I was six, maybe seven years old. I was in my bedroom with my favourite dolls carefully arranged in the houses I’d made for them out of shoe boxes. Their furniture and belongings were made from cardboard, odd bits and bobs and plenty of imagination.
But I wasn’t playing with them. Instead my grandfather was sexually assaulting me, dehumanising me, torturing me.
It wasn’t the first time. Or second. Or third, or fourth, or fifth.
However it was the first time that I heard footsteps coming upstairs whilst he was enjoying violating me. But instead of desperately hoping that someone was coming to save me, I was absolutely terrified, terrified that the owner of the footsteps would see what we were doing.
I couldn’t move, I was frozen in fear, petrified. And he was in control.
But eventually he heard too and pushed me away. He was also keen to keep our secret.
So why didn’t I tell?
People often ask me why I didn’t tell anyone at the time that I was being sexually abused. But I’m far more curious to understand how some children are able to tell, because I protected my secret as if my life depended on it. Why?
My upbringing was strict, but not excessively so. Like most of us, I was taught to respect and obey adults. Adults knew best.
I was 5, or maybe younger when my grandfather began sexually assaulting me. I was so young that I didn’t understand what he was doing let alone have the words to explain it to anyone. And to this day I’m still perplexed as to how, but even at that early age, I knew instinctively that it was bad, very bad.
And so my juvenile brain concluded that I must be bad, very bad. Because adults don’t do bad things, it’s children who are naughty. I firmly believed it was my fault even though he always initiated the attacks and I hid when I heard him coming for me.
I thought that if my parents knew how bad I was, I would be severely punished and I would be denied all the things that I relied on to survive; food, companionship, my home.
And if anyone had asked me if I was being abused, I would have categorically denied it. Most children don’t disclose sexual abuse at the time that they are subjected to it and many children will deny they are being abused when asked.
Each child has different reasons for their silence; some children are too ashamed or don’t realise that they are being abused, some are frightened of physical harm or the perpetrator has threatened to hurt someone else if they speak out, some fear that they won’t be believed, the family will split up or they will be taken away etc.
In my case, I would have told if I had been asked a series of gently leading questions with constant reassurances that I wasn’t bad, that I wasn’t to blame and that I wouldn’t be punished. And also that I was loved, that I was right to tell and that I was believed.
When I was about ten years old, I was told a story of two boys who had been approached by child molesters at the local swimming pool. They had told someone, the police were called and the perpetrators were arrested. I was encouraged to tell someone if anything like that happened to me.
But it was too little too late. Although I could relate to the story with my experiences, the shame was too deeply embedded in me to be able to disclose at that time.
It took watching a tv programme promoting Childline, for me to finally pass enough of the shame I carried to where it rightfully belonged to the man who abused me and drunkenly blurt out my toxic secret to my friends when I was a teenager.
For me, disclosing has been a process rather than a single event. I didn’t disclose to my family until my early twenties, and thereafter, only in dribs and drabs as I’ve felt necessary or able to. I still have friends who don’t know.
Whilst most of us understand the importance of children being able to speak out when they are being abused, sadly a disclosure isn’t always followed by the necessary actions needed.
Because one of my grandfather’s young victims did disclose his crimes. A lock was put on the child’s door so the child molester was unable to enter the child’s bedroom at night. But no other action was taken. The paedophile was not reported. Neither was he confronted. His identity as a dangerous criminal was protected and he was still allowed access to the child and also to other children.
I was one of the other children.