What was Faith's childhood like, before she came to Sunnydale? A while ago, I was involved in a conversation about that in the comments on deird1's LJ, and gave a fairly in-depth reply. I thought it would be interesting to take that, polish it up and add lots more examples and inferences, and post it here for everyone to read.
There's probably not anything wildly controversial or surprising here, but I think putting it all together in one place helps paint a more accurate picture of her. Faith has always been one of the most opaque characters of the Buffyverse, because she hides her true feelings behind so many protective layers of feigned disinterest and self-reliance. Understanding her motivations is key to understanding her actions.
I should warn that since I believe it's well established that Faith was abused as a child - certainly physically and probably sexually - this post will contain discussion of subjects that some people may find triggering.
Nothing here is set in concrete, and I welcome posts from people disagreeing with my conclusions and speculations. Though I don't promise to agree with your counter-proposals. :-)
Faith's surname - Lehane - is an interesting example of something that was made up by Joss outside the show and never actually mentioned in a broadcast episode. (It was, however, made canon in Season 8.) It's an Irish name by origin, and the first person who comes up in a Google search on 'Lehane' is an Irish-American novelist born in Boston. Joss has said that he picked 'Lehane' because it's a "good Southie name", 'Southie' here referring to South Boston.
This is something that still causes arguments in fandom. Faith's age is never mentioned on the show; the only direct evidence we have is that the shooting script for 'Faith, Hope and Trick' in S3 refers to her as "18-ish" (for reference, Buffy at that point was 17, almost 18) and in S4 she was tried and sentenced as an adult, so was presumably over 18 by then.
She is never shown going through the Cruciamentum, which presumably should happen on her 18th birthday - that suggests that she was under 18 when she arrived in Sunnydale, and had already rebelled and turned evil before her birthday. Alternatively, though, she might have already gone through it before ever arriving in Sunnydale (but in that case, why didn't she warn Buffy?), or have gone through it off-camera during one of the episodes in S3 where she didn't appear (which would be dramatically unsatisfying, but not impossible from a practical perspective - Faith wasn't a main cast character, after all.) Or - my preferred solution - the Watchers' Council had a bureaucratic snafu and never got around to putting her through the Cruciamentum. Giles was only her temporary Watcher until 'Helpless', and perhaps didn't have the authority to impose such a drastic test on her; and Wesley wasn't around long enough (and lacked the assertiveness) to carry it out before she rebelled.
As for other references, there is nothing conclusive. Buffy calls her "my bestest new little sister" but Faith calls Buffy "dressed up in big sister's clothes" when she comes to kill her wearing Faith-style leather trousers. Angel calls her "not much more than a child". Finally, while using the actors' real ages is always dangerous, it's worth noting that Sarah Michelle Gellar is three years older than Eliza Dushku, and when early Season 3 was being filmed Sarah was 20 compared to Buffy's 17, while Eliza was, in fact, 17 herself.
Long story short - my own preference, which doesn't contradict canon but has no conclusive evidence for it either - is to say that Faith is pretty much exactly the same age as Buffy. When I've needed a specific date of birth for her in fanfic, I used 30 December 1980, which not by coincidence is also Eliza Dushku's birthday. That makes Faith three weeks older than Buffy, and means she turned 18 a few days after the episode 'Amends'.
Faith comes from Boston, specifically South Boston. This is canon, from 'Faith, Hope and Trick':
"I'm sleepin' without a stitch on, suddenly I hear all this screamin'. I go tearin' outside -- stark nude -- this church bus has broke down and three vamps are feasting on half the Baptists in South Boston."
And even more explicitly from 'No Future For You':
"For the record, I'm a Boston girl. You know, like the tea party?"
South Boston is a slum region with a heavy Irish-American Catholic population. Wikipedia mentions that "portions of the neighborhood were also known in the early 1990s as being the poorest white urban neighborhood in the United States." The poverty of Faith's upbringing has clearly made an impact on her, but her presumed Irishness isn't something she's ever mentioned to my knowledge.
The only time Faith ever mentions religion specifically is in 'No Future For You':
"Only chumps believe in Heaven".
However, fanfiction often suggests that she had a Catholic upbringing, or even talk about her going to a school run by nuns. As far as I know the only evidence for this is circumstantial: she comes from a strongly Catholic area, and her parents gave her a Christian name that has religious symbolism. Even if she was brought up Catholic, though, she's apparently lost her belief.
