The damage boarding schools do
- The Observer, Sunday 20 July 2014
Fraser’s blog, Boarding School Action, campaigns to try to curtail elite Britain’s hallowed habit of sending its small children away to be looked after by strangers. “Privileged abandonment,” it has been called. Sally, 31, whose husband went to prep school at eight and then to Harrow, has had to become something of an expert in the complex psychiatry of early separation and childhood trauma.
It was early in their marriage – now six years old – that Sally started to disentangle her husband’s past. “Having just started a family, I was into this idea that your childhood is everything in forming your nature. I’d done some therapy myself and I started to look at boarding school, wondering if it was harmful to him, and I came across Boarding School Survivors. And I looked at the symptoms, and my husband, and I just went: tick, tick, tick.”
“I thought of myself as a hero,” she writes on her blog. “That I could swoop into his life and give him all the love he needed. But I couldn’t, and one can’t, and it isn’t like that. Also, I had never really taken on the fact that boarding school had been his whole life, not just a one-off traumatic event or unfavourable circumstance but an entire upbringing, and so the problems he faces are not just bad habits or infuriating traits – they are the result of a decade of ingrained survival practices.”
She talks of how he would avoid his birthday and “sabotage” other people’s. Only in counselling did the reason emerge. His prep school’s tradition on birthdays involved a dunking in an ice-cold bath. Children would hide birthday cards and presents from home, so the older boys did not know the date.
So what are the symptoms of a boarding school survivor? “Well, obviously, a fear of abandonment. A tendency to shut down emotionally, and freeze out, in the face of something sad, or frightening or infuriating. There’s the ‘timetabling’!” she laughs. “You’re resented if you just want to relax and put your feet up, like a normal person. There’s always got to be a plan or a task.” The first time they went on holiday together, Sally and he nearly broke up – until she gave him a puzzle book so he would not feel under-occupied.
“He had no stand-out trauma. Just unhappiness. He was never buggered, or anything. It’s just that he left home at eight. And that’s why I feel so strongly about this subject – I just think that this is an enormous wrong to do to a child. Private school has contributed so much to social and educational injustice in Britain, and boarding school has had a particularly powerful effect – it has made an elite that is not empathetic, that believes hardship is good for you. That finds situations that should inspire sympathy deeply uncomfortable.”
After debating all this in couple-counselling sessions, Sally’s husband signed up for a weekend of “boarding school survivor” therapy. These are run by Nick Duffell, the psychotherapist whose writing and work over 30 years have dragged the issue of the damage suffered by children in boarding schools, state and private, into the public eye.
Sally says her husband is now better and happier. “He’s brave,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see him; he’s a great dad. I’ve never felt I have had to look after him. But I have thought I’m having to live with the consequences of this system.
“And I do feel we’ve got to do something about it, we who know about it, but weren’t part of it. We’ve got to change it. We have to stop early boarding.”
Three months ago I wrote about my own experiences in a 1970s private school and of the huge scandal now coming to light around systematic abuse of children in the boarding system. I asked readers of the Observer Magazine to tell me of their own experiences. Hundreds of you have. A third of the emails have come from women. Many of them are survivors of abuse, emotional, physical and sexual, at boarding school; the stories just as grotesque and damaging as those of the men. But many others wrote as people who have loved and lived with survivors – wives, sisters, mothers and children.
In their way these emails are just as painful to read as the raw counts of abuse, neglect and psychological damage that the survivors tell. You realise that when children are traumatised, a slow charge is laid that may detonate over decades.
I’ve heard stories of depression, divorces and of so many suicides. Of parents who say they never knew their child again after waving them a cheery goodbye at eight years old. Of children who did not work out why their fathers were so flawed until after they were dead and unreachable. Of husbands incapable of loving: “Such a closed, emotionally unavailable man. He only seemed to come alive when he was angry. And we lived in terror.”
The inbox is daunting, full of anger and unresolvable regret. I’ve read many stories from people who wonder why, when their mothers or fathers had suffered so much at boarding school, it was decided they should go themselves, and stay there, even when it was clear they were suffering, too. Several ex-boarders say that the worst thing of all, after the agony of that separation at seven or eight years old, has been never being able to trust their parents, or any loved one, again. Parents talk, bewildered, of children who hate them, who blame them for all the sorrow and hurt when all they had done – often counting the pennies – was try to buy them a better start in life.
