Was my abuser a criminal, a very sick man or both?

That is the question I am confronting right now. And while I generally feel I am an expert by experience as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I don’t instinctively know the answer to this question.

Logic, rationality, the thinking things in life can of course supply an answer straight away – he was probably both. But to jump to that conclusion without truly knowing why is lacking somehow. I need a bit more to go on; my education didn’t include the rigours of studying jurisprudence so I don’t know the questions to ask about criminality. My education also didn’t include any aspects of psychiatry or other clinical disciplines which might help the sickness bit of it (I’m discounting my biology O level here).

The things I have studied – literature and languages, history, a touch of politics, art, and quasi philosophy (ie applied not pure) are not helping a jot. In fact they are making the intellectual line I’m trying to walk all the more wavy. It’s all perspectives, approaches, angles, arguments and interpretations, when what I really want is an equation:

action x + action y divided by person z  = crime or perhaps
person z + action x divided by action y = sickness 

I only started to think about this because the news – it’s always the bloody news – was full of Jimmy Savile and the BBC and the extent of his ‘activities’. That is my euphemism. I can’t remember theirs, something like ‘inappropriate sexual behaviour’.

Then everything came crashing down.

I realised that the reason everyone is so exercised is because what he did was criminal. And the frequency, severity, calculated and opportunistic nature of what he did could be paralleled with my own experience at the hands of a family member. If Jimmy Savile committed crimes; then what my maternal grandfather did to me over many years was, by this definition, criminal.

To see this so suddenly is terrifying. It means that I have experienced something, indeed many things, which are ‘officially wrong’. Wrong according to society, wrong according to the legal system, wrong in the eyes of most individuals. There is an externally validated yardstick to hold up, against which his actions could and would be measured.

(As an aside I looked at the Crown Prosecution Service sentencing manual. I was seeking definitions and an external perspective. It’s illuminating and depressing at the same time to know what are considered to be issues of culpability and harm, aggravating and mitigating factors, and the fact that the sentencing guidelines do allow previous good character of the offender to be taken in to account. Would it really make a difference if someone had previously been convicted of, say, fraud?)

So this recent realisation says criminal. Using the only approach available to me – looking at other situations, making comparisons, and then arriving at some conclusions – gave me that answer.

But then there’s another issue to be considered: that my abuser was a sick man. I have no way of knowing if this was true, but his actions could suggest that he was disturbed and ill for much of his life. I know little about him beyond a few bare details – that he was one of many children and that he became very hard of hearing early in his life. That’s it. I am not aware of any psychiatric or clinical diagnosis.

(As a further aside I tried to find an accessible explanation of what this illness might be. It was a relatively fruitless quest; I did stumble across an article about psychiatric co-morbidities in sex offenders which was more disturbing than the CPS sentencing manual.)

So where does this leave me?

Until now my response to my abuse has emanated from my own reactions to it. Applying an external perspective to these actions is very different. It both validates and undermines. To know that there is a measurable punishment for what he did – fourteen years behind bars – means it was a ‘something’. Society is saying – you, perpetrator, are responsible and you will pay a price. So it is a validation of what I now know were horrific experiences.

If I suffered what I did because he was deeply disturbed and unwell I am left feeling uneasy. I can’t hold him responsible in the same way and there is so much more to understand that I might not have the information ever to do. That undermines something, not necessarily my experience, but my sense of ‘mastery’ of this particular subject. Would I, could I, ever muster the compassion necessary to explore this?

I’m setting up a conundrum that cannot actually be solved. I know there isn’t a mathematical formula or equation to give me the answer. But I am holding on to another bit of maths that I’ve always liked – the Venn diagram.

A picture to make more intelligible some factors that gave rise to my abuse. They are overlapping and confusing for me – but at least I can see them while I search for a clarity that doesn’t exist.




Forty-five and still standing. I have made it this far.

So by definition I have survived. Yet, it is only recently that I have come to consider myself a survivor. This is probably common to many of us: reaching that understanding of what happened to us later rather than sooner.

My own story is nowhere near unique, probably not even rare: abused on a regular basis by my maternal grandfather between the ages of five and 11. Repeated trauma, occasionally disclosed, but never responded to.

