Laura's story

“I’m the youngest of four kids. My parents divorced when I was four and me, my brother and my two sisters moved in with my mum. Mum introduced us to Brian soon after that, and he moved in. He was a bit strict and he seemed quite boring. Eventually, though, we all came to love him and he softened a lot over the years. Brian and my mum were intensely in love. They rarely fought – it seemed like the perfect relationship.

"I was abused every day for six years, in the house, in the garden, in the shed, in the car – pretty much everywhere."

"Brian was grooming me from when we first met. I’m not sure exactly how he did it, but he started by making me feel like I was a naughty girl. If I did something wrong, he’d say: ‘I’ll not tell your mam – it’s our secret.’ He was trying to build up my trust."

"When we were watching telly, he would cuddle me or rub my shoulder. Brian didn’t get on with my brother, Richie. My older sister Gemma also fought a lot with Brian and my mum, and she ended up moving out to live with my dad. Hayley, the youngest of my sisters, was the closest to me, but Brian didn’t treat her in the same way as me.

“The real touching started when I was eight, after Brian and Mum got married. I was abused every day for six years, in the house, in the garden, in the shed, in the car – pretty much everywhere. I don’t remember how it first started – it seems like it was always there, and it was part of everyday life.

"When I was 14, the abuse just stopped. Nothing really happened, but I was keeping out of his way a bit more, staying in my room."

“At first, he’d say I was his girlfriend and I couldn’t tell anyone – it was like a triangle between Brian, my mum and me. I’d go to my room and Brian would come in and start kissing and touching me, and then he’d just leave. He was always trying to find ways to be alone with me. I was abused all the time. It’s difficult to remember – I have some very strong memories of specific things that happened, but I couldn’t say exactly when they were. Once, we were out in the car and mum had to run into the bank. We were parked in a public car park, and Brian started to kiss and touch me.

“Brian took more risks as time went on. One Christmas, the whole family was in the dining room. I went upstairs to the bathroom, and when I came down Brian was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. He jammed the dining room door shut with his foot and abused me there in the hall, with the rest of the family a few feet away. I think I was about 10.

“The abuse started to change as I got older, and as it progressed he started making me do things to him. I think my mum was unaware of what was going on, but I also think she didn’t want to see the signs. Sometimes I would come home crying from school, and she’d ask me what was wrong. I’d make up a story about someone picking on me, but even in my own head, I didn’t really know why I was sad all the time.

 “While it was happening, I didn’t realise that I was being abused. Brian made me believe that we were having an affair and were going to run off and get married. I felt awful about my mum, so I didn’t tell anyone – it felt like me and Brian against everyone else.

"When I was 14, the abuse just stopped. Nothing really happened, but I was keeping out of his way a bit more, staying in my room. Brian could have come and found me but I was fully developed by then, and I think he just stopped finding me attractive.

“I was diagnosed with Anorexia. By Christmas, I couldn’t climb the stairs or walk to the bus stop.”

“At that point, I started dieting and became bulimic. I hated my body and didn’t feel like I deserved to be alive. I got really sick.

“I left school at 16 and went to America for a couple of weeks to stay with a friend of my mum. When I came back I decided not to eat. I started college in September, and over the next three months I lost three stone. I was diagnosed with Anorexia. By Christmas, I couldn’t climb the stairs or walk to the bus stop, so I stopped going to college.

“I was still living at home. I didn’t speak much to Brian – it was quite awkward – but I don’t think he blamed himself for what was happening to me. By then, he was acting like a normal stepfather. On the surface of it we seemed to have a really good relationship.

“But at the performing arts college, I had a really good support group around me. That’s what made me finally realise that life was worth living."

“I started to get over the Anorexia in 2002, after I left college and had a year out. I wasn’t really getting better, though – I just became bulimic instead. I got a job in a bakery and I would binge when no one was there.

“In September 2002 I was 17 and I started at a performing arts college. My mum probably knew I was being sick, but she never said anything. No one mentioned the scars on my arms from where I’d been cutting myself, either. But then I became Anorexic again, and my weight dropped – that’s when people started to notice, and I was sent back to treatment.

“Up until then, I’d felt worthless, like I didn’t deserve to be alive. But at the performing arts college, I had a really good support group around me. That’s what made me finally realise that life was worth living. Lucy, the principal at the college, recognised that there was something going on with me. Although she never pushed for details, she was someone I trusted and could talk to.

“I had an hour-long assessment with a psychologist. Right at the end, I said: ‘If I really want to get better, do I have to tell the truth?’ That’s when I told her I’d been abused. It was the first time I’d said it out loud to anyone. Because it was historic abuse, the psychologist didn’t have to report it to the police – it was up to me what I wanted to do. We talked, but I think I was still just brushing the surface of what had happened.