Most moving of all – because it touches on my own experience – are the stories of the loved ones: the people who have stuck by the victims of childhood abuse, coaxed them into opening up their past, and slowly, patiently turned damaged men into something like happy ones (as yet I have not heard from any husbands doing the same job).
Thinking of these untold heroes, I went to see Paula McFadyen. She is the wife of the most vocal survivor of boarding school abuse I’ve met since writing my own account. I heard Ian McFadyen ambush Nick Clegg on a radio phone-in (they were schoolfriends at Caldicott, where a ring of abusers, led by the headmaster, operated in the 1970s). McFadyen wanted Clegg to push for a government inquiry into institutional child abuse – a wish that was granted earlier this month. I had to meet the woman with this volcano of righteous outrage.
Sitting among her crystals and her paintings of hares, in a cottage embraced by the great green curves of Scotland’s border hills, McFadyen is one of the calmest and kindest people I’ve ever met. Calm is needed, because her husband, Ian, is her opposite. Over the two hours that we’ve been chatting, I’ve had to say several times, gently and then less gently, that I’d really like to speak to Paula alone.
Ian agrees. But he won’t leave it. He is forever leaning round a door jamb, or popping up by the sofa, to add his thoughts and even to complete her carefully considered sentences. She just laughs. “That’s Ian. He’s ADHD, on top of the other things. You live with him and you love him.”
Paula has supported him in the witness box – twice – in trials of his teachers. And she supports him as he tells his tale again and again, on talk radio and in the newspapers, even though that entails the most dark revelations. “I’m a happily married man now,” he said to Jeremy Vine on BBC Radio Two in May. “But I can’t use the term to my wife that ‘I love her’ because the first person I said I loved, outwith my family, was Mr Hill.”
George Hill, his teacher and serial rapist when he was 11, had made him feel complicit – a “special boy”. How does Paula feel about Ian bringing things like this to the public?
“Well,” she replies, in her soft Borders voice, “it is his mission. It wouldn’t be my way of doing it – I’m a private sort of person. Now my life is all over Twitter and Facebook. But that’s his healing. If that’s what he needs to do, who’s to say it’s right or wrong? And I think the only way to get over abuse is to start on that path of forgiveness towards the abusers, or to get some sort of resolution. Ian remained silent for 30 years: now he feels he has to speak out for those who still feel captive by their silence.
“Folk don’t want to hear that – but it’s only you that’s suffering by carrying that anger around. The abusers are not suffering, so they still have got the power over you. That’s Ian’s healing path – and it is so important. He can talk about forgiveness, and he can encourage other people that it’s not shameful, it’s not your fault. That’s the only reason I’m talking to you – because there must be myriads of other people who also need to speak.”
The “other things” Paula mentions about Ian begin with brutal abuse from the age of nine or 10, at the private boarding school, Caldicott, Buckinghamshire. He spent six years there. Sexually assaulted again and again, by the school’s deputy headmaster, George Hill, and other teachers, Ian left the school at 14 riven by guilt, confusion and self-hatred. He “went off the rails”, as he says, experimenting and testing himself. As a teenager he sought out groups of older men for sex. After working in the hotel industry, his parents’ profession, he was by his mid-30s living rough and begging on the streets of Edinburgh. Ian was an alcoholic and a heroin addict well-known for his violence and an upper-class accent that contrasted with the piercings, long hair and big dog that were his street uniform.
Rescued from that life by the brilliant Scottish charity Streetwork, Ian eventually became a support worker, counselling and helping the lost and rejected of Edinburgh, among whom he’d counted himself. This is how he and Paula met, 10 years ago. She is from a rather different background: she grew up in the Scottish Borders in a family that had for generations worked in the garment mills of Hawick; her first job was as a maker of knitwear, but later she got a degree in community education, helping homeless people find new careers. Now she paints, sculpts and, you realise, spends a lot of time listening to Ian. (There are the 2am Twitter jags – your timeline is never empty if you follow @IanMcFadyen1966).