It can be hard, particularly on a bad day, to say to yourself “I am a survivor”, or even, to use the words of pop goddess Gloria Gaynor, to know “I will survive”. After all I don’t feel like much of a survivor when I am reliving a trauma, in the midst of an anxiety attack, overdosing on attachment despair, feeling deep shame, or hating every label applied to me (including survivor). On those days I feel like a victim.

I feel that being a survivor defies definition. It is complicated – “survivordom” doesn’t start where victimhood stops. They run in parallel and they coexist inside me. Some days my fickle mind privileges the victim and I really struggle, other days it privileges the survivor and I soar.

Why do I soar? I think it is because I love the community of support that I have. Like everything good and solid it started small but is definitely now growing: the pyramid sales model of reaching out and making connections, both public and private.

First there is my therapist – nearly four years of patience, belief, presence, acknowledgement, and encouragement (particularly to write). Feeling my way to disclosing as fully as I could, sitting with the full spectrum of emotions – it has been (and still is) a long journey, but she is the bedrock of my support. Knowing that I am able to trust someone who has reliability and understanding written into their DNA has terrified me and transformed me.

Second are my two amazing friends who are simply steadfast in their support. They are my day to day. Not survivors, but supporters and part of my private survivor community. There for me at the end of the phone, with a glass of wine, a text, an email, a day out. Kindness and love personified.

Third is the survivor community I have met through social media and through writing. When I published my first blog and put it out through my new twitter account the response was overwhelming. People I didn’t know told me I was writing their experience, people shared their experiences with me and I realized they were my own. I was ‘meeting’ total strangers, but I knew instantly a very important part of them. We could connect.

When I can manage it, I take part in a weekly survivor chat session on Twitter. It is amazing to connect with a huge community of survivors who understand. When I am in ‘victim’ mode it lifts my mood, makes me smile a little, often makes me cry, but I know there are people there who really do understand. When I am a ‘soaring survivor’, I love to connect, to contribute and to hear from others. However I am feeling I always benefit.

Through this virtual community I now also have a real face to face community – the fourth step of my pyramid. Initially I became part of a start up charity to provide support to young people who have been sexually abused in childhood. And now I am part of a group of survivor activiststhe Survivors’ Collective. We are there for each other and we are pursuing projects to give voice to the issues that matter to us and to raise awareness of how abuse impacts on our lives.

My first meeting with them was plainly and simply empowering. I was talking using abuse survivor shorthand that I didn’t need to expand; wanting to say “me too” every time someone said something; reveling in being completely understood by people who just ‘knew’; and loving the kindness of strangers who weren’t really strangers.

I love the diversity of the survivor community. Some of us want to be out and proud, some of us want to share our anger, some of us want to be very private yet acknowledged, others (like me) need to be anonymous, although this is slowly changing. My experience is that everything is accepted and everyone is respected.

My journey to becoming a survivor has been long. I wrote this poem nearly 25 years ago, and it marks the start of something. I think it’s the first I ever wrote about my abuse and how much I needed my mother. I have never shared it before – but I share it now, with the huge survivor community that I know is out there, and who, along with my therapist, my friends and the Survivors’ Collective, make life much sweeter.

Published for #itsnotok sexual abuse awareness week and dedicated to my friends at the Survivors’ Collective 


Call my name
Use my name
Part of your disgusting act

At the door
You’re there, naked
I know what’s coming

Stop? I tell you
It hurts
My body and my mind

The next day
I cry at school
I cry all day

Dying – supper
Dying – bed time
Dying – all night

Where’s Mummy?
Need her, call her
Kiss her

(1990 – aged 20)



As I started to write I thought I’d better put a trigger warning up front. Then I realized that this blog is one big trigger warning…I’m writing about flashbacks and I’m writing about triggers.

For me flashback is a word that doesn’t really hit the mark. I don’t like it. But I accept that we need a shared description that broadly defines an experience so that we have a common reference point.

Of course I’m not going to write about the detail of my flashbacks. I’ll keep that for me and my therapist. But I am going to write about the process of having them. This is my experience – it is individual, specific to me, and is not an attempt to be definitive.

