Having a rare evening to myself yesterday, I picked up a book I had kept on hold for some time. Some stories should not be approached lightly and the reader is fortunate to be able to choose the where and when of experiencing what lies on the page in a way that the author, facing it for real, was not.
The author’s mother died when he was two. What followed was a childhood of brutal physical abuse and wilful neglect at home, to which sexual abuse was added once he had run away enough times to be “looked after” by the state. He witnessed violence at home and was bullied by his siblings in a way that can happen when it is safer to side with the violent, more powerful adults. From a therapist’s point of view, it is unsurprising that, even now, he never feels totally safe, cannot sit with his back to a door, does not trust people easily and suffers from fragmented memories and flashbacks. More remarkable is how he put to good use in adulthood the resilience he learnt as a child and, at the time of writing, had sustained a loving marriage of forty years. Given what the author experienced and survived, the tone is remarkably free from blame, judgement or bitterness.
Possibly his adult life was not quite as plain sailing as the final chapters of the book present; but then these later years were probably not what drove him to write the book. Again from the perspective of an attachment- and trauma-oriented therapist, one could imagine that he was saved by the love of his mother in the crucial and formative first two years of life before she died and by the care of those who rescued him from a series of children’s homes, for a while at least. Nonetheless, the latter part of this story is both uplifting and touching and demonstrates that the cruelest childhood can be followed by a fulfilling life.
In today’s long stretch of multi-year enquiries into the historical abuse of children, this story set in the England of the 1940s and 1950s illustrates how extreme cruelty could continue unchecked and indefinitely in both family homes and institutional homes intended to protect children. Meanwhile, investigating authorities fell somewhere between naïve and complicit; and different parts of society at worst uncaringly turned a blind eye and at best seemed resigned to the abuse of children as the norm, maybe feeling too powerless to say or do anything, if indeed it would have occurred to them to do so. Seventy years later, the climate is at last more conducive to such a story being told. And as a society we are still trying to unravel and make sense of just what happened.
“Never Call Me Mummy Again” by Peter Kilby with Jane Smith. Penguin, 2013