The Work of Witness: testifying to sexual abuse in childhood by alice hiller


Alice Hiller on ‘Leaving Neverland’  – and writing about her own experience of sexual abuse in childhood in her poem ‘elegy for an eight year old.’

In common with most people, I was deeply impacted by watching Leaving Neverland. It made me think about the work of witness – which each of us who has been subjected to sexual abuse in childhood must go through, if we want our experiences no longer to be hidden. As someone who does not share this history, Amanda Petrusich on the New Yorker nonetheless found it a “gruelling and devastating film that asks viewers to reconfigure how they think about both Jackson and potential victims of rape.”

Like James Safechuck and Wade Robson, I was subjected to same-sex, sexual abuse in childhood.   However, my abuser was my mother, not someone ‘famous.’ All the same, I felt as if I was watching a refracted version of myself as James and Wade spoke. They described gradually coming to a place in their lives, and within themselves, where they were able to be open about the sexual abuse that had been inflicted upon them when they were too young to understand, or resist. There was a necessity to their courage, both personally, and morally.

Neither of them had been able to testify against Michael Jackson while he was still alive. This was their chance to create coherence between their inner knowledge of themselves – and how they appeared to the outside world. It supported other young men who had previously given witness to similar alleged experiences with Michael Jackson. James’s and Wade’s open-ness also supported the larger community of people making their lives in the aftermath of sexual abuse in childhood.

My own acts of witness about being sexually abused by my mother are of course less publicised, but ongoing. They take place within my poems, performances, essays, and life-writing.  I also speak about this subject with members of the public, and medical practitioners.   Like most sexual predators, my mother was unknown beyond her immediate circle of family and friends. To my child’s eyes, though, she was as powerful, and compelling, as Michael Jackson was to the boys he allegedly sexually abused.

While it is less common for a mother to perpetrate sexual abuse on her child, my experience nonetheless aligns with many other long-running, private and domestic acts of sexual abuse on children. Knowing this, helped me understand that my writing could potentially be of service to my community – by allowing other people to find elements of what also happened to them represented in my words.  These include the confusing experiences of being groomed, our feelings of powerlessness and shame while the abuse is ongoing, and the potentially troubled aftermaths.  Barnardo’s Charity estimate that one in twenty children are sexually abused, and at least half of them have ongoing problems in adulthood, requiring help.

I had that ambition of representation for my poem ‘elegy for an eight year old’, when I entered it for the 2018 Creative Futures Awards. The first lines came to me when I was walking through Brompton Cemetery in London, early one cold January morning. I saw the rows of ranked graves. Some were tilted and leaning, with their names eroded almost to nothing. Others stood upright as soldiers, with pin sharp lettering, refusing to let their dead be forgotten. The light was a flat, yellow grey – as it would have been at that time of year, back in January 1973.


It takes ten minutes to walk across the cemetery. Passing between the graves, it seemed that the rows of silent, buried human remains lying beneath that earth, were somehow also the layered, hidden memories of the uncountable numbers of people who have been sexually abused – in the present day and historically. Their unwitnessed, unspoken lives and histories surround us.

In the quiet, empty cemetery, I felt as if I was walking with them – as mourners walk with the body at a funeral, to keep it company, and let it not be alone. My awareness of this became a candle, lighting my way. I also had the sense of my own deep, layered memories, waiting to rise.   And then, into my head came the words:

she perches upright as a needle
before morning break

I knew straightaway they were about the shocked, painful winter mornings, early in 1973, when I was eight and a half, and the penetrative abuse had recently begun. The building where I was remembering myself was a single storey, village primary school. I was driven there every morning from the rented cottage on the main street of a nearby village, where the abuse took place in my mother’s double bed. We had moved to Wiltshire when we came to England, right after my father’s death in Brussels, late in 1972.

Each night in our new home, my mother would expect me to be waiting for her in her bed, or to cross the landing from my bedroom when she came upstairs. What happened next was devastating. It left me sore and stinging. When I wiped myself the next morning, after using the toilet at school, the slippery, tracing-paper-like tissue, was sometimes streaked with bright, red blood.

I remember so clearly the cold mist, sheeting the ghostly winter fields and skeletal trees, that we drove through on the way to school. Then came the welcome, bright, yellow light, and solidity, of my teacher, Mr Ward’s, open-plan classroom. It had a show-and-tell table in the corner, and painted papier maché animal masks on the wall, left over from a performance in Salisbury Cathedral. Even there, with my mother faraway, I could never shake off my sense of fear, and feel safe, or fully integrated.


