I have recently finished reading Eating the Elephant by Alice Wells. I approached this book with trepidation, her story is disturbing and compelling, and beautifully written and constructed, which helps enormously to digest the content. Her journey of discovering the vile world her husband assisted to perpetuate, using his own very small daughter to do so, is unspeakably horrific. He died before she was able to confront him.
Slowly it unfolds that he took hundreds of photos of his daughter and subjected her to abuse, very similar to my own experiences, although I hasten to add I was not abused by a family member. I found the story of her daughter to be so comforting and helped me understand myself as a child that little bit better.
Alice, in the book, and in an interview I saw with her, describes her life before the death of her husband, that she was permanently distracted. We learn in mindfulness class that autopilot and distraction are the enemies to fully living, to fully live we must be fully present, and the same in parenting. To truly parent you must be present.
Modern life is hard, together with the regular pressures of feeding your child and keeping a roof over their head are so many demands. Holidays, toys, experiences, education all this stuff requires paying for. We need to work. We want jobs that are meaningful, that use our skills and capabilities. We need to be out of the house very often in order to do this, perhaps we have long commutes. We may have older relatives that need our time too, friendships that need nurturing and in all this we need our own play time and releases too.
Distraction is where potential child sexual abusers (PSAs) can flourish. Allow me to take a step back at this point.
When I first entered therapy for child sexual abuse in 2012 at the age of 40 one of the sessions was around why I was chosen to be abused. I felt sick at the thought. I genuinely thought that we were going to look at me, and what was it about me that made him want to abuse me.
A PSA requires two things to be successful. Firstly they require the desire to abuse a child. That desire pre exists, which is important to remember. It is nothing about the child, a normal person doesn’t see a child and suddenly have the desire to abuse, their desire is there already. It is never the child’s fault.
Secondly, that PSA requires access. The child needs to be accessible to abuse. Being a distracted parent gives a PSA potential access to the child.
What we need to consider here is what is being present? Being present is not the same as being there. You can be next to your child and not be present. Being present covers many bases. Do you know who your child’s friends are? Do you know their parents? Do you understand your child’s normal patterns? Do you understand the games that they play, the apps they use? Do you take a genuine interest in what they do? Would you recognise a change in behaviour? Would you know how to respond?
Being present also means being approachable. There is a sickening scene in Eating the Elephant where Alice recalls her daughter disclosing, prior to the death of her father and the subsequent discoveries, and Alice inadvertently shuts her down. She is repulsed by what Alice says, and changes the subject. At no time did she consider that Alice might have first hand experience of what she mentioned. I don’t blame Alice and there is a discussion in the book about how this came to be, that Alice, a trained doctor, missed a key disclosure.
A present parent is a paedophile’s worst nightmare and your best defence. You cannot wrap your child up and protect them from evil. You don’t teach your child the statistics about car travel. You don’t make them feel fearful every time they step into a car that they could be in an accident, that there are drunk and drugged drivers on the roads, people without licences, over tired truck drivers, busy motorways, boy racers, the list goes on.
Which brings me to the internet. Our children are growing up in a digital world. It is essential that you understand this world. I saw an article the other day about a parent horrified about Roblox and their child receiving messages. Joseph plays Roblox, however he does not have an account, he has to play as a guest, and even then Roblox has some issues. One day I was horrified to see Joseph making a hockey mask and talking about Jason. I had to Google to find out what this was all about, I had never watched a horror movie, and still haven’t, and it took some time to unravel all this from Joseph’s mind.
It’s easy to become distracted and lose track of your child in an online wormhole. As children get older and learn to cover their tracks it’s even harder to keep an eye on what they are doing and who they are talking to.
On Facebook many of my friends shared this video made by Leicestershire Police about Kayleigh, a true and highly distressing story.
What this brought to my mind is what if she had spoken to her parents. Are parents equipped to have a conversation about concerns regarding online behaviour. I’m not sure I would have known what to say if Kayleigh had come to me and told me she had met a boy online. I like to think I would have been open, encouraged discussion, and engaged with her over it. Or maybe I would have completely lost my shit and forced Kayleigh deeper into the arms of this monster. I don’t know.
To ride safely in a car you need the right seats, the correct seatbelts, you need a car in good working order. You need knowledge, about yourself, your own capabilities, your vehicle, the roads around you and an awareness of other road users. Not just other vehicles but pedestrians, animals, wildlife, changing road conditions etc.
So too with the internet. Driving can be highly pleasurable, as can internet usage. I love the internet and it has enriched my life in many ways. But I am an adult, even so I have made mistakes online, and no doubt Joseph will make more along the way. But by being present and connected I can help him make sense of the digital world, and he can help me make sense of his world too.
Being fearful of PSAs is the worst thing you can do. Fear can lead to distraction. Being knowledgeable, confident and present is the best thing you can do to protect your child from harm.
To be able to tackle an elephant you first need to know that it is there.