The writers' idea of Faith's level of education seems to have varied over time. In 'Faith, Hope and Trick' she's telling Willow and Xander she dropped out of high school, which assuming she's 17 at the time could have been at most three years earlier:
"If I'd had friends like you in high school, I... probably still would've dropped out. But I might've been sad about it"
However, in 'Touched' she implies that she missed a lot more education than just the last couple of years:
"Oh. The school thing. I was kind of absent that decade."
True, that last remark was casual and may have been just an exaggeration. On the other hand, in 'Faith, Hope and Trick' Faith was still trying to fit in with the Scoobies, who - in her eyes - were all very conventional and middle-class and proper - and so may have exaggerated how long she stayed in formal education before dropping out, in order to seem more like them.
My own preference is to assume a bit of both: Faith attended school, at least in theory, right up to her mid teens, and was at least enrolled at a high school. However, she rarely ever showed up - at first perhaps because her mother kept her away, later because it bored her and she preferred to play truant, or got involved in other (less wholesome) activities.
Given how little education Faith had, something that's often got me wondering is just how literate she is. It's never mentioned specifically in S3 that she can't read, it's just a logic-based conjecture of mine. There are some hints that might support the theory, though: in 'Beauty and the Beasts' Buffy tries to convince Giles that the books spread out around the library were ones Faith was reading, then realises how ridiculous that sounds. When we see Faith by herself, she always seems to be watching TV rather than reading - the one exception is in 'Graduation Day'... but what she's looking at there, significantly enough, is a comic rather than an actual book with lots of text. I don't think she ever helped with the research, although I think it would be entirely in character for her in S3 to pick up a book and pretend to be studying it so as not to have to admit to anyone she couldn't read. Or at least, she can read a few words but struggles with anything complex.
Like I say, there's no evidence for this; it's just my fanon, but I think it works. Note that in S7 Faith definitely can read - she helps go through the police reports to look for Caleb - but my fanwank here is that as part of her quest for redemption, while in prison she took adult literacy classes.
Faith's mother was an alcoholic; this is canon. From 'Enemies':
"A dog's all I wanted. Well, that and toys. But mom was so busy, you know, enjoying the drinking and passing out parts of life, that I never really got what I wanted, until now."
It's also implied that her mother is now dead, and that while alive she used to hit Faith. From 'Faith, Hope and Trick':
"My dead mother hits harder than that! This is me, you undead bastard! You can't touch me!"
Note that last line in particular. It sounds very much like Faith was a helpless victim of violence for most of her childhood - when everybody and his dog could apparently "touch" her - but now she's a Slayer she can finally get some payback on the world.
However, 'No Future For You' shows the other side of the coin, that there was also affection between Faith and her mother:
"'Oh, the places you'll go!' Mom used to read me that book before she tucked me in... nights she was sober enough, anyway."
In some ways this is even more tragic than assuming an entirely abusive and neglected childhood for Faith. She did receive love and tenderness and a feeling of belonging - but only just enough to show her what she was missing when her mother instead frittered away her welfare cheque on booze, spent the evening passed out on the sofa, or lashed out at little Faith to punish her for some imagined sin. I imagine her childhood contained lots of disappointments and broken promises, until she finally taught herself to stop trusting anyone but herself, and to always expect the worst from people.
Faith's father is never, ever mentioned in canon - although she does make it very clear that she regards Mayor Wilkins as a father figure, filling a role she lacked in her own life. My assumption is that her father wasn't around at all during her childhood, although it's not impossible he was there in the early days. That would give Faith a vague memory of happiness as a very young child which was then taken away from her - her father left, or died, or something, and her mother turned to drink.
On the other hand, Faith may have got her picture of what a father would be like entirely from TV, and never actually knew her own at all. Maybe even her mother only vaguely knew him - Faith might be the product of a drunken one-night stand - but this is pure speculation.
There is one possible alternative - that Faith's father was actually around during most of her childhood, but he behaved so horrendously towards her (see below, under 'Child abuse') that she refuses to ever mention him or think about him ever again. I don't think that's particularly likely - Faith craves a father figure in her life, rather than shying away from them - but it is an option.
Just reiterating the point that Faith never even had toys as a child, because her mother spent all her money on alcohol instead. Plus, there's her ill-concealed jealousy of Buffy's middle-class lifestyle, mixed with pride and a refusal to accept charity from her.
As well as the emotional abuse and neglect, as I mentioned above it's pretty much canon that Faith's mother used to hit her. More speculatively, notice that Faith is telling the vampire in 'FHT' that even her mother hit harder than that. That at least implies that Faith grew used to being hit by stronger people as well, to the extent that being hit by her mother instead was comparatively less scary. Who might have hit her is unknown, although "her mother's boyfriend(s)" is the most obvious answer.
