He overcame a horrific childhood. Now his story is a movie.
Once told he had no chance to overcome a horrific childhood of neglect and abuse, Steve Pemberton will take his wife and their three teenagers to New York City for Wednesday's premiere of "A Chance in the World," a movie based on his award-winning autobiography.
"I was trying to write a story not of tragedy, but of triumph," says Pemberton, 50, whose first, foggy memory of life is the day he was taken from his mother and would never see her again.
Sent to his first foster home at age 4, Pemberton was born in the old whaling seaport of New Bedford, Massachusetts, to a white woman with the married name of Klakowicz. But his father was black and died long before his son discovered their connection and took his last name. With his mocha-colored skin and blue eyes, Pemberton says the foster system spent more time pondering whether he should be sent to a white family or to a black family than it did considering what was best for him.
"We need to spend less time talking about what somebody is and just remember who they are," says Pemberton, who lives in Highland Park with his wife, Tonya, their sons, Quinn, 17, and Vaughn, 16, and their daughter, Kennedy, 13. Pemberton works as chief human resources officer for Globoforce, an international software company with offices in Dublin, Ireland, and Boston, which coordinates human reward and incentive programs in the corporate world.
"A Chance in the World," which opens Wednesday across the nation, including at theaters in Addison, Barrington, Batavia, Crystal Lake, Deer Park, Elgin, Gurnee, Lincolnshire, Lombard, Naperville, Rosemont and Warrenville, only hints at the childhood abuse Pemberton endured.
He grew up in a foster home where he was often hungry, stripped naked, tied to a beam in the cellar and whipped with a leather strap. His foster father, an illiterate man with a volcanic temper, threatened to take him hunting so he could shoot the boy and make it look like an accident. He once held the boy's hands over flames on the stove top, leaving scars still visible today. His foster parents told him he was unwanted, unloved and doomed to fail, Pemberton remembers.
Hoping his parents would arrive to rescue him one day, he waged a "quiet fight" against the obstacles, some of which revolved around race and ethnic backgrounds for a boy with an Irish mom, a black father and a Polish last name. While the system repeatedly failed him, Pemberton says it's important to recognize that he was helped by men and women who were white, black and Hispanic.
His foster parents hurled anti-Semitic slurs at a neighbor who gave him books her three sons had finished, and Pemberton hid a makeshift library in the dank cellar, sitting on a pile of rags to escape into mysteries and other books. "Reading and a love of learning altered my world view," Pemberton says, explaining how books led him "from circumstance to possibility." He reconnected with that woman 35 years later and told her about the difference she had made.
A top student in high school who ended up staying with a teacher, Pemberton went on to Boston College, where he graduated with a degree in political science. His quest to find his parents and discover who he was didn't have the happy ending he craved.
"I was searching for something that never existed," Pemberton says.
His mom had a drinking problem and served time in jail before her death at age 40. His father, Kenny Pemberton, was a popular and acclaimed boxer who fell into a world of drugs and violence after losing a controversial decision in a championship bout that could have launched his professional career. He was shot dead at age 26 by drug thugs who were so intent on destroying the fallen boxer that they broke into the funeral home and set his body on fire. Steve Pemberton says he realized the pain he suffered was a byproduct of the pain his parents couldn't overcome.<URL destination="#photo4">
"I did not understand just how much pain they were in," he says. "I had peace after that."
His story touches people.
"What I could not anticipate is all the stories people write to me every day, and I do mean every day. They say, 'You wrote a chapter of my life,'" Pemberton says. "The majority of people I hear from are adults who are still in pain."
He says he's hoping the movie gives people hope, but also inspires viewers to make an effort to help people in bad situations.
"I found victory in the fight, not necessarily the outcome," Pemberton says of his journey. "I saw it as a chance to end the cycle and create a new beginning. New beginnings are possible. Give from where you are with whatever you have."