Open to abuse: Did being molested as a baby make Rebecca Moran an easier target for sex offenders later in life?
When Rebecca Moran was molested as a baby by her grandfather, did it make her susceptible to a lifetime of victimisation? Following years of assaults that she blocked out with hard drugs and self-harm, she has finally found the courage to tell her story, in the hope that it will help others speak up – and help get to the root of the cycle of her abuse
Sunday 25 July 2010
I can see the pattern of the couch so clearly. It was black, white and grey stripes. I remember every molecule, of every fabric hair. I can feel my feet hooked together, trying to keep my body in. He was laughing, making a joke because he'd put my knickers on inside-out. Then I remember feeling that I needed my mum to come and find me, make me feel safe. But she never came."
Rebecca Moran was just a baby when her grandfather started abusing her. He would come and stay with her family every summer on their farm in Western Australia, and molest her while her parents worked outside. She now knows that when she was between the ages of 18 months and five years, he would touch her and make her perform oral sex on him. She knows this because her older sister, Briony, told her, much later, when the girls were adults. Three years older than Becca, Briony was abused by her grandfather, too.
Like much childhood abuse, it wasn't violent, and was made to feel a natural part of love and affection. Becca had no idea what was happening to her, no idea that it was wrong, only that she didn't feel right. "I was a happy little girl. I loved books and singing and catching tadpoles and feeding ' the animals on the farm. But as early as I can remember, I would go to bed most nights knowing I was disgusting and evil and there was something wrong with me, scared everyone else would find out."
It stopped when she was aged five or six, after her dad suspected something was amiss and, without confronting his father, told him never to come back. When Becca asked why her granddad didn't visit any more, she was told that there had been a fight over money. But in the way that children are naturally egocentric, she could come to only one conclusion: he had left because of her and it was her fault everyone was so sad. She didn't tell anyone what had happened. The silence began.
Relatively speaking, Becca was OK over the next few years. She went to school and spent happy hours playing outside with her friends. But there was a game she played alone: "I used to take dolls up to the dam and act out violent and sexual scenes, which proved to me that I was dirty and wrong. I only found out a few years ago that this is normal for a child who has been abused."
One summer's day, just after she turned 14, Becca agreed to baby-sit for a local family. When she arrived at midday, Becca discovered that the adults were no longer going out; instead they'd invited over a friend, a 37-year-old man with a beard and a Jack Daniel's T-shirt. "They kept saying, 'This day is for you Bec,' and gave me beer and a bong, which I'd never had before. At one point, after I threw up, I remember feeling scared, but we're taught to do what adults tell us, that grown-ups know best. So I retreated into the baby-sitting role and tried to stay with the kids."
At around nine o'clock, she went to bed in the same room as one of the children while the three adults carried on drinking and smoking downstairs. "The stranger came in and sat on the edge of the bed next to my shoulders, and put a beer bottle and his knife on the bedside table, in line with my head. He lay down next to me and kissed me. I was really worried about the little boy, so I tried to stay quiet, and then I was just frozen stiff. Just numb and blank. He kept saying, 'Look what you've done to me; look what you're making me do.' He put his hand up my shirt and down my pants and said, 'You're wet, that means you're hot.'
"The smell and the taste of him were making me gag but he kept on giving me instructions on what to do. All the while I was terrified he was going to put the knife inside of me."
He made her perform oral sex on him, penetrated her with his penis and the bottle, all the while telling her it was her fault for being so sexy. By this point of the violent assault, which lasted more than an hour, part of Becca's brain switched off and her body shut down, in order to survive the ordeal.
The man was still there the next morning when her mum picked her up. Becca never said a word. "I had no idea about this sort of stuff, my mum hadn't told me about sex, we hadn't had sex education at school yet. So I got the bus the next day and told my friend that I'd had my first kiss. That's what I thought had happened. I knew I hadn't liked it but I never knew it was rape. I thought this was what all the older girls at school were talking about and that there must be something wrong with me, because I didn't like it."