“But the more I talked about it, the worse I felt. I started drinking heavily and taking drugs – I was a mess. I was having weekly therapy, and I was gradually recovering memories, but I was falling apart emotionally. I was also still living at home with Mum and Brian. He had been involved in a really terrible bike accident which almost killed him, and I think the change in him was what made me able to talk about what he’d done. He wasn’t strong and scary any more – he was weak.

"I decided to tell my mum. I wrote her a long letter, and gave it to her when we were out of the house one day.”

“My drug taking was getting out of control, and the staff at the college noticed. Finally, I was told I’d have to leave. College had been my life for two and a half years – I was devastated. I rang Lucy, the principal, and asked if I could come and see her. When I got there I said: ‘I want to tell you why I’ve been behaving the way I have, but I just don’t know how to.’ Lucy said: ‘Have you been abused?’ And then it all came out.

 “The following February, in 2005, I decided to tell my mum. I wrote her a long letter, and gave it to her when we were out of the house one day. She took one look at it and started crying, saying she didn’t want to read it. So then I told her what had happened.

“My mum didn’t react the way I’d expected her to. She said: ‘I believe you completely, but please don’t go to the police.’ She was scared of losing her house, and the life she’d built up with Brian, and she pleaded with me to let her sort things out before going to the police. It made me feel like she cared more about money and possessions than about me.

“I thought telling my mum would help me but it just made everything worse – the living situation with the three of us under one roof was unbearable. I started cutting myself and drinking more and, eventually, I attempted suicide by taking an overdose. Meanwhile, Mum just seemed to be carrying on her life with Brian, and nothing was ever said. Eventually, in October, I decided I could do it on my own – I went straight to the police and made a statement.

“Life went on, but I still had all these questions in my head because I’d never had a chance to speak to Brian about what had happened.”

"The police came and arrested Brian a few days later. He didn’t put up a fight – he said he’d known it was coming. I didn’t see him again until last year. My family were devastated when I finally told them the truth.

“Brian pleaded guilty, so I didn’t have to go to court, although I wrote a victim impact statement. Brian was sentenced to 10 years, which was reduced to eight. He served four.

 “Life went on, but I still had all these questions in my head because I’d never had a chance to speak to Brian about what had happened. I wrote him a letter in 2007, the year after he went to prison. I was still struggling with my eating disorder, and I just wanted to get well. A victim liaison officer, Lisa, saw the letter and got in touch with me to say that a meeting could be arranged.

“Louise explained what restorative justice was, and worked with me for the next 11 months to prepare me for the meeting with Brian."

“But then two things happened – my brother died, and I got pregnant. I just didn’t feel like I could face Brian, so everything was put on hold for several years. After my second child was born, I got severe post-natal depression, and relapsed into Anorexia. On the surface, there didn’t seem to be a reason, but I still had all these questions in my head. People talk about ‘closure’, and I didn’t believe it was a real thing, but it is. That’s why I still wanted to go and meet Brian.

“In 2014, I finally decided I was ready. I’d never heard of restorative justice, but Lisa, my victim liaison officer, introduced me to Louise Houghton from the National Probation Service in Northumbria. Louise explained what restorative justice was, and worked with me for the next 11 months to prepare me for the meeting with Brian. First, she got me to tell her my story. She went to meet Brian, and then kept going back and forth between us. Louise explained to me that meeting Brian could make me feel worse, and that there would be no chance of the meeting going ahead if they thought that would happen. But by then, I was feeling strong, and I knew I really needed it. At every point, Louise and her co-facilitator, Karen, kept telling me that I could back out at any time.

“Louise and Karen were constantly in touch with my community mental health nurse, and they made sure that I had appointments with her the days before and after the meeting. I was able to contact Louise and Karen whenever I needed to, and they did a lot of home visits with me. They also took some of my questions to Brian before the meeting, so I’d already got some answers. I asked him when the abuse had first started, because I didn’t trust my own memory. I also asked if he’d got together with my mum because she had children. I had a whole list of questions, and he answered in a lot of detail.

“I was terrified before the meeting, but I also felt strong and in control – I was finally going to get the answers I needed.”

“Even though I’d had written answers to my questions, I still needed to see Brian. I’d loved him as a stepdad, and I wanted to say goodbye to the part of him that I’d loved. He was part of our family. When I’d first written to him, I asked him: ‘Do you hate me?’ Louise and Karen didn’t want me to ask him that – it meant that I was still measuring myself by his opinion of me. They told me that it didn’t matter what Brian thought of me, and they kept reiterating that I was the victim, not Brian. I felt guilty for having him arrested, and that I’d brought the abuse on myself – that’s how well Brian had groomed me.

