I was sexually abused at 11, but my mum won’t speak about it | Dear Mariella

By Mariella Frostrup

The dilemma When I was 11, I was sexually abused over the course of a year. It was the 1980s, we trusted adults and I had private lessons at my teacher’s home. I eventually told my mum and the lessons stopped, but we never discussed it.

I blanked it out until something sparked my memory when I was 18 and I brought it up with her. It turned out she’d blanked it, too. She apologised for not remembering.

I am now a mum of two children who are around the same age I was then, and it’s made me review how I was raised. I have always felt guilty for bringing the abuse up with my mum: her emotions come first, especially in my dad’s eyes. Now, as a mother of two girls who are spending a lot of time slamming doors and yelling, it’s brought home how it really isn’t about me. Their feelings count.

I honestly do not understand why I was not sent to counselling. I know it was a long time ago and things were very different then. I realise that I have the option to seek this myself now as an adult. But I feel as if it is something dark and unspoken between my parents and me. I am unsure if and how to approach them about this. It may just make them feel guilty, which I don’t want. They are old. Should I just leave it? I never felt unloved. My parents always adored me and still do.

Mariella replies Thank you for trusting me with your story. I’m so sorry you endured such a thing and even sorrier that the people who loved you didn’t know what to do with the information after you were brave enough to tell them. As you suggest, both our vocabulary for such crimes and our ability to confront them has thankfully improved since those darker times when what often appears as a kind of wilful delusion ruled. I wish I could say such experiences are well in our past, but with the murder of Sarah Everard and the shocking stories emerging from #EveryonesInvited it is clear that abuse against women and girls remains at epidemic levels.

It’s never too late to seek help and support, and there are brilliant organisations out there which are best placed to help you find a way of recovering from your trauma and reframe your experience in a way that can diminish its hold on you and free you from the legacy of your abuser’s actions. I suggest the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (napac.org.uk, 0808 801 0331); Rape Crisis (rapecrisis.org.uk, 0808 802 9999), which is available to anyone who has experienced any kind of sexual violence, no matter how long ago – , and the Survivors Trust (thesurvivorstrust.org, 08088 010818), which offers specialist support for both men and women who are survivors of rape.

But you’ve written to me and I shall try to offer you useful advice of my own. As I said only last week, the past is a foreign country because so much has changed for women since the likes of you and I were young, yet, at times like this, it feels we’ve barely moved on at all. The most important question here is what you hope to gain by pushing your mum further on the issue. I’m certain she hasn’t forgotten the incident and remains haunted and paralysed by her inability to accept or process what you endured. It’s no wonder you want to delve deeper into why you were given no support, assistance or closure. That latter word is often bandied about nowadays, but its omnipresence doesn’t make it any easier to achieve. And I’m wary of the idea that all transgressions will be dealt their rightful reckoning and those who feel like victims transformed into empowered vengeance-pursuing survivors. The sad fact is that it remains a brutal world, and the fear and trauma that women experience would appear to have changed little since the stone age. I can’t offer you an answer on whether or not to push your mother – it’s a choice only you can make. If you choose to pursue it, keep in mind that you may not get a resolution, or you may receive unsatisfactory answers. In your shoes, I would find it hard not to keep pushing at the boundaries she’s erected, but there’s no predicting what the outcome will be.

The one person who seems to have escaped without consequences is the perpetrator and unless he’s deceased he’s the one I’d like to see called out. When 55,130 rapes were reported in England and Wales in 2019-2020, with only 2,102 prosecutions and 1,439 convictions, it’s clear survivors are being betrayed by the very justice system built to protect them.

But with any emotional damage, the first place to start work has to be on yourself. Professional counselling can help you recover from this longstanding trauma and build your resilience to tackle its legacy. From that position of personal strength, you’ll have a better perspective on what you’ve endured and what you want to do to address it.

If you have a dilemma, send a brief email to mariella.frostrup@observer.co.uk. Follow her on Twitter @mariellaf1