WARNING: This article contains material that some readers may find particularly triggering.

It wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment thing that led me back into the school classroom, aged 11, to tell my new teacher that my Dad was abusing me. I knew what I was doing. I was going to tell the truth and I was going to be rescued. In primary school we had learned about ‘myths’ – Greek gods and Aesop’s Fables and Robin Hood. What I didn’t realise was that ‘child protection’ professionals in England in 1989 clung more fiercely to myths about child abuse than they did to the truth.In 1975 Detective Inspector Alan Firth wrote an article entitled Interrogation, published in Police Review (28 November 1975, page 1507), that was meant to guide officers in techniques and methods to interview women and children reporting rape and abuse. This is what he said:Women and children complainants in sexual matters are notorious for embroidery or complete fabrication of complaints. It should be borne in mind that except in the case of a very young child, the offence of rape is extremely unlikely to have been committed against a woman who does not immediately show signs of extreme violence.

If a woman walks into a police station and complains of rape with no such signs of violence, she must be closely interrogated. Allow her to make her statement to a Policewoman and then drive a horse and cart through it. It is always advisable if there is any doubt of the truthfulness of her allegations to call her an outright liar.

It was a desperate longing inside for things to be different that moved my feet along the deserted corridor after school had finished that day. The floor tiles alternated black and white, hypnotically, making me feel a little queasy and unreal. And then, as if by magic, I was standing outside the classroom door.

I don’t know how long my Dad had been abusing me for. Memories before the age of 11 are fragmented and distorted in my head now. But I clearly remember living in a fantasy world in my imagination to escape the daily horror of life at home. I wanted to be someone else, I wanted a different life, I wanted a new family, I wanted to be rescued. I wanted a life where I was happy and loved, free from the constant pain and rejection that I endured on a daily basis. I imagined a luscious, brave new world where I was beautiful and popular. I imagined being rescued by my ‘real’ family, or a hero coming to my aid. I craved reassurance, acceptance and protection. And in my fantasy world I had it. This fantasy world for me was so real that it meant that, until this point, at the age of 11, I had kept silent in the ‘real’ world about what was happening.

But then something in the ‘real’ world changed. Hope arose. There was a new teacher at my school. She noticed me, encouraged me, gave me attention. She was kind. Something stirred in me. But the more kindness she showed me, the more I needed it. And the more I needed it, the more I wanted it – to the point of obsessive anxiety. This was kindness in the ‘real’ world, not just in the fantasy playground of my head. The fantasy wasn’t enough any more. I wanted rescue in the ‘real’ world too. There was a clash between the ‘real’ and the fantasy, and the gaping chasm between the two became too painful to bear. Instead of a fantasy figure dressed in armour, I wanted my new teacher to rescue me – to take me home with her, to make it stop. And so I told.

I must have moved from the doorway to a seat at a desk in the classroom, but I don’t remember doing it. I don’t know what words I used. I don’t remember what details I shared with her. I can’t picture what was said to me in reply. All I remember from that critical, life-shaping conversation is that she asked me to excuse her for a few minutes while she went to talk to someone. I had the sudden, anxious sensation that I had done something wrong, for my teacher, my saviour, my hero, to leave me alone like that. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. I sat in the empty classroom that now seemed oversized and unfamiliar. And eventually she was back again, telling me that she had talked to the Headmistress, that the Police and Social Services had been called. I don’t remember if she returned to the room alone, or with the Head. I don’t remember her at all. I just remember intense fear, panic and dread. But I had told.

What happened next is a haze. I knew that my sister’s school had been called and that she was being pulled out of school. That seemed important then, that my sister was involved. It stung me with a fear of reprisals and consequences, of something larger than me and my fantasy rescue scenario being played out. My granddad was coming to get me, but we weren’t allowed to go home. I didn’t understand why. It was all vague and incomprehensible and I was alone with the unreal confusion of it. I know we didn’t go straight home: I have the clear, but bizarre, memory of being with him and my sister at a local garden centre and trying to convince him to buy us a hamster. It felt like an outing, a fun trip so contradictory to the events that were about to unfold. Only in retrospect do I understand that he was buying time, because the police and social work team had gone to my home to talk to my parents and grandparents, and my father had been asked to leave the home while they investigated.

