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'My mother protected my abuser':[/color] One woman relives her childhood trauma

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'My mother protected my abuser':[/color] One woman relives her childhood trauma

Post  Guest on Tue 17 Aug - 12:07

'My mother protected my abuser': One woman relives her childhood trauma

26th June 2010

From the age of eight, Jo Patterson was subjected to six years of sexual abuse at the hands of her babysitter – but her mother ignored her cry for help. Now in her 30s, she tells Kate Hilpern her story

Jo Patterson can still remember her mother’s face when, aged 14, she found the courage to speak up about her six years of sexual abuse at the hands of a man called Terry who used to babysit. ‘There was emotion all right, but it was not of empathy or sadness, just of anger. I can’t remember her exact words, but it was clear she didn’t want this mess in our “respectable” family life. She just wanted the issue swept under the carpet,’ recalls Jo, now in her 30s.

It’s not as if her mother had been an ogre, insists Jo, who works as a medical researcher in Southampton. ‘She’d never been overly affectionate, but she wasn’t cruel or unkind. She took me to Brownies, we all went on family holidays. So her disbelief of something so traumatic in my life was baffling.’

Their relationship never recovered. Three years later, when Jo was in her second year of her A-levels, her mother was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. Jo nursed her for the last few months of her life, but they never resolved their differences. ‘She was my mum and I loved her, but it was a strange situation because here I was looking after her when she’d never looked after me,’ says Jo, fighting back tears.

Five days before her 18th birthday, Jo watched her mother take her last breath, still not knowing whether she had been believed or understanding why her mum hadn’t protected her.

‘Getting over the disbelief was as hard as, or maybe harder than, the abuse itself,’ says Jo quietly, with a look of vulnerability that makes it easy to imagine her as a child.

Jo was just eight when it all started. ‘Terry and Moira, acquaintances of my parents, would come round for a chat or a drink. Weirdly, they used to let Terry babysit on his own – sometimes at his house after school while I waited for my parents to finish work and sometimes in the evening at my house when my parents were out.’

t was then that Terry would ask Jo to, as he put it, help him go for a wee, or he would start touching her. ‘I can’t remember the first time it happened because I was so young,’ says Jo. ‘But I can remember that he would get more daring and it felt increasingly wrong.’

Jo had no siblings to confide in, and she didn’t feel able to talk to her parents. ‘Dad had always been quite strict; it wouldn’t be the sort of thing I’d dream of talking to him about. As for Mum, she just wouldn’t let me get close emotionally. When I was very young, Dad was jealous of her relationship with me and wouldn’t let me hold her hand. I think our emotional distance must have grown from there. In any case, Terry came out with all the classic lines: “This is our secret”; “If you say anything, you’ll get taken away”; “Nobody will believe you anyway”. For a child, that kind of talk is really scary.’

Jo felt she had no choice but to accept the weekly abuse as part of her life, knowing it was wrong. ‘I became increasingly naughty at school. I think it was my way of saying, “Something is wrong here!” And I became adamant that I didn’t want to dress in girlie clothes because I was afraid it might encourage someone else to touch me.’

By the time she’d reached puberty, Jo used to dread the sight of Terry’s car driving up the cul-de-sac where she lived. By now, her parents felt more comfortable leaving her alone in the house, leading Terry to call round unexpectedly when he could see they were out. ‘I didn’t ever think it was strange they left me so much – that was normal to me,’ she says.

But then something happened. Jo was sitting watching television with her parents one evening when That’s Life came on. ‘Esther Rantzen was talking about launching ChildLine and the penny suddenly dropped that I wasn’t alone. I felt a mixture of relief that they were talking about doing something about it, and sadness that I couldn’t just say to my parents there and then, “This is happening to me.” I did decide to write to ChildLine, though.’

‘He came out with all the classic lines: “This is our secret”; “Nobody will believe you”’

She got a reply almost immediately. ‘I’d arranged for the letter to be sent to a friend’s house, who I had by now confided in, and we read it together. It felt good to have someone on my side.’ The letter confirmed that what she was describing was wrong, and asked if there was a trusted adult she could talk to. It was signed by a counsellor called Julie, who invited her to call if she needed to talk. ‘There was a phone box round the corner – one of the old-fashioned red ones with the small windows that help hide the identity of the person in there. That made me feel safe enough to call.’

What stands out to Jo about that first call is that she was believed. ‘Despite Terry’s threats, here was an adult that didn’t even know me who did believe me. That alone
gave me enormous strength.’

Jo began to call more often. ‘I remember one Christmas morning, creeping out to the phone box at 6am. The best thing was that Julie didn’t rush me. Everything was done at my pace. I began to trust her and after about ten calls, I agreed to her contacting the NSPCC.’

Two women had arranged to meet her in their car one afternoon. But their approach ended up scaring Jo. ‘They were very direct in their questioning – I’m sure it’s not like that these days – and they said they knew what school I went to. Suddenly I felt things weren’t going at my pace any more.’

The next day, in a moment of panic, she confided in a teacher. ‘All of a sudden, everything spiralled out of control. The teacher talked to the head, who said he’d be talking to my parents. And social services and the police were called in.’

