what my big brother taught me

He was tough, older, exciting, her first affair. He was also her half-brother. Lauren Roberts, at 12, was powerless to resist, but guilt still haunts her
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I still have some of the pictures that my half-brother took. They are mostly shots of me at 15 or 16, adopting poses which are a bizarre cross between Wuthering Heights and Page Three. But there is a much earlier one in which the pathos is tangible. My face is still round with puppy fat, but I'm trying to compensate by smothering myself in make-up and gazing "seductively" at the camera. On the right of the photograph is a bookcase full of titles such as Little Women and Jill and the Perfect Pony. Above it is a big poster of two cute kittens. My photographer seems to have captured the final moments of childhood.

John is a son from my father's first marriage. He came to live with us when I was 12 and he was 18. He had been "getting into trouble" in his home town and my father thought that he would have a better chance in our nice middle-class suburb. When he arrived my mum and I were waiting, frozen with trepidation, in our kitchen. We had stolen his father from him after all, and we were scared that he would hate us. And perhaps he did.

But he and I seemed to get on straight away. Within days he was demanding that I make him cups of tea as though he had been my brother all his life. He related tales of being expelled from school, thieving from shops and taking too many drugs. He told me rude jokes and discussed politics with me. I tried desperately to keep up. I thought he was the most amazing, exciting, fascinating person that I had ever met. Basically, I had a massive schoolgirl crush on my new, exotic big brother. Left to my own devices I would probably have developed a more healthy crush on somebody new. But it didn't happen like that.

John began to buy me presents. Books and records, but also clothes and make-up. The thrill was intense. Someone who didn't have to like me was buying me presents - and it wasn't even my birthday. I felt wanted and - for the first time - desired. I didn't for one minute think: "Why is my brother buying me expensive presents once a week?"

Soon the presents came attached with a request for a hug. There was no question of me refusing. I was totally drawn. But I knew instantly that this was not innocent. It was exciting and scary and I mustn't tell anyone. Then the trips to the country started. Big bro had a car, which meant that he would whisk me off to small villages where we would never be spotted. So while my friends were going "down town" to hang out together and spot boys from school, I was learning how to snog and smoke fags and lie to my parents.

I know now that my mother was not convinced. Looking back, it's hardly surprising. John and I spent all our spare time in each other's bedrooms with the doors locked. Sometimes my eyes were red from crying after he had teased me for hours. She even caught us leaping away from each other when she came home unexpectedly one day. In the last few years she has told me that after that she took John down the pub and told him to stay away from me or else she would tell my father, who would beat the shit out of him.

John never told me that she knew, but I do remember him saying that we had to "stop". I was so hysterical I couldn't speak without my words being punctuated with sobs. But I also knew that to get what I wanted I had to pretend I didn't want it. So by 13 I had added being a manipulative bitch and an accomplished flirt to my list of new-found talents. John relented.

My mother did once try to tell my father about what was going on. Apparently he laughed at her and said that John was just "very fond" of me. She couldn't bring herself to raise the subject again: she had taken John's father from him once and she couldn't bear to do it again.

The next few years lack continuity in my memory. We never actually had sexual intercourse. It was always John who made the physical demands and this is one that he never made. Instead he contented himself with pulling up my top and groping my still-forming breasts while we baby-sat for my younger sister. Sometimes I would respond and sometimes I would sit perfectly still and stare at the television. At weekends we would go driving, then stop in faceless car parks for half an hour of passion in the back seat. We never looked at each other and we never talked about what was going on between us.

My mother often invited John to parties with her, presumably in the hope that he would find someone to distract him from me. But the closest she came was at one of her own New Year's Eve parties. John spent the night chatting up the daughter of one of my father's friends. She was 21 and she had breasts and long legs. She was a woman. I sat on the couch and watched everyone dancing and smoking and drinking and touching each other. I had never felt so small and shapeless and powerless in my life.

Then John walked over to me and kissed me. Briefly, but on the mouth. Now they knew. I waited for someone to gasp, for my mother to become hysterical. I wondered whether I would go to prison or simply be ostracised. Then I heard someone say how nice it was to see brother and sister get on so well.

Through all this I believed that, although what John was doing was obviously wrong, I was equally to blame because I equally wanted it. Had I known that my mother was trying to split us up I would have hated her. I thought I knew what I was doing and expected to be allowed to do it.