Becca's life unravelled almost immediately. She stopped going to school, and instead started drinking and taking drugs – acid, cannabis, amphetamines – all cheap and readily available. And she started to self-harm – cutting, burning and punching her face and body – to punish herself for being so disgusting. It made her feel better.
As Becca fell apart, her parents were unable to see or do what she needed. Teachers at school tried to help by sending her to counselling, but Becca couldn't speak. She was confused, ashamed and silent.
"When a person is raped and abused, they can think that it was their fault, that they deserved it," says Dr Janice Smith, a sexual abuse and trauma specialist working with teenagers in the north-east of England. "So the next abusive relationship can seem normal; as if that is the love and affection they are entitled to. Once in, it is very difficult to get out or to even think they should or deserve to get out."
The 14-year-old Becca had a friend who lived about an hour away, and there they were free to drink and smoke. Her friend's bedroom, annexed from the main house, was the perfect place for parties, and that's where Becca met 17-year-old Steve (not his real name). "The couch was really bad 1980s fabric, brown and orange diamonds with brown buttons. By this time I knew the rules, so, when he undid his zip and pushed my head down, I knew what I had to do, what my role was. It was horrible, but I was telling myself it was normal. I tried to want it, and I did want attention; I wanted someone to like me, to give me something I needed."
For more than a year, she went to these parties every weekend and became known as "Tripper Bec", because of all the acid she swallowed. Steve would have sex with her, she says, and the very last time, he pushed her face into
the pillow so she could barely breathe, and raped her anally. "That was the first time I actually recognised what was happening to me as wrong, as rape." Indeed, most sexual abuse isn't "violent", but set up to appear "natural", confusing the child about what is right and wrong, according to psychologist Anne Carpenter, who has 20 years' experience working with sex offenders and victims in Scotland. Steve was never charged with rape, but pleaded guilty to a charge of vaginal penetration of a child between the ages of 13 and 16 years of age; the charge of anal penetration was dropped.
By now distanced from her immediate family, Becca left home, aged 15, and travelled across the state, making money from busking. For a while she enjoyed the freedom of her nomadic life. She met people who helped her, but there were others, too many to count, who took advantage of her vulnerabilities. She never complained, rarely fought back, just tried to survive by disassociating in dangerous situations.
She tried to distract from worsening flashbacks by cutting herself, but by 17 her body was unable to suppress the emotional pain and she was suffering from crippling migraines. A man she met while playing music in a small town gave something to help with the pain. It worked, but it was heroin, and she was quickly hooked.
How can one girl be so unlucky? Was she just naïve or, in some bizarre way, looking for men who would abuse her? Why was Briony, also abused by their grandfather, never re-victimised? "Sex offenders will always target the vulnerable," explains Dr Smith. "They go out looking for people they can abuse and, most importantly, control. It's almost as if there were a manual. Victims don't go out seeking it, they just fall into it because they ooze vulnerability and abusers have antennae tuned into vulnerability."
Becca most likely presented these men with the path of least resistance. One predator enables the next because each leaves another layer of self-loathing. She didn't have the skills to spot danger, nor did she care enough to protect herself. "If presented with a choice, the burglar will pick the house left unlocked. That doesn't mean it isn't an offence, but people choose the easiest option: those least likely to resist," says Carpenter. "The one who looks a bit shy, is cowed, alone, seems switched-off – that's who they choose. And when things get dangerous, the victim switches off, disassociates, because that's the survival technique they know."
Looking back, Becca now says she was branded. "A lion can spot the antelope with the sore leg, the weak and vulnerable one. Predators know their prey. It's only in the past three years that I think I've stopped having a big sign on my head that says 'victim'."
