The decades-long shadow of abuse
- 25 October 2012
- From the section Magazine
Sexual abuse can affect survivors for decades afterwards. Lives can be blighted by breakdowns, substance abuse, relationship difficulties and the trauma of not being believed.
Piers - not his real name - was abused regularly from the age of 13 by a teacher at his school.
It was not until more than three decades later that he was able to confront the legacy of the abuse, and deal with the control that his abuser had held over him for all those years.
Piers went to the police when he was in his mid-40s, after attempting to kill himself and a number of periods in a London clinic. There, he was finally able to open up, discuss what had happened to him and understand the scale of the impact of the abuse on him.
The more time passes, the easier it is for a victim to talk about being abused, says Pete Saunders, chief executive of Napac (National Association for People Abused as Children). He cites research from the US suggesting that survivors come forward after an average of 22 years after the abuse stopped.
"That certainly tallies with what we've found at the charity and from my own experience," says Saunders, who says he came out as a survivor 25 years after his abuse ended.
"For me in one sense I'll never get over it. I'll never know why I was targeted and be angry to the end of my days."
Yet he has come to terms with the abuse. "I've had some pretty good psychotherapy on the NHS. You learn to live with it."
A year ago he was on public transport in London when an encounter triggered memories. "A guy on the Tube was pressing up against me. He had the same smell of alcohol and body odour as the person who abused me. I had to close my eyes, pray and count to three. I was in danger of physically attacking him."
It was a "moment of terror". But as time goes by you have more good days than bad, he says.
From his work at the charity, he believes that men find it harder to admit to being abused. "They feel weak for letting it happen to them. There are probably a lot more male survivors than society acknowledges."
The children's charity NSPCC estimates one in four children are victims of sexual abuse, but the nature of the problem makes it hard to quantify.
Elie Godsi, a clinical psychologist and author of Violence and Society: Making Sense of Madness and Badness, says the impact of abuse carries on for decades. It affects everything - altering character, behaviour and identity, he says. Depression, anxiety, self-harm and drug and alcohol abuse are common. "It will affect the rest of their life. Especially if you don't tell anyone."
Godsi works as an expert witness in sex abuse cases, assessing the level of damage in adult claimants.
"If your breast has been touched once, it's obviously different to if you've been raped - it won't stay with you as long."
But any victim of abuse can find it hard to move on. Godsi cites the example of the scout who described being abused by Jimmy Savile while fully clothed.
The way that victims are treated when they come forward is vital. Inquiries will show that some people did come forward in relation to Savile and were not believed, Godsi says. "When you first disclose it's absolutely crucial that people believe you. If you get a negative reaction, that could ensure you never talk about it again."
Piers's abuse started after he confided to a teacher the fact that he had been sexually molested, on a single occasion, during the previous weeks.
"I was terrified, horrified, I couldn't tell my parents about the molestation and I didn't know what to do or who to turn to. The teacher I did go to was initially helpful but rather than address it through the police, the school, my parents or the local authority, he turned it around and started sexually abusing me. I couldn't understand what was going on. In my mind, this person was protecting me from the rest of the world.
"He told me not to tell anyone about the previous abuse. He said that as this had happened to me I must be a homosexual - and that I should keep that a secret. Then, using the original molestation almost as a justification, he started to abuse me regularly."
For most of his adult life, Piers has struggled with psychological issues - self-destructive behaviour, periods of heavy drinking and self-medicating with both legal and illegal drugs.
He came to believe there must be something seriously and fundamentally wrong with him.
"Even though I saw psychiatrists, psychologists and had therapy at many different times in my life, I never talked about what had happened. I had no perspective of what had happened to me. I would only discuss and treat each individual symptom as and when they arose."
Piers left school at 15 and describes part of his life as having been successful - landing good, well-paid jobs wherever he went and being viewed as intelligent. But he never believed in himself.
"At 45, I attempted suicide. Fortunately, being well-insured, I was treated at a private clinic in London that saved my life."
It took numerous further stays at the same clinic during 2012 until Piers eventually opened up. As an indication of how strong the level of control that his abuser still had over him, Piers says this was the only person he wanted to speak to at the time.
"It was as if my emotions had all been locked away - but then when it all came out, it was a mind-altering experience. I didn't tell my family at first, the only person I wanted to speak to was the person who had abused me - whom I had remained in contact with.