So, the first thing to say is that I rarely have flashes of anything. If the definition of flashback is to re-experience a traumatic event from the past then that is what is happening to me. But it’s very rarely sudden, it’s not a ‘one off’ and it doesn’t really flash; although I am occasionally jettisoned elsewhere.

I live with a constant image in my head – a nasty one – that never goes away. It is the image that told me when I was a child that the abuse was about to happen. It’s with me when the sun’s out, when I’m throwing up, throughout periods of work, rest or play, and of course when I’m trying to go to sleep.

I don’t always notice it. A bit like a visual defect, a blind spot in my vision (which I also have), sometimes it is there but not there. My brain compensates for the obstruction. Other times I can see nothing else. Frequently me and that image just co-exist. Occasionally this can mean I have my own comedy moments: a serious work situation overlaid with something altogether different and no one has a clue what’s currently screening in my personal cinema.

The second thing is I usually know when I’m likely to start having the images. This is particularly true if they are new ones. I just feel different. My brain ticks over just a bit too quickly (not in a productive way!). My body is uncomfortable. A sense of unease starts to gather around me. I want to pull away from people and the world around me.

Third. Flashbacks aren’t always images. I’ve recently had the audio-flashback. A little podcast of a sound memory – voices – which invades me, then replays, then eventually settles. This is particularly irritating – not only does it interfere with my personal airwaves, but audio takes up a lot of my RAM and cerebral hard drive. It slows my brain down and I can’t adapt very well to additional sounds. In fact I really hate noise of any kind.

Fourth and final thing. The triggers are just everywhere. Really. It is not just the obvious things that trip you into a flashback. In fact talking frankly about abuse-related issues rarely does. It’s the small things, daily, that can make you feel bombarded: certain clothing, a smell, the weather, washing my hands (yes, I know…), types of behaviour or responses. Or it’s the obvious ones badly handled: casual mentions of abuse by friends or colleagues never imagining it’s something you’d know about, or skewed reporting of “scandals” like Savile, Harris, Rotherham, Church of England, children’s homes, MPs. And it can be just a bad or uneasy feeling, plain and simple, that starts the process off.

And that’s why I started #everydaytriggers on twitter. I use that hashtag to make a record, as I go, of those things that trigger me, and invite other survivors to do the same. We might have a little twitter chat about them or we might not. But we’ve said it.

Triggers give rise to flashbacks. But neither of these is really what it seems.

For my friends at Survivors Together


Trusty old Wikipedia tells me that a sequela (usually used in the plural, sequelae) is a “pathological condition resulting from a disease, injury, therapy, or other trauma.” Basically, something medical and noticeable, an identifiable condition that happens as a consequence of something else.

I was prompted to find a definition after I read an article in the New Statesman by Dr Phil Whitaker. It was an article that I applauded and that also made me sigh. He tackled an important issue: many women who have been sexually abused or assaulted are often unable to undergo primary healthcare checks and screening that require intimate examinations.

He related the tragic story of Martha, a woman in her late thirties, who, despite suffering ongoing infections (which is why she presented for treatment), was unable to have an internal examination. She revealed to him that she had been sexually abused in childhood. The terrible outcome of this was that she had advanced cervical cancer and died shortly afterwards. A psychological sequela (painful in itself) and a physiological sequela (in this case terminal).

Dr Whitaker is so right to bring to light just one of the consequences of what we know thousands of children suffer, which continue throughout adulthood. And that is what I applaud. When I put my ‘outsider’ head on, and read the article from the perspective of someone who has not experienced or is not really in the know about the impact of sexual abuse, it raises awareness of something so important. The long term impact (and cost – human and fiscal) of abuse is complex, comes from all sorts of sources and is not always obvious. It makes you think.

As an ‘insider’ (someone who is a survivor of child sex abuse) there was something in the article that just made me sigh. I’ve written before about the casual use of labels and categorisations, which I find can mask the reality of what it’s like to live with the consequences of abuse. I do not have this criticism of Dr Whitaker’s article – it is sensitively written, insightful and avoids generalisations. But I still have a sense that I, as an abuse survivor, am being written about, without being able to identify with the description or the perspective.