My granddad said that we needed my mother’s permission to buy a hamster, but the seed had been sown in my mind now that it was a possibility, so I rushed into the house, vocal, pumped up, ready to convince my mother that we really did need a new pet and that I really would look after it properly – promise! In full flight I entered the lounge-diner and stopped dead in my tracks at the scene before me. They all looked so intimidating, sat there staring at me with blank expressions. In her official, professional voice, the one that was ice-cold and false-polite, my mother told me to get changed out of my school uniform. I snapped into a fearful and obedient state of mind: follow the rules. My sister and I were ordered ominously to wait in our respective rooms until we were summoned. In 11-year-old bewildered dread, I sat alone for an eternity. This wasn’t the fantasy-rescue I had imagined.

When I was called down to be interviewed, the room was so quiet. I knew I was in trouble. I can picture where everyone sat – my mum, my grandparents, the social workers, the police. I was placed on a dining chair three metres or so away from everyone else, isolated, uncomfortable, in the style of an interrogation or inquisition. Not one word of reassurance was uttered. Not one measure of safety or support was provided. The room hummed with tension. And so I told.

Then questions. What were you wearing? My night clothes. Describe them. Shorts and a vesty top. How short? How low-cut? Were they see-through? Why was I wearing such provocative clothing? Where did he touch you? How could that happen if your mother was upstairs? Why didn’t you call out? Why didn’t you say no?

The questions fizzed in from every side. They all sounded so angry with me. I was frozen to the chair, trying my best to answer clearly and truthfully, but my words became muddled. I was getting so confused. I couldn’t understand what they wanted me to say. I didn’t know why they were asking me these questions. They were impatient with me when I took my time to answer, but when I answered quickly they countered it with an accusation or dismissal. I just didn’t know what they wanted from me, and I was trying so hard – so very, very hard – to be good. I scrunched up my fists, opening and closing them in time to my breath.

The social worker was exasperated with me. My answers weren’t accurate enough, not detailed enough. When I said I didn’t know or I couldn’t remember, she slammed her pen down on her notebook. I couldn’t take my eyes off that notebook – what was she writing? – and she told me that they were busy people and didn’t like me wasting their time. “Just tell the truth!” they said, over and over again, but I knew I had been. Nothing was making sense. I was dazed. I stared at the social worker, and then at the police. Then from another part of the room I was asked if I had been confused. Perhaps my Dad had been tickling me and I had misunderstood what was happening? After all, consider what I was wearing. Surely what had happened was just normal father-daughter stuff? I spiralled into confusion. I just didn’t understand. You can’t accidentally put your fingers inside someone, can you? Did they want me to lie? He had told me again and again that what he was doing was ‘normal’ – was that true? Was I just overreacting? So it could have been an accident, then? Your Dad was just playing with you and you’ve blown it up out of all proportion? It was just an accident, wasn’t it? And you misinterpreted it?

I looked at my mum for support, but there wasn’t any. Her face was harsh and cold. The hatred in her eyes still haunt my nightmares over twenty years later. Even my nana and granddad just sat there and said nothing. Still trying to be good, I pleaded and stuttered, “I’m not lying! I’m not!” This wasn’t how I imagined this happening. Mum is supposed to be on my side. They’re all supposed to be on my side. I don’t understand. The social workers, the police – they’re there to help me, aren’t they? I call out to my mum for reassurance and, calling me by my full name, she replies, “They’re just trying to find out the truth.” She only ever called me by my full name when I was in trouble. And it dawned on me with a wave of panic and nausea: she doesn’t believe me! None of them do. They think I’m lying. And Mum hates me now. Because I told.

“All we want is the truth,” floats in from the social worker from the other direction and I knew then that they didn’t want me to say what had actually happened. Words shoot from my mother’s compressed, white lips as she demands an answer. The crushing weight of shame and guilt swallows me whole and I condemn myself as I say, “I … I don’t know … maybe … I can’t remember … I think so. Oh I don’t know.” I fall into a haze of disoriented bewilderment. I question my own perception: maybe they were right. Maybe I was exaggerating. Maybe I’d got it wrong. Maybe this is what’s supposed to happen. Maybe I had done something very wrong by telling. Maybe what he did to me is okay. I remember the weight of my head, the ache in my neck, my inability to raise my gaze off the ground. I couldn’t look at any of them. In the end I truly believed that it was all my own fault that it had happened at all. That I was unbelievable. That I was bad. That the only thing that was wrong was the fact that I had told.

