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.




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


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