I was just 14 years old when I finally got the army to take on board what had been going on at my boarding school, which then led to the convent school I went to in Belgium being shut down to boarders. It had only taken me four years to get expelled and be “debriefed”. Whilst the nuns beat the shit out of you, they also had to “forgive” you for any transgressions. I didn’t want forgiving, I wanted out. 100 Hail Marys & you were absolved as were they! I can’t remember the name of the army psychiatrist who helped me, the poor guy I had immediately been dispatched to because I was “unruly”, who diagnosed me with “frustration syndrome” nothing wrong with me other than nobody wanted to listen or take on board what had been going on at the convent. He and my dad put the wheels in motion having noted everything down. A team of inspectors went in and within a month of them going, in the military pulled its funding and that was that.
Before the convent, we were moving constantly, every six months or so. I was a military kid who thought everyone lived out of MFO boxes. I still don’t know to this day what my dad did, we had “diplomatic postings” he would disappear, sometimes for weeks at a time and we were intermittently guarded by armed soldiers. I think I was about nine when I first had the honour of checking underneath the car with a stick and a mirror to look for anything unusual, being expertly taught by my dad’s Polish staff driver. Yeah, perfectly normal childhood!
Moving schools all the time was a nightmare, always the “new kid”, you had to adapt very quickly for any chance of some bonding. It was because of all of this my parents decided that not only would it be safer, but a more stable environment, If my sisters and I went to a military approved school, the convent in Belgium. I was so excited, not really understanding the concept of being that far away from home (England at that time) for me it was going to be like Enid Blighton’s Mallory Towers, all midnight feasts and “jolly hockey sticks”. Both my parents had boarded, they assured me it was “fun” we would have a “great time” make new and enduring friendships, I should have been suspicious then. Too much spin, they never gushed. But I was only 10 and not sufficiently developed to understand that my life was about to be changed forever. The biggest irony of all is that the one thing my parents were trying to avoid, by sending us to a Catholic Convent in Europe, was the very thing that happened metaphorically. Our lives were blown up into tiny little pieces.
It was only when, having been dropped off at Victoria Station to catch the train to Dover with my new “parents” along with other children, that I began to have reservations. My sisters started to cry at this point, so being the eldest I did the best I could to comfort them, but soon got fed up with them, you don’t cry in military families. You don’t cry, you don’t complain, you don’t get ill, you pick yourself up and “soldier” on. Not a great skill set to have been taught if you want to become a nurturing human, but one you can rely on when your life goes tits up, which mine invariably did.
From Dover to Ostend on the ferry, my sisters were sea sick, I remember just leaving them in the toilets whilst I went out on deck to watch the sea and contemplate. I was well and truly out of my depth and beginning to get scared. Leaving my sisters was the whole “get on with it” non parenting skills kicking in. Not healthy, still it was part of being a member of my family, all of whom were military on both sides, going back generations. I epitomised stiff upper lip. I was a McGahan after all and we tough it out. Big girls don’t cry. It still makes me smile to think that what today would be considered emotional abuse, was and probably still is amongst certain parts of British society, called “character building”. Which is great if you are running over the hill with rifle in hand, doesn’t work so well in normal society.
We finally arrived by coach at our destination, after hours of travelling. I shit myself, I was tired, fearful, frightened and by now just wanted to go home. Instead I was faced with a building that looked and felt malevolent. Women with severe faces dressed in habits, who showed absolutely no compassion for their charges, some of whom were as young as five, which didn’t register at the time. All my instincts, which had been finely honed during my earlier childhood, were telling me to grab my sisters and run and keep running. It only got worse as we were taken to our dorms, cold, dreary and ominous, our “chambrettes” were a wood panelled area smaller than a prison cell that had built in cupboards, a bed, a curtain to pull over for privacy and a jug sat in a bowl. I looked around for my sisters to see if they were going to be put next to my “chambrette” aka cell, only to be told that my sisters were going to be going to another dorm, they were in the “petites” (little ones) and I was a “moyenne” a middle one and that I had “visiting rights” that would only be allowed to start when we had got used to being there. I didn’t understand what that meant until the next day.
The next day was when it hit me, today I know what that emotion was, full blown grief. I was absolutely bereft, I wanted my dog, I wanted my home, I wanted to be in England where people spoke English, not French or Flemish, I wanted my sisters, every little thing reminded me of home. It was so intense that it paralysed me. It was also then my first lesson in deliberate cruelty started. There I was sobbing asking to at least see my sisters when out of nowhere this tiny little nun, (Mere Claire) slapped me. She hit me so hard across the face that I stopped breathing. I remember just being still. She bought her face very close to mine and told me if I didn’t stop whining then there would be further punishment. Lesson learned. Suck it up. I decided at that moment I was going to be as disruptive as I possible could be and I was. Nothing nasty, nothing that involved any violence, just plain naughty. For which I spent many hours kneeling before the cross of Jesus “repenting my sins” on a cold flag stone floor in the infamous “Alle Blanche”. Getting whacked across the back of my head if I wasn’t bolt upright on my knees. Believe me, HMP was a doddle compared to my school!