So, I attribute a portion of my sigh to not wanting to be part of a ‘group’ defined by someone else, not me. Another portion of my sigh goes to that familiar, self-imposed distance: be outside it all, deal with it by not engaging with it, pretend, pretend, pretend. There’s a small portion of my sigh that comes from just wanting to be able to flick through a magazine or newspaper and not be confronted by the unwanted. But the final, most important portion is the horrible jolt of recognition. I know the psychological sequelae of my abuse mean I am taking risks with physical health:

I’ll hold my hands up and say that I’m 44 and I’ve had one smear test in 20 odd years. This is bad. One doctor said to me “it’s the best insurance policy you can have”. Yes, of course – and I’d gladly do it if it meant filling out a form and paying an annual premium. Another GP, to whom I disclosed my childhood experiences, listened and offered (unprompted by me) to stop the smear reminders. I understand her motivation but it isn’t the answer.

I’ll also tell you that my trips to the dentist are infrequent-to-nonexistent – I’m waiting for the toothache that will force me to go. It will be a terrifying relief, as only that physical pain crisis will get me in the chair to have a stranger make me hold my mouth open and put things in it. To tell them I’m a nervous patient underplays it somewhat.

And several weeks ago I managed to get myself to the optician. Another basic health check that I have avoided…for nine years. Recently I fell over several times in quick succession simply because I could no longer see properly; the prescription in my glasses was too old to be useful. But sitting in the chair, in the dark, in a small room, unable to move, with a stranger at such close proximity is very, very hard. Of course I survived to see another day, but I didn’t relish it.

Some days the ramifications of abuse can feel overwhelming – a chain of “sequelae” not just one or two. Martha’s story is a stark reminder that sometimes it is really bad. But amongst all this I found a chink of light: This project gives a bit of hope to people like me (and countless others out there) who at the moment can’t access simple checks that might save our lives.


I do work hard. Yes I do. Really. But in the middle of an important meeting, I found myself considering what we really mean when we talk about a taboo. It is broadly defined as a “system of prohibitions connected with things considered holy or unclean”. I’m no social anthropologist or sociologist, but it seems clear to me that even when we collectively uphold something as a taboo, it’s not actually a prohibition; it simply stops us talking about it.

Child sex abuse is a taboo; within the confines of trusted structures – such as family or school or religion – even more so. This is quite right. Yet although we operate this “system of prohibitions” it doesn’t translate into action from us, as a society, to prevent it in the first place. This is because where abuse is concerned the actual taboo is talking about it, acknowledging and confronting it.

It’s unsurprising, I suppose. We are frightened of taboos; how they challenge us, what we might need to do to stop them. Take death. Since we left the Victorian theatricality surrounding death behind, it is high up on the list of taboo subjects. We can’t talk about it. We deny it and at best address it euphemistically. But this doesn’t stop it. It just means we aren’t prepared for it. Of course, this is where that comparison must rightly stop. Death from natural causes is inevitable, child abuse is not. However until we break the talking taboo childhood sex abuse will continue and will remain inevitable.

You see the things that start at home – private, unshared, tacitly understood – are perpetuated. A taboo, such as family abuse, is a crime committed, known about, but rarely talked about. The more trusted, tightly wrought and familiar the institution, the greater is the taboo surrounding revealing any deviation within its confines.

Recent high profile celebrity abuse cases are really helping us to peel back some of the layers here. The reporting is so often skewed, but the conversation has started however uninformed and misguided it may sometimes be. Like Sophie Heawood in her column I too punch the air when another case is revealed because some fresh air has been blown into the musty long held secret. But I also have to temper my exasperation. The bind is that a concept such as ‘celebrity’ and the notion of an ‘institution’ enable us to put a distance between these horrors and daily family life. This is what gives it license to continue, unchallenged. We speak out about the famous, but we can’t speak out about our families. The more we know about it, the more we defend against it.

