So this week the veteran entertainer Rolf Harris was found guilty of 12 counts of indecently assaulting four girls in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
One of the victims was a childhood friend of his daughter, another was an autograph hunter aged seven or eight. Prosecutors said Harris was a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ character who took advantage of his fame. Sentencing is on Friday.
The shameful saga of child abuse perpetrated by celebrities that abused their fame to bring them into contact with their victims feels never ending—and that is not to suggest for one second that I would wish to curtail further media reporting of current or possibly as yet unexposed cases simply because I find such coverage sometimes tedious, even though it is abhorrent.
I applaud those who speak out about their abuse, since I myself was sexually abused by both my grandfather and stepmother, before being rescued by social workers in the mid Eighties, whereupon I suffered further abuse, albeit of a less grave nature. And like many, I am aghast at the extent to which this culture of abusive behaviour took place with apparent impunity, across decades.
The heavy door to this dark world began to creak open when the sexual crimes of former pop star Gary Glitter came to light, followed by the comedian Freddie Starr; former BBC producers Wilfred De’ath and Ted Beston; then DJ Dave Lee Travis; then publicist Max Clifford; and others. Travis stated that his arrest had been connected with matters not linked to children. Clifford denied what he termed the ‘damaging and totally untrue allegations’ (Source: Wikipedia)
Suddenly, old Christmas favourites which were rolled out year after year, such as ‘I’m the Leader of the Gang’ vanished from disco floors, and rightfully so. But what was once thought to be an isolated case about Glitter, then turned into a Pandora’s box that burst open and could not be closed.
Born in 1973, I grew up with most of these names. None were my childhood heroes, although my grandfather was—despite being a paedophile himself. Many of these famous men were staple childhood TV viewing for my peers and me and as kids of course we had no clue as to what went on behind the scenes. Only the victims themselves and adults around them who either suspected or knew and turned a blind eye, or actively participated in such vile behaviour had an idea.
For almost twenty years I have worked in marketing, and for most of that in recruitment marketing, that is, I work with clients to help them to attract and recruit staff into their organisations. I have worked with all types of organisations, and my projects have ranged from recruiting pilots to fly to the South Pole, to pickers and packers for national recruitment agencies, to social workers for local authorities, and most recently, to foster carers for children in care who cannot live at home with their birth families for a number of unhappy reasons.
When my career journeyed into this particular area, several years ago, I worked at that time with a local authority in Essex and built very good relationships with managers there who I grew to know well over a few years. I was asked to help them to attract and recruit foster carers, and duly took a creative project brief from them, followed up a week or so later with presentation of draft copy and advertising concepts for a campaign.
I remember vividly that one of the visual concepts (advertising ideas) was of an adult man, sitting on some stairs, with his arm around a teenage girl. The image represented a Dad, or foster-dad, comforting his foster-daughter; a looked after child placed in his care. Looking back, I can see it was a naïve image, but not a stupid one, then, or now.
That was over a decade ago but I recall how both clients baulked at the image, and one said, ‘there’s just no way we can run with that, Sean.’ I looked back at them and said, in a resigned, slightly glib tone, ‘you know it’s sad isn’t it, but it’s getting to the stage where you’d think there’s a paedophile on every street in the country, isn’t it?’. The response I got shocked me.
My clients, both of whom held senior social work positions within this local authority replied to me, ‘Sean, you don’t realise this, but there is. And they are the ones we know about.’ I looked at them both with an expression of disbelief. So, they reiterated the point. The advertising concept was binned.
Today, in 2014, after a slew of media coverage, and a decade more experience under my belt, as well as having now also worked for several years within the children’s service of a local authority, I now know they spoke the absolute truth, although I didn’t doubt their word at the time.
Here I want to make a central point. For readers of this article that think that only celebrities were engaged in this manipulative, abhorrent behaviour, then think again. Sure, because of who they are (or were), they get all the coverage, but don’t, for a minute, think this phenomenon was, or is, confined to theatrical dressing rooms. It isn’t.
