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)