When he was just six years old, while out wandering alone in the evening when he should have been safely at home, Mark Allen was sexually abused by a stranger.
Despite witnessing his distress and dishevelled clothes when he got home after the assault, the schoolboy’s emotionally absent parents put the matter to bed and left their young child to cope alone.
It was made clear to him that he should not try to talk to anyone about the attack that had happened that night.
‘I knew that something very wrong had happened to me, but I couldn’t put it into any context,’ recalls Mark, now 77. ‘And my parents didn’t help. I remember that they were upset when I first told them, but from that day on, the abuse was never once discussed.’
Indeed, over the years that followed, that traumatic day was never discussed again and as he grew up, Mark was left feeling confused and ashamed at what had happened to him.
Although it would take decades before he could finally find the words to speak about the incident, the former journalist has since gone on to use the horrific ordeal as the foundation of his debut novel about a boy called Simon, who was also sexually abused.
‘What happened to Simon aged six is what happened to me,’ explains Mark. ‘Being abused was a traumatic event that alters the character’s whole life. But it also gave him a lot of drive and determination to do well.’
A former Fleet Street writer, editor and social worker, Mark admits that even 70 years on from his trauma, he is still living with the consequences.
Talking about the attack, he can remember it vividly, from the details of where it happened: beside a river in rural Somerset – to that of his abuser: a 21-year-old man he had never met before.
‘The fact that I was alone on the side of a riverbank says much about my chaotic and somewhat dysfunctional family,’ says Mark, who recalls how following the attack he would often pretend to be happy but knows ‘deep down, I was not’.
Meanwhile, his relationship with his father went from bad to worse. ‘I couldn’t bear to be in the same room as him. I lived life in a fog, unable to concentrate on schoolwork,’ he says. ‘To add to the emotional toll, a lecture from a psychiatrist at school convinced me that, because of my experience, I might be a homosexual – in those days, a criminal act.’
Mark explains that he began to write his semi-autobiographical novel, Life Term, as the Covid crisis began last year.
As lockdown took hold, he became increasingly concerned about the effect it was having on child victims of sexual abuse.
‘Prior to the pandemic there was already evidence suggesting that one in six children is sexually abused, which, I fear, represents a fraction of the abuse taking place,’ he explains.
Indeed, last summer at the height of lockdown, the NSPCC reported a threefold increase of Childline counselling related to sexual abuse since restrictions were imposed, while Stop it Now!, who offer support to those worried about their own or someone else’s sexual thoughts and conduct towards children, noted a dramatic increase in the number of people contacting their helpline.
‘In spite of, or perhaps because of, what happened to me that day on the riverbank, I did go on to do okay at school, graduate from university and carve out a successful career,’ remembers Mark.
Although, he admits, he probably chose one high-pressure job after another, in a bid to distract him from his ‘demons’.
‘I was a journalist for a national newspaper, before later founding my own publishing company,’ he says. ‘I think that the reason I chose to be so inordinately busy over all these years is a coping mechanism to escape my troubled childhood. I also have a wife of more than 50 years, four children and seven grandchildren and a step-grandson and live a pretty privileged existence.
‘But for many victims or survivors of childhood sexual abuse a coping mechanism or escape route is harder to come by,’ he adds.
My experiences have given me a great interest in understanding how circumstantial and fragile life is
According to research from The Truth Project on victims of childhood sexual abuse, 87% experience an impact on their mental health in later life, 54% experience issues forming relationships and 42% experience an impact on their education or employment.
‘When I initially decided to write my novel it was not intended for publication – it was a form of catharsis, an attempt to come to grips with my history,’ Mark admits.
Like many survivors of abuse he knows he’s ‘no exception in having had a difficult childhood’.
‘I have tried to use my experiences to positive effect though,’ he adds. ‘It’s why I find the vulnerable parts of people the most interesting.
‘What took place on the riverbank provided me with enormous drive and ambition.’
It’s also why Mark has also developed enormous empathy for people far less fortunate than himself. ‘Victims as well as, perhaps, abusers,’ he says. ‘It is the reason behind me choosing to be involved in social work and nursing publishing.
To confess that he has sympathy for abusers is no doubt a controversial statement, admits Mark. ‘However, I firmly believe you can’t just lock people away, register them on a sex offenders list and hope this solves the problem,’ he explains. ‘Many abusers don’t consciously “choose” to be abusers and they are often the products of being abused themselves.’
There is much research pointing to this cycle, he adds, including a study by Cambridge University which found that over a third of perpetrators of sexual abuse were victims themselves.
‘In my view we need a more holistic and humane way of treating abusers because in the long run that will help stop them from perpetuating their crimes. We need to heal their trauma.
Ultimately, Mark says, he wants to see a change in how we, as a society, support and treat both victims of childhood sexual abuse and the abusers.