The family is our smallest unit of society – many would see it as a fundamental building block of society. In so many ways it forms us, teaches us, sustains us. We are taught to trust it and everything that happens within it. The rules learnt within the family – including what you do or don’t talk about – are virtually impossible to break as a child or an adult. If you experienced something hateful, perpetuated by someone you trusted and actively or passively sanctioned by those you loved, how on earth do you know it is wrong and how on earth do you summon the resources at any point in your life to speak out? Society at a macro level can’t believe you and society at a micro level, your family, may well reject you. The talking taboo is an important contributor to this.

Twitter is alive with the fact that the Home Secretary’s long promised inquiry into historic child sex abuse has been kicked into the political long grass with the substantial controversy surrounding its new chair, Fiona Woolf. This, I believe, is a living, breathing example of my point. We know it’s happening, at scale, but we can’t talk about it, for fear of what might ensue and what it might unleash. It is, in fact, too close to home for everyone.

The inquiry matters for all sorts of reasons: first it was promised by the Government and the Government needs to follow through. Second it would send a message to those who have suffered and are suffering abuse that this issue will be taken seriously. Third, and most importantly, it would mean talking about abuse. Although the inquiry will focus on institutions, it should shine a light on the fact that it happens inside families, outside families, in institutions, by those we trust and don’t trust, in every class, faith, colour, and household, and make it part of our discourse. Only in this way can we take some small, firm steps towards putting an end to abuse.

I am not living embodiment of what I say here. I am not out of that particular closet: I was abused for a long time as a child. I write about it, think about it, have opinions about it, take medication because of it, feel huge empathy for others who are suffering and admiration for the struggle of survivors. However talking openly is still a taboo for me – I blog anonymously and I share my experiences with very few people.

In my family the abuse is known about but not talked about or acknowledged. It remains a silent, living secret…although the perpetrator is dead.

So, the taboo of talking is created and reinforced in families from the bottom up. I’m usually of the opinion that small scale action leads to big scale change. But in this case I believe a top down, national inquiry, signed up to by politicians of all persuasions and supported by all agencies, with survivors and their representatives at its heart, would start to create a discourse that might help permeate every layer of society. This could outlaw the taboo of talking about childhood abuse and enable us to focus on stopping the real taboo – the abuse itself.


Dave Lee Travis, stalwart of BBC youth and popular viewing in the 70’s and 80’s, was sentenced on 26 September, after being found guilty of sexual assault. He was given a three month suspended sentence for assaulting a researcher on one of his shows. It’s hard to imagine that what she has suffered or been through since then has in any way been ‘suspended’ apart from her belief in the criminal justice system perhaps…

But Dave Lee Travis is just the most recent example of a string of now shamed BBC entertainers: most famously Jimmy Savile, as well as Rolf Harris and Stuart Hall. Understandably much of the focus in the media has been on the role of the BBC. It sits in our collective psyche as an important institution; beloved “Aunty” – an honorary family member – has essentially let down a generation. It has wittingly or unwittingly sanctioned crimes to take place against vulnerable people. And it has made a generation of viewers reconsider the nature of those programmes and celebrities that alongside schooling and friends made up the weft and warp of their childhoods.

But think about it – isn’t it time we, as a society, widened our focus when we consider and respond to child abuse? Any perpetrator of this crime needs to be brought to justice. Yet one of the most enduring institutions of all – the family – is overlooked in this welcome exposure of abuse in our different institutions.

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner recently launched its important inquiry into child sexual abuse in a family environment. You’re unlikely to have heard about this unless you follow these issues relatively closely or you’re an early riser. It received scant coverage on Radio 4 at around 5.35 am on Thursday 3 July then it sank with very little trace. This is an important inquiry that needs everyone’s attention, not just from professionals and people with a statutory role or function… But without the celebrity status to give it a profile or the whiffs of political scandal that are following the Home Secretary’s attempts to launch an inquiry into this issue, nobody will find it important or interesting.

