In 1983 I met Paul Daniels in a department store in Blackpool. He signed books for both me and my brother. At first I was annoyed because my brother had picked up Paul’s “Magic Book” whereas I had “More Magic”, quite obviously the less impressive sequel. Still, when we reached the front of the queue, I got a kiss off Paul and my brother didn’t. Plus my book says “love Paul” whereas his just has “Paul” (I suppose anything more would have considered been a bit gay).
I didn’t get anything more than a kiss from Paul, mind. This is probably because 1) I was with my grandma in a public place, 2) I wasn’t wearing a “super-short mini-skirt[.], teetering high heels and slap”, and 3) I’m quite possibly just not his type (I look nothing like Debbie McGee – more of a Courtney Cox, I am). The fact that I was also eight is probably neither here nor there. After all, I was an early developer and when girls aren’t in school uniform, who can tell? As Paul allegedly wrote in a recent blog post, with “groupies” it’s sometimes “impossible”. Anyhow, it’s just as well nothing more happened between me and Paul. Apart from anything else, he’d have forgotten the entire thing and would probably now say I was making it up, just like those Jimmy Savile accusers.
According to Daniels (not just a shit magician but a self-appointed expert in child abuse) “anyone can come along and claim to have been ‘abused’ by anyone they care to name”. This is, of course, true – although not particularly likely, one would think. Not that this has prevented Paul from asking whether all of Savile’s accusers are “for real”:
I can fully understand some women not wanting to talk about what happened to them, but for over 400 of them to keep quiet for 40 years seems strange.
Does it, Paul? Does it really? There are many things that seem strange – the fact that “not a lot” could become a hugely successful catchphrase, for instance – but silence about abuse does not seem strange to me. On the contrary, it seems far easier than any possible alternative. It seems just what you’d do, the most obvious response. For instance, here’s a small thing that happened to me:
Four years after my fleeting encounter with Daniels, I was the resident of an adolescent psychiatric unit (rest assured, “More Magic” had nothing to do with my decline). The unit itself was a large house with a small wood close by and sometimes, on long, boring evenings, local boys would appear in the common room to watch TV with the residents and the staff. I couldn’t really work out why this was. Why would “normal” lads, a few years older than us, be remotely interested in spending time in a place like this, not least when there was a chip shop and an off-licence half a mile down the road? It wasn’t as though they even spoke to us while they were there. Then one evening one of the “older” girls (she was fourteen) told me one of them was her boyfriend. She told me they had sex in the woods. Obviously I didn’t believe her (aged twelve I still didn’t really believe that anyone had sex). Then she told me one of the other boys was interested in me. Obviously I didn’t believe that, either. All the same, I wanted to believe it, not because he was particularly attractive, but because he was older and “normal”. I wanted a “normal” boyfriend, too.
Just to clarify the situation a little further – I did already have a boyfriend, of sorts. But he wasn’t “normal”. He was a fellow resident. Sometimes we’d go up to his room and bitch about the staff and then he’d stick his tongue down my throat for a while (this was boring and he always tasted of cigarettes). Occasionally his room mate would ask on his behalf whether I’d also let him “touch me up” – “for a cheap thrill”. I always said no, on the basis that it didn’t sound particularly thrilling (just plain unhygienic, as far as I could work out). All the same, I still have a Valentine’s card that my “boyfriend” painted for me in occupational therapy (about a week before he announced in group talk time that he was gay – not that this ended the relationship, insofar as it was one). Anyhow, one weekend he was visiting his parents in Ireland so I decided to two-time him with a “normal” person (I’m not excusing it, but I was twelve, deemed defective and unsure I’d ever get the chance again).
