Abuse doesn’t happen in a vacuum

Violence takes many forms. And sometimes even the most strong-seeming people can be defeated if the violence takes a form that they are particularly vulnerable to.

I’ve had to do a lot of personal reassessment recently.

All in relation to male-on-female violence.

I was sexually abused as a child. By a male relative. My experience was mild as it turns out – mild in comparison to that of at least one of his sisters and of my other female cousins.

When I did eventually confront the abuse (as an adult – and after I’d left my child protection job – ironically protecting children from the very same type of abuse!) I remember contacting my aunt. We briefly discussed reporting what had happened – and ‘making him pay’. But in the end – for me at least – I just couldn’t go through with it. He was/is demented. He had no contact with other children and/or young women. My memories are not precise – in terms of dates/times. My Dad and my Mum would not be able to cope with any of this – though clearly they know and are appalled. And I was not prepared to turn my life upside down – becoming a ‘victim’ within a system that is notoriously poor at delivering justice for those who have suffered sexual abuse.

Shame, I now realise, was also a very strong factor in my decision not to do anything formal about it.

Shame that it had happened at all. Shame – because abuse taints you and that taint affects everyone.

As a child, I experienced the abuse as confusing and as dirty and as wrong. And I remember actively avoiding situations where I’d be alone with that uncle. Other than that, it just was. I never thought that deeply about it. I just sat and was a good girl. I acquiesced in the abuse. I passively allowed it to happen. In fact, I remember, aged about 7, when asked ‘do you like that?’ I felt obliged to say ‘yes’.

As an adult I feel the abuse as an invalidation – an invalidation of my existence as a multi-dimensional human being or as someone who is allowed to be honest about what she actually feels. In fact, when I think of the abuse I feel it somehow stripped me of my humanity and made me this ‘other’ pitiful thing. Worth less. Less than those who hadn’t been abused in that way. It taught me that much about myself: that I was less.

It also desensitised me to misogyny and sexual touch. So that my boundaries sometimes don’t work to protect me. They malfunction – particularly when in situations with men I find frightening. With men who don’t recognise the normal rules of social discourse – or who impose a macho bullying aggression on the world.

The weird thing is, few people intimidate. At least not now. Not in work or social settings.

But I have discovered that if exposed to that particular set of circumstances, then I freeze. I don’t fight back. I become pliant or passive.

I discovered this glitch in my system, a few years back following a bad but thankfully brief ‘experience’ with a male neighbour – and again, equally brief and shortly before Xmas last year with the same neighbour. Only, the time before Xmas has triggered this – this final comprehension of what it is that the abuse really did to me. So I am glad of it, in a way. And now have an opportunity to do something that I previously avoided: to testify in court against the perpetrator.

Not on my own behalf, of course, for that would be a step too far. But for my young neighbour who woke at 4am to find the same man in her bedroom, just staring at her. A man who’d tried her house door and – on finding it unlocked (this is such a quiet and good village after all!) – climbed up all four floors to get to where she slept.

She endured this man telling her she’d a ‘nice arse’ and asking to see her tits. She humoured him for more than an hour. Keeping him ‘happy’. Placating him. Before finally managing to talk him into leaving around 5.30am.

She finally told me about it in February. She’d been working abroad so I hadn’t seen her over January.

When I asked (the kneejerk insensitive question) why she hadn’t called the police straight away she said ‘but who would believe me? I mean, look at me…’ And I immediately knew what she meant. Because, I mean – I was less than his wife.

She then cried about the fact that she hadn’t screamed or got angry or fought.

She’d carried on a conversation as though they were both in the most normal of situations. As though it wasn’t the early hours of the morning. And he wasn’t an intruder. And she wasn’t naked under the bed covers. And he wasn’t making obscene suggestions.

And because I thought it would help her, I told her how I’d responded. Like it was my job to placate and soothe him. Like it was my responsibility to make him feel good about himself. Because if I managed to do that then I would be ok and everyone else would be ok too, and there would be no threats of violence against my family or property or slashed tyres (we’ve had many (9) slashed tyres that we couldn’t ‘pin’ on anyone but which came after some slight he’d perceived) or disgusting rumours or…so, for what would be less than a minute, I’d passively allowed him to touch me, like I meant nothing, like I was worthless, like I had no choice in the matter at all.

Funny thing is – she’d never have reported it if he’d just kept his distance. But he didn’t. And worse, he got his wife involved, having spun a cock-and-bull story about why and when he was there… So when his wife screamed at my neighbour ‘if you’re so concerned you should have reported it to the police’, my neighbour took her at her word and phoned the police…

Anyway – I’m not the only witness who can testify as to what happened and when, that night.


Abuse doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

I was a child of misogynistic 60s and 70s Scotland. A world where men were breadwinners and the heads of their households and women were mothers and housewives. Expectations of – and for – women were so very low. And as a wee girl I was used to hearing the value and nature of ‘education for girls’ being questioned, doubted and ridiculed.

I was also taught to be a ‘good girl’. And ‘good girls’ focused efforts on pleasing people – on being ‘good’.

In extremis those early lessons and experiences regain their old power. In extremis I think we all might re-become our damaged inner child.

Maybe this is what age does. Or the years do. Live long enough and all the hurts and the harm that’s been tucked away, will surface. Live long enough and you are forced to face them.

I am afraid. I am still afraid to face them.

But I think that it’s time.

5 thoughts on “Abuse doesn’t happen in a vacuum

  1. I missed this at the time it was written because I was in Glasgow for a couple of weeks whilst a very special friend died and his life was celebrated.

    I seem to be finding myself in a morass of people with very disturbing situations to relate. This should not be an ‘I’ situation but I think an important point about people relating their situations is many-fold. One reason (I suppose – I’m not a psychiatrist ) could be to just get it into the open because secrets are corrosive. Another could be to help other people get things into the open. Perhaps….. So many reasons which I will not think of and perhaps not understand. However it also makes people like me look at the society at the time and at their own upbringing as well as society now and our own contributions to it. Which makes it an ‘I’ situation.

    I wasn’t brought up in Scotland but have lived here since the mid ’70s. However my Father’s sister who was an immensely strong character owned a public house in Shotts in the ’30s-’50s and my view of Scotland’s people at that time came from my Dad through her achievements. All the women in my family on my Dad’s and Mum’s side as well as my Mum herself were very strong characters. Liverpool (where I was brought up) had a similar demographic to Glasgow and if there was a strong element of misogyny it passed me by at the time.

    Your post therefore makes me question so much about my own upbringing and experience in terms of its reality compared to society in general.

    It also makes me question my ability to understand people: a personal attribute that I have always thought myself reasonably good at. I have found that I can usually suss out when people are upset or troubled however hard they try and be their usual selves.

    Whilst I do not know you particularly well and despite the fact that you wear (however wittingly or unwittingly) some of your vulnerability publicly on your sleeve, I have always admired you as a very strong person. Despite the dichotomy in this post and your life in general, I haven’t altered my opinion.

    • Thanks GB. The Shotts connection – it was where I spent the first 30yrs of my life. πŸ™‚
      I genuinely hadn’t examined any of that part of my life. But I think that age does this – it unravels the tight knots; loosens the bindings that we use to keep things in tied down boxes.
      Anyway…here I am – my experience is by no means unique or the worst.
      And it can’t define me πŸ™‚ though it’s a bit of the jigsaw puzzle that helps me understand why – and partially who – I am.

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