‘My experiences have given me a great interest in understanding how circumstantial and fragile life is. It is this which makes life so fascinating,’ he says. ‘What would have happened to my six-year-old self had I not met my abuser then? Who is to say it would have worked out better or I would have been happier?
‘Of course, I would rather not have experienced so much pain and confusion as I was growing up.
‘However, this has been my life and I want to own it.’
Mark Allen’s debut novel Life Term is available to buy now from amazon.co.uk. A percentage of all proceeds earned from the sales will go to stopitnow.org.uk and napac.org.uk.
‘My mind and clothes were in a state of disarray’
In these extracts from Life Term, we meet Mark’s young protagonist Simon and learn about his ordeal:
The walk from Ivy Cottage, in the Somerset village of Ravington where my family lived, to the river Blue took less than fifteen minutes. I was six years old and about to embark on a journey that would change my life, although I didn’t know it then.
As always, Ivy Cottage was full of noise and tension on that May day in 1954. My mother, Hannah Roberts, was trying to cope with the demands of my two siblings and me. Sarah was eight, two years older than me. My younger brother, Charles, was five. My mother was an academic and writer or had been in her previous “incarnation”. Living this poverty-stricken life in an isolated pocket of rural England in the frugal fifties was certainly not how my mother had imagined her life panning out.
It was about quarter past six in the evening when I left the house. I knew that neither of my parents would notice my absence because they were so wrapped up in their own troubles. Nevertheless, I can recall shutting the door of the cottage quietly before crossing the lane. I had made a habit of taking a walk at this time because I couldn’t stand the atmosphere in the house, which made me feel unwanted and lonely. I can remember passing the council houses opposite our cottage.
I must have opened the small wicket gate that led into a large field decked in the yellow of wild flowers. Further ahead was another field where there were some thirty Friesian cows grazing near to a large gate, swishing their tails, waiting expectantly to be milked. I couldn’t help thinking that normally they would already have been collected by Farmer Butcher by this time and taken to the milking parlour of the farm, which was three hundred yards away.
Why the delay? It had been a warm early summer day but now the heat had gone and in a couple of hours sun would be going down. I loved being by myself at this time. While I always felt frightened inside the house because of my father’s volatility, and scared when I encountered other older boys from the village, I felt calm by myself in the open.
A flock of crows circled overhead as I took the path from the field into the wood of ash and oak trees. I enjoyed hearing the crunching sounds under my feet as I descended through the fields. The river was now in full view. It was not a large river but I loved wandering along the bank looking out for trout and eels. On the opposite side I caught sight of a vole or water rat— I wasn’t sure which — peering out of a hole in the bank. The day before, when I had come here a little earlier, I had been transfixed by the blue flash of a kingfisher, the first time I had ever spotted this bird.
I was caught up in my own imagination as I wandered by the riverbank, taking in all the sights and sounds. I wondered what it would be like to be a fish. They looked to be so much at peace as they circled in the water — a contrast to the turmoil that was part of my daily life at Ivy Cottage.
It was about seven o’clock when I came to my favourite spot. Carved into the bank was a clearing where I often liked to sit and reflect. Clouds were gathering and I thought I shouldn’t linger too much longer. Bedtime was always irregular and chaotic, but I should get back soon to avoid any arguments.
I sat down on a low branch of a tree in the clearing as I gathered my thoughts. It had been a long day. I hated the village school, where I was the butt of jokes made by many of the other thirty or so pupils at the school. The head teacher, Miss Glough, was vicious and horrid.
Suddenly my calm was disturbed by the presence of a man at my side. I hadn’t heard him coming and I knew he must have been very stealthy. I recognised him immediately. It was Vince Richardson, the twenty-one-year-old son of Martha, who worked for my mother as a cleaner. He lived with his mother — his father was never to be seen — in one of the council houses which I had just passed. He had a troubling reputation.
Vince was a diabetic and had had frequent spells in mental hospitals. There was a rumour that he had been jailed for causing a train to crash, thankfully without harm to passengers, when he put a wheelbarrow across the tracks. Because he spent so much time in institutions, he was rarely in the village, but when he was, the more cautious villagers ensured their children stayed inside the safety of their houses.
Immediately my heart started to race and fear engulfed me. Vince approached me, his eyes shifting in all directions, a demonic smile on his face. Sensing danger, I stood up and as soon as I had done so he punched me hard in the midriff with his right hand. I fell to the ground clutching my stomach.
“Get up, you faggot,” he shouted, before lashing out again. Then Vince slowly and deliberately unbuttoned his trousers. What happened to me on the riverbank is still something of a blur. Nor have I any memory of walking the short distance back to Ivy Cottage, although my mind and clothes were in a state of disarray. But I do recall that my mother was reading to Charles when I arrived home, in what must have been an agitated state.