During these years I had a few boyfriends, all of whom I thought comparably young and stupid. One night, when I was about to go out with one of them, John began to cry. "Do you love him?" he asked. "Course not," I replied. "But one day you will love somebody else," he said. And when I was 16 I began my first serious relationship with someone who was not a member of my family. He broke the spell.

John and I never discussed it, but gradually we became more and more like friends and less and less like lovers. The week before I left to go to university, he shocked me by asking whether, if I didn't meet anyone "special" at college, I would go away somewhere with him, somewhere we could live together. I said "yes" but I no longer meant it. In the end he went to college as a mature student. We saw each other once a month for a drink and a chat. Neither of us mentioned the past.

As I got older I became less and less ashamed of what had happened. I had told the first serious boyfriend about it and I began to conceive of the possibility that I could tell other people without them thinking I was some kind of pervert. I could feel sorry for the little girl in the photograph because she was no longer me. I didn't need to pretend that she knew what she was doing any more. But, as I became less ashamed, I became more angry. I began to be aware of the damage that had been done: my habit of forming "high-risk" relationships (ones with boyfriends' brothers, best mates' men, that sort of thing); my obsessive "testing" of partners to make sure that they were suitably besotted; my association of sex with danger rather than love or even pleasure... suddenly it all made sense. I began to wonder how, at the age of 18, John could have failed to realise what he was doing. How he could have let it get so out of hand. Why he was attracted to a pre-pubescent girl who was his half-sister.

Before long I could no longer look at him without thinking about it, without these questions leaping into my head, without wanting to scream at him. So I stopped seeing him. I just stopped returning his calls, and after a while he stopped making them.

Why didn't I ask him the questions? In case he laughed at me. In case he said: "What are you talking about? We hardly did anything. It was just a bit of fun..."

8 Names and some identifying details have been changed

INCEST: THE PSYCHOLOGY, THE LAW AND THE MEDIA

THE PSYCHIATRIST

Professor Roland Littlewood, department of anthropology, University College London

Abuse theory argues that this type of relationship could never be consensual because of the age discrepancies. A person experiencing early abuse from a sibling is likely to suffer problems later in life such as self harming, perceiving the world as a highly sexualised place and suicidal feelings. A half-brother may attempt to justify his 'seduction' of his half-sister by arguing that he is not fully her brother, however this displays traits of an abusive psychopathic personality. A popular theory suggests that during the first few months of life, siblings sexually switch off from one another permanently unless they have psychopathic tendencies. This explains the rarity of incest between siblings known to each other from birth. However, in cases of post-adoption first time meetings, more than half of the siblings report that they have strong erotic feelings for one another, and around half of these may act on it. There is no evidence to suggest that these relationships have a damaging effect on either partner.

THE BROOKSIDE PRODUCER

Phil Redmond

The Nat and Georgia incestuous relationship within Brookside provided us with the means of exploring the complexities of sexuality and social taboos. The important question is why, in this relationship, the barriers that exist for 99.9 per cent of the population are absent. Incest has now unfortunately become a shorthand term for sex abuse, which is why I insisted that in the Brookside scenario the sister be older than her brother, so that there was no question of male dominance. When we researched incest for the plot, many of the medics we spoke to said that mutually consensual incestuous relationships tend to be non-traumatic as long as they remain undiscovered. However, we are certainly not trying to say that incest is OK - if anything, the development of the plot will reinforce the taboo.

CHILDLINE

Mary MacLeod, Director of Policy and Research

Between April 1995 and March 1996 we had 390 calls regarding sexual abuse by a brother and 68 reports of sexual abuse by a sister. Most of the callers were between the ages of 13 and 17, though some were from children as young as seven. We also receive calls from parents who have discovered sibling incest within their family. Typically, children and parents report feelings of distress, confusion, anger and uncertainty about right and wrong. Youngsters find it very difficult to know what to do, and making the situation known to adult members of the family characteristically causes uproar. Families and youngsters are both very frightened of calling in the law. Childline advocates the treatment of young offenders to break the pattern of abuse via a diversion programme.

THE LAW

Statistics specific to incidents of sibling incest do not as yet exist. Although consensual sex between two adult siblings is classed as incest and therefore remains illegal, the apparent rarity of convictions of this nature suggests that there are few attempts to prosecute.

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