Real living: `He'll never do that to me again'
Seng-gye Tombs Curtis, 50, was born Ian Phillips and renamed Roger David Tombs Curtis when adopted as a baby. Sexually abused by his adoptive father, he acquired his Tibetan name in his twenties in an effort to reclaim his identity. He tells Elisabeth Winkler how the death of his father has finally set him free.
Sunday 24 January 1999
As a child I didn't have words for what my father did to me. All I knew was that I didn't like it. I was scared when my mother left the house because suddenly he would appear in the bathroom or my bedroom. I don't remember the words he used but I remember their tones: cajoling, wheedling and threatening. He said I must never tell anyone our secret or the family would break up and I would be sent away. I was confused - he said all daddies showed their love like this.
He always stood between me and the door and I was trapped, physically and emotionally. He loomed down at me and I wanted to be somewhere else. The smell of him, of his genitalia, terrified me. An adult's sexuality is intense and scary for a child - I felt overpowered by this wall of force.
When I was eight, I was told I was adopted. About this time I began to find out more about sex from the boys at school. Gradually I realised that what he did to me wasn't normal. But why me? Was it because I was adopted?
My girl cousins kept me sane because I felt safe with them and the memory of them is very precious. But I didn't tell anyone about the abuse until I was 11, when my father's demands started escalating. The first neighbour I spoke to wouldn't believe me. I tried again with another neighbour.
"My father does these things to me. I can't take it," I said haltingly. He said I was making up wicked stories and marched me back to my house. He told my father what I'd said, and, when he left, my father beat me with an umbrella until there was nothing left of it.
About this time I tried to commit suicide by hanging myself in my bedroom. I felt so trapped that dying felt more of an adventure than living. As I stood on a chair with the cord round my neck, for the first time I felt in control. Then I kicked the chair away and passed out.
I came round to the sound of my parents' anger and my mother screaming in my face, "How could you do this to me?" The next day to escape the row, I sat in the garden and an amazing thing happened: I watched a daisy slowly open. It was just me and the daisy and the air between us. I had found a quiet centre away from my parents and the experience gave me a sense of power.
When I was 13, I read a book on Buddhism and I found something which related to my experience with the daisy. Buddhism doesn't use the language of blame and it gave me the strength to blow the whistle on my father.
I told my mother but she accused me of trying to hurt her and she called my father in. When he denied it, I felt I was going mad - he'd abused me that very day. "But you did," I told my father tearfully.
"How can you say such terrible things?" my mother screamed at me. The accusations went on for hours and I felt I was losing my grip on reality.
Suddenly my father said, "I can't take this any more. All right, I did."
My mother's response is burnt in my head and I'll take her words to my grave. She said, "Not again, Peter."
I was sent to my room and I gathered from the angry voices downstairs that there had been an incident with a cub when he was a scoutmaster and that he had married my mother to avert a scandal. I'd spent my life with all this guilt and blame, thinking it was happening only because of me, because he loved me. Now I could see I wasn't the only one.
My father never abused me again after that and nor was the subject ever mentioned. No one ever said, "What help do you need?" My mother's religion was what-will-the-neighbours- think. Her god was respectability. The fear of others gossiping was far worse than the abuse.
I went off the rails a bit after that. I became stubborn and awkward and I ran away several times. After getting married in my twenties, I suffered a nervous breakdown. Over the next 15 years I slowly recovered and healed myself, mostly by talking about the abuse with friends which helped to take away the sense of shame and isolation. I have lost count of the amount of people I've met, mostly women, who have said "That happened to me too".
I probably hurt a lot of people along the way and I'd like to take the opportunity to say sorry. I had no sane model for relationships and over the years I have had to learn how to love.
When my father was ill, the family was pressing me to do more for him than my dutiful visits. So I approached a couple of my relations to explain why I couldn't. Neither was surprised - one had remembered the scout scandal - and the other said that my father had tried touching a neighbour's boy who was in her care.
It left me feeling that probably a lot of people knew or at least had suspicions about my father. They could have helped me, reached out, done something but instead they abandoned me rather than face the fear of scandal.
At the funeral some people wanted to talk about him as if he was a saint. They saw him as a sweet old man, or a good friend, and they wanted me to agree with them. Inside I was screaming "you don't know the facts" but I said nothing and received the usual critical looks. Once again I was taking the blame for not being a good son.
One of the hardest moments was meeting the neighbour who I'd talked to about my father. I hadn't seen him for 30 years but when he walked up to me, I froze. He took my hand in his and held on to it. My flesh crawled. He acted as if nothing had happened. Maybe he didn't even remember. I thought, you are standing there with that bland smile, trying to comfort me - yet when I needed help, you betrayed me. I felt faint and nauseous. I felt small, as if the whole thing was closing in on me again.
It was a total nightmare. There I was shaking hands with frail old people, asking myself whether they knew about my father and who knew what, when. There is no protocol when you are bereaved by someone who abused you. We survivors need a special language to help us.
I was able to tell the minister, who put together a non-judgmental eulogy which avoided the words "loving father". I vetoed all the hymns about God the father because ever since my childhood that concept has horrified me.
When my father died, I felt relief more than anything. The small child in me said, "I'm free. He's never going to do that to me again," and the fear lifted. I grieve the loss of my childhood, but for this old man? No. There's no grief for losing a father, because he never was one.
ChildLine helpline: Freefone 0800 1111.
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