For centuries members of the ethnic group known as the Roma (and their counterparts, the Irish Travellers) have been persecuted, maligned, and literally "run out of town" time and again as accused scam artists, sleazy fortune tellers and shoddy home contractors.
"Gypsy" is the epithet thrust their way, and it's a term some Romany Gypsies find pejorative but others embrace with pride, even as some embrace the bling-obsessed party life society ascribes to them.
Certainly the media play a role here, promoting such damaging stereotypes as the norm through vehicles like the TV documentary series My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding on the UK's Channel 4. Wedding proved such a hit that the US network TLC picked it up last summer, going so far as to customise its own American narration over the series' voyeuristic images of Irish Gypsy teen brides in bouffant hairdos, tiaras, and over-the-top dresses (weighing more than 30kg and even lighting up in the dark).
Now comes another shocking account of the Roma successful enough in Britain to make the leap to the international stage. Gypsy Boy: One Boy's Struggle to Escape from a Secret World, already a best-selling memoir in the UK, makes its debut on the other side of the Atlantic this month together with a new title, Gypsy Boy: My Life in the Secret World of the Romany Gypsies. Yet unlike the TV series, the book is a sobering and compelling portrait of Gypsy life that is written by an insider.
This particular portrait is also somewhat terrifying: if Gypsy Boy's author is to be believed, Roma and Traveller caravan camps such as the ones he grew up in, in Berkshire and Nottinghamshire, are steeped in violence, the systemic abuse of women and thievery against "grunters", or "Gorgia" (non-Gypsy) retirees. "Almost all Gypsy men are violent," writes Mikey Walsh (a pseudonym used for his own protection). "It's ingrained in the culture and the life they lead, and impossible to avoid." Sadly, for young Mikey, his father Frank was more brutish than most, expecting his son to maintain their family's long-time possession of the county's championship crown for bare-knuckled fighting. Mikey was only four when Frank initiated his "training", raining full-force blows down upon the little boy, to "teach" him to withstand pain and humiliation. To be "a man".
As a result, he became a walking-wound of bruises, swollen lips and eyes and endured his father's "training" abuse for years. Yet his horrified mother and older sister could only watch: "Women were strictly forbidden from 'mollycoddling' boys in case they compromised the tough masculinity that was expected of Gypsy men," Walsh writes.
Nor was this the only rigid rule controlling the two genders. In Britain's Gypsy world, women don't work outside the home, so they spend their time instead watching old TV reruns, chain smoking and obsessively cleaning their caravans, typically in full-dress regalia: "full makeup, Gucci mini-dresses and Jimmy Choos". Romany girls are raised to be tough and foul-mouthed - "experienced smokers at 10" - Walsh writes.
Nor can Gypsy women be choosy. They are expected to marry between 16 and 18, having had no more than four boyfriends "to sample" beforehand. Gypsy boys prefer marrying girls who have never even been kissed. So, should the girls slip beyond that point, they may never marry. And if their teenage marriages fail, they are used goods no longer attractive to other men.