True courage

Woman rivets audience with heartbreaking story of being sexually abused by a teacher

At the tender age of 11, Helena Fraser was violated by a man who was entrusted with protecting and nurturing her

“Why would anyone believe someone like me?” thought an 11-year old girl. “And why would anyone believe that he would pick me?” Silent for so long after being sexually abused by her teacher, Helena Fraser has decided to speak out, to use her voice to help all those who are not yet able to use their own.

Speaking at the Women in the World Summit in London on Friday, Fraser, now a children’s rights campaigner for the NSPCC, painted a picture for the audience of herself as a naïve child, afraid she wouldn’t be believed, trapped by the disguise of righteousness that authority gave to her abuser.

She told no one “because the world that had been created around me, the world of an 11-year-old is that adults, and particularly teachers, are figures of authority.”

It is this world view that Fraser thinks gave her teacher a sense of security, and which he consciously strove to take advantage of. As a recent arrival at secondary school, Fraser was highly academic, unusually tall, skinny and awkward, for which she was bullied. “He sensed my isolation and vulnerability, and he knew he could use it to his advantage.”

The abuse went on for one year, but the pain ricocheted through the rest of her adolescent life. “It just rocked my world, it tore down everything I knew and understood about the world.” Bewildered by what was happening to her, she began to understand puberty as a kind of punishment. “I thought it was responding to what was being done to me.”

Later her relationship with her body became so confused that she took to punishing it. “I was self-harming” she said. “I was not eating because my body was changing and I didn’t want it to.” Becoming what she describes as “a ball of internalized rage,” over the following years she gradually disintegrated to the point where at the age of 18 she had to be institutionalized. There, hearing the stories of girls with similar experiences to her own, she realized that this could have happened to anyone.

“A lot of them were not from those kinds of backgrounds you expect abused kids to be from.” Like her, many of those children came from safe, loving, ordinary families, but their care had been entrusted by their unsuspecting parents to an abuser in an unlikely position of power.

After a couple of months “surrounded by adults who were supporting us, helping us, believing us,” she finally decided that telling someone about what had happened to her might just help.

Today, she sits straight and proud, with little trace of the anguish she must have felt when her world was turned upside down those 20 years ago. She said the abuse, which lasted for one year, “came to an end through coincidence.” Mocking herself and encouraging the audience to titter along with her, she said, “I complained to my parents that I wanted to change school because I wasn’t being academically stretched enough.”

Moderated by Lucy Hockings, an anchor on BBC World News, the conversation moved to the burden upon her parents when they finally found out what had been causing the mysterious changes in their vivacious, bright girl. “It was devastating. They are dedicated to their children, they have done everything to give us a good life.” And yet, all their love could never have been enough because of one weak link. “They gave their trust to this institution, it took that child, abused that child, messed that child up for life, so the anger that they feel will never go away.”

The Jimmy Saville scandal has brought child abuse skidding into the public consciousness, but the shocking facts are that this is not an unusual occurrence: some 80 child-abuse cases are reported every day to the police in the U.K. and one in 20 children has been abused. Fraser’s message to Theresa May, the speaker waiting in the wings to take her seat on the Women in the World stage, was a wake up call for the world: “These people will get into institutions. What is so important is that there is a safe environment in which children can question authority and disclose without fear of not being believed.”

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