“Sharon Hall is a small, timid figure with wide brown eyes that dart nervously between the floor and her hands as she speaks.
During our conversation, her sentences fluctuate between slow, fractured prose and sudden, spluttering outbursts as her words fall over each other in a fight to assemble.
It has been almost 10 years since Sharon last tried to speak about the childhood memories she has spent much of her life trying to suppress – and that particular encounter, as we shall see, left her feeling sorrily dejected. The experience of sharing her story today she describes as a gruelling rite of passage, one she feared would prove too painful to complete:
“Every moment I feel the effects of what I went through,” she starts in a small, raspy voice, pausing briefly to brush an imaginary strand of hair from her cheek, before continuing, “I’ve been trapped by my past for all these years. Being able to finally talk about it is strangely exhilarating.”
The story that Sharon, who is now 40, has been unable to tell before today is one that few would wish to hear: from as far back as she can remember until the day she left home at the age of 16, Sharon, an only child, was sexually abused by her mother. The particulars of her abuse are too horrific to bear repeating in detail; this was sustained sexual violence, which she suffered silently at the hands of the one person who was supposed to love and protect her above all others.
Sharon’s ordeal went undetected for her entire childhood, despite her becoming increasingly withdrawn over the years; her weight fell to below six stone by the age of 15, and she had few if any friends at school. The problem was, she says, that even if others had suspected something was wrong, few would have guessed what it was – and fewer still would have wanted to know the whole truth.
“I did try telling my doctor once,” she says, blinking heavily, pulling at her shirt, “but it’s like I said, no one really wants to know that.”
It was at the age of 30, when she became pregnant with her own daughter, that Sharon finally summoned the courage to speak to her GP for the first time about what had happened to her. Her fear was that if she didn’t seek help to overcome her issues, they could in turn have a damaging effect on her unborn child.
But her doctor’s response was: “Don’t be silly, mothers don’t sexually abuse children. You’re understandably worried about becoming a parent yourself, but don’t let your imagination run away with you.”
And it seems this reaction is all too common.
While researching this piece, I spoke to a number of adults – men and women – who as children endured horrific sexual abuse at the hands of their mothers, aunts, grandmothers and female carers.
Very few of them had ever had a chance to tell their story before, and the effect of keeping their experiences to themselves for so long has had a disastrous effect on their mental state.
Sharon’s mental scars are manifest in her serious anorexia and agoraphobia, and the effect on her daughter has been devastating, too; Debbie, who is now 10, suffers from severe panic attacks and low self- esteem. “The problem,” Sharon explains, “was that I never knew how to bond with Debbie. I was terrified of even touching her.”
Sharon says that she might have learned to cope better if she had been given the help she so desperately needed when she approached her doctor before her child was born.
“You can’t imagine how deflating it is after all those years of keeping your disgusting secret to finally get the courage to tell someone and then be told that you’re making it up,” she recalls. “But the worst thing about it is that even though my mother is now dead – and never even met her granddaughter – she has managed to ruin my daughter’s childhood too.”
Very few have ever before felt able to talk about the abuse because they feared they would not be believed – and those who have already come forward, to a doctor or therapist, have usually had their worst fears realised.
One man, now 60 years old, recalls: “When I tried to tell my therapist of my abuse when I was 35, I was told: ‘You are having fantasies about your mother and you need more therapy to deal with that.’ In reality, my mother had been physically and sexually abusing me for as long as I can remember. The abuse was horrific, including beatings and sadomasochistic sex.”
Another victim recalls how she had been sexually abused by her babysitter between the ages of six and 10. She explains: “I actually thought all babysitters did that to kids until we got another babysitter. When I tried to get her to have oral sex with me she told my mother and I got into trouble. Believe me, from then on I kept it a secret.”
Sexual abuse is usually understood as something bound up with issues of male aggression and power, and the idea of a female abuser totally undermines this well-established belief. Then there is a further problem in getting female abuse recognized; many people simply don’t understand how – practically – a woman could abuse.
Understandably, this is a sensitive and highly emotive subject, the fallout from which Michele Elliott of Kidscape has witnessed at first hand. In 1992, she held a conference in London while compiling her book on the subject of female sexual abuse. She recalls how 30 women turned up to disrupt her address:
“They stood up and started yelling about how terrible it was that I was detracting from the fact that male power was to blame. It is very disappointing when you encounter such extreme and closed-minded reactions. I was simply responding to what victims had told me.”
And such closed-mindedness is rife in the criminal- justice system too, Hilary Aldridge confirms: “There is a tendency in the courts to see the woman as a victim of a male counterpart.” But this isn’t always the case by any means.
Even when there is a male co-offender, this doesn’t automatically mean that the female partner is an unwilling accomplice.
Indeed, one of the most disturbing aspects of child abuse committed by women is that – according to studies by independent researchers and highly respected charities – the large majority of it takes place in the home. Aldridge asserts that 60 per cent of cases take place within the family unit – and “women who abuse children regularly do so in the guise of normal, basic care”. This, of course, is part of what makes it so hard to detect.
Sharon Hall, whose abuse by her mother went unnoticed for her entire childhood, knows all too well the devastating effects of being forced to suffer in silence. “If I’d had just the smallest impression that I’d be believed,” she says, “I might have had the guts to come forward.” The reality, she says, is that no one wanted to know what she was going through, and even today we continue to switch ourselves off from the suffering of an unknown number of children across the country.
If we are to have any chance at all of saving those children who are suffering now and those who will no doubt be suffering in the future, she says, the best place to start is by opening our eyes to the abuse going on around us.
“I never had the chance to come to terms with what happened, and not only has my life been ruined, but so in turn has my daughter’s,” Sharon concludes. “All I hope now is that by coming forward and raising awareness of this issue, that I might in some small way be able to help those children for whom it isn’t too late.”