The primitive part of our brain is hard wired for simple decisions: flight or flight, survive or die. The need to belong is a powerful drive, and so we humans have an almost primordial fear of swimming against the consensus. Our newer monkey mind is more playful: it can throw up moments of inspiration and genius, but it can also invent phantoms and fears out of nothing. It allows us to escape conformity, but leaves us vulnerable to error. Therefor while it is difficult, it is also essential that we come to see the difference between what really is, and what we have fooled ourselves into thinking.
This might seem a strange way to begin a blog post about sex offenders, but I was inspired to write by a paragraph in Jamie Catto’s brilliant book ‘Insanely Gifted’, in which he dares to write briefly about this subject, describing them as ‘the most unforgivable people on earth’. Jamie is more than just a master of the provocative statement: he has found his own balance outside of convention, with the erudition and heart required to see through illusions to a deeper truth.
Jamie’s paragraph encompasses those humans who commit a range of sexual offences, but I am going to explore his perspective further by focusing in on child sex offences. I feel pretty well qualified to offer an opinion on this subject. I am a survivor of childhood abuse. Later in life, I fell in love with, married, and had a child with a man who had also been abused. In a heart-breaking turn of events, this man then abused my own daughter. I have witnessed child abuse from every perspective possible other than that of actually being a human who abuses other humans, and for this I am eternally grateful. I feel lucky that my response to being abused was to turn inwards. I fell into patterns of self-directed anger, hatred and shame, which minimised the harm that my abuse could continue to cause in the world. But my self-hatred and shame could be talked about, shared, taken to therapy. How might I have sought help to shake off the legacy of abuse, if it meant confessing that some part of me was driven to pass it on?
There is only one charity in the UK that offers anonymous counselling to people who are struggling with the urge to abuse others. They are underfunded and under the radar: after all, who would give their hard-earned pennies to help monsters? They are also over-stretched, because, yes, there really are people out there struggling with the desire to pass on their pain. Some of these people desperately want help. People with families, people in positions of responsibility, people like you and me, who want the opportunity to live a full and meaningful life, to experience, and to give love.
The human being that abused my daughter, was finally given the chance to break the silence surrounding his own childhood abuse, alone, in a police station, aged just eighteen. As he made a statement about the abuse he had seen, to support the criminal prosecution of his step-father by his older sister, no one asked him what had happened to him, or if he was okay. He was offered no follow up care to address the potential effects of what he had endured and witnessed, or the potential fall-out from breaking years of silent shame. The police were too busy catching the ‘monster’, to catch the victim turned perpetrator before he fell and the cycle began again. Contained within that simple act of neglect, that blindness on the part of those in full pursuit of the monster, were the first steps on a path that led to further harm: harm done to my daughter, my family.
The police, victim care, and specialist therapies, have no doubt improved their approach over the last 25 years, since my ex-husband’s experience. However, I have witnessed their investment in the victim versus monster story and seen how it creates a polarity which fails to address the potential for re-offending amongst those who use their services. It also fails to address the complexity of those who want to heal by moving beyond the current paradigms of thought. My daughter declined the specialist therapeutic support offered her following her disclosure that she had been abused because, in her words, ‘they make me feel like I am sick for missing my dad, or trying to understand why he did it. They just think he was a monster, but he was also my dad and I still love him.’ She asked, but was refused, an opportunity to engage in restorative justice processes.
Yes, the statistics show that there are those humans who abuse who are, as Jamie comments, ‘too damaged in the complexity of their experiences to make a healthy choice’. I agree that ‘those people who are mentally ill need high- security hospitals’- but these repeat offenders make up just about 2 percent of the demographic of humans who abuse. Jamie goes on to comment that ‘… we are all trapped as a culture while we keep those groups locked in the eternal dungeon’. So, we are all sharing a dungeon, with the other ninety-eight percent of humans who might cause this terrible harm. And when the convicted come out of prison, we encourage them not to re-offend by calling them scumbags and monsters, by vilifying them, hunting them down, threatening them with violence and forcing them to live in fear on the edges of society.
