Domestic Abuse, Grooming and victim blaming.
This post previously appeared on The Women's Room in the blog section. I'm very grateful that they posted it and I really do feel better for having written it. I think it should also be added here, especially in light of the Oxford case.
One other note, I made passing reference to this time period to a family member recently. The guilt on this persons face was apparent, and I am sorry for that. Very few people know how to help in situations like this, and my anger with my family left a long time ago. You see, they were victims too. And they deserve no blame. The ONLY one to blame in this story is the abuser. Remember that, if you have ANY experience of abuse - whether directly or indirectly - YOU ARE NOT TO BLAME! We all need to get this straight, the only person to blame for abuse is the abuser.
Well, this is not going to be easy to write. I don’t like to talk about my past, about the things that happened to me. You see, today I’m together; I’m educated and happy and strong. That is how I want people to see me; as this person, a strong, independent woman who is in charge of her life and her destiny. But my past does not fit with this narrative, in the past I was a victim. I was scared and lost and hurt and broken. I don’t want people to see me like that; I don’t want people to know that I was once weak. I don’t want people to see me as a victim. But more than all of these things, I STILL feel guilty/ responsible for what happened to me. That’s what this post is about, it’s about me getting this out, trying to unpick why I feel that guilt and hopefully realise that I am innocent.
This particular story begins with a very broken and damaged 16 year old girl. You don’t need to know how she was broken, just that she was. That home was not a safe place, that she felt worthless, unloved and unlovable. She was an outcast not only from her peers, but also from her family. She was lonely and desperate. Then she met *him*. He was a 42 year old man, who knew exactly what to say, how to act in order to suck her in. In her naivety she trusted this man. He appeared to be the saviour she was looking for. He bought her gifts, took to nice places, and promised the world. She took him at his word.
At first her mother encouraged the relationship. Told her “get what you can out of him”. Then suddenly when it became apparent that this man was becoming a fixture in her daughter’s life, she changed the rules. She told her daughter that she couldn’t see this man anymore. She threatened and screamed and manipulated. Which only drove her closer to *him*. In the end her mother’s way of dealing with this was to send her to live with her father.
One night *he* turned up at her father’s house, whilst everyone was sleeping. He threw pennies at the window, and when she opened it demanded that she let him in. Her father had told her that *he* was not allowed in the house. Her baby brother was asleep in the next bed. And yet he wouldn’t leave, he got louder. She worried he would wake her brother and her father. She worried that she was “getting in trouble” with *him*. Eventually, she saw no other option but to let him in. Predictably her father was angry. But not with *him*, with her. This sweet 16 year old girl who felt so powerless, so scared, so terrified, that she let *him* in. And her father blamed her. She’d already been told that she couldn’t go back to her mum’s house. So, the relationship with *him* developed, as these things are wont to do, and the girl moved in with *him*.
At first she imagined that this was going to be her happy ending, her happily ever after. She couldn’t have been more wrong. It started innocently enough; he would express sadness when she went out with her friends. He’d say that they didn’t really want them to be together. He’d say that they were selfish and didn’t really care about her. He’d say that they didn’t understand the relationship and were trying to destroy it. Slowly but surely he hacked away at her friendships. When all of the friends had been pushed away, he started on her family. She was already broken, and it wasn’t hard for her to see that some of them really didn’t care. But it wasn’t enough to destroy the broken relationships; he HAD to destroy the one stable and happy one. To convince her that NONE of her family loved her. He was the only one who cared, the only one she could trust; he was the ONLY ONE for everything.
Within a few months he had reduced her world so he was the entirety of it. From this position it was easy to begin to control everything she did, everything she thought. Sex became a duty, there was no saying no. It wasn’t that he’d beat her, that would have been easier, she would have realised that was wrong. This was more subtle, it was more clever and it was pretty much invisible. She did what he said, when he said, through fear of making him upset, angry or sad. He’d shout and scream, he’d cry. He’d say she didn’t love him, that if she did she wouldn’t do this to him.
Truthfully, now I can’t even really see how he could do what he did. Maybe that’s why I feel guilty, because I cannot see how I could have been controlled with such apparent ease without violence. This was back before anyone knew about “grooming”, but now when people talk about that, I know that’s exactly what he did. And like those girls in Rochdale, the message that I got was that this was my fault. I allowed this man to do this. I took his money, his fancy meals etc. So I was complicit in this. I told people I loved him and that he loved me. I argued against anyone who told me different. And so will every girl that’s been groomed. That’s what the whole process is about: To slowly, methodically and purposefully erode all sense of self. These guys pick young vulnerable women for a reason, because they are VULNERABLE. This automatically gives him the power in the relationship, and he takes everything else from this powerful position.
So, back to our sweet 16. She’s cut off from her friends, her family and pretty much all outside contact. She’s just about to sit her GCSEs (yes, that’s right, she’s still at school. He collects her every day from the entrance. Can you imagine the abuse this girl was taking in school too). She’s studying hard, determined to get good results so that she can go to college and then university. She’s a bright girl, has always been in top-set for everything. She’s intelligent, hard working and conscientious.
