On power and privacy

”Strictly speaking, this is not my story to tell, and so I shall be careful about how I tell it. In the light of the almost daily revelations about workplace sexual harassment and abuse, I wanted to highlight not only the devastating impact that sexual abuse or assault can have on someone, but also the impact of secrecy.

It is some years now since B killed herself. Prior to that, she had self-harmed severely for many years; sometimes, to my shame, I was unable to cope with the extent to which she self-harmed. But I was also self-harming at the time and we were both a support to each other. She visited me in hospital, and I visited her. We had something in common: both of us had experienced abusive relationships with therapists. Hers was far more serious. Although mine had overstepped boundaries and ‘encouraged’ me to fall in love with her, taking me out for meals and giving me lifts in her car, showing me photographs and telling me about her life, we had never had physical contact. B’s counsellor had touched her in a different way.

After she died, I realised that I was one of very few people to hold a written account of what had happened to her when she was in her twenties. At that time, she had approached the Church she attended for counselling in a pastoral context, following a bereavement. The minister who counselled her over a period of time gradually changed the boundaries of their relationship, from sitting on the floor together and hugging, to stroking her hair and then to touching her sexually. He (said he) believed that this was helpful to her. The relationship was painful to her; she both loved him and was tormented by him. The relationship had in some way poisoned her; she likened herself to a rotten apple, rotten to the core. After he moved away and their ‘relationship’ finished, she continued to struggle and to self-harm. She was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder at one point, but later managed to have this changed to complex post traumatic stress disorder. She overdosed frequently and one day an overdose ended her life.

This is absolutely not her whole nor her only story, because she was also a strong and very intelligent woman with a determination to make her experiences meaningful; she was committed to advocacy and recovery and to working with fellow survivors to try to change things for the better. She is much missed.

After her death, I felt a strong need to do something with the document I held about B’s experiences at the hands of a pastoral counsellor and minister. She had always said that it was her intention to take her account to the Church and make a formal complaint, but she had not reached a position in which she felt strong enough to do so. The first time I attempted to do something, I emailed the Church to find out how to make a complaint, but this resulted in a quick phone call which sounded very defensive and I left it for another couple of years.

And then there was Jimmy Savile, and I found myself thinking again about B and her abuser: was he perhaps abusing or taking advantage of other women supposedly in his care? So I tried again. This time, everything had changed. The Church now had a person responsible for safeguarding and I talked with her and gave her B’s account. Part of the process involved me taking this to the police, who were unable to do anything ultimately – which did not surprise me. B was dead and so they could not ask her for more information; they found no evidence that anyone else had been abused by this man, although B had been quite sure she was not the only one. All of this took a very long time.

Eventually I was invited to meet with ministers of the Church in question, and I went with a friend to support me. We had a discussion about how they were now dealing with allegations of abuse within the Church and how they were addressing historical accounts. The man in question, the abuser, was told of my actions and he was – apparently – called to account in the Church’s own mysterious way. He was required to undergo some kind of re-training which included addressing his past actions. I have no idea what this might have looked like. I was offered the opportunity to meet with him myself, but turned this down hastily. I was reasonably satisfied with the meeting in the sense that I felt I had done all I could.

And so, why do I write this now? It is not just to say ‘Me too’, although that too is true. It is also to illustrate the devastation that sexual abuse can have on people’s lives. We have seen many people taking it seriously over these last few weeks, but occasionally it is diminished with humour or made to seem inconsequential. It is not inconsequential. Too many women end up being labelled with (usually borderline) personality disorder following a history of abuse. Things have changed, and I am glad of that. Having a person responsible for safeguarding in the Church made a big difference to my ability to report the abuse.

But there will always be multiple opportunities in life for people to take advantage of others made vulnerable by being in positions of powerlessness. We have heard that Harvey Weinstein used his power to manipulate multiple opportunities for privacy with young women. Unfortunately this can also happen within mental health care, on wards where it can be difficult to have your voice heard, and within the privacy of a counselling or psychotherapy relationship. In recent research into people’s experiences of victimisation and abuse carried out at the Middlesex University led by Sarah Carr, we heard from a number of women who had been abused within the mental health system. They were unable to speak out because they were in positions of vulnerability and powerlessness or were disbelieved because of their diagnosis. The trauma and harm of being abused by people who are supposed to care for you is simply indescribable, as we know from experiences of child sexual abuse.

I would like to see a higher profile for safeguarding within the mental health system. There needs to be an independent person responsible for safeguarding in every Trust so that there is someone to turn to when something goes badly wrong: someone with the will to listen, to believe and to act.”