Of all the celebrities that have been convicted of child sex offences, this week’s conviction of Rolf Harris has possibly affected me most deeply. It has certainly prompted me to write about it. Why? Well, because Rolf, in my mind, just didn’t seem ‘the type’. His cover was perfect. He was warm, affable, made silly songs, his public persona wasn’t remotely creepy.
He’s the sort of guy who before now, many parents may have left their own children with quite happily, without ever dreaming for a second that his intentions towards their children might go beyond anything more than feeding ducks and wibble-wobbling a metal board as a bit of childish fun. Rolf’s conviction has an unreal quality about it that is very unnerving.
Apart from revulsion at his crimes, I’m also sad. I’m sad because Rolf, of all of ‘them’, has now, finally, and completely, shattered the illusion that the Eighties, as a period in our recent history, whilst riven by political strife, was one of happy pop, yuppies, and chart topping ballads. It now feels like a total sham; an illusion.
On the one hand, we had pop stars coming together and collaborating on such fantastic projects as Live Aid (1985), which followed the iconic ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ produced by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure in response to the horrendous famine in Ethiopia in which millions starved to death, and I still remember those dreadful images on the news of emaciated children with flies buzzing around their eyes. But Live Aid was an event of such poignancy and nostalgia that it is utterly unforgettable to anyone who was alive at the time.
And yet, on the other hand, whilst our collective backs were turned, there festered a dark underworld of abuse that was apparently so pervasive that one can hardly watch any child’s TV programme from that era without suspecting all male stars, celebrities, TV presenters, call them what we will, as possible child abusers. I can’t help but ask myself: were they all at it?
The constant news headlines, the relentless exposures, the disturbing knowledge I have gleaned throughout my own career, my own childhood abuse, and today’s news about Rolf, as ostensibly ‘loveable’ as my own grandfather, collectively makes me feel nauseous. Perhaps there will be more. It’s not for me to judge when it is time to close the door on this, for that is for individuals concerned to decide, not for me.
But, perhaps I am angry because I never got to hold my grandfather to account. Nor my stepmother, another of my sexually sadistic childhood abusers. My grandfather died twenty years ago, unscathed by direct accusation. My stepmother, who will remain unnamed, lives somewhere with my biological father in the East of England.
I once shared what had happened to me at the hands of my grandfather with a family relative of a similar age; a cousin. I don’t think he believed me. His response was muted and unengaged. I was shunned. His mother, my aunt, has never made contact with me since. I have tried, a couple of times, to make contact with my cousin, but he won’t reciprocate.
That used to feel very, very shaming for me; as though they all believe I have made up such a story to gain attention. I’m sad about that, but I’ve stopped trying to get through. There is no point. It is not my mission in life to relieve my own anger by spreading it among other family members if they have no wish to hear it. But nor can I have an authentic relationship with them if they won’t listen. I will not be complicit in our family’s ‘dirty little secret’, and they can’t have me without accepting the truth, too.
A dear friend of mine once said to me, ‘Sean, revenge is a dish best served cold.’ Well, I don’t know if I’m inflicting revenge by steering clear because I honestly don’t believe my father or my stepmother have ever regretted what they did, or failed to stop, but all of that is in my own Pandora’s box which I have personally chosen to keep shut. I have no wish to have contact with either of them so long as I live.
Their actions caused me such enormous psychological damage that it took years of committed therapy to overcome the worst of the emotional hangover of it all, and still some of it lingers that I simply have to accept, learn to live with, and treat as a treasure chest of experience rather than a cross to bear.
After years of expensive navel gazing, with as much generously given to me in professional psychotherapeutic time as I ever paid for, I must now move on because it simply isn’t possible to erase my memory, and I cannot and I will not allow my life to be defined by hatred for my childhood abusers, nor by shame for their actions perpetrated against me, beginning as a five-year-old boy. The shame is theirs. It is not mine.
For me, and for all survivors of childhood abuse—however, and by whomever we were abused, whether by a celebrity, or a grandfather, or someone else, I say to the rest of us who were lucky enough not to have been abused: do not judge us by our pasts, for we don’t live there anymore.