At 19, Becca went to live with her father in Perth and re-connected with her family, who tried to help the best they could; despite not knowing the full details of what had happened, they could see that she was struggling. She got on to a methadone [heroin substitute] programme and into counselling, but the years of repeated abuse had taken a heavy toll on her mental health. Finally safe, Becca's hands started to shake uncontrollably. She was painfully skinny. At times, just having something in her mouth, or even moving her tongue, would be enough to trigger a flashback. This would initiate such powerful emotions of shame, hate and guilt that the only relief was cutting herself. She was admitted to psychiatric hospitals where doctors tried to sedate her with powerful psychiatric drugs, to help her to sleep and stop her hurting herself so badly.
One day, on the way home from the methadone clinic, she overheard two schoolgirls talking about a party near where her old friend had lived. She panicked. What if what had happened to her would happen to them, too. On an impulse, she walked into a police station.
"I told a detective [what had happened to me], and he believed me. I was very, very lucky and in some ways, that detective, Colin Keen, saved my life."
Even though she would later ring Detective Keen and plead with him to drop the charges against the men who had abused her, convinced that it was her fault, he refused to stop believing her. Three long years later, both men ended up in court. Steve, as mentioned, was convicted on a lesser charge; the man who assaulted her while she was baby-sitting was convicted of rape in 2004.
Becca's experience with the police was atypical, as much here as in Australia. Of an estimated 50,000 rapes that take place in the UK every year, less than a third are reported to the police. The conviction rate for rape hovers at six per cent in the UK, the lowest in Europe apart from Ireland, but slightly higher than in some Australian states. Many victims, especially if their account doesn't conform to the rape-myth of violent assault by a stranger, still face blame and distrust from police officers and other professionals.
Yet the way disclosures of rape and sexual assault are handled is crucial, for recovery and for justice. Officers repeatedly believed the word of John Worboys, the black-cab driver and convicted serial rapist, above numerous victims who reported his attacks, allowing him to continue drugging and assaulting female passengers for years. It was his case, which ended in March last year – in particular the victim who spoke out – that motivated Becca to share her story.
Rape victims who are not believed or somehow feel blamed by friends, family or professionals, often become silent, sometimes telling no one for years, according to research from the University of California. The longer a victim feels such shame and guilt, the harder it is to eventually recover.
Personal beliefs about what constitutes rape are hugely important in the way police officers react, but there are other factors involved. A University College London study by psychologist Dr Lucy Maddox found that victims can come across as incoherent and unbelievable because they often avoid eye contact – an act more commonly associated with lying than shame. Flashbacks, avoidance and jumpiness – common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder – can also make victims seem less believable to an untrained officer or health professional. Yet the more empathic or understanding officers are, the more likely a victim is to go to court.
In response to the outcry surrounding the Worboys case, the Metropolitan Police last year set up Britain's first dedicated rape intelligence unit, the biggest such squad in the world. And detectives who interview victims in London are, from this year, to be trained in the psychological effects of rape. Becca is using her story to train West Yorkshire police, but there are gaping holes of knowledge and empathy within the criminal justice system.
Not long after Steve's conviction, Becca came to England, in 2006, in an attempt to start again. Last year she completed her degree in psychology and criminology at Bradford University with first-class honours. Not bad for a girl who didn't finish school. She is currently studying for a Masters.
It is impossible to leave trauma behind completely. But it is possible to recover, even from abuse so violent and relentless. Recovery means different things to different people at different times. Finding a voice, learning to say no, eating, not hurting yourself, sleeping soundly – these are all achievable, eventually, but only after a person can stop hating herself.
"If you're completely powerless and can't control the world around you and what people do to you, then the one thing you can control is your body," says Sam Warner, a child-abuse expert and reader at Manchester Metropolitan University. "It's easier to hurt yourself when you don't care about yourself, especially when your body has made 'bad things' happen. Self-harm, addictions and eating disorders are quite simply survival strategies; they keep people alive because without them they would be utterly overwhelmed by feelings of terror and hopelessness.
"Learning new coping strategies are important, but fundamentally it's about your relationship with yourself. Unless the way you feel about yourself changes, nothing will. To find a way to like yourself, to love yourself, to not blame yourself so much, and to make sense of your life, is key."