I was tearful. I don’t know what I told my parents about what had happened, the full horror. My looks would have betrayed me because I became aware of angry conversations between my parents, my father blaming my mother for allowing me to roam free. At some stage during the evening my father left the house, slamming the door as he announced, “I’m off to see Vince and Martha.”
Trapped in her own private world, my mother seemed oblivious to all the drama and distress. Looking back, I badly needed a hug, some loving support and reassurance from my mother, but none was forthcoming. My mother was never “touchy feely” and I can only remember kissing her once, a brief peck on her cheek, a few weeks before she died, aged ninety-five. An hour later my father returned in a surprisingly calm state of mind. He cleared his throat and announced: “I don’t think this is anything to get too het up about. It was a case of rough and tumble and it’s not worth going to the police.” And that was that. The incident was locked away for good, never to be referred to again.
Life returned to normal, or as near to normal as possible, although I remained inwardly traumatised by the abuse I suffered at Vince’s hands. Confused and anxious, lonely and betrayed, I knew something dreadful had taken place, which had, initially, upset my parents. However, in my six-year-old mind, I was unable to place the incident in any context that made sense to me. It was only much later, in early adulthood, that I felt able to tell anyone about it. The incident became part of my secret life, isolating me from other people.
At thirteen, having passed my common entrance, I was sent as a boarder to Stourwater in Dorset. The school employed a psychiatrist who gave a lecture every year about sex to new boys entering the school. His name was Dr Matthews. His lecture was primarily intended as educational information about how babies were produced. However, his strictures about masturbation — “Don’t do it!” — and homosexuality could not be clearer.
“Most of you,” Dr Matthews opined, “will be going through puberty, which is a dangerous time for a boy. You may experience many temptations to experiment with another boy. On no account do so. If you have had any homosexual experiences of whatever kind, there’s a real chance of you becoming a habitual homosexual. Being a homosexual, sodomising another man, is about the most pernicious thing that you can do. Not only is homosexuality unlawful, it is evil; it is a dreadful, unnatural act. I hope none of you have gone, or will go down that terrible path.”
I rushed from the lecture in complete and utter panic. I hadn’t told a soul about the abuse and sex act Vince had performed on me when I was six, but now it was obvious. I must be a homosexual, which, according to Dr Matthews, was about the most awful thing you could be! For the next few months, I found sleeping — always a problem for me throughout my life— impossible. I lost my appetite and I was unable to focus on work for more than a few minutes at a time. During lessons, my concentration would wane and my mind would become a complete fog, making it hard for me to retain information.
This whole unpleasant business with Vince, my mother rationalised, was deeply regrettable but there was a danger of exaggerating the significance of such an isolated incident. History was littered with prominent men who had been molested at school and it did not seem to make a lasting impression on them. And, anyway, what to do about it? That was the question to which my mother could provide no satisfactory answer. She thought it best to let matters rest. My mother considered the police unimaginative and cloddish. If she and Martin had decided to report Vince, there was a danger that it would make matters even worse. Who would believe a six-year-old anyway? Furthermore, it would mean betraying Vince’s mother, Martha, who had been an enormous help to them — cleaning for them at Ivy Cottage after they had moved to Somerset from Yorkshire.
My father’s reaction to my abuse was complicated. He lacked the emotional capacity to focus on it to any meaningful extent. Of course, he felt empathy for me when he had seen me so traumatised. He was angry that this event should have occurred, which he partly blamed on my mother for being so lax in allowing us to behave like feral children, wandering the fields and roads almost at will. I am sure he would have given her grief over it.
He reasoned that, while Vince’s behaviour was totally unacceptable, these unseemly incidents happened all the time in inward-looking villages such as Ravington, where cases of incest and sexual experimentation were not uncommon. He would sort out Martha and Vince— and that would be that. He had enough worries as it was with his business.When he confronted him, Vince told him a pack of lies, which partly satisfied my father, who wanted to put the matter to bed as quickly as possible. Nothing of any consequence had taken place on the riverbank, Vince assured him. Vince told my father that I had been having a piss when he had arrived by pure chance. They had larked round for a bit and then I had insisted on showing Vince my willy.
“I told the little bugger to put it away and not be so bloody silly. He then started crying and rushed off. I think he was getting scared of the dark.”
Then Martha had said in a telling and ominous way, “No good will come of it, Mr Roberts, if you go to the police, that’s for sure.” And Martin had simply replied, “Don’t worry, Martha. It’s a closed book as far as I’m concerned. But make damn sure that Vince is never to be seen again.”
Inside my muddled brain I was still at sea. I finally realised that I was certainly not homosexual. Girls became my focus. I developed a largely platonic relationship with a girl at Stourwater’s sister school. The realisation that I was heterosexual came as a considerable relief to me and it was now only a matter of time before I felt ready to talk about the abuse which had plagued my life. I vowed then that I would not allow the incident with Vince to destroy me: I was determined to use this experience positively in showing a greater empathy towards people.
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