Following my father’s death, my mother and I had moved from a flat in the busy centre of Brussels, to an English village with three shops and a post office. My father’s body was transported to Wiltshire after his funeral, and buried in the graveyard of the Norman church. In this new life, I had to learn to say that my daddy was dead, whenever people asked about him. Coming from another country, and having only one parent, were enough to make me ‘different’ from the other pupils in 1973. But what really cut me off from them, and everyone around me, was the shameful, painful sensation inside my ‘bottom’ that I could tell no one about.

Some days it prevented me from sitting properly on the hard school chairs. At breaks, I used to go into the tiny school library, which had padded benches, so I could lean sideways.  In the library, as at home, I read constantly to take my mind elsewhere. Somehow, the books I kept coming back at school to were full of terrifying ghost stories about people being pursued by cruel, vengeful supernatural presences – whom they could never escape.

These 1970s Wiltshire mornings provided the details that seeped, and crept, their way into the poem that began life when I was walking through Brompton Cemetery on that cold, quiet January day in 2018. I called it ‘elegy for an eight year old’ – in memory of the little girl I had been at that time. I have always known that part of her, and part of me, died as a result of what had happened, at our mother’s hands, in that dark bedroom.

shadowedAs I worked on my ‘elegy’ over the next months, I knew it had to be simple, and quiet. It needed to be spoken in words my eight year old self would have used, if she had been able to speak out, about what was being done to her. I also wanted it to be accessible to other people, whose minds, and bodies, were broken into during their childhoods, as mine had been.

I was lucky that Lemn Sissay, the judge for the 2018 Creative Futures Award, chose the poem for one of the awards. I was therefore invited to read at the ceremony. It was held in one of the performance spaces at the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank in London, as part of the London Literature Festival.   All that October day, I was deeply nervous. I was also determined to do the best job I could, not only for myself, and my poem, but for the larger community of people sexually abused in childhood.

When it came to my turn to step up onto the podium, with the view of the London Eye behind me, I explained how my work seeks to change awareness around the difficult subject of sexual abuse in childhood, arising from my own experiences. I spoke briefly about those mornings in primary school. Then I stood up straighter, looked directly into the audience, and said my:

elegy for an eight year old

she perches upright as a needle
before morning break

outside cold fog
is vanishing all the trees

there are fossils on the show and tell table
blue birds’ eggs          clay pipes someone dug up

in the library iron fingers
are climbing out of the haunted book

their classroom is beginning to smell
of cabbage and mince

the girls will be skipping
in the playground soon

tiger masks with no
eyes frighten the wall

Mr Ward says she’s moving
onto the Green Book for Maths

underneath her wool tights
the hurt place stays on fire

every way
she shifts

As my words moved into the space, and the minds of the audience, my small self was no longer left in the dark. She was there, with us, in the light, sharing what she had been through – as James Safechuck’s, and Wade Robson’s, younger selves did when they spoke about their histories in Leaving Neverland.  After I stopped speaking, the clapping was hard and furious.

People brought their hands together, filling the room with noise, showing that they stood with me – and with my eight year old self. What she and I had been through, in that double bed, and afterwards on those wintry school mornings, had entered into the experience of transformation that my ‘elegy’ represents. Speaking it out loud, I knew that she and I had both been heard – and that others would be also be after us.

Whether ‘famous’, and being broadcast round the world, or communicating our experiences quietly and privately, in a doctor’s, or counsellor’s consulting room, or to a friend or family member – each of us brings our whole selves to our work of witness. Speaking out is the only way our community can heal. We need to defy the silences and shame, in which our abusers seek to imprison us – even decades after the events. This is how we can seek to protect future generations of children. It is also what will ensure that all people, making their lives in the aftermath of sexual abuse in childhood, are given the respect and care which is their right.

I have recorded myself reading ‘elegy for an eight year old’ here.close up

Details of the 2019 Creative Future Awards are here.

Please seek appropriate professional help if reading this work of witness has been difficult for you in any way. Below are links to Victim Support and The Survivors’ Trust who can offer guidance in this area.

Survivors Trust here

Victim Support Child Abuse here

Published by

Alice Hiller

Activist writer and poet working with words to change awareness around sexual abuse in childhood while writing 'aperture' and 'album without photos'.

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