The awful secret that destroyed our family

In the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal, Ettie Spencer and her sisters realised they had to speak out about the abuse they suffered as children, and its catastrophic impact on their lives

The exposure of Jimmy Savile has given rise to a great flood of revelations and the unburdening of victims of child abuse. Those of us that grew up in the great silence of the 1950s and 1960s are suddenly free to speak, it seems, and along with this there are some big questions that can now be asked. Why were we silent? How many victims are there? Do we know what the real damage was or is, and can we learn from this? Are we prepared to acknowledge the role that institutions play in allowing such things to happen to the vulnerable? Maybe these institutions do not protect us; in fact it would seem they are hotbeds of all kinds of perversions.

We have watched with horror just what has gone on in our health service, in our children's' homes, in the church, and in the BBC. We have learned to question what teachers, scout leaders, politicians and policemen are up to and to question their motives. And all this is before we even begin on the fundamental institution of the family and indeed our communities. There is another institution that has not yet had the finger pointed at it in this regard – the armed forces. We are all aware of war atrocities, bullying, rape and pillage that go with this territory – but what of child abuse?

My father was an officer in the British Army. Although we were not exceptionally well off, you could say we lived a life of some privilege. Various staff were employed to look after our family over the years. Many were based in our house, both when we lived in the camp and later when we moved to a rented house outside the town.

In common with many such families, our parents were concerned with, but quite detached from our everyday lives, and consequently had no idea that for a number of years three of my sisters and I lived with a child sex abuser in our midst.

We were then all under the age of 12 and not until we were in our late teens did one of my sisters tell all. Even then, we were told that, as my father had then left the army and this was all in the past, it had been decided to do nothing in order to spare us the trauma that would result if this was pursued.

Nothing, of course, could spare us the trauma of having lived with what I now remember as the heavy black cloud that hung menacingly over us every day. The fear and the dread and the lack of safety that we could never speak of, not even amongst ourselves, was just how it was.

The room where this monster lurked has all my life been the image that can pop up and haunt me.

This silence came at a catastrophic price. My clever, very beautiful and talented older sister, after a number of very troubled years struggling with low self esteem and bouts of terrible depression, took her own life at the age of 23. Another sister suffered from severe anorexia all through her 20s. Another, who has moderate learning difficulties, suddenly had a break down as a young adult, which involved various suicide attempts and then she disappeared completely, living rough and without benefits or support, for some 25 years. When she was eventually found it emerged she had been –living in hedges and church porches, hiding and near to starvation. She was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and had apparently believed all those years that she was "not good enough" and was "not wanted", forcing her to be in a different place every day in case she contaminated the area.

Like many people who are now "coming out" as victims of abuse, I believe that I should have spoken sooner. Later in life and very frail, my mother asked me what I thought was wrong with our family and why we had such a high casualty rate. How could I say what I had been tempted to say so many times over the years? Indeed, should I name and shame a person who must surely be dead by now? Should I hold the army to account? Does it still place unchecked individuals into households with young families? Can I even now put my siblings through further trauma by exposing the whole sordid saga? Notably, after the army my parents went on to have two more children who have lived in ignorance of all this and who have suffered no mental illnesses.

These questions and more, I have struggled with all my life. Indeed, I have no wish to burden my children with such troubles as, needless to say, their welfare is paramount to me.

However, I very much believe that the telling of these horror stories is essential so that we can at last ask some of the big questions.

Writing this is undoubtedly therapeutic for me, even though I came off more lightly than my sisters. Because I was such a timid child I was hard to catch, and mostly suffered only the witnessing of so many unmentionable things.

It is now emerging that child abuse cannot be ignored by those concerned with the health of the nation. Author and psychologist Oliver James, giving a recent talk, indicated that research now shows that a significantly high number of people suffering from severe mental illness have been victims of child sexual abuse.

This is something that has seemed obvious to me, but now surely this has to be taken seriously. We also need to take a careful look at our traditional institutions and at how perceived power and celebrity status allows such things to happen.

We need to liberate adults and children to be able to speak and to be believed.

As for so many people, it has taken recent events to liberate me from "the silence" and I now feel I owe it to my sisters to speak out.

I urge everyone who has suffered in this way to speak too and with the force of a tidal wave perhaps ensure that we do now ask the questions, finally.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Opilio Recruitment: Full Stack Software Developer

    £35k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

    Opilio Recruitment: Senior Developer

    £50k - 60k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We have an exciting Seni...

    Opilio Recruitment: Senior Front End Developer

    £50k - 70k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We have an exciting Seni...

    Opilio Recruitment: Senior Digital Designer

    £50k - 55k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An exciting opportunity ...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game