Rufus May, a clinical psychologist who works with Becca, adds that, to survive trauma and heal from its aftermath, people need to feel safe and believed. "It is a truth and reconciliation process. We, as supporters or professionals, need to be able to walk with the person and face difficult feelings such as shame, outrage and fear, to help them rebuild their faith in the world."
After a lifetime spent trying to be invisible, from where has Becca found such courage to break her silence? "The taboo, the silence, the way victims are so often treated confirms that yes, it was your fault," she says. "What allowed my granddad to keep going, and what allows every abuser to keep going, is the silence. This is something that has happened to the women in my family and the silence let it keep happening. I don't think victims hide their faces because they're ashamed, but because it makes it easier for the rest of the world. For some reason I believe that breaking the silence, shining a light on the ugly truth, will make it stop – not just for me, but for everyone.
"My parents talked to my sister so she understood what had happened and why she felt a certain way. I wandered around [after what happened with my granddad] looking for answers about why I felt ashamed, and sick and disgusting, but I never got that until I was abused again. That incident gave me an answer; it was my fault, this is what I deserved. For my parents, not talking to me about what happened is one of their biggest regrets."
Becca is still learning how to keep herself safe. She is drug-free, despite cravings. Her fridge is fairly sparse, but a sign on the door reminds her that she deserves to eat. Sleep never comes easily, despite medication, and nights are when the flashbacks – feelings and smells and couches – can overwhelm. Her body is a mess with scars but she is learning new ways to survive.
"There are some days when I can see that things are so much better than they were and I'm grateful for whatever that was that kept me alive," she says. "But even now that I'm 27 and supposed to be getting better, I'm not 100 per cent sure I haven't made the whole story up, and that actually it was my fault. Sometimes I feel so evil and disgusting, as if I don't deserve to breathe. I haven't caught up with myself and realised that I survived."
Rebecca Moran: In her own words
'I want to cut my breasts off. I think I blame them for something. I wonder if, shrivelled, sagging anorexic breasts that they are, whether I could pull them away from my body, twist them, and just cut through the skin with scissors. Pop, off they'd come. Scissors are too blunt, so it's razors, cutting in a nice neat circle. I do a little bit every few hours: rationing my relief, and trying to buy time to talk myself out of it. I try to barter, with logic, with the possibility that someday I might want this body to be seen and touched and loved, that someday I'll regret these scars. But the screaming in my head gets too loud, and I drown it out with blood.
'The ghosts of my inner children are crying, and I cannot stand the stares from their broken eyes. So I slash them, starve them, poison and sedate them with syringes of hot liquid death, until they're too weak to tell me how little and sad, hurt, and confused they were. My mind is crowded with 27 years' worth of screaming and weeping younger selves: a waiting-room full of people with appointments to grieve. It's not a comfortable room, and they are not made to feel welcome. The little ones have been waiting a long time, violently denied their appointments again and again. They need to grieve for that too now. Traumatised by the trauma of being traumatised. I hate those children, for their weakness, their pathetic naïveté. I don't know how to forgive them, and they can't stop crying until I do. Stab, starve, sedate, silence.
'I wear black shirts to work meetings and lectures in case the blood soaks through. I resolve research problems, fill and follow my diary, and cower in public toilets to tear the wounds open with my fingers, so I can bleed, so I can breathe. I bleed out my depravity quietly, hidden under dark clothing and polite conversation.
'The cuts start healing, I have to stop eating. I haven't been paying enough rent on the air I'm breathing. It's borrowed air; slipped to me under the counter, because things as disgusting as me aren't supposed to breathe. This isn't feeling suicidal. But it is the kind of violent loathing that could lead to self-murder.'
Information and guidance for survivors of sexual violence as well as back-up for friends and family is available from the Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre national freephone helpline on 0808 802 9999 (rapecrisis.org.uk)
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