However, it's also widely assumed in fandom that Faith was also sexually abused as a child. This is based on her attitudes and behaviour as an adult, rather than any direct evidence in canon. She shows serious trust issues and lack of self-worth related to sex, but is also hyper-sexualised, taking it for granted that any two people interacting closely are sleeping together. From 'Beauty and the Beasts':
OZ: Jeff. He was in jazz band with us. They used to horse around.
FAITH: They were screwing?
OZ: I don't think so, but he hid her music comp book once.
Also, there's her assumption when Wilkins gives her her new apartment that he expects to be her sugar-daddy in return - her love and devotion for him seems to start right at the moment when he makes it clear he's not interested in her that way. As if she can't quite believe it's true. Most of the time, Faith seems to take it completely for granted that every man she meets will be sexually interested in her and want to have sex with her... which in an adult perhaps comes across as vanity, but I suspect has darker roots.
Equally significantly, Faith regards sex as involving just two things: physical relief and power. When Riley tells her "I love you" in 'Who Are You?' (when he thinks she's Buffy) her immediate reaction is to ask "What do you want from her?" In Faith's mind, love is a lie; people only say "I love you" to manipulate the other person into doing what they want. Connection is "just skin". In 'The Zeppo' she invites Xander into her bed purely to scratch a physical itch - although she's polite enough at the time - and the moment they've finished she bundles him out the door without even letting him get dressed. And afterwards, she mocks him for it:
"You'd dig that, wouldn't you? To get up in front of all your geek pals and go on record about how I made you my boy toy for a night."
Compare that to her glee in finally being able to beat people up instead of being the one receiving the beating. It seems very likely to me that after years of being the one forced to give sexual pleasure to others, Faith enjoys being able to treat other people the same way she once was. Sex, for her, is all about keeping score.
As for who abused her - it's unknown, but logically it would be the same person(s) I suggested above as being the ones to physically abuse her: her mother's boyfriend, or perhaps series of boyfriends. Or even worse, maybe the scenario was like the one in the 'Dollhouse' episode 'Briar Rose' (written by Jane Espenson and produced by Eliza Dushku), where a child sex abuse survivor's own mother hired her out as a child prostitute. Given the depth of Faith's issues - verging sometimes on full-blown psychosis - I don't think the abuse she suffered (whatever it actually was) was one-off or temporary; it was sustained over a long period.
I've suggested before now that in her youth, Faith was making a living out of petty crime, perhaps as a member of a gang. There's no direct evidence for that, other than her casual approach to other people's property ("Want. Take. Have".). That might have developed only after she became a Slayer, but personally I doubt it - although her sense of entitlement may have received a big boost. Fundamentally, Faith is a decent person at heart - her redemption in the later seasons is evidence of that - so I think she needs to provide herself with a justification to ease her guilt before engaging in crime. Unfortunately, she's had such a hard life that "The entire world is trying to screw me over" seems plausible to her.
Otherwise, the evidence is circumstantial. She dropped out of school. Her mother was an alcoholic, and then died, leaving Faith alone. She may even have run away from home earlier than that, to get away from the abuse. She apparently was never picked up by social services and put in a care home or with foster parents, although it's not impossible that at one stage this did happen, but she hated it and ran away again.So what was she doing all that time? Where did she get the money for food and clothing?
For that matter, where did she get the money to pay for her motel room and all those nights out partying at the Bronze in S3? The obvious answer is "by stealing". (Although 'selling drugs' and 'turning tricks' are also possibilities.) However, given Faith's deep-down sense of honesty she never quite managed to suppress, I suspect she'd only engage in crime against people she felt "deserved it" or "wouldn't miss the money", rather than indiscriminately.
Boyfriends and other relationships
This is another area where the writers' concept of Faith seems to have developed over time. In early S3, in 'Revelations', she's shown as having had a not unreasonable love life - more casual sex than Buffy ever dared to engage in, but nothing abnormal:
"Ronnie. Deadbeat. Steve. Klepto. Kenny. DRUMMER. Eventually I had to face up to my destiny as a loser magnet. Now it's strictly get some and get gone. You can't trust guys."
But in 'Dirty Girls', she gives Spike a rather different picture:
"This one guy I ran with, he liked me to dress up like a school girl and take this friggin' bull-whip. ... Every guy's got some whack fantasy. Scratch the surface of any granola-type dude? Naughty nurses and horny cheerleaders."
While in 'No Future For you' she tells Giles:
"But whatev, I think I've banged enough bankers to know how to fit in with higher tax brackets."
