Growing up with paedophiles

Not so long ago, adults treated paedophiles with caution rather than dread.

A chance conversation in a pub recently got me thinking about the impact of the paedophile hysteria. A friend, Fiona, happened to mention that she was feeling somewhat disoriented by the post-Savile, post-Rolf Harris furore and was beginning to rethink her own childhood experiences as the daughter of a man who spent many years working in a halfway house for released offenders.

The home housed about 60 men, most of whom had spent many years in prison, and some of whom were still mentally ill. Fiona’s father explained to his children that many of the men were ‘sick in the head’ and therefore needed help and kindness. She described how individual men would be invited to her family home for Sunday lunch and that for years the family would spend every Christmas Day in the halfway house, trying to create a normal Christmas for the men. She and her siblings were even taken, with her parents’ knowledge, on little outings to the local park by some of the residents. To me, a sociologist of contemporary attitudes to parenting in our risk-averse times, Fiona’s recollections were immediately intriguing. We arranged to pursue our conversation a few days later.

What had made our initial conversation even more striking, and crucial to Fiona’s current sense of discomfort, was that some of the men were described by her father as ‘paedophiles’. The children were under firm instruction not to sit next to these particular individuals and were certainly not allowed to be alone with them. The ability to make such cool, pragmatic restrictions, enabling safe contact between children and men convicted of paedophilic offences, seems extraordinary today. It was hardly surprising to hear that Fiona has been thrown slightly out of kilter by the extreme disjuncture between contemporary attitudes and the judgements made by her parents and the other staff in the halfway house. Such has been the impact of the current hysteria that she has gone so far as to wonder, somewhat wildly, whether her much-loved father (now deceased) may have had some sinister involvement in a large-scale scandal. At her most confused moments, she has even imagined that this might have involved Jimmy Savile. In the cold light of day, she knows this cannot be the case, and is confident that no harm ever befell her or her siblings (although her father was sometimes in physical danger from the men at the house, some of whom remained deeply troubled by drink and mental illness).

Ultimately, she trusted, and still trusts, her father’s explanations as to what these men were, and his subtle methods for controlling his children’s interactions with them. Fascinatingly, she said the paedophiles did not stand out from the other residents and she never recalls finding them creepy in any way – in fact, she said, it was the more disturbed individuals who made her feel uncomfortable: the angry drunks, the man with the stash of axes, or the flamboyant, but pretty nutty, cross-dressers.

It was her father’s view that paedophiles were not capable of complete rehabilitation, and were best contained in a caring environment where they could be monitored. It was also clear to her that the presence of her and her siblings was to play a role in all the men’s care by lending their lives some semblance of normality, bringing some warmth to what must have surely been a pretty bleak existence. Some of the men would have had their own children, from whom they had become estranged during their incarceration. Family visits were rare, she recalled – just the occasional aging sister dropping by. She described how one elderly gentleman, John, who was not a paedophile, adored her and used to buy her little presents of handkerchiefs or knick-knacks. These were institutionalised individuals who had served their time for murder, rape, or less serious offences. Some were alcoholics, drug addicts or long-term schizophrenics, unable to cope with living alone. And few ever stopped living at the house.

Fiona’s stories brought to mind an incident recounted by US writer Katie Roiphe in her book In Praise of Messy Lives. The book is an attempt to challenge the current protectiveness towards what children witness, the rigid separation of adult and child spaces, and the prioritisation of children’s imagined fragile wellbeing at the expense of adult relationships. Roiphe recalls how her mother once rushed out during the night to tend to a delusional, mentally ill novelist friend. She took with her Roiphe’s three-year-old sister, putting her to sleep in her friend’s bed, ‘which smelled of beer and marijuana’, while she comforted him in his distress. In the morning the friend was dropped at a mental hospital on the way to delivering the three-year-old to pre-school.

Describing how her childhood experiences have left her unafraid of the full range of human behaviour, Fiona recounts an evening recently when she invited in for dinner an alcoholic neighbour, in a bad way and locked out of his own house for the evening. She didn’t worry what her children would make of this thoroughly inebriated, normally friendly and respectable chap joining them at the table. The valuable lesson from her own experience was that children can cope with witnessing human frailty up close, and that, sometimes, caring for adults, despite their failings, can actually be more helpful than creating an innocent bubble around the young. However, Fiona is no Pollyanna – she has also developed a sharp instinct for judging real dangers and will pass on to her children the ability to negotiate human life in all its sometimes risky complexity.

The questions raised by Fiona in the course of our conversation are useful ones for us all to consider: When it comes to sexual perversions, are there degrees of badness? Is there a difference between a Savile and a slightly sad ‘dirty old man’ or a flasher? How are we to make judgements for ourselves when risk assessments and procedure increasingly colonise interactions between people? What happens when we discard the hard-won experience and judgement of those who have put themselves on the line to take responsibility for flawed individuals who society now considers to be beyond the pale? But, also, to what extent is this destructive drive to judge the past through today’s distorted prism of risk and abuse disorienting otherwise grounded, sensible individuals? Is their rich human experience being rendered valueless or even toxic by our pernicious culture of distrust?

Dr Jan Macvarish is a research fellow at the University of Kent and co-author of Parenting Culture Studies, published by Palgrave. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

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