Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Truth is not enough

The news broke this morning that one in ten children may have been abused during their childhood. I’m sure that my immediate reaction was typical – utter shock that such a large number of children could be affected. My own children’s circles of friends are wider than that, so the problem would seem to be so serious that I would, statistically, know some affected children.

But, for once, Sarah Montague on the Today programme showed her mettle. While acknowledging the seriousness of some forms of abuse – sadly reflected in the higher rates for girls – she explored what the researchers meant by abuse, and what types and frequencies of experiences they had looked for in respondents to their survey. This revealed that a recollection of a single instance of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse during the respondent’s entire childhood qualified. Systematic or chronic abuse is therefore a subset of the headline figure – one that was sadly not quantified in the report.

I finished listening to the report still feeling shocked, and sympathetic to the (inevitable) call for more official action to remedy the abuse. Since then, I have been thinking further, though, and I have realised that I was in fact one of the one in ten. My mother was single when I was born; sadly my (married) father was unwilling or unable to leave his established family, although I am told that for a while (at least) he maintained contact with the infant me. In time my mother married another man, who became my adoptive father. He then fathered my two sisters, and (I am told, firmly) ordered my mother never to tell me the history. She did not have to; I always knew that I was different. There was something about his manner with me that was not the same for his daughters; something more critical, more negative. Was that emotional abuse? Maybe. Maybe not.

The incident that I recall was on a beach late on a summer evening, when (at his insistence) all present were playing beach bowls. Family activities were important to him; they presented an image of a happy family that he liked to see. I found it boring, as I did most of the games that he liked. I must have been very irritating; I was the fly in the ointment. I was the bit of the family that didn’t fit his plans. I was the bit that wanted to do my own thing. I was the piece of the jigsaw that didn’t fit anywhere and was ruining the pretty picture that he was trying to build.

Anyway, eventually I said something out of turn. I don’t remember what; I only remember that it was a joking piece of banter directed, I think, at my mother. Anyway, the next thing I knew, I was flat on the sand being kicked in the side, although not for long. It hurt, but nothing was broken and no lasting physical harm was caused.

So I qualify; I recall at least one incident of childhood physical abuse. An experience that pales into insignificance next to many other examples, but an experience of abuse nevertheless.

Do I wish that the authorities had waded in to protect me? To move me to a safe foster family? To prosecute him for the assault that it certainly was? To counsel and support me? No, I don’t. I was able to cope with it, and have done so. Maybe (25 years later) I am still more uncomfortable in social situations than might ideally be wished, but I am happy being me and would not want anything to have been different. I certainly would not have wanted to be taken away from my mother and sisters, nor do I think that lesser interventions would have helped. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In short, whilst the experience was not pleasant, and while I would not ever recommend that it be done deliberately, it did contribute toward my process of growing up. It pushed me towards the very independent outlook that I think I have. That outlook, together with the desire to prove the miserable git wrong, have driven me to the (comfortable) position that I now hold. So, in a way, it has been beneficial.

I think that there is real harm in the way that these surveys are publicised. They move the climate of opinion towards an activist, interventionist stance. Yet the data does not actually support this conclusion; by including so many lesser instances of abuse (such as mine) in with the genuinely terrible cases, they give a false impression. People assume that the terrible cases, the cases that generate publicity, form the whole of the one in ten. The search for these non-existent serious cases distracts resources away from the cases that deserve attention. Good parents become paranoid of the likely climate of suspicion they will meet at A&E should there ever be a genuine accident. The process slowly but surely gnaws away at opportunities for children as volunteers realise, one by one, that their selfless work puts them under suspicion - and withdraw from providing their help.

In the end, it is a question of honesty. It is not enough for your pronouncements to be merely true; the truth can easily be presented so as to mislead. My adoptive father never once lied to me, but he misled me into thinking (for many years) that he was my biological father - and it is this that is my main reason for hating him. And if ever there was a subject important enough to demand the highest level of honesty, then surely it is the welfare of our children.

Anyway, if you’ve read this far then thank you and sorry for rambling. If you haven’t, then don’t worry because there has been a benefit for me in the process of writing.

(In case you’re wondering, he’s dead now. Unable to face the embarrassment of visiting the doctor for a diagnosis of prostate cancer, he suffered in silence until the pain became so severe that he committed suicide – thereby causing immense upset to my mother and my sisters. Me? I am ashamed to say that I didn’t (and still don’t) care, and think that my mother has gone from strength to strength in the ten years since then.)


  1. I can only say i'm shocked by your story. Glad it made you stronger though.

    On stats .. received the disabilities compliance blah blah self assessment workbook today.
    Q1 do you speak a foreign language?
    Then boxes for action to take/timescale to rectify etc

    When did being unable to speak English become a disability?
    And why does it seem to be my workplaces responsibility to rectify that?

    I'm going to put.
    Remedy /action taken/ Timescale: Learn Afrikaans followed annually by learning all the other world languages alphabetically at rate of one / year.

  2. Nah ... just answer question 1 with "Que?" :o)

    It does sound like we try to "help" by allowing a wide definition of disabled/abused/whatever, but in the end do more harm. To my mind, it is an example of the State trying to do too much, and taking responsibility and self-confidence away from the individual.

    And it's not even as if it works for those who really need it. This statist approach really does manage to inflict the worst of all worlds on us.