As you may have guessed, it turned out that the older girl wasn’t lying about anything. The other boy was interested in me and the local lads were all sodding off to the woods to have sex with the underage female residents of a psychiatric unit, right under the noses of the staff. To be honest, I think the staff knew. I can’t see how they wouldn’t. Or perhaps they chose not to know? Anyhow, my first ever sexual experience didn’t last long because I pushed the boy off me in sheer surprise and ran back to the house, where I hid in the girls’ toilets until I found another girl to go outside and tell my – what? date? attacker? boyfriend? – that I didn’t want to see him again. Two days later my “not-normal” boyfriend returned, to be greeted by the elder brother of my “normal” ex, who was threatening to beat him up for some reason or other (something to do with dented male pride). In the end the unit staff had to deal with it all (informing me along the way that it was all my fault for “stringing them along” and “being a tease”).
So apparently I messed up because I was impressed that someone of higher status – someone older, someone “sane” – seemed to be interested in me. All the same, this isn’t just another tale of me getting things wrong. The whole experience disturbs me, all the more because I’m not sure what it’s part of. I know I wasn’t the only patient to go into the woods, but I don’t know the extent of what was going on. I know unit staff knew about it, but I don’t know how much they knew. I know that what was happening was wrong, but I don’t know how to name the wrongness. If all of a sudden some scandal regarding the sexual exploitation of young psychiatric patients in that particular unit were to emerge, I might want to say something. In the meantime, however, these are all the things I tell myself:
- I don’t know what to call what happened to me or to anyone else, and if perception defines experience, refusing to name it is easiest.
- I have no evidence that anyone other than me thought something inappropriate was happening. The unit staff would smoke and chat with the lads before the latter would leave with the girls. No one considered it to be odd. So, I say to myself, perhaps it is just me. After all, sex is weird and mysterious. Perhaps what people say is wrong and what they actually do are different things. Perhaps I just haven’t understood this yet.
- I think the other patients – the girls who went back again and again – were being exploited, but they didn’t seem to think so at the time. I don’t know what they think now. I don’t know if they care. Who am I to decide for them? Who am I to question their own right to consent?
- Perhaps it was just those girls and me. Perhaps it stopped the moment we were discharged. Or perhaps it didn’t. I have no idea.
- The fact that I have no idea makes me a bad person. Perhaps all I know is all that there is, perhaps these are mere pieces of some massive, tragic jigsaw puzzle that I’ve lacked the moral fibre and determination to piece together. Rather than become a fucking detective, I’ve just got on with my life. So how can I even claim to care?
- It’s not a big thing, really. It’s just some boys in their late teens taking some younger girls into a forest. It probably happens everywhere, sometimes with guardians looking, sometimes not. It’s not like, say, being groped by Jimmy Savile. But then being groped by Jimmy Savile is not like, say, being raped by Jimmy Savile. In fact, everything is relative. Nothing is ever a big deal when you look at it like that.
- It’s not a secret. It never was. There was never a conspiracy of silence. It’s just not a thing of interest and unless it ever becomes one, there’s no such thing as speaking out. It’s just something that happened a quarter of a century ago.
So there it is. While it doesn’t distress me I still think about this sometimes and wonder what more there might be. And while I can’t claim to understand what they went through, many of the stories told by Jimmy Savile’s victims suggest that even when an abuser is famous, for a long time there’s nothing to tell and there’s no one to tell. You say something and no one is surprised, so you never say it again. You assume this is normality. It reminds me of being little and believing that adults inhabit a different world once you’ve gone to bed, a world in which anything is possible. Someone touching you in the wrong way can feel like a glimpse of that world. To even comment on it simply exposes your ignorance of the different rules that apply. And then when the different rules get external validation – as they still do now, every time someone ignores a complaint or argues that things were different “back then” – you start to feel even more stupid. How gauche, how idiotic to even feel discomfort at this, let alone to voice it.
So anyhow, that’s what I’d tell Paul Daniels and that’s how I’d try to change his perception of what is “strange”. Such an enormous weight of external support is required before saying anything even counts as voicing a complaint. Up till then you are silent whether or not you say a word. That’s why victims are so quiet. It’s because people like Paul Daniels – all the normal people, all the ones who know the secret rules – are too loud.