It has taken me fifty years to reach a point in my life where I feel ready to talk openly about some of my teenage boarding school experiences. Since my late thirties I have tried to address the most painful aspects of those years, seeking therapeutic approaches whenever my life’s challenges seemed to point to my early wounds as their source. But out of denial and a habitual stiff-upper-lip,I have kept my story close to my chest. The psychotherapeutic help I have received has been only partially successful.
I have recently lowered my armour enough to accept the levels of trauma and shame that I have been carrying from those school years, because whenever I have found myself paralysed with fear and unable to speak out, I failed to see the extent to which my ‘weakness’ as a man, as I saw it, led straight back to the terror of the small boy from my childhood. I have been hard on myself all this time and minimised in my mind, the effect of those school years, through the numbing and dis-association that my system employed to get me through that time, and which became my unconscious response for creating safety when under pressure or threat in my adult life.
It was skilful means for a small boy, but life limiting for the man ever since.
I hope by revealing what I have kept hidden from all but my closest partners along the way till now, my account will serve to lighten the load for other men and women who have struggled through their lives with a heavy weight on their shoulders. I do not claim that the challenges I lived through during my school years were worse than those of any others who became victims of abuse, whether mental, emotional or physical. There are thousands of people out there who are carrying burdens much bigger and more damaging than mine. But I offer my story in service to those people, in all walks of life, who are longing to find ways to heal old wounds and make peace with themselves.
The way it happened to me was like the drip-drip-drip of water on stone:
I arrived at my secondary boarding school, on the strength of my Common Entrance exam, age thirteen. We were based in a Victorian brick mansion nestling in a large area of woodland a mile and a half away from the main school. At thirteen we were there for just one year before moving permanently up to the main school, although in that first year most of our lessons and other activities involved walking through the woods each morning, and into the village, to reach the school for our daytime studies.
For the first two months, September and October, we could make the journey back to our night-time base in broad daylight, having our evening meal there and our period of prep before bed. But as the nights drew in, the walk back through the woods in twilight conditions and then in complete darkness, was at best an eerie experience. I remember becoming terrified of this nightly ordeal. I think I had always had a childhood fear of the dark and of dark woods particularly, but I had specific reasons for this being heightened for me, as the days and months passed.
I had not been at this school long when I became aware of older boys taking an interest in me. These boys were attracted to my soft girl-like features and, being an all-boys school, there were one or two poor souls each year who were picked out as the ‘pretty boys’ to become the focus of all the pubescent testosterone and unexpressed sexual energy raging through the school, which was of course a virtual prison.
This sexual energy had nowhere to go except towards those of us who were forced to become surrogate females, in service to the relief of that pressure valve in the system. The sexual aspect of this was the dominant factor, for in fact we were known as ‘bum boys’ (a name that still triggers me); but I can see now, that having been separated from our mothers, many of us since the age of eight when we were packed off to our first boarding school, we craved contact with any female energy, and more sinisterly for us ‘pretty boys’, we faced the disowned anger of sons abandoned by their mothers. I can now see how this explains the edginess of the attention I drew towards myself; all that anger wrapped up in the abusive tone of the words used towards and against me, that I had to learn to face and endure on a daily basis, as the designated ‘female’ in our year.
I found it scary to be noticed by older boys, especially fifth and sixth formers, who seemed like grown men to me. Taunting comments came more regularly from the year above me and gradually, as ‘gorgeous’ became my nickname (virtually everyone had a nickname of some kind), boys in my own year joined in and tended to treat me the same way. I quickly learned not to react, trying to deflect all forms of attention, whether abusive jibes, or more appreciative and harmless ones. Soon it all became a relentless daily nightmare for me, continuing for the next three years, during which time all teachers and staff seemed completely blind to or oblivious of my predicament. I never once tried to seek help from my so-called guardians after two experiences where teachers witnessed sexualised comments towards me and just sniggered knowingly, rather than making some effort to stop what was happening.
I felt like I was seen only as an objectified female; there for everyone’s pleasure; there to allow a release of everyone’s frustrated sexuality, sexual confusion, along with all the new-found feelings of adolescence that needed to be explored, including their repressed anger towards their mothers; none of which had a legitimate outlet for expression.
Usually I could tell if boys were just using me to let off steam with no personal attachment to me or to an outcome; for whom this was just a phase they would work through and then move on into a more mature heterosexuality. But I became aware that there were a few boys who showed an interest in me that was more personal and targeted. This could be out of their own neediness, or because they had already secretly identified their permanent homosexual orientation.
My first experience of this was in my first year when Jones, a boy one year older than me, accosted me in the school grounds, making it clear he liked me and inviting me into the woods with him. He was mildly intimidating, and I was scared, although my memory has become vague about the details. I seem to remember he wrestled me to the ground and started to fondle me, but I must have managed to stop him going further and I got away. He never tried this again, though it was months before my fear of him relaxed, realising Jones had lost interest and moved on.
For the next four years I held resentment towards him for what he had tried to do, and it showed me how I needed to guard against putting myself at risk in this way. I never knew if Jones was genuinely feeling a sexual attraction to me or whether he was just trying to overcome his own sense of vulnerability by showing off his power and ingratiating himself with his friends, because he had started his ‘hit’ on me in a very public way. A lot of that went on.
So that painful encounter with Jones, age thirteen, and other particularly personal and threatening verbal exchanges, put me in a constant state of alert for my safety and wellbeing. In my first year, those nightly walks back through the woods, with a minimum of electric lighting to show the way along the path, became an ordeal for me. If I was with class mates I felt safe, so I tried to engineer this each day. But there were evenings, when I had been doing some extra activity, I had to return later than the main body of boys, and so faced the prospect of making the journey alone. I was always terrified that an older boy would follow me, or would be hiding in the bushes, waiting to grab me when I came past.
