Hazel McHaffie

sexual abuse

Understanding alternative lives

In my former life as a university researcher, I had the amazing privilege of delving deep into the lives of people grappling with major problems and dilemmas related to their medical care, understanding their responses, exploring their opinions. I sat for hours and hours (the record being five and a quarter at one sitting!) with parents who had faced the terrible ordeal of losing beloved babies. I spent days in a hospice devoted to the care of patients with full blown AIDS at the height of the HIV crisis, watching helplessly as young men wasted away and died agonising deaths. I’ve sat in wards and clinics variously with infertile couples, prostitutes, terrified new mothers. Not only has my life been enriched by all these encounters, but I like to hope I’ve become more insightful and empathetic as a result.

And I’ve taken that same kind of philosophy into my current work. With each new novel my eyes, ears and antennae are tuned to anything that will give me deeper awareness and understanding. Along the way I’ve met and listened to the experience and opinions and inner thinking of organ donors and recipients; people who’ve changed gender; families traumatised by illness, death and dementia; patients themselves suffering slow degenerative illnesses; campaigners struggling to achieve justice and equality for the disadvantaged and neglected. Humbling and revealing.

At the moment I’m trying to get inside the skin of families and individuals who struggle behind closed doors, where relationships are fraught. A surprisingly large number of books on my shelves take me inside those facades, and three in particular have made painful reading recently, opening my eyes to the horrors some children endure and sometimes transcend.

The Little Prisoner by Jane Elliott reveals the seventeen years of horrific abuse one girl suffered at the hands of her depraved stepfather. She spent her entire childhood in fear and dread, controlled by threat and violence. Even when she did eventually find the courage to report him, even when he was locked up, he still managed to wreak fearful retribution on her via his relatives. Writing about her life, she was obliged to use pseudonyms to avoid worse. And her mother – her biological MOTHER! – was complicit in all this.

Behind Closed Doors by Jenny Tomlin tells the story of a young girl who also endured appalling abuse – physical, emotional and sexual – at the hands of her sadistic and depraved father. Again, a significant family member in a position of trust. Again the biological mother knew and turned a blind eye. In Jenny’s case the child grew up in a filthy flat forced to witness her mother being beaten and raped on a daily basis, her young sisters being sexually abused, her whole family being humiliated and ostracised. And yet a strong resilient woman emerged from this chaos, determined to foster love and trust and decency in her own children (one of whom is the singer actress Martine McCutcheon).

I Choose to Live (mentioned last week) is an amazingly frank account of Belgian Sabine Dardenne’s life during her kidnap ordeal. Her abuser was not a parent, he was a stranger, but she endured the agonies of feeling she had been abandoned by her family, and her relationships afterwards were significantly altered by the experiences, distortions and reactions everyone suffered.

To an extent we’ve all been exposed to the fact of child abuse.  Most recently, simply hearing about the case of little Poppi Worthington, almost certainly sexually abused to death at the tender age of 13 months by her father, made the blood run cold. Evil of such magnitude, masquerading in an everyday disguise, is as hard to comprehend as that which leads dictators to massacre thousands in acts of ethnic cleansing. The images haunt our screens and thoughts – especially where the authorities can’t or don’t exact any form of justice. The chilling reality of these intimate tragedies is captured in these three books, revealed bravely by three women who endured such relentless nightmares. I felt hugely sad and sobered, despairing at times, simply listening to them.

Bullies can only operate when other people are too frightened, ashamed or embarrassed to talk about what is being done to them.‘ Jane Elliott

Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our table. WH Auden

Will I have the courage and fortitude to see my own current novel to its end? Not that the subject matter is anything like as horrific as that described in these books, but any child suffering has the capacity to cut to the heart. Time will tell.

 

 

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Autobiography of abuse

It’s not often I review an autobiography on this blog but I’ve just finished reading one which forms part of my research for novel number 11 (working title Killing me Gently).

Since Altar Boy was published in 2003 the world has moved on, we know so much more now about child abuse, cover-ups, and human psychology. Who hasn’t heard of Jimmy Savile’s crimes now? Or the widespread abuse of children at the hands of priests, foster parents, sportsmen, politicians, celebrities? Indeed major inquiries are currently ongoing into these issues and regularly crop up in the news; police forces are stretched beyond capacity dealing with cases of sexual abuse alone. But I found it useful to nudge a little closer to the mind and heart of a child at the centre of such activities, a child subjected to the unwelcome attentions of a trusted or revered adult.

