It was nearly thirty years since we had last met. Suzy (not her real name) had come back to Mill Grove because she wanted to get a clearer idea of her life story. She had lived her with us for three years as a teenager, and after that we had lost touch. Now with grown-up children, and while undertaking counseling, she was sitting beside me as we looked through all the written information that we had placed and kept safe in her personal folder. There were letters, notes, school and medical reports, and summaries of case reviews, together with the views and recommendations of different professionals.
She had asked me whether I could help her write an outline of her life, and she had already begun with a summary on a sheet of A4. How she wanted to proceed I did not know. Without hesitation she began with some letters that were signed by “mummie”. These were actually by one of her foster parents. Then there was a letter that I had written to her soon after she left Mill Grove: this had never reached her. She mused on how different things might have been had she received it, understood that we did not see her as naughty, and known of our long-term commitment to her.
Then she started reading out loud from the report of a conference held at an Observation and Assessment Centre. It followed the shape common at the time: personal and family details; family background; school report; social worker’s, psychologist’s and psychiatrist’s reports; and a recommendation about a future placement. (I noted in passing that it was far more coherent and intelligible than the typical reports now made of children looked after: the current records are more segmented as a result of a tick-box approach to recording information.)
So it was that I found myself listening to her almost monotonous and weary voice articulate the story of her early life written by a social worker. Every now and then she paused to ask me what I thought a word or phrase meant. Otherwise she read every word slowly until she came to a section describing how she had bullied a particular little girl, and other children at school. “That was bad”, she said, “I shouldn’t have done it”. There was no further comment, and not the slightest trace of excuses.
There was a description of a visit of her foster parents to the children’s home where Suzy was moved when the placement broke down. It talked of the strain the visitors felt. “What about me?” she remarked wistfully. And indeed there was no mention of her own feelings during an afternoon that was obviously fraught with difficulties.
The recommendation on pages 9 and 10 (that we reached after an hour or so) was that Suzy should be placed where she would have a long period of stability that enabled her to make a relationship with at least one adult.
It is easy to see things differently with the benefit of hindsight, but everything in the report seemed to cry out that another foster family would only compound her problems.
But yes, you’ve guessed it: after a short time in a children’s home she was placed in another foster family, and there the sky fell on her head. The foster parents separated and divorced, and she recalls that she was sexually abused.
It was only after this disastrous period of four years that she came to live with us at Mill Grove. We knew about the separation of the foster parents and much of the rest of her story, but not about the abuse. In fact it had taken her nearly thirty years to tell anyone else about it.
I’m not sure when it happened, but there was a moment when she looked out of the window above the table on which the notes she was reading were lying, and commented, “It’s strange. I’m reading about myself, and yet it doesn’t seem like me.” We chatted about this for a while. One of the reasons for this disparity was the fact that the reports were silent about her real feelings (she had been silent about them too). Another was that the reports were silent about the abuse (something that was central to her own first telling of her story). But there was also the fact that she was reading typed words about herself by others: there was a disconnect between the reports and the stuff of the life she had lived. It was as if they belonged to different worlds, parallel universes.
By way of contrast the two meals we had while she was with us, and the leisurely stroll around our home and garden brought back a host of real memories: there were smiles and comments as she pointed to the place where she sat at meal-times, and where my father sat to the right of her; the snooker table where she and I played fiercely contested games evening after evening; the cherry tree; the place where the TV used to be in the lounge; the grass which she sometimes helped to cut; the old chicken run. And she ran off a list of the other children who lived with us while she was here. This led to a number of stories of events at home and on holiday.
She was with us for several hours, during which time we copied all the information we had, and then she said goodbye. What the future will hold, who can say? Right now she is determined to bring to justice her abuser, and those who were responsible for putting her at risk. Whatever the outcome we are now in touch again and she senses that we will walk alongside each other in the days ahead.
I am grateful, like her that some reasonably reliable (though partial) records of her life exist. But so much more important is the fact that we were able to travel through her traumatic past side by side, with the knowledge that we will be able to talk things over whenever she wants to from now on. What a blessing that there is someone who knows her well with whom she can reconstruct her story, and in the process a new identity and sense of self.
And for me, what an inspiration, that one who had suffered so chronically and terribly from birth, should have the resilience to face the truth of her past so that the present and future can be lived without a hidden, frozen past casting its unconscious shadow on every day, every relationship and every thought.
The person reading the notes and commenting on them was really Suzy, even if it didn’t seem like that to her!