Thankfully, nothing serious did happen, but I was never free of the threat of it in my mind. I was being accosted with verbal reminders of who or rather ‘what’ I was in the eyes of the school, many times each day, so I was never allowed to forget I was the fancied ‘gorgeous’ object of attention.
It was a traumatising time for me, something I have only recently come to accept fully, as I have looked deeply into the damaging effects on my adult life. There was worse to come but first I need to add that there was another side to this coin and other aspects of my circumstances that complicated my overall experience of boarding school. I had already been boarding for five years at my prep school. I had already established that I told my parents virtually nothing of my troubles, only the positives. I was often lonely, I was isolated and I was seriously lacking affection and physical contact. This was the cruel nature of boarding school.
So given all this, there was an aspect of the attention I was getting which affirmed that I was an attractive person. It was feeding a need in me to be seen, appreciated and liked. A natural and necessary need in all young people. So perversely, I often enjoyed the attention I got; and yet, as with all victims of harassment or abuse, I could not risk showing that I enjoyed it. It was a painful double bind, which only led me to feel more lonely and isolated, trapped by my own fear of what might happen if I encouraged it.
My fear of being ‘hit on’ homosexually was a drip-feed of torture. In the face of this I returned to the saying that I had adopted earlier as my mantra:
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words alone can’t hurt me.”
This helped to numb the pain, while giving me a childish sense of victory over my situation and over the boys who taunted me. If I avoided physical violence I could appear indifferent. I was able to never show they could get to me, that they couldn’t hurt me with their nicknames and sexualised comments. I must have held fury deep inside that I also withheld from my perpetrators and in the end I paid a big price for my determination to rise above their games. Through my reactions, or lack of them, I was becoming trapped by my own stubbornness and self-righteous pride so that eventually they wanted their revenge. I will come to that.
The fact is that while my tactics allowed me to look strong and resilient on the outside, I was hurting and often screaming on the inside; living in a state of alertness and fear for my physical and psychological safety. It left me with exhausted adrenal glands which has affected my health in later life. It must have taken its toll on me even then. I found myself slipping behind some of the brighter kids with our academic work, although I did sit and pass 10 ‘0’ levels age sixteen, so in spite of my situation, I not only managed to keep my troubles from my parents, I was able to impress them with my achievements and do justice to the ‘privileged’ education they were affording me. Ironic as it may seem, I was still stuck in the naive belief, that if I didn’t achieve and do well, my parents wouldn’t love me.
If you, the reader are thinking at this point, “why the hell didn’t you tell your parents and ask to leave? After all you sound way too sensitive a child to be placed in a boarding school environment for ten years.” You would be right, But the fact is it never once occurred to me that I could get help to escape or change my situation. We children didn’t have a sense of our needs and rights in the way that most young people have today.
Even now I recognise a childlike belief that sits deep in my system and has played out in my life over and over again in negative ways. The belief that I am stuck in the grip of the situation I find myself in, with no right or ability to question or challenge it, however difficult, painful or destructive it is for me. I feel powerless to do anything about it. There seems no point in speaking out or sharing my problems. I just have to silently accept my situation and get on with it, alone, adapting myself around other people, letting them have their way, with no sense of my own power. This belief has kept me tied to people in unhealthy relationships and in one instance, it took a psychotherapist to shock me into action by saying to me: ‘you have to get out of this relationship or you will die!’ It is not difficult to see where this stubborn belief originated, a victim identity that as a mature man, has been a major source of shame.
My saving grace at school perhaps, was that I showed myself to be a skilled and plucky player on the sports field. In fact my forte was squash and I played for the school at various levels for this as well as for hockey, cricket and tennis, gaining genuine respect and kudos with parents, teachers and the boys around me. In this forum at least, I could prove myself to be a man.
By the time I got to the fifth form, I realised I was literally the only boy in my year who had an interest in art. This set me apart in yet another way, which was both good and bad. I found peace and solace in the art room, away from the rough and tumble of my peers. I even expressed some of my angst in my paintings and sculptures. I had sensibilities and feminine qualities, which I rarely felt safe enough to express, but here was one of the few places where I had an outlet during those years. It felt wonderful to have my art teacher quietly supporting and affirming my sensitivity and creativity.
I was invited to get involved with painting scenery for a theatre production, and through this opportunity I discovered a further escape from my lot in mainstream school. I began to spend all my free time behind the stage, and was enrolled as one of the ‘stage staff’. I made new friends there, people who seemed to accept and respect me as a human being instead of seeing me as a sexual object. This was refreshing, comforting and very healing. I was able to start showing myself more, expressing my feelings. I could breathe and share creative time with these people.
My class mates on the other hand took great exception to my involvement with the stage. In their eyes (probably their parents’ eyes actually) all actors and anyone connected with the theatre were ‘queers and poofs’. In their eyes I had become one of ‘them’ and this confirmed that I was and always had been a faggot, a level up (or down) from just being a ‘pretty boy’. I had by then matured too, my voice had fully broken, and although I still looked young and fresh-faced, other younger boys had arrived at the school to take over from my given role, and become the next generation of ‘bum boys’.
The upshot of this new dynamic between me, as a member of the stage staff, and the rest of my year, was a vicious period of taunting and bullying. They seemed to resent my success in finding ways to live outside of their control, sidestepping the feminine role they were used to me playing for them. I was feeling safer and strong enough to rebuff their taunts. This only made them more angry and, unbeknown to me, they began to plot a way to teach me a lesson.
Continued in my post: Sexual Abuse and Trauma Relived – parts one and two.