And it would be years before I found the answer to the question that obsessed me: Why would anyone do this to me and my brother? And worse, why would people I loved, who loved me, perpetrate such a deception?
It wasn’t until years later, months after having my first baby, that I discovered boxing. A friend suggested it to me, thinking it would be good exercise to help me get back into shape. It turned out to be the unlikeliest of balms. The first time I walked in to the basement gym at the Y I felt a thrill. As Jo-Jo drilled us, my heart pounded from exertion, not fear, and that felt new and good. For a time, boxing became a place to focus my anger and frustration. The sweetness of unleashing rage was narcotic. The complete attention demanded to develop the form and skills of boxing was a perfect distraction. The physical exhaustion and mental quiet that followed was a remedy for the hamster-on-a-wheel that was the voice in my head, always in the background, always asking, why did Stan target us, betray us?
Jo-Jo put the boot room instruction to work when he was released from Shelburne and went home to Pictou County.
He remembers fighting off grown men who taunted him with slurs and pushed him around. “You’re not going to take that all your life. They were grown men. I was 12 years old. It made me fight.”
When Jo-Jo was 16 he got a taste of adult jail in Pictou County, after his family got into a brawl with the RCMP. “My grandfather was drinking, and the Mounties came up and one was hitting my grandfather with the flashlight, so I started hitting the Mountie, and he turned the flashlight on me.” His mother and grandmother got into the fight as well. The whole family ended up in jail. Jo-Jo’s grandfather and mother were both sentenced to two years in a federal penitentiary for, among other things, assaulting an officer. His grandmother got a year-long sentence in the Pictou County jail, and Jo-Jo served six months there at the same time.
One day at the local ice-cream parlour, a white boy called him the n-word. Jo-Jo hit him, hard, and broke his jaw. He was scared he’d be going back to jail, although miraculously no charges were laid. He thought about an uncle who’d kicked a man to death. He realized he had to channel his anger, and his strength.
He started hanging out at the local boxing gym, an old garage with a heavy bag and a speed bag, where he earned the notice of Hugh “Sparky” Paris, a former fighter, part-time trash hauler, and part-time trainer who ran his own place in town, the “Paris Boys Gym.” Paris was well-known as a mentor to boys in New Glasgow, and was later inducted into the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame for his own career achievements.
Jo-Jo describes his professional boxing career as an ascent our of hell. He spent some time training in Boston, fought in Portland, Maine; and at the Royal Albert Hall in London. He traveled to fights in Alberta and Quebec, and around Nova Scotia.
Racism, overt and systemic, were formative elements of Jo-Jo’s early life. “There was always someone trying to put you in your place, at the dances we’d go to, on the street.” But the brotherhood of boxing, he says, was a reprieve. When he went out in the company of other boxers, he felt different. “We stuck together, even the white guys we trained with. You’d make friends with the ones you were sparring with and it didn’t matter the colour of your skin,” he says. “They all stuck up for you. I felt, sort of, secure.”
For large parts of our lives, for very different reasons, security is something that both Jo-Jo and I lacked. Yet a sense of security, of knowing there are people watching your back, is a cornerstone of resilience. When my family’s lie was revealed, and I began the years-long process of reimagining my life, I found some sense of security. Jo-Jo found it in the camaraderie of the gym, wrapping himself in that feeling of protection like he wrapped those bandages tight around my knuckles.
A strong self-identity, believes Dalhousie’s Michael Ungar, is another key element of resilience. “That’s something that’s given to us, it’s not just something inside,” he says. “It’s about our experiences with power and control. And then things like belonging, and even your culture, which is one of the ways of belonging to a group.”
Robert Wright points out that Black communities in Nova Scotia have produced a remarkable number of world-class boxers, including Sam Langford, Buddy Daye, Dave Downey, Ray Downey, and Kirk Johnson. “Because it’s so masculine, that is a tonic against all of the racial slights that would seek to emasculate us,” Wright believes. An exceptional number of those boxers also went on to greater accomplishments, as community leaders who advocated for and inspired change, using their platform to found organizations and spearhead initiatives for education or racial justice.
For Jo-Jo, boxing led to nothing more, but it was enough. He describes how he felt in the early days after starting to become known around New Glasgow. “You walk downtown, and people—black, white, anything—would recognize you, give you a wave. And you know they’re looking at you different than before. My world opened up when I started boxing, and I realized I wasn’t so scared.”
Eventually I tentatively told a few close friends of the hoax that had upended my life.
Unfailingly, they asked how I could have ended up so “normal”. Whatever that is, I would think. What they were really asking was, why hadn’t I been crushed by the dysfunction, chaos, and betrayal of my childhood? They wondered how I had been able to get an education and succeed in a career, and have a family; why I hadn’t ended up with an addiction or crippling mental illness, unable to function. What people really want to know is where I found the resilience to survive a uniquely bizarre and disturbing childhood.
“I don’t really like the word resilience,” says Tod Scott, a family therapist in Halifax (and a personal friend). “It sets up this idea that some people are resilient and some people aren’t. It’s a dead end.”
