A few weeks ago I travelled to a secret location in London to talk about my experience of sexual abuse as a child. I had an appointment with The Truth Project, which is part of the UK’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and aims to help protect children from being abused now and in the future. (From the website: “By sharing their experiences, victims and survivors make an important contribution to the work of the Inquiry and their experiences will feed into and influence our findings and recommendations.”)
It was the first time I’d done anything like this. I’d talked to therapists, yes, but this was not an interview primarily intended to help me. Although I’d had a poor night’s sleep (jotting down key points to mention in the interview had brought memories to the surface), I was looking forward to giving my ‘evidence’.
Outside the building, I was greeted by my support worker. It was the first time we’d met in person, after several phone conversations in the preceding weeks. She had gone through with me what would happen at the interview, discussed some related issues and answered all my questions about the process. She also made sure I would enough support afterwards, giving me organisations to contact if needed, and discussed the options re anonymity. (You can choose whether to be anonymous or not, and to give the name of the abuser or not.)
I was ushered into a small, carpeted room with several upholstered chairs. After a few minutes preparing me for what was to come and checking I was feeling ok, the ‘facilitator’ and ‘assistant facilitator’ came in and introduced themselves (both women, as I’d requested) and my support worker left the room. Firstly, they checked I’d be ok for the interview to be recorded and used in anonymised research (reports are published regularly) and for my contact details to be passed on to the police (Operation Hydrant) in the event that that any children could be at risk of harm (not relevant in this case).
Then the voice recorder was switched on and the facilitator asked me to start. I described the abuse, where and how it occurred, and its impact on me as a child, teen and adult – my difficult behaviour at school and the totally ineffectual response from teachers, the dark times in my life when I felt close to despair, the hypervigilance and nightmares that went on for years. Thankfully I could end on a positive note, describing the upward trajectory of my life in the past two decades, including meeting my now-husband and getting my first two novels published. I told them how my childhood experiences inspired THE GIRL IN HIS EYES, about a young woman who finally finds the courage to stand up to her abusive father, and how last month I talked on live radio about this book and what drove me to write it.
They asked if I had any recommendations to give policymakers intent on trying to reduce the incidence of child abuse. Apart from the obvious ones e.g. schools being aware that some their pupils may come from abusive homes, and education about how children can protect themselves, I suggested it might be helpful for potential child abusers to be offered free help to overcome their destructive impulses. I told them I was angry that the society I grew up in, in the 70s, enabled this to happen to thousands of children like me by not acknowledging the existence of child abuse within the home, whether by family members or relatives. I know for sure that I am not the only one who suffered.
When I finished, both women seemed quite moved and thanked me for participating in the project. On the way home, I admit I felt emotionally bruised. Though I’d talked at various times in my life about my childhood trauma and its impact, it’s quite another thing to describe it all in one go!
The next day I bounced back, and felt very glad to have ‘officially’ reported the man who had caused me so much difficulty and distress. As I writer, I strongly believe in the power of words. As a survivor, I know how important it is to find the words to share one’s distressing experiences, in order to recover, grow and find peace within. Speaking one’s truth and being believed is validating, for sure.
Who knows how much we can reduce child sexual abuse, given we are only just becoming aware of how many children may be affected, both in the past and right now. (I understand there’s been a massive response to the Truth Project; thousands have come forward to tell their truths.) There may be better awareness of the dangers these days but now that the internet is being used to spread images of children being abused, it seems unlikely that awareness and education alone will be enough to stop the harm being done to children in the UK and across the world. We need to think imaginatively about the issues, and what can be done to make a difference.
If anyone else is considering going to the Truth Project to tell their own truth, I can wholeheartedly recommend it. The process is thorough and supportive – there’s more information on the website. I’m proud of what I did that day, and very glad to have joined the many survivors of sexual abuse and sexual violence who have spoken out about past wrongs done to them. I hope in some small way it will help to change things for the better.