my debut ‘bird of winter’ – published by Pavilion in May 2021

When I was first experimenting with poems, five years ago,  I was working blind, like a mole digging upwards. Coming from a prose background, all I knew was that I had to find words able to hold what I needed to write. 

Like millions of other people around the world, I was groomed, and then sexually abused as a young child.  In my case, this took place in the late 1960s and 1970s. I then stumbled through the messy teenage aftermath as Punk gave way to Two Tone and Margaret Thatcher took power.  Nearly forty years later, memories of what happened can still flood my dreams.  Physical symptoms replay old injuries. 

Nowadays, sexual abuse is discussed extensively in the media.   Measures are in place to identify, make safe and support children who have been subjected to predation of this sort, even if these have been compromised during the recent lockdowns.  But there is still limited comprehension of what the crime entails, and how it impacts people, not least because it is so difficult, and painful, to think or talk about.  

Changing awareness, and giving witness, were two things I had in mind as I shaped my fledgling poems.  I wanted to make compact pieces of art.  They needed to contain and express what had happened to me, but do so with a degree of agency and protection for both writer and reader.  Like seashells found on a beach, they had to be small, beautiful fragments that you could pick up and hold to the light – while thinking of the depths in which they grew. 

Aside from a transformative Jerwood Arvon mentorship by Pascale Petit, and generous insights and readings from other poets along the way, three key elements fed into the poems that will be published by Pavilion as bird of winter in April 2021.  The first was my own long-standing fascination with Pompeii and Herculaneum.  I visited the two sites in the summer of 2000, along with the Naples Museum which holds many of the key finds.  I also subsequently saw, and bought the catalogues of, exhibitions at the British Museum and the Ashmolean. From the plaster dog, cast out from the void left in the ash by his evaporated body, to wall paintings and brothel graffiti testifying to lost lives, the findings gave forms to my excavations of my own past.  

bird of winter was also shaped by the notes I salvaged from my childhood and adolescent medical records. They corroborated my hospital stay as a teenager.  They additionally reflected how doctors saw children like me, at a time when sexual abuse was almost always missed. Finally, two trips to Dieppe in the summer and autumn of 2019 let me reconnect with what had sustained me through those very difficult years – namely the love I received from my French grandmother, and my father until his death when I was eight.

When bad things happen to you growing up, they can choke and pollute the waters of your life like an oil slick, and cause immense local damage. But they are not the whole story, any more than an oil slick is the whole surface of the sea.  Healing comes through cleaning up the damage, and then moving beyond it, to clearer waters and moments of love and joy, which more truthfully define us and let us know who we are.  I wanted bird of winter to honour these good elements, which enabled me to resist, and ultimately reclaim myself. 

First in the July sunshine, and then in October rain, I travelled across from Newhaven on the ferries like those I used to sail on to see my grandmother. I stood outside the gates of what had been her clifftop house, along the coast from Dieppe. I climbed down to the beach where I paddled and swum with her and my father.  To be there again, to know the movement of the sea, to hear the waves ringing through the shingle, was to feel a tide of strength flowing through me, as I worked on what proved to be some of the core poems of bird of winter

When I was asked by Pavilion to choose the cover colours, I knew immediately that they had to be from the Channel off Normandy.  They needed to wrap the darkness which the collection addresses in a transformative mantle of light. Some of them can be seen in the photos that run alongside these words, which were taken on those two trips in 2019. 

In the months to come, I will be writing more about bird of winter, and the real, and imagined, birds which take flight from its pages, alongside the objects excavated from Pompeii and Herculaneum which inspired some of the poems.  I will also write about what it is like to take back your medical notes, and see how you were seen, when you could not see yourself.

For now, I want to thank Deryn Rees-Jones, currently recovering from Long Covid, for making me a Pavilion poet, on a list which includes many writers who speak to my heart. Nuar Alsadir, Mona Arshi and Bhanu Kapil, to name only some, occupy sacred spaces on my shelves. I am honoured to be appearing alongside Alice Miller and Sarah Westcott in 2021 and hope we will be able to read together. 

In closing, I express solidarity with all of us who have been impacted by sexual abuse in childhood – whether at firsthand, or because it has come into the lives of those who matter to us.  By giving witness, by supporting each other, by making art that reclaims agency and beauty, we can work together across our communities.  We can help the world to see and think differently. 

If you would like to order a copy of bird of winter please follow this link.

To find more about the other amazing Pavilion Poets please follow this link.

The Work of Witness: Testifying to Sexual Abuse in Childhood by Alice Hiller

PHOTO-2018-10-26-21-22-39

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.

avenue

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.

ranked

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