It was her dad who was home when she got in from school. ‘In my upset state, I just blurted out, “Terry has been doing things to me that he shouldn’t”,’ recalls Jo. ‘Completely unexpectedly, he was great. He gave me a hug and said everything would be OK. The relief was indescribable.’

Jo did not see her mother that evening – but when she saw her the following morning, she was met with that irate face. ‘It was so obvious that she didn’t believe me. Then she said as much out loud, adding that my father stood by her view. I felt so let down. Others had believed me, but the people who mattered most didn’t.’

It was several weeks before Jo was called to the police station. ‘That was a terrible time because Terry still had the opportunity to abuse me. I’d been banned by my parents from talking about it and they’d told me in no uncertain terms never to call ChildLine again. Everything I’d done felt futile.’

In fact, such was her mother’s determination to keep things under wraps that she instructed Jo to lie during the police interview. ‘She didn’t even come in with me. I was terrified, but she just sat outside in the car. I specifically remember her saying, “If they ask if you’ve seen his penis, say no.” I felt I had no option but to go along with her wishes and even though I think the police did believe I’d been abused, I guess they felt they had no choice but to draw a line under the case, just as my mother wanted.’

Jo did, however, ignore the ban on calling ChildLine and Julie talked her through ways of standing up to Terry. ‘I began locking doors and hiding behind the sofa so he’d think I was out – but my fear of him meant I still couldn’t confront him verbally. The fact that I was old enough by now not to need a babysitter helped.’

Jo isn’t sure who told Terry, ‘but someone must have done because he came round the week after the police interview to say to me, my mum and dad that he was sorry how things had turned out. He wasn’t apologising, or admitting what he’d done. He just seemed to imply that he was sorry for my mental state. My mum seemed to think that was very generous of him and was relieved that he didn’t bear a grudge against our family and that they were able to continue socialising. I don’t think his wife was ever told anything about it. I think what I felt at that point was anger, though I didn’t recognise it as such. Maybe my self-esteem was so low that I didn’t feel entitled to be angry.’

Despite the tension that now filled her family home, Jo got through her GCSEs and made a good start on her A-levels. But then her mother became ill. ‘The care fell to Dad and me. We took turns to look after her at home.’

One Monday in September 1991, Jo saw a tear trickle down her mother’s face and, with that, she died. ‘I was hysterical,’ says Jo. ‘I’d known she was dying, so I don’t know why it hit me so hard. And time didn’t heal. The intensity of the grief didn’t seem to leave. For years, it was like I was stuck. At college, where I had to retake my A-levels, and at university, I tried everything – antidepressants and a bereavement counsellor – but I just couldn’t move on. Even ten years after her death, by which time I’d moved to the other side of the country and started my career, it felt just as fresh. It wasn’t that there was a great hole in my life, it was just this mess of unresolved feelings that wouldn’t go away.’

By then Jo had lost contact with her father. ‘When I was at university, he met someone else who seemed to want him to leave his past behind. He became distant and, by the time I graduated, we’d lost touch. I don’t even know where he lives now.’

In 2005, a decade and a half after her mother’s death, Jo was asked to take part in a BBC documentary about ChildLine. The crew filmed her meeting Julie, her counsellor from all those years before, for the first time.

‘I was shaking. I agreed to be filmed with Julie visiting my mum’s grave and the phone box I used to call her from. I was asked a lot of questions during the filming about what Terry did to me, how I felt about it and how I dealt with it – and I don’t know if it was that or me meeting Julie or revisiting those old places, or a combination of all of them, but for the first time ever I felt able to be angry with my mother and that enabled me finally to start moving forward emotionally. Most of all, I felt angry that she’d protected her friend – my abuser – over her own flesh and blood. I was her only child. If I had a child, I’d do anything to protect them.’

Jo still hasn’t forgiven her mother, ‘but I do feel at peace with her. The same goes for my dad. To be honest, I don’t think about the fact that I have a mum and dad. In some ways, I have come to accept that I never really did.’

The year after the film was made, Jo asked a solicitor if she could take legal action against Terry. ‘I wanted to ensure he couldn’t do it again. But the solicitor said that any legal action has to be taken within a certain number of years of the disclosure and I’d left it too late. The fact that I’d lied to the police wouldn’t have helped my case. The final straw came when he said any legal action would involve being interviewed in depth about every detail, and I wasn’t sure I could cope with that. An easier option, he said, was to sue my father for neglect, but that wasn’t what I wanted.’

Jo still shudders when she mentions Terry’s name. ‘I can’t put into words what I feel for him, and I’d still be scared of him if I saw him now. But I have not let him destroy my life. I have a wonderful boyfriend, a good career and one day I think I might like to have children. Ironically, it is perhaps because of Terry that I have wound up such a strong person.’

Call the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000 if you suspect a child is at risk of harm. If you are under 18 and want to talk to a counsellor, call 0800 1111.

The Child’s Voice Appeal aims to raise £50 million for ChildLine and the NSPCC helpline to ensure that every child’s cry for help gets answered; see www.childsvoiceappeal.org.uk



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