When Jean-Robert Cadet released his book Restavec, it was a trailblazer from so many angles. It was the first time someone who had been a restavek (Cadet gave his book the French spelling)—a child kept for manual labor in Haiti—was speaking out. It was also one of the first timesthat the social practice was being brought to light by someone other than the leader or members of an activist group. Moreover, it was one of the first times that sexual abuse, mental, physical abuse in Haitian society was being addressed. The book quickly became a reference book to so many, and was translated into French, and brought Cadet on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, and made Cadet a sough-after speaker on the speaker circuit.
Cadet’s book, welcomed by many, chronicled his life story, starting from the day his father, Philippe “Blan Philippe” Sébastien, a wealthy French businessman living in Haiti—(following the death of his Young Cadet’s mother)—brought him to live with one of his mistresses “Florence” Cadet. Florence, a harsh woman, had the young Cadet wash her period linens, and verbally and physically abused Cadet, who ironically was given her last name as his. Jean-Robert Cadet eventually found his way to the United States; the abuse discontinued, but the repercussions from all the years of it did not, leading him on a search to, if not undo the harm that had been done to him over the years, then definitely try to come to terms with it, and heal it.
Many people who have read Cadet’s autobiography have wondered what he’s been up to since the publication of the book. These readers need wonder no more. Cadet has written a sequel, with the assistance of Jim Luken, entitled Stone of Hope: From Haitian Slave Child to Abolitionist, that covers his journey since the release of Restavec, as well as additional details left out of the first book. When writing Restavec, Cadet was trying to gather the pieces of his life together; with Stone of Hope, he’s organized almost all the pieces of the final puzzle.
The author graciously answered some questions by Kreyolicious.com readers, in addition to answering our own. It was obvious from his answers, lengthy on the subject of the restavek system, and short, and almost evasive on the questions concerning his personal past and former family, that he’s still struggling to heal, to forgive and forget.
When you went to see Florence that last time in the book, did you ever see her again after that? [from @MercyOlivia]
No. I never saw her again after that last meeting.
Ask him How does he feel when he hear about “Restaveks” living right here in the U.S in places like South Florida and New York? Also ask him are there still psychological effects from being a Restavek that lingers on for the rest of his life? [@wilkensjeune ]
It saddens me every time I read about the exploitation of children by anyone. But it hurts more when Haitians do it because Haiti was the first nation to have broken the chain of slavery. It makes me think that Haitians don’t value their history and the accomplishments of Toussaint Louverture and others who sacrificed their lives to create a nation under the principles of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Anyone who spent his or her childhood in domestic slavery will always be affected by the experience. We are our cultures as well as our past experiences. Because each one of us is unique in our complexity, the experience will manifest itself differently in each of its victims. Some will have nightmares for the rest of their lives, and others will never value other people’s lives because their own lives were never valued.
I wanted to know how did u get over these things without it effecting you as an adult, was it your spiritual strength, what? I know abuse first hand and i knew my journey out of darkness so I cam imagine yours. Is Bobby still on speaking terms with his biological father, how did their relationship flourish and I agree a sequel is a must. Child slavery is still alive and real in Haiti more awareness should be place on this issue! [Sharon @SAPierre]
I never got over these things. I am still affected by them. I have yet to experience a full week of peaceful night sleep. My father died in 1998 after the release of my first book, Restavec. We never had a relationship. My wife often wakes me up in the middle of the night because of nightmares. I think national awareness in Haiti is the key to eliminate the problem, and the new generation must be sensitized to the plight of children in restavek situations.
For Mr. Cadet, how do you deal with audiences who accuse you of portraying Haitians in a negative light? Though this is the first open discussion I’ve seen on you book, I imagine some within our community might’ve had the same reactions U.S. African Americans felt toward Alice Walker’s Color Purple. People don’t like having their dirty laundry aired, speaking of which that scene when you had to wash her underwear is an image that haunted me for quite some time. [NatouCBS]
I don’t think that I am being accused of portraying Haitians in a negative light. However, I do feel that societies that provide no protections for its children should be viewed in negative lights. How do we insure a better future for the human race if we don’t value our children? People who see children as dirty laundry are sick. They need help.