But he has other plans. She passes her GCSEs with nothing below a B. She finds a college course, and sets off on her journey. As she does, she starts to fight back. (I have no idea where the strength to do this came from). She pulls away a little and starts to reclaim her independence. He sees his control slipping, and he doesn’t like it. One day he throws a knife across the kitchen at her because she says she doesn’t want a sandwich. The knife misses her, but it embeds in the wall. She’s terrified. She knows this is wrong, that she has to get out. But where can she go? She’s all alone. Her family and friends pushed away. So, she stays. She tries to keep him happy, but nothing works. She slowly begins to realise that nothing she does will ever be enough. They have another argument, and she starts packing her bag. He picks up a t-shirt and whips her with it. In that moment, she knows she has to leave.
With no other option, she goes back to her mother. This was by no means easy or particularly the right choice. Like I said, she was broken before. But she manages to get away. Or at least she thinks she has. She’s just turned 17.
Then the stalking begins. The letters, the phone calls, the messages passed by “friends”. She’s terrified of this man, and he will not leave her alone. In desperation she moves to another town to stay with relatives. For a while, this works and she’s free. Then she has to move back to her hometown. By now she has another man (not quite as abusive, but wrong all the same). When she and her new man move in together in her hometown, *he* finds out. He posts all the love letters and cards she ever wrote to *him* through their door. The new man gets angry, because “everything you told *him* is the same as you’re telling me” (like I said better, but not good). Then he sees them on the street. Tries to approach her, the new man steps in and she feels safer, protected. *He*posts a book through the door, one he’d given her before, with a little note written in the front cover. The new man speaks to the police, but they can’t do anything yet (this was before the change in stalking laws). But *he* backs off.
She has a child with the new man, gets married and they are together for 6 years. One day she realises that this relationship isn’t healthy either. She leaves.
She meets her true love 6 months later. He’s perfect. Now she knows what true love is. What it is to feel safe, protected, loved, respected. One day a few months into this relationship she’s in a shopping centre in her hometown. Her true love has her son, they’re shopping for gifts. She’s on her way to meet them, she’s happy. Her past is behind her. Then she hears it, her name in *his* voice. She turns to see him approaching, calling her name. She’s instantly terrified. Her impulse is to run. But she can’t move her feet. She's frozen. Her eyes scan the crowd desperately, then she sees her true love. She runs, into his arms, shaking with fear. He doesn’t have to ask why, he knows. *He* doesn’t come over. She never knows where he went, but obviously her true love was enough to deter him.
I’m still scared of *him*. And I hate that, I hate that he still has that power over me. Even all these years later. I hate that I still feel like a victim sometimes. That there are times when I realise sex with him could actually be defined as rape. I hate that I “let” that happen to me. That’s why I wrote it this way. Because, when I hear the story of that 16 year old girl, I want to help her. I want to take her in my arms and tell her that NONE of this was her fault. I want to scream at her family for allowing this to happen to her, although I know they had no idea how to deal with it. I want to make it clear to her that she is blameless, she was abused. I want her to know that I admire her strength. That to me she’s a hero because she survived that. She found the strength inside to fight, and that is amazing. I want her to know that she is not alone. That there are many forms of abuse, and many women suffering from it. She was vulnerable (and that wasn’t her fault either) and he took advantage. I want her to let go of her guilt, because maybe then she won’t be scared any more. Maybe then she’ll realise that it was all beyond her control. She was failed, by a society that allowed this. I want to tell her that her voice is important. Her experience is valuable. Because when the media begin to victim blame girls who have been groomed she can be their voice too. She’s grown up now, she’s powerful, she has an education and her life is together. She can speak for those with no voice, because she was there once too.
I tell myself this over and over. I tell myself that I am OK now, that I’m over what happened. But it’s a lie. What happened is a part of me. My experiences make me who I am and that experience is central to me. I still lose the plot when someone tries to manipulate me. I’m over-sensitive to it. I still sometimes feel scared and guilty. Like when he tried to add me on Linked in! I mean come on! Is this guy for real?!
I do feel better for writing this. I do feel like some of the guilt is gone. Maybe, by telling you about that poor 16 year old girl, I’ve managed to convince her that she’s innocent.
I certainly feel emotional now. But I also feel stronger. Not strong enough to put my name to this post. No, that’s not right. I don’t want people’s pity. I don’t want people to know all of my past and my secrets. I’m a private person; I don’t like to appear vulnerable. Guess it’s obvious why. Those who know me well, who I love and trust, know this story. So they’ll recognise it if they read it. To them I say thank-you! Thank- you for seeing me as a survivor, for seeing my strength instead of my weakness. For providing me with a safe place to talk and for helping me deal with the damage.
To those of you who don’t know who I am, I say, it doesn’t matter. This story may be mine, but it could also be the story of many, many, more girls and women. So thank-you for reading, and next time someone tells you a “groomed” girl had it coming, maybe you can point them to this post.
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