I warmed to an article in last week’s Spiked on-line magazine. I am not the only person who thinks the recent orgy of revelations, allegations and damnations concerning the late Jimmy Savile bear all the hallmarks of a seventeenth century witch hunt. I do not mean by this that the allegations are not true; just that they are accompanied by an irrational hysteria about paedophilia itself. As some commentators who are brave enough to do so remark, our society now regards the sexual corruption of children as the worst sin – while at the same time shamelessly engaging in corrupting those same children through television soap operas, pre-teenage magazines that set out to “groom” young girls, and crude sex “education” in schools. In recent weeks I have felt that the emotional frenzy that accompanied the death of the late Princess of Wales has been subliminally transferred to the Savile scandals. It is as if a secularised society, ravaged by powerful emotions it can’t understand or contain, has to engage here in a neo-pagan rite of collective exorcism.
Anyway, the article I referred to, written under a pseudonym, entitled “I have lost patience with the Jimmy Savile affair” and with the opening sentences, “After weeks of prurient coverage in both the broadsheet and tabloid press, I am tired of all the probing. I am tired of the BBC posturing and the nanny state interventionism…” has injected an element of sanity to this fevered atmosphere. The key point of the article is that its author was sexually abused on a regular basis between the ages of eight and twelve, by a trusted family friend while her parents were unknowing and in the next room – and yet she refuses to let herself be defined for evermore as a victim, despite these painful experiences.
Her article raised for me the whole question of what emotional maturity in adulthood means. Many people grow up with unhappy memories of childhood; indeed, I rather think those lucky people who remember “a happy childhood” must be the exception rather than the norm. My own parents had a deeply unhappy marriage; this is different from sexual abuse obviously, but the memory of their destructive relationship cast its own long shadow over their children’s lives for many years. Yet as an adult you still have to deal with and then go beyond those past memories of conflict and anger that you absorbed as a child. Religious belief helps – not in a shallow, perky Mary Poppins fashion but as a way of gaining a profounder perspective: realising that one’s parents might be contending with their own damaged past even as they struggled with the demands of parenthood; and recognising that prayer plays its part in forgiveness and the subsequent healing process.
The anonymous author here does not have a religious outlook on life – but she still can forgive her abuser, now a pathetic old man. “I chose to render the abuse an irrelevance in my life. This has taken time and effort, but it has been achieved” she writes. What she challenges is the passivity engendered by victimhood, asking “what does seeking compensation for childhood trauma achieve?” Compensation claims are big business, she points out: £14 billion a year. She is certain that, damaging as the abuse was at the time, “its power can be diminished with time”. She adds, “I can safely say that, although I may not have forgotten, I have moved on.”
When it comes to grief over a death, we all want the sufferer eventually to “move on”. This might seem a rather callous way of describing a process that is ultimately healthy and life-affirming. To stay fixated on one dark period or event in one’s life is as damaging if not more so than the original trauma. So why is it so hard for our society, as the Spiked article indicates, to help survivors of sexual abuse to “move on”? Perhaps it is back to the idea that paedophilia is seen as the worst sin; to the psychology of victimhood that has entered our culture; to our guilt about the general loss of innocence in modern childhood. As the author points out, there are people who are bullied, abused or who suffer PTSD who still manage to pick up the threads of life again. They will need help – but “where does [the help] stop?”
A final thought: as adults we have to take responsibility for our behaviour and our lives. If we permanently see ourselves as victims of the past we evade this responsibility, allowing the trauma to become an excuse for all our own later mistakes and blunders. We blight our freedom to make choices, to grow and develop, in other words, to become a better human being.