When writing the book and have to relive the memories how did you feel? Do you feel that telling your story gives you closure and other that can’t tell their story? [Erica]
I never intended to write, Restavec, my story. When my son was celebrating his sixth birthday, he asked: “Daddy how come I have never met my grandma and grandpa on your side of the family?” That night I began a letter to him, using words that small children would understand. Six months later, I was still writing this letter. After my wife read it, she suggested that I publish it. Writing the story had been very therapeutic. I think the second book, My Stone of Hope has given me a sense of closure because it’s more reflective than Restavec.
The situation of restavek in Haiti is a very complicated and delicate matter. Because so many vulnerable families can’t afford to take care of all their children, the need to find places where they can live and be fed continues to exist. What kinds of socio-economic solutions can help reduce the need for the restavek system to continue? If fewer families were struggling to survive, would the number of children living as restavek naturally diminish, or is it a phenomenon that would continue for cultural reasons? [Melinda Miles]
Cruelty to children is not the result of poverty. The people who kept me as their restavek were not poor. They lived in a three bedroom house with a dining room, kitchen and living room, and ate chickens or guinea hens on Sundays with imported canned vegetables, food I was always denied. They had a laundress and a cook. They spoke French to their children and addressed me in Creole. The living room, dining room and bathroom were off limits to me. Their neighbors, who had children my age, borrowed me routinely to wash their cars and fetch their children from school. The whole thing was a national conspiracy against children of the lower class, perpetuated by the legacy of colonial slavery.
And some of our own questions…
Why did you choose to keep the name Jean-Robert Cadet, as opposed to Alfrenold Brutus, the name your mom Henrilia Brutus gave you? And why didn’t you change your last name to Sebastian like your dad’s?
Because I was told that CADET was a loan to me, I always assumed that a family had to give me a name. I never knew that people could actually choose any name they want. By the time I realized these things, I had served in the US. Military. For convenience sake, I kept the name.
What is your relationship like with your son Adam today?
Adam and I have a great relationship. He has just graduated from a college of performing arts in N.Y. He’s an actor.
Do you feel completely healed from all the abuse you suffered?
Of course not. I would have to undergo a brain transplant to be completely healed. We are our past experiences. These experiences project into our present as we prepare for the future.
You and your friend Olivier reunited?
Olivier and I have since reunited. He’s still one of my best friends. We often see each other in Haiti.
What is your relationship with your father’s twins like today? And what about Denis, Lyse, and her kids?
I have no relationship with these people.
After that meeting with your dad when you first enrolled in the army, did you two ever cross paths again?
No. I learned of his demise when I returned to Haiti in 1998 to give him a copy of Restavek.
Why has it taken so long for the sequel to be written?
It took me 10 years to write My Stone of Hope the sequel to Restavec because this time I was actually writing a book.
When you released your book, what was the reaction of your family, specifically the people who were mentioned unfavorably within?
I changed all the names to fictitious ones to avoid problems with them.
Do you think that the fact that you suffered so much at the hands of Florence, and her other Haitian women friends, turned off the possibility of your being romantically involved with a Haitian woman?
It’s hard to say. We don’t plan on falling in love with a specific race. Love happens in all places.
There’s been debates among Haitians and non-Haitians alike, as to whether the whole restavek system should even be likened to slavery. What are your thoughts on this?
I know many children in domestic slavery in Port-au-Prince who are living in deathly fear of the adults they serve. They walk other children to and from school, yet they are denied schooling. I’ve offered to pay their tuition, but the adults rejected the offer. Last year I met a girl from Jeremie who was sold by her paternal uncle to a woman for $ 25.00. The woman supported her family, selling cooked food on a roadside six days a week. The woman agreed that I pay the girl’s tuition, but denied her time to attend school in the afternoon. It took me months to locate the girl’s aunt, who has since reclaimed her niece.
If your story were to be brought to the big screen, who would you want to play you in the different stages of your story?
The film rights to Restavec were purchased in 2010 by a production company. I was recently told that a screenwriter to write the screenplay has been found, and the script will be sent to Will Smith and Don Cheadle. I like both of these actors.
What have you been up to since you wrote the Restavec?
I’ve been to many countries since Restavec was published. It gave me an opportunity to be a guest on Oprah, to speak at the United Nations and to help children in Haiti.
What is your message to all the restaveks out there?
You have a voice in me.
Author photo via Afrik