Altar Boy tells the story of Andrew Madden, an Irish lad whose burning ambition is to become a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. As an altar boy he has behind-the-scenes access to the life of a religious, and he’s thrilled when his favourite priest, Father Ivan Payne, takes a particular interest in him, singling him out for special responsibilities and privileges. But, when Andrew is 11/12 years old (his uncertainty), that support turns into sexual abuse, molestations occurring weekly and continuing over a period of three years.

For those who have never suffered in this way, it’s hard to understand why Andrew tolerated the situation for so long. Why didn’t he simply stay out of harm’s way? How could he continue to idolise his abuser? Why didn’t he tell someone? His explanation is at once disturbing and sad:

Unless you have been abused it may seem odd that I could not stop Father Payne for three years, but I just couldn’t. True, he was never violent and never threatened me but control comes in many forms. I was an altar boy and in my little world the Church was everything. Priests were the most important, respected and powerful people I knew. I was also sexually naive and totally innocent. All I could understand, especially in the early stages, was that what was going on was wrong and that despite myself I was in the middle of it. It took until I was almost doing my Inter before I could eventually get away.
And for most of those three years I spent a lot of time telling myself that nothing was really going on. Even on those Saturday afternoons I just concentrated on the television. I was so determined to keep the abuse from myself that there was no way I would have been capable of telling anyone else.
Being a paedophile, Father Payne would have known that. He would have known that my silence was not based on consent but on fear and shame. He would have known that I couldn’t tell anyone what he was doing. I wasn’t a child he’d abducted from the playground; I was part of his world. He gave me lifts in his car. He visited my home and had tea with my mother. He had me serving him on the altar as he said Mass for my family and neighbours. He knew he was safe. That is the nature of the child abuser.

The impact of what had happened goes on and on long after Father Payne has moved elsewhere. Andrew’s long-cherished dream to join the priesthood is thwarted. He loses direction, his life spiralling out of control. He seeks consolation in drink and casual relationships. He loses the capacity to have loving sex or to trust partners. He’s wracked by self-doubt, insecurity and a sense of worthlessness that several times drives him close to suicide.

At a time when my whole personality, my emotional, intellectual and sexual self, was developing, he made me think that sexual activity and sexual abuse are one and the same thing. As an adult it has been very difficult to undo that.

It takes an enormous effort and many false starts to finally win through. Years later Andrew finally finds the courage to confide in others the extent of his hurt and betrayal, to name his abuser, to challenge the Church. He becomes the first Irish victim of child abuse at the hands of a priest to go public. The texts of several significant letters written to and by various bishops and politicians are included in the appendix.

Candid, bleak, challenging, as his story is, Andrew’s own account is a triumph of hope and humanity emerging out of tragedy. This troubled and damaged young man demonstrates that victims don’t have to remain victims.

I’ve done something about it. I’ve turned it around.

Altar Boy is no literary masterpiece. Neither is it a text on the psychology of abuse. Nor even the most insightful of autobiographies. But it did remind me that adult wisdom and knowledge and hindsight can cloud our understanding of a child’s perspective. Even perhaps doubt and diminish the horror. A useful angle for my own current writing. It’s not comfortable creeping inside the skin of a character in such circumstances, but it’s what I need to do if I’m to capture the real essence of him and write with truth and authenticity.

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Out of Africa

Before the KnifeFor those willing to ‘brave the dark without a candle‘, this slim volume, Before the Knife: Memories of an African Childhood, will move and disturb in equal measure. It’s immensely readable, powerful and totally absorbing.

It’s author is Carolyn Slaughter and she writes with beauty and courage of the devastating childhood experiences that affected her life for decades. The second of three daughters, she was abused – sexually and physically – by her father from the age of six; so traumatised that she blocked out the images and memories. Nevertheless her troubled past manifested itself in wild and self-destructive behaviours. Her mother and older sister knew what was going on but turned a blind eye; their mutual silence destroying them all each in their own way.

Carolyn’s father was a government official who was posted to various colonies in India and Africa, and she captures the country, the landscapes, the smells, the political intrigues, the class distinctions in wonderfully evocative language. I’ll try to give you a flavour.