Just as a reminder: when she's talking to Spike about her exotic sex life, she's just escaped from prison, and before that she was in a coma for a year. Yes, she might have been brandishing that bullwhip in her off-moments in S3, whenever she didn't appear in that week's episode; but it seems more likely that she's talking about before she came to Sunnydale. When she was no more than 17, and possibly even younger. Now granted, I'm not sure the writers actually added up Faith's age when they gave her that dialogue; but it's still canon now. Unless she was lying to impress Spike, but why would she bother?
So what we've got is Faith, as an underage teenager, having sex with "bankers" and men who fantasise about schoolgirls and cheerleaders. Hmm. Doesn't really sound like your normal high school dating scene, even for a 'bad girl', does it?
So the question is, was she doing it for fun, or to get paid? My personal opinion leans more towards Japanese style "compensated dating" rather than outright prostitution. Call Faith a hooker and she'd punch you; but if she hangs around in nightclubs, wearing heavy make-up to try to look older and carrying a false ID saying she's 21, hoping to get off with some rich older guy, she'd see no problem with that. And if the guy buys her presents, takes her out for meals, and perhaps "lends" her a hundred bucks or so at the end of each week, that's not payment. And it's more honest than stealing - although if he has Faith over to stay the night, he might find a few small, valuable items missing the next day...
I've already suggested above that Faith was the victim of multiple sexual abuse as a child, but the way she talks about the "guy with the bullwhip", this later activity wasn't unconsensual on her part. It wasn't something she was forced into by a pimp or anything like that, or I doubt she'd be talking about looking him up again voluntarily. Given how she talks about "the way of the world", my suspicion is that teenage Faith had already decided that since all men lusted after her body, she may as well use that to her advantage. It even gave her a measure of power over them - the only power, until she became a Slayer, she ever possessed.
Incidentally, the scene with Lilah in 'Five By Five' seems to support this interpretation, although in this case the other person is a woman not a man. Faith has, apparently, just let herself be picked up in a nightclub by an older, expensively-dressed woman who is taking her home. When Lilah tells her she "might have misunderstood my intentions", Faith gets all defensive and makes out she actually just planned to steal Lilah's watch once the two of them were alone together - whether that really was her plan all along is unknown. (And the shooting script for the scene warns the actors to play down the lesbian subtext, which is possibly aimed at Eliza who, by all accounts, played it up for all it was worth in her scenes with Sarah on 'Buffy'.)
So where do the boyfriends fit in? Simple enough; in Faith's mid-teens. Perhaps while she was trying to go straight and briefly attended high school? But they failed her, or betrayed her, or something, and convinced Faith that they were really no different to the random older guys she met in clubs. They might come out with fancier talk, and spin the same old lie about "loving her", but really they were all the same.
"Every guy from... Manimal down to Mr I-Love-The-English-Patient has beast in him. And I don't care how sensitive they act. They're all still just in it for the chase."
We know three things about Faith's Watcher. She was female. Faith was emotionally close to her and trusted her. She was killed, horribly, by Kakistos. There's also one inference: Faith says of Giles "If I'd known they came this young and cute I'd have requested a transfer" - which suggests that her own Watcher was significantly older than Giles, nearer 60 than 40.
My assumption is that Faith didn't actually know her Watcher for very long, simply because I can't imagine even a member of the Council allowing Faith to live the kind of life I've just described without intervening. Also, Faith's combat technique is even more untrained and wild than Buffy's, especially when compared to Kendra with her lifetime of intense training.
Note that Faith seems to give her friendship extremely quickly - to Buffy, to Gwendolyn Post, to Angel, to the Mayor - a sign of how starved for affection she really is. It's not unlikely that her bond to her Watcher was equally rapid. I speculate, therefore, that like Buffy Faith was only tracked down by the Council after she became a Slayer, at the end of Season 2, and was only with her Watcher for a few months over that summer before Kakistos killed her. Alternatively, she might have been contacted rather earlier, while still a Potential... but probably not much earlier.
So that was Faith's childhood. And then she met Buffy...
"This is friendship. Step one: you finally meet somebody you dig, somebody you can groove with, somebody who doesn't seem like all the other phony losers out there. Step two: they share a little of themselves with you, you share everything with them. Step three: it all goes to crap. They hurt you. You hurt 'em back. Or maybe it's the other way around. Someday, you might find a way to forgive each other. But it won't ever be like it used to, 'cause that pain never really fades away. And in the end, no matter how many wicked good times you had together, you woulda been better off flying solo all along."