Emma Charles thought that she and her family were living a normal life. But then she discovered that her husband had been sexually abusing their daughter Tamsin since the age of ten. Twelve years on, Emma recalls that devastating day and the traumatic events that followed
In many ways, we were an ordinary family – mum, dad, two kids, a Volvo in the drive. And in some ways we weren’t so ordinary. As a ship’s engineer, my husband Daniel worked away from home for up to four months at a time. But I never for a moment dreamt that we were extraordinary – until
It started out fine, that Tuesday in December 1996. Our younger daughter, Claire, 13, was at school, and I was looking forward to spending some time with Tamsin, who had just broken up for the holidays. At 15, she was a weekly boarder at a specialist school for high-ability dyslexics.
We chatted about what she was going to do. That was when the first hint of discord arose. Tamsin and I squabbled, like all mothers and daughters. But that day she was impervious to reasoned argument. She began making hurtful personal attacks on her father and me, something she had never done. At bedtimewe kissed goodnight, but for the first time we parted with a coolness between us.
The following evening, I was in the living room when she burst in, flung a piece of paper at me and stormed out. ‘I have to leave or he has to,’ she had written. ‘And you seem to need him. And f*** you, you probably won’t believe me anyway.’ She was talking about her father – telling me that he had been sexually abusing her for the past five years. In the seconds it took me to absorb her words, my world came tumbling down.
I found her down the road with her dog. ‘Come home and tell me about it,’ I begged. She looked into my eyes and must have been reassured by what she saw. ‘He won’t leave me alone,’ she cried. ‘He’s always feeling me up. He brushes against my breasts so I know it’s not accidental, but he could persuade someone else it was.’
Hope blossomed in my mind. Maybe it was just a misunderstanding, an over-tactile father who would have to learn to respect his daughter’s personal space. ‘Has he ever touched you between your legs?’ I asked. ‘Last time he was home on leave,’ she sobbed.
Tears were falling from my eyes as I looked up the number for social services and picked up the phone. I just knew I had to do the right thing.
Daniel and I had been married for 18 years. I was 27 when we met, working as a medical photographer; he was a year older and at college, studying for his Second Engineer’s certificate. He was tall and slim with auburn hair and blue-grey eyes and a full beard and moustache. And he was gentle, laid-back – all the things I wasn’t. Within a week, I had decided he was the man with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life. We married the following year.
I hadn’t wanted children. It was Daniel who felt that we wouldn’t be a ‘proper family’ without them. Tamsin was conceived two years after our wedding, and Claire came along two and a half years after that. As it turned out, I loved being a mother and Daniel was good with the girls as babies. But as they grew up, he changed. His own parents had been authoritarian, and not reluctant to use a belt to hit their children. He, too, resorted to smacking and violence.
Emma Charles today
One incident in particular stands out. When the girls were seven and four, I noticed ‘fingertip’ bruising on Claire’s arm. I really went for Daniel, threatening to kick him out if he couldn’t control his temper. He was angry with me for taking him to task; but when he realised I was serious, he backed down and apologised. Over and over again, we talked about what was reasonable behaviour and over and over he agreed with me. But his efforts to improve never lasted long.
Why did I stay with him if things were so bad? Well, they weren’t bad all the time. Mostly, we had a good family life. I knew the harm that divorce causes to children. I still loved Daniel and I thought we could make it work. Until that day.
Daniel was in the Far East when Tamsin wrote her devastating note. Social services set up an appointment for the following Monday. Meanwhile, I had to address another horrible thought. Gently, I asked Claire if her dad had ever touched her. ‘He used to come and give me back rubs,’ she replied. ‘But I liked that…’ ‘Nothing else?’ I asked. ‘He asked me to take off my T-shirt, but I just said no. And once he tried to give me a tummy rub, but I wouldn’t let him.’
It was becoming clearer now. Claire has always been an upfront child. Whenever anything was worrying her, she would come and tell me. If only Tamsin had been the same.
I’m not going to describe Tamsin’s statement to social services. Listening to her engraved pictures on my mind which I still have trouble banishing today. The police also took statements and arranged a medical examination. Several weeks later, Daniel was arrested as he stepped off a flight from Jakarta. DC Barbara White from the sexual offences unit called later to tell me: ‘He’s admitted everything. It’s a very credible confession. He wants me to tell you that he’s never raped Tamsin, and he’s never been unfaithful to you with anyone else.’
I cried my eyes out. Even though I was convinced Tamsin had been telling the truth, still a tiny part of me had hoped it was all a mistake.
Daniel was bailed, with strict conditions not to approach either Tamsin or me. I had imagined that he would be feeling crushed and placatory. I was soon to discover how little I knew him. Within a few days, a letter from him arrived informing me that his mother was bitter that I had not kept our troubles ‘within the family’. So that was it. I was to be blamed for reporting the abuse. This was my first experience of the denial which abusers use to protect themselves from acknowledging the harm they have caused. Who is protected by dealing with such matters within the family? Only the abuser.
Child sex abusers do not believe that what they do is wrong. They convince themselves that the child wants it to happen as much as they do; indeed, it is not uncommon for them to blame the child for leading them on. It is in this denial that the danger to other children lies. If an abuser does not believe that what he does is harmful, he has no reason not to do it again.
Of course, we as a society are also in denial. We warn our children about ‘stranger danger’, but the truth is that the vast majority of abused children are abused by relatives or close friends. We would much rather objectify offenders and think of them as shadowy figures, totally unlike those we know. Until we stop burying our heads in the sand nothing will change. This is the bottom line. And one abused child is one too many.