As soon as I spoke those words of defeat and acceptance, my mum’s face softened and the whole room seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief. The mood changed. Faces that had been hard and stern now smiled at me. My mum passed me a tissue and used my familiar nickname. She showered me with care, concern and support. The social worker congratulated me and told me how well I had done. I realised then that my Dad had always been right: that no-one would believe me, that no-one was going to rescue me. I was one lone small child against a roomful of adults all out to prove that I was lying, or at least to stop me from telling. And I was alone, so very alone. And hope died within me: right was wrong, and wrong was right, and the world was upside down. The people I had been taught were there to protect me, rescue me and help me were all on my Dad’s side, not mine. I was the one in the wrong. I was born bad. I knew at that moment what it meant to be nothing, and to deserve nothing apart from the abuse. The shock of not being protected or believed damaged me to my core.

I knew that they knew that I was being abused. But in order to survive, in order not to be abandoned by my family, I had to go along with the lie that nothing had happened. We all colluded with the lie. It made perfect sense in my mind: I was bad. That was why I was being abused. I deserved it. And because I was bad, I had told, which was a bad thing to do. I had to be grateful that I wasn’t punished more than I was for doing such a wicked thing. I accepted the blame, the responsibility, and the shame. I altered how I thought in a mental contortionist act in order to meet their beliefs, myths and perceptions.

Their reaction confirmed the self-image my Dad had spent years creating in me. I now understood how inconvenient I was, how demanding I was, how needy, how needlessly annoying. I understood how difficult it was for my parents to have a child like me, that I was a liar, a drama queen, an exaggerator. That I was difficult to love, that I was less than human, unworthy.

I left that room vowing never to tell another soul as long as I lived, never to put my poor family through the pain I had obviously caused them by being so bad. I would do what I was told so that I could earn back their love. I would keep quiet like a good girl, do whatever Dad wanted me to do because he was the one who was right. What he was doing was normal – I had told the social workers, the police, the teachers what had happened and they weren’t going to stop it happening again, so therefore it was right. It was meant to happen. All I had wanted was for the pain to stop, to be loved, to be rescued. I didn’t even clearly know that what had been happening was wrong, only that it didn’t feel nice, and that it was meant to be a secret and that I was lonely, scared, and desperate for love.

After that day, shame dominated everything in me, swallowing all hope, all peace, all comfort. My crime of telling was worse than any crime my Dad was committing. That one confused confession, “I don’t know – maybe,” had branded me a liar. Even though my sister had also reported abuse, the case was closed. The school was told I had lied, and the cherished teacher was now distant and cold. Social Services had instructed her not to allow me to disclose anything further. I had been disgustingly presumptuous and selfish to expect my happily ever after. This was my punishment for overreacting and wanting more than I deserved. I was desperately alone, but I concluded that this was the way it was supposed to be for bad children like me – because I had told.

My father had been living at my grandparents’ house while the investigation was ongoing. He was completely exonerated and came home to a ‘welcome back dinner’ with all my aunts, uncles and cousins. My father, the returning hero, sat at the head of the table. My sister ran to him and hugged him. When I declined to do the same, my nana insisted that I hug and kiss him to show that he had forgiven me for my awful crime. We went home together, the four of us – my mum, my dad, my sister and I – in the ultimate denial and acceptance of myths. Now he felt invincible and untouchable, smugly justified by his ‘get out of jail free’ card. Both of us knew that by Social Services closing the case, he had tacit permission to continue.

And he did. But now it was worse – so much worse. There was no need for sugar-coating now. There was no need for “You’re just so beautiful, I can’t control myself around you.” There was no need for “This is a special kind of love because you’re special.” He knew I would never tell again. So there was no softly-softly now. Now there was rape, and oral sex that gagged and choked, and demands and expectations that I was expected to fulfil unquestioningly.

Now there was “If you let me, I won’t touch your sister.” Now there was “Men can’t control their urges and girls like you need to meet their needs.” Now there was “You’re the other woman. You’re the one betraying your mother.” And no-one came to check. No-one ever stopped to ask. So I endured it in silence.

