I have finally caught up with Ian Wright’s documentary ‘Home Truths”. This documentary was ground-breaking in so many ways. It raised issues that are historic taboos and also refocuses us on what it really means to be an adult survivor of childhood abuse. What it mean to recognise your own childhood victimhood and the enduring impact this childhood invisibility can have throughout adulthood.
The feeling of powerlessness was spoken about by the men who I met as part of my research. The helplessness- the inability to protect or prevent it. Fear. The underlying worry, “what’s going to happen”.
“All I felt when I was 9 is angry and scared” (Ian Wright)
In my research (The Road Home Study) I found that this powerlessness at home can mean that boys seek spaces that they can counter this feeling- searching for spaces which offer opportunities for agency. The role of school was highlighted in the documentary, which arose in my study. For some of the men that I spoke to school was similarly an escape, an outlet, especially where a teacher stood out as a role model. Although for many men who I met had experiences similar to Wes, who used school as an outlet to express anger- to feel power against the context of feeling so powerless at home.
The role of siblings was brought up when Ian spoke with his brother Maurice, who used to cover his ears when DVA was going on in the house. This really shows the subtle yet supportive roles siblings can take on in order to cope together and try and shield each other from harm.
Ian spoke about the experience of abuse from his mother, which co-existed with experiencing physical abuse from his father. The co-existence of physical and emotional abuse that children experience which is outside of the traditional conception of DVA is something that has been arising in my recent research on the childhood’s of adult male DVA perpetrators that I am currently working on (Other Side of the Story: Perpetrators in Change). ‘Domestic violence and abuse’ can be experienced instead to children as ‘homes of violence’- where other forms of abuse intertwine and interlink for children- where the victim/perpetrator dichotomy is instead a web of chaos.
Co-existing emotional abuse from mother’s in the context of household DVA is something that is very seldom spoken about. As Ian noted, this is where feelings can get even more complex. The simplicity of the victim/perpetrator is often complicated from the perspective of children who receive abuse from both parents in different ways. Adults who are victims of abuse in their own relationships can become the abusers to their children. This was an issue raised by Erin Pizzey in her 1982 book Prone to Violence. She reflected on her own experience of abuse from her mother in the context of a home with DVA. The recognition of this complex intersection between DVA and other forms of abuse in the house is still under-recognised and under-supported in the DVA support sector. Pizzey’s book was widely rejected by feminist organisers at the time for the way in which it complicated the overarching narratives of victimhood. Through the documentary Ian found a place of forgiveness of his mother- his journey through this shows how complex this process is into adulthood.
Recognizing the different perspectives and experiences that get caught up in homes of abuse. This is something we need to grapple with in the DVA support sector- routinely there is a language which posits the ‘perpetrator’ in opposition to the ‘non-abusing parent’. But unless children are spoken to directly this may be silencing the existence of ongoing abuse. The roll out of IDVA services which base risk management solely on the adults experiences (through the DASH risk assessment) has meant that there is a base assumption that children are safeguarded by/through supporting the adult victim. They do not routinely support or speak to children, which leaves a gaping hole in understanding the webs of abuse that can be occurring.
When Ian was told explicitly that he had experienced severe emotional abuse it was the validation he needed. To be seen for the first time. For the pain to become visible and acknowledged.
The discussion about “acting like a victim” resonated- for children who have not historically been seen by services or wider society it can still feel like a position wrought with tension- to act like a victim, when children have historically be seen as ‘exposed’ to violence rather than directly victimised.
Charlie Webster talked about the way in which you never knew what was going to happen. DVA is so damaging to children as it is not their fault- they have no choice. She highlighted the enduring gap in children being recognised as victims themselves.
This is being changed in the DA Bill, but we still have yet to see what this will mean in practice.
The recognition of children as victims themselves not add-on’s to adult victims has implications for DVA services. The ongoing debate and campaigns about single sex support services is tense in the sector, but we need to end the practice of exclusionary practices for teenage boy child survivors. If we are going to recognise all children and prioritise their care and support we need to consider how the design of services are inclusive to boys and girls, outside of the debates on sex-based services for adult victims.
Boy/men child survivors have occupied a double blind-spot as victims- invisible in services due to being boys (outside of the umberella of ‘violence against women and girls’, often excluded from refuge provision and constructed more as a risk than at risk) as well as hypervisible in the youth offending sector- where their violence is seen more as outwardly dangerous rather than a reflection of their own inner turmoil. This is what I will be dealing with in my book (Due for release in 2022)- where I explore the life stories of men who experienced DVA in childhood and later became on-road/gang-involved.
The cycle of violence was also referred to in the documentary- when children who experience DVA end up perpetrating it themselves. In the documentary Ian visited The Hampton Trust, a brilliant charity I had a brief stint working at a few years ago and who I have been working with closely in my recent research project into DVA perpetrators. The work they do is absolutely essential- it is the sharp end- and as Wes’s story highlighted there is such a complex intersection of childhood and life experiences which can emerge in adulthood. To prevent further violence perpetrator services are essential and should be widespread.
What the documentary really highlighted, which again is so less often discussed, is the enduring impact of childhood DVA into adulthood. Ian kept coming back to the impact on him throughout his life. He talked about the way that some of his memories are “as vivid today as they were 50 years ago”.
“I still have nightmares”
“I spent 50 years trying to avoid what had happened” (Ian Wright)
Ultimately, this was an incredible personal journey which was shared with great sensitivity and has opened up much needed public awareness. It highlights how we need to go beyond the single incident model with DVA and support children beyond immediate risk reduction. Currently the funding is seldom there- many children’s social services cases are closed at the point perpetrators leave. But as Ian’s story has shown- the impact is felt by children for a lifetime.
“Growing up around violence never leaves you, it changes you” (Ian Wright)
To read more about my research with adult men who talk about their experiences of coping with DVA in childhood read here (for those without access just contact me and I will gladly send you a copy)
The documentary is still on BBC Iplayer and I really recommend a watch. Link here