“Brian had already shown that he was remorseful about what he’d done, and he’d agreed to meet because he thought it might help me in some way. Louise talked me through the meeting – there were going to be four of us in the room. I didn’t want any supporters to be there, but I could have had someone there if I’d wanted to. I was told we could take breaks, and that there would be an exit just for me if I needed to leave. I even visited the meeting location beforehand so I could decide where everyone was going to sit. Every detail was worked out in advance.

"At first my friends and family were really wary – they couldn’t understand why I wanted to meet Brian. Louise offered to help me to explain, but in the end, I managed to make them understand.

“When I got the chance to say how things had affected me, it was really hard for him to hear, because he still didn’t get the full impact of what he’d done.”

“I was terrified before the meeting, but I also felt strong and in control – I was finally going to get the answers I needed. I hadn’t seen Brian for seven years, and I didn’t know how that would feel, or whether I’d even be able to look him in the eye. But because the meeting was so well planned, it took the pressure off me.

“When Brian came in, we didn’t make eye contact at first. I’d asked Louise to thank him, because I knew it was really difficult for him. Then we went through the questions I’d already sent. The answers were the same, but hearing them from him directly made a huge difference. When I got the chance to say how things had affected me, it was really hard for him to hear, because he still didn’t get the full impact of what he’d done.

"I didn’t get emotional in the meeting at all – I was very strong and I felt empowered."

“Brian seemed weak that day – he looked a lot older, and he seemed like half the man he had before. I asked Brian if he understood that my illness was caused by what he’d done to me. He told me he’d deliberately blanked it out so he didn’t have to admit to himself that it was his fault. He said: ‘I know I’ve ruined your life.’ When I got my chance to speak, I said to him: ‘You haven’t ruined my life – you could have, but you haven’t.’ It was really important to me to let him know that while he’d affected the first 30 years of my life, I wasn’t going to let him ruin the next 30. It felt good to be able to say that.

"I didn’t get emotional in the meeting at all – I was very strong and I felt empowered. We had breaks whenever we needed to eat, drink or just take time out. After lunch, I told Brian I wanted to offer my forgiveness, because I wanted to put an end to what had happened. Brian got very emotional and had to leave the room – he said he couldn’t understand why I’d want to forgive him. I told him it was because I didn’t want to carry around what he’d done to me anymore. I’d moved on, and forgiving him was for me, not for him.

“We talked about what would happen if we bumped into each other in the street, and what Brian was going to do to make sure that he didn’t reoffend. At the end, he thanked me for offering to forgive him. I asked if I could shake his hand – my partner, Ashley, still can’t understand why I did that, but it just felt right to me.

“I’m not as angry any more – that’s lifted. Having an apology from Brian, and hearing him say that it was all his fault, was massive.”

“I’d wanted to let Brian know that I was OK – that I was an adult, and he didn’t have any control over me anymore. I also wanted an apology, and I got one. The meeting lasted for three and a half hours. I felt great afterwards – like I’d had a weight lifted off my shoulders, and I knew what closure was. I was hoping that the feeling would last, and it did. When Louise rang me the next day, she said I sounded like a different person.

 “I’m not as angry any more – that’s lifted. Having an apology from Brian, and hearing him say that it was all his fault, was massive. I didn’t believe that until I heard it from him, and no one else would have been able to convince me. I also had the chance to say goodbye to him, which was what I wanted. If I see him in the street, I’ve asked him to acknowledge me and walk on by. I also know that he’s not going to come after me – when he was released from prison, the fear of that made me ill again. I don’t have that fear any more.

"An apology is only one word, but it’s a massive thing."

“My health is good now. I waited for a long time for the meeting because I wanted to make sure I was strong enough. If I had been vulnerable or not eating, I’d have still been the victim, and Louise and Karen wouldn’t have let the meeting go ahead. Now, Louise is helping me to repair my relationship with my mum. Mum knows I’ve had a meeting with Brian, and Louise is working towards a restorative meeting between the two of us. There are lots of things we need to talk about, and I want her to know that I understand now how difficult things must have been for her, too.

"For me, restorative justice really worked well. Depending on the situation it can be a really positive thing for victims of abuse." 

"You tend to make up in your head what your abuser is thinking, and you make judgements about things which only they can tell you for sure. And an apology is only one word, but it’s a massive thing. I would tell other people to consider restorative justice, and to put their trust in their facilitator. It’s done me nothing but good.”

The RJC would like to thank National Probation Service South of Tyne and Laura for sharing her story with us.

© Restorative Justice Council 2015 – do not reproduce without permission.

For interview requests please contact communications@restorativejustice.org.uk

 

 

Resource themes: 
Sensitive and complex, Victims
Resource categories: 
Case studies