And so it was, mental, physical and in some cases, sexual abuse, dished out daily, 24/7. From making the little 5 year olds who had wet their beds, kneel all night in their soiled clothing praying for forgiveness, to being yanked by your hair for dissenting, hit for crying or any other emotion, deprived of proper food, having mail both to and from parents intercepted and destroyed, or used as a bargaining tool. Catholicism rammed down your throat. A gated prison for which there was no escape and if your parents were in the process of being posted out again, you were sometimes there for months on end. Creating children who were now vulnerable to exploitation outside of that school as well as within it.
We, as children, saw being sent to that school as a betrayal by our parents, the appalling emotional and psychological abuse heaped on us daily and for some (not me I hadn’t been baptised so had little to do with the priest) sexual abuse too, made life very difficult for a very long time for many of us. The only saving grace was the education. The education allowed you to at least rationalise what you screwed up later and correct it. Sadly some of my “family” didn’t make it. For some the abuse at the school led to such catastrophic life choices that their lives were curtailed.
We (my boarding school friends) have also discussed at length why it is we have never gone to the police about it all. A number of reasons. Our abusers are too old or dead. None of us wanted that part of our private lives in the public domain if it was going to become detailed, none of us wanted our now aging parents to know the extent of the abuse because it would be cruel given they had sent us there, none of us wanted our children to know until they were old enough and finally, this is the Catholic thing kicking in, unavoidable after 4 years of brain washing. The vast majority of us felt that these people, if still alive, needed help not punishment, we did not want, what we see as revenge. No court could put right the wrongs, (it was a different era) only we could by getting on with our lives as best we could and to try and not repeat the mistakes our parents made, because that’s all it was, a mistake, an ill judged set of decisions for what they saw as the right reasons.
None of the group of friends I talk to define ourselves as victims or survivors, for us, a victim is somebody who has been blown up or shot and are now dead, for us a survivor is somebody who has had their legs amputated having trodden on an IED or came out of a concentration camp (this includes two victims of sexual abuse) We believe that is worse. I know that is going to offend some people, but it is how we were taught, what we saw growing up. We saw people in far worse situations than ours. Sometimes out of that school, sometimes in the countries we lived in. We were just kids that had a tough time for a while. It does not define who we are as adults. It does however define how we want the world to be. And just maybe it is proof that these things aren’t the worse thing that can happen to you and that you can go on to lead a relatively normal life. The military don’t “do” victimhood. Not such a bad thing after all.
Why have I written this? Because I am sick to death of people accusing me of being a “child abuse denier” or a “bandwagon” jumper or worse still a paedophile or paedophile supporter. I was 14 when I started “campaigning” I haven’t stopped. And I know what child abuse is I know what domestic violence is. I lived it, witnessed it and am still involved in the subject. I also know what it isn’t. I choose to fight for the marginalised, the pariahs of society, the people whom I believe have been falsely accused and I do that because it took me four years for anyone to listen to me about that place that was my “home” for so many years, a place that influenced my bad life choices for many years.
False allegations are abuse. And through all of this, I am still involved with genuine victims of abuse trying to get them the help they need. There is no difference for me. Abuse is abuse. Both sides leave a trail of devastation.
I don’t care if only one person reads this. It is one more person who will stop judging me. And for the record, in my world, growing up, you died for your beliefs, you fought wars, you placed yourself in imminent danger to protect the freedom and rights of this country, that pretty much taught me that you fight for what you believe in regardless of the threat of harm. It’s imprinted biologically and through my upbringing. My campaigns sometime put me in “danger” of attack from both people and the state, that’s the nature of the beast. What I will not do is compromise my beliefs for the sake of popularity or threat of imprisonment. That is not what my family sacrificed their lives for. And when I say I did not do something, I didn’t. Which in terms of the CJS will all become evidentially proven in the not too distant future.
I hope this very abbreviated and watered down version of just one small part of my life, gives my detractors an insight into my motives. There will be no other forays into my world.
And finally, for the record, I have never taken one single penny for the campaigning I have done. Not from the media, not from the legal profession. Nobody, because it is blood money and it would also compromise my independence as well as my beliefs. Neither do I want accolades or sympathy. This is what it is and it’s my choice to live it and be involved in it.