Tod is more interested in social explanations for what allows people to cope with and survive adversity. He wants to explore the relationships and the stories we tell and are told about ourselves within those relationships. Like Michael Ungar, he says they help form our identities.
“It’s about the meaning we make and the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.”
Jo-Jo likes to remember a story his grandfather used to tell about him. The old man was proud that at 13, Jo-Jo could harness the mean mare that always tried to bite him, and drive the horse and plow by himself. He says that’s why he developed such big shoulders for his small stature, and maybe, it’s why his grandfather had so much time for him.
“Me and my grandfather used to take the plow in the woods and cut wood, and we’d plant all our own garden. We’d haul coal for people, or hay on the wagon.” Jo-Jo tells me he loved his grandfather despite his dangerous temper. The boy was the man’s shadow. “If he went downtown, I went downtown.” And when Jo-Jo started boxing professionally, his grandfather often drove him to the fights, cheered for him, and became his first champion, before others started talking about him as “the pride of New Glasgow.”
Is resilience an inborn trait, the result of some genetic lottery? Or can it be grown? Ungar’s research shows a constellation of experiences linked to higher resilience: having structure and predictability in childhood, a sense of power in your life, the ability to make mistakes with an opportunity to fix them. Spirituality or cultural belonging also confer resilience.
My childhood seems to bolster this. Despite the ordeal of being repeatedly torn from our lives, and the pain of being so profoundly deceived by those we loved, my brother and I also went to decent schools, had sports and other lessons, and opportunities to enrich our lives. Amid the chaos, my mother always cooked a sit-down Sunday dinner and read stories to us. In small but meaningful ways, there was predictability. And it was enough.
Jo-Jo’s story is one of far more profound family and institutional trauma. He had little predictability or protection in his early life. But he got up every time he was knocked down. Resilience is a spring, says Robert Wright. When compressed, it bounces back. “It’s really, what did you hold on to, what did you find during that time when you were compressed,” he says.
Jo-Jo had his grandfather. And, says Wright, “even in this darkest space, Shelburne, if there was a person who was a mentor, a person who in some way offered some glimmer of hope or some kind of vision that a person can hold on to…this guy who staged fights in the boot room, we’re not saying he’s a saint. But if for Jo-Jo that introduced him to something that for him became his salvation, then glory be.”
I’ve met Jo-Jo at the Dartmouth waterfront, just down from the senior’s housing complex where he now lives.
It’s a bright day with sun reflecting off the chop on the harbour. Jo-Jo saunters up in workout gear, track pants and a tight neoprene shirt that hugs his powerful physique. I haven’t seen him for a while, but he looks the same. He’s still talking about coaching.
“I’m thinking we could do boxing on the Common,” he says as we find a bench, “get a little club going.” He’s describing the latest iteration of his dream, one that wouldn’t require a facility rental. “Boxing outdoors!” he crows, throwing a few air hooks.
I tell him I’ve written a book that will be published this fall. He asks me what it’s about.
“My family,” I say. “And betrayal, and loss, and love, and resilience.” I laugh. He nods at the summary, which resonates for him, in different ways. Jo-Jo points out that we both had alcoholic parents. We talk about how the unpredictability of a drunk makes the world feel unsafe to a child. Beyond that, our stories are very different. In the 1990s, when Nova Scotia paid more than $30-million dollars in compensation to victims of abuse at the Shelburne School for Boys and two other youth jails, Jo-Jo was given $40,000 in compensation for being abused there.
There have been other losses too, including the crib death of a baby daughter decades ago. And last summer, his 19-year-old son, Noah, drowned. He’d been swimming after drinking, got caught in some weeds, and never surfaced.
I notice a scar on his knuckle and ask about it. He can’t remember whether it was from fighting, or from cutting wood with his grandfather when he was a boy. He points to another scar on his jaw. Despite the injuries, the boxing gave more than it took, he says. “You were somebody different, like Muhammed Ali.” He smiles.
When my baby was four or five months old I wrote a story about Jo-Jo’s new all-women’s boxing class. The photographer for the newspaper that published it took a photograph of me wearing boxing gloves, holding my daughter, her round Campbell’s Soup baby face lit up with a grin. For years Jo-Jo carried around the clipping with that story, that picture, in his wallet, until it became too fragile from folding. “I still have it,” he tells me now. “I put it on my wall.” It’s on the wall today, pinned beside a framed picture of his late son, Noah. A reminder of how, for a while, that dream of coaching came true.
After all he’s survived, I ask him if he feels resilient. He thinks about it and slowly nods as he raises his fists to either side of his head, and ducks behind them. “I’m still in the ring,” he says.
Words – Pauline Dakin
Pauline Dakin is the bestselling author of Run, Hide, Repeat: A Memoir of a Fugitive Childhood (Viking 2017) which was named one of the best 100 books of 2017 by The Globe and Mail. Pauline is a professor of journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax. She is an award-winning journalist, spending many years as a national health reporter for CBC News, as well as the host of the documentary program Atlantic Voice. She lives in Halifax with her daughters, a very old cat and very silly puppy.
Original Photos – Riley Smith
Riley Smith is a Canadian photographer for hire based out of Halifax. See more of his work on Instagram, Twitter and his website.
Edited by Matthew Halliday