I was fifteen when I first spoke out about the sexual abuse I had suffered at the hands of my stepfather. The physical part of the abuse had started almost six years ago, in my last year of primary school and it had never once entered my mind to tell anyone. Telling wasn’t an option for me, I was hyper aware of the devastation that my disclosure would have on my small world, that my mum would be broken by the news, she may never want to speak to me again, for I had betrayed her by causing this man to love and desire me more than he did her.
He had already sent away my big brother for a minor misdemeanour, branding him as unmanageable and deceitful. He went to live in the care of my aunt and uncle up north and we had rarely seen him since he left, at the age of 12. My sister was treated with distain, sometimes disgust, for daring to want to be included in the conversation or having an opinion. She was generally ignored, any glimmer of confidence on her part quickly stamped on with a withering look or a scathing critique of her personality. He was cold and distant with all of us, including my mum, if we did something he didn’t approve of, the silences permeating the air, the threat of his vindictive rages ever present should we say or do the wrong thing.
We were all reminded of his power over us on a daily basis, my own perspective tangled up inside the web of conflicting emotions that paralysed me into silence and submission. It was not his fault that he had fallen in love with me, I had caused this and he was doing his best to deal with this situation that made him act upon his desires. He wrote me long letters explaining how terrible it was for him to live in this state of passion and that our love was pure and innocent. It was a terrible inconvenience that I was nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen… People cannot help who they fall in love with. If this ever ended, he would kill himself and how would mum cope with these revelations? Perhaps she, too, would take her own life?
So, it was just not an option to speak about the abuse. I separated my life into two halves: inside his bedroom and outside his bedroom. I normalised my relationship with him outside that room, acting every bit like I was his daughter and I was just hanging out with my dad, albeit, rather a lot for a young girl.
When my English teacher confronted me over my disruptive behaviour, when she sat me down and asked me, kindly, what was really going on with me, I hadn’t prepared myself to say the truth, it just popped out, like an over stretched elastic band that suddenly pings.
I am now a member of some closed forums which allow the community of sexual abuse survivors to talk, share their journeys and gain solidarity from their shared experiences. An overwhelming theme that runs through these chats is the amount of time it takes people to speak out, some people using the forum to speak out for the first ever time. Last week an American man joined the forum. He was 45 years old and had been sexually abused by several members of his family since he was four. The abuse was so prolific and engrained in him that he was still being subjected to abuse by his uncle, at the age of 45. This was the first time he had ever told anyone about what was happening to him.
It’s a horror story, and hard to fathom that a grown man could still be so imprisoned by his abusers. Perpetrators use the guilt of the victims and turn it against them to keep their silence. The very nature of the crime and its taboos further compounds this guilt along with the fear of how society will react to the victim when they find out.
In the 1950’s homosexuality was illegal and if a male perpetrator was found guilty of sexually abusing a boy, the child victim would also be treated as equally culpable. They were viewed as having been corrupted and social services would consider them being in need of care and protection from the state. As such they would be taken from their homes, many of them loving, caring families, and placed them into the care system. Many of the care homes and orphanages were targeted and often managed by paedophiles who were given free access to re-abuse these vulnerable children.
My colleague, John, lived his whole married life without telling his wife about the sexual abuse that he had suffered for 2 1/1years from the age of nine at the hands of his teacher at the boys club he attended. He was initially groomed by the other boys who attended, daring him to smoke the cigarettes provided to them by their perpetrator. The group of boys knew not to speak out and were reminded regularly by their housemaster that their local community would believe him, a highly resected school teacher, over that of an nine year old boy. Not only that, but if the boys stopped attending the club the housemaster promised to come around to their house to ask why they were not attending anymore. If this happened then he threatened the boys that he would tell their parents that they had been sexually misbehaving with the other boys. They would live the rest of their lives as social outcasts, with little chance of securing a girlfriend or a decent job.
The housemaster was eventually caught, not through one of the boys revealing the abuse, but in a compromising situation with another boy. He was arrested and John was visited by the police, as were all the other boys who were in the care of the housemaster. In front of his parents, John had to reveal the truth about the sexual abuse he had endured for the past two years. Since that day his mother withdrew from him, her emotional distance telling John all he needed to know about her attitude towards his role in the abuse. John waited in trepidation for his day in court, knowing that his testament as witness would most likely result in him being sent to a children’s home.
In the meantime, John starting seeing a local girl, his first real girlfriend. All was going great until she found out about the abuse and she finished the relationship quickly. The phone call for the court day never came and John found out some time after that the perpetrator had actually pleaded guilty to homosexuality and was serving a four year sentence. A double edged sword as he as never brought to justice for what he had inflicted on those boys and would leave prison without carrying the label of paedophile and presumably able to commit the same acts again. However, John and his peers didn’t have to stand up publicly against their perpetrator, nor did they get sent away from their families.
Its easy to see from the reactions of their community and also close family in the case of John’s mother, why he did not speak any further about the abuse he had suffered. He finally spoke out at the age of 67 when he went to bereavement counselling after this wife’s death. They referred him to Family Matters for specialist counselling and his journey of recovery began then.
The keeper of a shameful secret. The guilt, the disgust, the fear of not being believed – these powerful emotions that victims experience are easy to use as psychological weapons against them. The perpetrator is in a position of power, be they a father, family friend, teacher, carer, older sibling, trusted person. They are inevitably older and more powerful than the victim.
It is up to us who are able to speak out, to continue doing so, to speak for the many thousands who are suffering at the hands of others, unable to escape the web of deceit that is being woven around them. John and I have found freedom in speaking about our experiences, I hope the man on the forum who had taken that tremendous first step will continue his brave journey. Know that you are not alone and there is help out there.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this blog, please contact Family Matters UK on 01474 536661 or visit them http://www.familymattesrsuk.org