A parting that plays on the heart -strings

Frosty silences and stormy scenes, and then your parents abandon you. How do children cope with rejection? By Jonathan Green

Jonathan Green
Wednesday 12 June 1996 23:02

Earlier this year the young violinist Vanessa Mae hit the headlines when her father publicly disowned her because of her sexy image. Vorapong Vanakorn was angered when he saw scantily clad pictures of his 17-year- old daughter used to promote her records.

"She looks like a soft-porn showgirl," said Vanakorn, who divorced Vanessa's mother 13 years ago and lives in Singapore. Vanessa, who lives in London with her mother and stepfather, retorted by saying that her image was none of his business.

Parents everywhere are falling in and out with their children every day and most patch things up sooner or later. But some don't. Some go to the ultimate extreme and disown or disinherit their children. The very words carry a romanticised poignancy. Yet the complete breakdown of communication and subsequent split between parents and their children doesn't just feature in 19th-century novels.

"It's a really painful experience which leaves long-term psychological question marks over an individual," says Cheryl Walters, support services co-ordinator of the National Stepfamily Association. The great taboo of parenting, she says there is no common cause or age that causes parents to sever all ties with their offspring. "It depends totally on what the parents are like in each case."

"For most parents it is just a cry of despair that they can't cope when they say they want nothing more to do with a child," says David Colvin, assistant director of the British Association of Social Workers. "But occasionally they really do mean it."

The only safeguard is legislation enshrined in the Children Act making it illegal to abandon a child up to the age of 18. Yet being disowned can occur at any age. Ms Walters says: "It's never clear-cut - it's normally very messy and leaves longings, regrets and huge damage to everybody involved."

Mark, 21, a charity worker, was disowned twice. First by his natural parents, who abandoned him as an infant, and then by his adoptive parents after he told them he was gay.

Being disowned twice has made me feel like killing myself at times. After being rejected as a baby I was adopted and things went horribly wrong again. My home life was hell after I turned 11 and started to realise I was gay. My parents began to suspect, particularly my dad, who was also really into sport and boxing. He's a taxi-driver and hated the fact I wasn't interested in "manly" things.

I fell in love on a family holiday in Tenerife when I was 13, but kept it quiet from my parents. They thought I was just friends with this bloke. When I got back we used to write to each other two or three times a day and my dad would get really suspicious about all these letters.

Then I knew I had to tell my parents I was gay. I wrote them a long note one morning, left it on the kitchen table and travelled around London on the tube all day to kill time. I was so nervous, I didn't know what their reaction would be. I was just hoping they would understand.

I went back that evening and from the end of the street could see them chucking all my stuff out of the windows. When I got to the door my father blocked the way. He was furious and screamed: "You are not our son any more. As far as we are concerned, you are dead."

I got this huge rush of emotions standing there. Working it out I think the most overwhelming one was relief. Because then I knew I wouldn't have to go back to them.

That night I called the police, who found a social worker, and I was taken into care. While in various homes, the social worker would keep saying that my parents really wanted to get the family back together. These intense meetings were organised with my mum and dad. It was dreadful - full of frosty silences, eventually with somebody storming off. Meanwhile, the social services kept telling me I would grow out of being gay.

At 16, I saw my parents for the last time before I was adopted through the Albert Kennedy Trust by two gay men, Martin and Aamir. Finally, it was great to be living with people where my sexuality wasn't an issue.

Now I live on my own but what my parents did to me has caused lasting damage. Those years were such a nightmare. A couple of months ago I passed my mum in the street, said hello, and she just looked straight through me. It was as if I didn't exist.

Rebecca, 44, a family therapist, was disowned and disinherited by her father, a doctor and politician, 30 years ago and then by her mother three years ago. All links with her parents have now been severed. She is married and has two grown-up children of her own.

I've always had this thing that when my parents die I won't even hear about it. That leaves me numb. I was nine when my parents split up after a very fiery marriage. My father was a pioneering doctor. My mother used to get drunk and then got really physical with my brother, sister and me.

My father's family were extremely wealthy so I was packed off to lots of boarding schools. I went to live with my father, who had re-married a woman who already had three young children. I was quite a rebellious 14-year-old and my stepmother gave him an ultimatum: me or him. Although he didn't say, it was obvious he wanted a completely new start. I suppose I reminded him of my mother. He disowned me by saying in formal terms that I wouldn't be featuring in his will. That was it and I was put on the train to another boarding school in Cumberland, never to see them again. I have never felt so lonely or totally without support in my life.

My mother, who is very haughty, did keep in touch occasionally but she didn't want me to stay with her. During the holidays I stayed with my grandparents in London. Over the next 20 years as I grew up and got married, my mother and I had a very uneasy relationship. It was conducted out of protocol more than anything else.

Then three years ago she went into hospital to have heart bypass surgery and the rest of the family were at her bedside. Expectations of family unity were very high. When I arrived, seeing them all together brought back all the pain of the past. I broke down in tears and had to go. They accused me of being selfish, making a scene and upsetting my mother. It was terrible - I couldn't feel anything towards her.

All the family anguish was ignited at that really sensitive time. Afterwards my mother said she never wanted to see me again. That was three years ago. A few horrid letters have been exchanged but even that's finished now. It's been a gruelling experience which has had implications throughout my life. After all the nannies, boarding schools and family upheavals I just think there was no love between my mother and I. Throughout my life I was an encumbrance to my parents. This was almost inevitable.

Anna, 39, a freelance researcher, was born secretly, the result of an illicit affair. After she was expelled from a leading show business school, her mother disowned her at the age of 11.

It would have caused a scandal in London. My mother was a chorus line girl and my father was already married and from a high-profile public family. They had an affair and I was born secretly in a private nursing home in Hampstead, north London, for which he paid. Six months later my father committed suicide. I don't know whether it was because he couldn't marry my mother or not.

For the first two years of my life I lived with foster parents. When my mother got married to a wealthy man she took me back. She was obsessed with my real father. Because I was the only link with him she expected me to be perfect. Of course I was just a normal three-year-old. She was really violent towards me and I became more unstable.

My stepfather and mother went on to have four sons and I very quickly became an outsider. She never wanted me and tried to put me up for adoption when I was eight. They were real black times and I kept being thrown out of school. Finally, my mother got me a place at the Bush Davies stage school in East Grinstead. My mother's own dancing ambitions were spoilt because of family commitments, so all her hopes were pinned on me doing well at this school. But it was my last chance. She warned that if I was expelled this time she would leave me.

Within six weeks I was. In hindsight I think I wanted to be expelled so that she would carry out her threat and I wouldn't have to have anything more to do with her. Social services came and put me in a children's home in Guildford. During the holidays I'd have to stay with her which I hated. About a year later she told me she was emigrating to South Africa. She hadn't told social services and swore me to secrecy. I was only 12 but felt this overriding sense of relief that I would be safe from her. That's the last I saw of her.

Once I wrote to my father's family and just got a solicitor's letter back saying I shouldn't try and make contact with them. They said any further correspondence should be sent through them. I haven't bothered again.

I didn't ask to be born and seen as a source of shame for my mother. What I feel most angry about is the social services and child psychotherapists. They kept sending me back to stay with my mother, who was really violent. They did nothing to protect me and really created a lot of my problems.

That initial abandonment has caused a marked distrust in the permanency of relationships, but I am now coping with them. It's been awful.

All names have been changed.

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