Paula says she was aware of Ian’s past as a work colleague and when they started going out; he made no secret of it. “I knew he was a complex character.” On their first meeting, his mother asked: “Did you know he was a drug addict?” But it was only after they had married and she and her son, then 12, had set up house with him did Paula understand that Ian’s past was going to impinge on their future. For a start, sex and any physical intimacy stopped.
“I think he felt he didn’t have to pretend any more – he backed off completely: ‘We’re married now; we don’t need to bother with that any more.’ There was a rubber wall around him – you touched him and he’d jump.”
Ian set about helping bring up Paula’s son, but insisted that he wouldn’t have children with her himself. He told her he was frightened he might turn out to be an abuser: he’d read that that can happen to those who have been abused as children. “For nine years, he slept on the sofa. He’s coming to bed now. But he doesn’t hug or kiss or anything like that. That’s very hard. I can deal with the rest. But if you’re a tactile person, if that’s a big part of your life. It’s not the sex… it’s no cuddling. But I went on really nasty antidepressants, just to quell my sex drive. We’re aware of it; we talk about it now. But I don’t want him to do something he doesn’t want to do. That’s not going to work.”
The abusers, she suggests, stole from him the right to enjoy intimacy. “It’s taken me years to come to terms with the fact that it’s not me, it’s not my fault. I used to go to bed crying, on my own. But we are best mates…” She pauses, collects herself. “He’s working on the cuddles – I do get hugs off him now.”
“Supermarket checkouts,” Ian interjects.
“Yes, supermarket checkouts are good for hugs. Because it’s safe.”
“At the checkout, I can show what a great husband I am, how much I love and look after my wife. But safe – nothing can happen there. I won’t be put into a situation where I have to have sex.”
“We should put a supermarket checkout in the bedroom,” muses Paula.
I say it’s good they’re talking about it. “We do, now. A lot. We talk about it to death,” she says.
“Yes, but the problem is…” says Ian, and pauses to think. He starts again: “I’ve truly, truly found my soulmate. But I’m hurting her and that really upsets me, because I wouldn’t allow anyone else to hurt my wife. But I am hurting her emotionally and spiritually because I’m not allowing myself to feel safe with her. And that’s a result of what happened to me… Sex was never an issue, it was just a commodity to be traded, and because it was such a poor commodity, I don’t want to be involved in it. That is an issue I need to work over. I’m not a bad person; I’m a great husband. I have issues with intimacy and being close, but we’ll work on that.”
Paula nods emphatically.
“I mean, sex is not something I associate with intimacy. It means nothing; it was something I was taught to do as a child, to do well, to give pleasure to others. I do sex like a robot. I used to sleep with my female bosses.”
When Ian has left the room, she cries a little. “You feel, when it’s abuse, the victim gets all the sympathy. But the other damage – his mother, his sister, his wife – we’re just left… Until he addresses these problems, they have won – they have still got the power over him.”
Many of the hundreds of people who have emailed me since early May seem to have found some satisfaction in the simple fact of recounting their story. I’ve been corresponding with men and women in their 70s and older who have never before spoken about what happened to them when they were just eight or 10. They may never do so, but opening that long-closed box does seem to help. For most the shame and anger has not dissipated, but many have said that opening that box is satisfying and helpful. Telling their story can be powerful medicine and many have found some relief and even resolution through counselling and psychotherapy.
For others, there is no consolation. Some of the relatives who have written just want explanations, and perhaps redress, even if these things have become impossible. One woman, a successful media executive, wrote with great tenderness and much anger about her beloved sibling whom she could now do nothing to help.
“My eldest brother (golden boy/head boy/witty, bright, clever, beautiful blond and blue-eyed boy) was at a boarding prep school from the age of six to 13. He was abused for years. It hardly matters as to the level as the effects were devastating, even though he buried it so deep that none of us even knew about it until a few months before his death, 15 years ago, when, a good 10 years after leaving the school, the matter finally came to light with the police… I don’t see my brother’s death as suicide any more. More like murder. I started to Google the links between abuse and mental illness – and there it all was. By the time the police finally started investigating my brother he was psychotic, depressed, schizophrenic: whatever the labels were, his brain was like a series of exploding Bunsen burners.”