But as a society we really need to. If Top of the Pops, Jim’ll Fix It, and It’s a Knockout were a favourite part of your childhood and teens you’ll know the feeling of shock, disgust and often disbelief that these people did these things. Those feelings can give everyone a window into an aspect of how it can feel to live with the knowledge and memories of abuse by a member of your family. Somebody you loved and trusted isn’t what they seemed, and there’s very little of what you may actually have held dear that hasn’t been contaminated by what went on behind closed doors.

Just as more abuse “scandals” continue to emerge and shock us further, so those realising and confronting that they were abused have to come to terms frequent revelations and reminders. What happened to many many individuals at the hands of “Aunty” needs to be fully investigated. And what has happened to probably hundreds of thousands of children at the hands of uncle, father, brother, grandfather, family friend, parent, cousin also needs to be investigated.

Childhood is a series of formative experiences, memories and routines. When you realise you’ve been abused it’s not just your memories of tea-time TV routines that are turned on their heads.

This is what the routine felt like to me.


Between the ages of five and eleven
Week days after half past three
Saturday Sunday twenty-four seven
Holidays? Let’s wait and see

Upstairs meant the serious business
Downstairs it happened more casually
Get to the kitchen – safety and happiness
Outdoors, uncharted territory

The rules are relatively easy to learn
I picked them up at five years old
You’re called, you go, it happens – a pattern
Now broken by having told


So, I am a victim and I’m a survivor – of childhood sexual abuse. The recent reports from Rotherham over the past three weeks fill me with absolute rage, heartfelt sadness and overwhelming desperation at the ‘wrongness’ of what happened there. I don’t yet have the courage to speak out openly about what happened to me, however I have been able to seek support and pay for therapy to help me process and live alongside the deeply traumatic experiences from my past.

Having worked at a national level in organisations representing the institutions that have played their part in failing the 1400 girls in Rotherham and countless other children and young people who are abused, I know that the life chances for young people in the “looked after” system are seriously diminished. I also know that the funding available to provide the kind of individual mental health care and support they need to reclaim even a small part of their lives is pitiful. Against this measure I consider myself ‘lucky’.

We organise society, public services and our lives at a macro level by relying on (often sophisticated) categorisation, based on research and statistics, and guided by policies and politicians. These can be important.  But there is such a danger in using only this approach to shape our response, practical, moral and emotional, to the victims and survivors. A tick list of symptoms, a set of diagnoses, a menu of responses – it just doesn’t cut it.

In confronting this and all the other instances of abuse recently reported as a “collective tragedy” we must not let it mask the fact that we are talking about tens of thousands of individual tragedies: lives severely curtailed by fear and terror, childhoods lost, and the prospect of a lifetime of mental and physical health problems. Even in the title of this blog I use the phrase “Rotherham” as a shorthand to refer to (at least) 1400 shattered lives. Of course it is a device. I am conflicted in using it; I know a little of what they suffered, yet I want to get the message out there.

Samantha Morton’s piece in the Guardian today is brave and stark. We need to hear more of these stories.  I do not want to see any of these girls’ experiences belittled by their very scale, nor do I want the scale of the response needed to mean that we are blunt and unsophisticated. In writing this I had the familiar feeling of ‘who am I to be saying all this?’. Suddenly I realise I have as much right as anyone to talk out on this – I have been abused.

I wrote this poem recently to express how it feels from my perspective.

Research shows
As a victim of abuse
I’m more likely to suffer
rheumatoid arthritis – artherosclerosis –
panic – anxiety – unexplained pain –
claustrophobia – agoraphobia – anyotherkindofphobia
Please delete or add as applicable

Statistics say
As a victim of abuse
I’m more likely to number amongst
the self harmers – drug misusers –
eating disordered – alcoholic –
mildly psychotic – child abusers –
Please tick all that apply

The media blares
As a victim of abuse
I’m very likely to have
asked for it – exaggerated –
got my facts wrong –
suffered at the hands of a ‘monster’
Please choose one category only

Society thinks that
As a victim of abuse
can only be
unknown to them – damaged by a celebrity –
part of a cult – raised in an institution –
used by a politician
Please rank in order of relevance

I know
As a victim of abuse
Every day I feel
exposed guilty afraid
dirty humiliated lonely
detached needy ashamed
Please use the free text box to tell me what you think

(August 2014)