Don’t mistake me here: I am not suggesting that we should not protect our children from those who may do them harm. The legacy of abuse has distorted the shape of my life, and the lives of my beautiful children, in ways I can barely begin to express in words. I want abuse to stop, with every cell in my body. Our current systems for dealing with abuse focus on safeguarding children and punishing offenders. Protecting children must be done, and those who hurt our children must face the consequences. But this is only half of the battle and far from a cure. If we are to rid ourselves of the legacy of abuse completely, we must be able to offer full healing, beyond the limitations of the monster/victim paradigm. If I cannot see past the monster, how will I ever be more than a victim?
By the time my daughter was being abused, I had been in therapy for many years. I had undertaken numerous safeguarding training courses within the context of my work. I could have rattled off all the statistics about what makes an abuser, and all the signs that a child is being abused at the drop of a hat. But even though these signs existed within the context of my own family, I didn’t see them. Why? Because I still believed that abusers were monsters, less than human, and I still hated my own abuser. I knew that my husband was a beautiful man: kind, warm, wise, thoughtful and loyal, the man that held my hand and cried tears of joy at the birth of our son. He couldn’t be an abuser, because he wasn’t a monster, right? Wrong. Because, you see, abusers are human, and like all humans they are capable of extraordinary acts of love, and terrible acts of harm. Abusers are just like you and me, Uncle Dave, the man in the paper-shop, your brother, mother, sister or best friend. It’s just that they carry this terrible secret burden of shame, anger and pain, which under certain conditions, can lead them to the terrible, life-shattering action of passing this pain on to other people.
As a mother, I may never forgive the harm that has been meted out to my daughter, but as a fellow human being, I do forgive, truly, fully and freely. In forgiving the man who hurt my child, I have forgiven my own abuser. In the weeks following disclosure, I watched my friends decide that the man they knew was a lie, a monster in disguise. I too wrestled with this apparent contradiction between the man I knew, and loved, and the actions that he had carried out. It felt easier to allow myself to fall into anger and blame. It was easier for the people around me when I fell into anger and blame. But that path offered me no healing. My experiences have taught me that it is largely by the grace of god that you do not find yourself caught in patterns of harm and hurt of this magnitude.
Healing came when I learned to hold the contradiction around who my ex-husband is, to feel into it. It came when I understood that the human who hurt my daughter is both the beautiful man I loved, and the damaged, hurting perpetrator of enormous harm. To be able to hold this contradiction has enabled me to make peace with my own contradictions, or what Jamie might call, my own inner ‘escaped mental patient’. It has turned me into a more compassionate, loving, resilient, wise, empathetic, acceptant, non-judgmental and honest human being: for me, and for the other people in my life. I really feel what it is to be human, in all its messy, painful, beautiful, crazy glory and shame. Seeing beyond the ‘monster’ story has given me, and my family, permission to be more than ‘victims’. We are fully human, beautiful jigsaws, and we accept all our pieces, those in shadow and those in light. We are consequently moved to accept those of others: to heal one, is to heal us all.
Until we as communities are prepared to offer our fellow humans healing and acceptance in the same way, where it can safely be done, to see them as fully human and to break our righteous condemnation, making public what is secret, then nothing will change. As a society, we will allow further harm to happen, whilst we huddle together, kidding ourselves that sexual abuse is something that happens over there, and is carried out by those who are beyond redemption, those who are nothing like us.
What we need is a massive public education program about sexual abuse that tells the whole story, including the stories of those who have harmed, or are at risk of harming others. We need safe spaces and treatment programs for those who are at risk of harming others, where they can move beyond the story of the monster. We need a society where it is safe to speak out if you fear causing harm. We need therapy and legal processes, that give those who have been abused the chance to move beyond the story of the victim.
Thank you, Jamie, for being brave enough to suggest that we open this dialogue. I echo your bravery:
As long as we are unable to open up this unforgivable, taboo conversation we will remain trapped in the Dark Ages.