Why did no-one believe me? It happened again when I tried a second time to disclose a few years later, but that’s another story. It has taken me years to unravel the myths and the lies, to realise that it wasn’t my fault, that it wasn’t wrong and bad of me to tell, that it was Social Services and the Police and my family who were in the wrong. My father is now in prison. But the idea that I’m happy about that is also a myth. An awful lot of what goes on around abuse is actually, I have found, a myth, and much of my recovery to date has involved trying to sort through the flotsam and jetsam of my mind to separate truth from myth.

We live in a world of myths. We may be more aware now than we were twenty years ago that child sexual abuse is not rare, that it happens on a daily basis, but we still personally cling to the myth that it doesn’t happen to anyone we know. At some level, we still want to believe that child sexual abuse only happens to ‘bad’ kids – the tearaways and disturbed kids in Children’s Homes – not the kids from middle-class families who are being abused by their own parents. We cling to the myth that we live in a just world where we can control our lives by being ‘good’ and that we will be protected by the grown-ups if we will just go to them and tell. We stay safe and in control if we believe at some level that the victim did something to attract the attention of the perpetrator, that only certain types of women get raped, or that only women at nightclubs wearing skimpy clothes get raped. We still want to believe that when people come forward and say that they were abused by a celebrity or a member of their family twenty or thirty years ago, that they are making it up, inventing a disclosure for attention or “for the money”.

When I disclosed, I was confronted by the myths that were prevalent in 1989 and still exist today in one form or another: that I should have said no, that I should have resisted, that I should have protected myself by not wearing a nightie in my own house, that I must have encouraged, tempted or seduced my father to do what he was doing, and that there is a right way to think and feel and act in response to abuse, and a right way to disclose. All survivors at some level struggle with the same kinds of myths: that it’s not rape if you didn’t say no, that it’s not abuse if you weren’t hurt, that it’s not abuse if you delay your disclosure, that it’s not abuse if you can’t remember every fact, that it’s not abuse if you’re from a middle-class family.

But we embrace these myths because otherwise the world is uncontrollably scary. If one in four girls and one in six boys are abused in childhood, how can any of us feel safe? And what if we challenge the myth that Social Services and the Police are concerned with, and always have been concerned with, ‘child protection’? I have had to face the terrifying realisation that ‘safeguarding’ back in 1989 meant ‘safeguarding the myth’. In my particular case, it was all about safeguarding the belief that children make up stories about abuse, so that no-one has to act, so that no-one has to stand up to the bully that is the paedophile in our midst, who grooms not just his victim but everyone in the family, and everyone in society too, to believe that he alone is good and that he alone can determine what is true and what is ‘myth’. Too many people were willing, back in 1989, to believe the myth that nice fathers from middle-class families do not abuse their children. Everyone colluded with his abuse and so I was abused not just by him but by the ‘system’ as well.

The damage that was done to me, and countless thousands of other victims, by not being believed, is unquantifiable. It has taken me nearly 25 years to just begin to come to the point of daring to believe that maybe I’m not intrinsically bad, that telling then wasn’t a bad thing to do, and that telling now isn’t a bad thing either and won’t destroy my life, as it did then. After the Jimmy Savile scandal, perhaps more people in Social Services and the Police will believe victims, and be willing to act on their disclosures rather than taking ‘no further action’ due to a ‘lack of evidence’ because they aren’t willing to investigate properly, or believe the victims.

But we also see the myths perpetuated nowadays at another level in the NHS: the myth that mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and that the ‘right’ response to child sexual abuse is not to be affected at all, but to just get over it. If I’m ‘paranoid’ in the here-and-now about whether I will be believed, and whether ‘the authorities’ will help me, some people will interpret that as a form of mental illness. I’ve realised that I have to stop believing the myths myself – the myths about myself, that I am bad, that I caused my abuse, that I deserved it, that I could have done anything differently. But that is made doubly hard in a society that has told me repeatedly that I am a liar and a trouble-maker, an attention-seeker (in psychiatric terms ‘borderline personality disorder’) for wanting to tell about what happened to me.

As Alice Miller said, the biggest myth is of a happy childhood. It certainly was for me.