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.




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