‘… the great plains and deserts stretched as far as you could see, wild beasts roamed the vast savannahs, tracing and retracing their paths across ancient migration trails, moving to and from water, decay and death. On the grasslands and at the edges of the deserts, the black man lived and reigned as he had for all eternity: tilling his small fields, slaughtering his cattle and goats in times of plenty, starving or dying out when the rains didn’t come, or when marauding tribes from over the hill brought his days to an end. Women pounded the maize, stirring black pots over wood fires that sent up small blue columns of blue smoke that vanished into the clear blue sky. Sweet potatoes and fat speckled pumpkins hugged the brown earth, and under mimosa trees with spikes long as a child’s finger they fed their babies and shooed chickens from underfoot, waiting for their men to come back from the bush. When the sun rose in the morning, little boys shook out their limbs and led goats out to graze, trailing sticks in the sand and wandering silently through the shorn landscape dotted with thorn bushes, interrupted only by a solitary acacia tree with branches laid flat across a sky as endless and blue as the sea.

But then one day, into this eternity we came marching. We sailed across the Atlantic, tall masts and white sails brilliant in the sunlight, and announced that we’d discovered Africa, We took a quick look around and, picking up the four corners of the sleeping continent like a picnic cloth, we shook it up, cut it into pieces and flung it back down in our own image. White faces radiant in the sun, we brought in our columns of mercenaries, or guns and whips; we spread our diseases and plagues, and toppled the landscape and the languid people who’d lived on it since time began. We stayed on for a while, sojourning in Africa the way we had in India, never really intending to stay, dreaming always of England, and those blue remembered hills. But, for all the coming and going of white feet, the snatching of lands and lakes, and all the ivory, gem, gold and trophy collecting, and the building of farms and cities, in the end it was always a short visit: white men coming to make a hurried living along the beautiful acres of the equator that stretch all the way up into the show-peaked crests of mountains put down a few hundred million years ago. We took what we needed and packed up again, and in no time at all, the life of the white man, so transitory and scattered, so greedy and impatient, would be over: one by one, nation by nation, we pulled up and went back over the sea, and once we had gone it was as if we’d never been. We left no memory of ourselves on the still air, no trace of our footsteps on the scorched plains – we were gone – no more than a handful of bleached bones on the lap of a continent that could remember man’s first startled smile.’

The young Carolyn lived alongside racial discrimination, brutality and white domination and tried to make sense of life with precious little guidance. Small wonder that she was bowled over by her first experience of warm ‘maternal’ love from Rena on the farm, and obsessed by sixth-former Virginia who showed her understanding, sympathy and affection.

In her eloquent writing she brings partition and aparthied, tribal superstitions and imperial rule to life. She describes her fractured relationships with her parents with brutal honesty. She also explores the dark places of her own mind with breathtaking clarity; I wanted to reach out and pluck her from that precarious edge and wrap her in safety and warmth. Her volatile temper, her own urge to hurt and kill, her wild and untethered youth, her rebellion, her intoxication with risk – they all make sense in face of the revelation she sketches briefly in the prologue and eventually recounts in the epilogue.

‘…the moment when everything changed only really came the night that my father first raped me. I was six years old. This rape, and the others that were to follow, obliterated in one moment both the innocence of my childhood and the fragile structure of our English family life. We all knew. I showed my mother all the proof she needed, and my older sister was right there in the room with me, in the bed across from mine. But once it had happened, we decided that it had never happened at all. In our privileged and protected world, we chose to bury it, we put it out of sight and memory, never said another word.’

Set against our modern understanding of abuse and its effects, of repressed memories and mental illness, this story is heartrending. No wonder it took 50 years and a wealth of support to write it down. One can only hope that the process has been cathartic and now in her 70s, she has found some peace.

And yet, in spite of the horrors she endured, in the end Carolyn’s story is one of triumph and enormous courage. I recommend this book to anyone who can bear to feel the pain of a lonely and deeply damaged child.

(c)

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When she faced the prospect of returning to England she wondered how she could survive living amongst people who had no concept of her life in Africa.

‘How could I bring them the magic of the river in Maun, or of the African women walking down to the mealie fields with their babies strapped to their backs? How could I tell them how guinea fowl stepped lightly through splashes of moonlight, or describe how the scorched plains vibrated and hummed when the sun was high? What could they know of the slithery nights when the hyenas bayed at the moon and the lion gave out its solitary cry; how could they understand the underwater silence of the crocs sidling among the water-lily stems? How could I tell them any of it?’

We know about those slithery nights and scorched plains because she has brought them to us so eloquently.

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