This remains a very active problem for Mary – not her real name – in part because one of her brother’s two abusive teachers, a violent and sadistic man, is still alive. Y, as we’ll call him, has served a prison sentence since leaving the school, but his crimes against her brother and others had not featured in the court case.
I have also contacted the police, in search of a sexually abusive teacher from my school, and I wanted to talk through the ramifications of this with Mary. For me, for Ian McFadyen and for hundreds of others who attended schools like Caldicott, St Paul’s, Colet Court and Ashdown House, revenge through the legal system may provide some interesting therapy. But the exposure that involves is fraught with psychological and practical risks.
Mary is well aware of those problems. She’s also worried that her parents, all her family, still feel the effects of her brother’s abuse. “It’s in the air whenever we are all together – profound and horrifically tragic, yet somehow all of it unspoken. And with suicide comes the inevitable guilt that loved ones left behind feel, or indeed don’t allow themselves to feel by blaming others.
“I have tried to encourage my mother to have therapy, but she would never do that. She is of the stiff-upper-lip generation – which, of course, is part of the root of the problem with this whole issue.”
Ignoring the unacceptably ugly is deeply rooted in the class and its culture, Mary and I both agree. “As little as 10 years ago,” she says, “child abuse was hardly spoken about: it wasn’t acknowledged, perhaps it was almost expected as part of an induction into real life. There is a line in Alan Bennett’s History Boys where someone reminisces: ‘You know, before paedophilia got a bad name.’”
Mary is particularly driven by the fact that the jury that convicted Y, and the judge who sentenced him, never heard what he had done to her brother. These details, as horrific as any I’ve read in the emails, emerged as she questioned his friends and contemporaries.
“My father talked about killing him. I literally had to beg him not to as then he would go to prison, too. When your life feels like a movie you know something is very wrong. Y was in prison for 12 years and I have found him on the sex offenders register. But I just feel that 12 years was not nearly long enough. He ruined my brother. It was a gross misplacing of trust which my parents in no way deserved. And if he is alive, you have to worry if someone else is now suffering…”
I ask her if she really wants to pursue Y. She is doubtful. “You revisit the trauma too much – it’s like reliving it. That’s what has happened to me. I’ve thought so much as I’ve joined the dots about what happened to him, over the past year. I’ve really, really hated Y, to the point where I wanted him dead, and it’s become too much. It’s very unhealthy for me and I’m now on antidepressants,” she says. “I have to put a boundary up. There’s a balance between facing your demons and really feeling the emotions, and not spending however many years involved in it so it just takes over your life, and your family’s.”
There is a further thing. Y was married. “Though I hate him, I can’t help but think: he must have had something awful happen to him. Is that a reason to feel some sense of forgiveness? Would you forgive a serial killer because of his unhappy childhood?”
Many people caught up in this scandal and its reverberations have had similar thoughts. (There are now at least 150 private schools with serious current or recent allegations against them.) All the abusive men – and they are mostly men – I’ve been told about in recent weeks were once innocent, trusting small boys, just like Mary’s brother, like Ian McFadyen, and like me. It’s long been known that a significant proportion of sexual abusers were themselves abused. Early trauma can obviously play a part in forming, or warping, the emotional needs of the adult.
It is a mark of the immense generosity of many of the “survivors” and their loved ones, like Ian, like Paula and Mary, that they contemplate the origins of the monsters who have damaged their lives, and even the possibility of forgiveness.
Some of those who have loved the damaged will not forgive. “Please smash the system. Public schools ruin lives,” ends the email from a woman who feels her three brothers were made “alien” to her by their brutalising experiences at a Yorkshire school. She sees their emotional suffering then as the first chapter in a decades-long narrative of divorce, suicide attempts and family feuding that sours her life still. Other carers and survivors are driven – with a generosity I could not consider – to seek peaceful resolution. “I’m not sure I want inquiries and prosecutions,” one survivor’s partner said to me in early July, as Theresa May announced two independent investigations into historic child abuse and its cover-ups. “What we need – what the country needs, given the scale of all the abuse – is a commission like South Africa had. Truth and reconciliation. That’s what we all deserve.”