"I began to realise that the only reason I felt I could count on him as my sole confidant was that he had successfully estranged me at a very young age from my family and friends and instilled in me an irrational fear of everyone. That stayed with me until now.
"At work in a group around the coffee machine, I always felt like a 12-year-old boy. I realise now that seeing this teacher all the time, I became isolated from my family and friends, I didn't develop relationships with my peers, I didn't experience the mistakes and successes of teenage life, I didn't get the opportunity to develop a sense of self.
"I went straight from 13 to 30 almost overnight. My entire adult life I have been plagued by shame, guilt, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. I always believed that I was toxic, somehow polluted and could only serve to harm others."
He says he constantly felt that he was covering up a lie, and feared that people would somehow find out.
"I developed numerous coping strategies and mechanisms - running away from problems from country to country, changing jobs regularly. After 30 years, these coping mechanisms no longer worked and I was too exhausted to carry them on or create new ones. After years of running away I finally crashed.
"After numerous stays in the London clinic, I decided I wanted to tell my family, especially my sister who works in education and in whom I have the utmost trust. I knew the first thing she was going to ask me was what I had done about it. Before I could tell my family I knew that I would first have to tell the police. I was terrified - I thought that I was going to be put in prison."
"Even after my initial interview and further statements I felt dreadful about myself for reporting this," says Piers.
"I now realise that over the years I had lost all perspective over the enormity and seriousness of the events. Everything in my life had become a secret. I had felt shame and guilt all of my life. After reporting this abuse to the police I feel I don't own the secret anymore. It's not mine anymore and so now I can start afresh with honesty and dignity."
Even after reporting abuse, victims face another struggle.
"They go to the police, then they are told they have to wait a few weeks, months, years."
Survivors are left to manage their existing conditions, come to terms with what has happened, relive the experience and worry about what happens next.
"What do they do with this when they wake up at four in the morning suffering panic attacks with no-one there to reassure them?" Piers says. "In the public sector, it would appear, that there is very limited support and it's very slow.
"I hope now that people who want to come forward who are not involved in the Savile inquiry will receive the same level of service from the police and the employers of the perpetrators as we seeing demonstrated in this case.
"Going to the police I felt like an awful, evil human being. I thought because the person who had abused me was well-respected in the community, it made me feel like I was the perpetrator."
The CPS has not yet decided whether to prosecute the teacher involved.
Child abuse campaigner Lucy Duckworth emphasises the difficulties of reporting cases of sexual abuse decades later.
She says she was abused for about five years up until the age of 11 by two priests - one Catholic and one Church of England.
Duckworth underwent therapy when she was in her early 20s, and it wasn't until a few years later that she felt able to report the abuse.
"I was so shocked at how awfully I was treated when I reported it," she says. "First of all the police said, 'What do you want us to do about it?' Then I wasn't given clear guidelines about what was going to happen to the perpetrators."
Duckworth says she was working in a school at the time and feared losing her job. "I was told not to tell colleagues in case they thought I was an abuser, too."
She is currently setting up a charity, See Changes, which is campaigning on the issue of mandatory reporting of known or suspected child abuse by people in authority.
Not fully understanding at the time that the abuse was wrong, the child is not attempting to absorb detail, she says. Decades later, being quizzed by a detective, the adult victim can find it hard to recall the colour of a carpet or the orientation of a room. These are the details that can underpin a witness statement.
"I knew it was wrong but felt it must be right - it didn't occur to me to report it. Because it involved the church, there is an assumption that everything that happens is supposed to happen. There were details in my initial report that I couldn't remember.
"During my therapy, those details became clearer, but there was an assumption that the therapist had somehow planted all those memories. We hear this a lot from abuse survivors," Duckworth says.
If the victim is believed, disclosure is a huge step forward, Godsi says. "You realise it's him, not you. But if you keep it buried you don't know if people are going to believe you."
In 2012, there are child protection organisations, dedicated police teams and counselling options.
"In the late 1960 and 70s there was nothing. There was a feeling that Jimmy Savile, the priest, vicar, and local headteacher wouldn't do that," says Godsi.
Now children can expect to be believed. And there are structures for interviewing them properly.