My home became my nightmare': A woman recalls her childhood of abuse by her stepfather
After suffering years of abuse as a child at the hands of her Jehovah's Witness stepfather, Beth Ellis (now 30) finally made a statement to the police five years ago. But, because of the closed nature of her upbringing, getting enough evidence to prove his crime became an ongoing battle
I’m finally going to meet the detective who’ll be investigating my case, Detective Constable Wayne Cleaver. He’s bringing a colleague, Sergeant Dai Roberts. Fear itches me like wool against my skin. I’m afraid these policemen won’t believe me, or that I’ll seem mad. They wear their half-day political correctness training like ill-fitting shoes; I sense them reminding themselves not to call me ‘love’.
Wayne tells me that he’s tracked my brother Isaac down and taken a statement from him. He says Isaac claims to be surprised by my allegations. He says he really needs my sister Katie to come on board. I tell him she’s willing to talk about physical violence but not sexual abuse. I tell him about what Karl did to Mum. ‘If Mum made a statement, wouldn’t that make a difference to the case?’
‘Do you think she’d be prepared to do that?’ he asks.
‘I don’t know. I think so.’
I ask them how, in their experience, people are able to do these things. They tell me that they’ve usually been abused themselves, that it’s about power rather than sex. Dai leaves me with some advice. ‘It’s not the cards you’re dealt, it’s the way you play ’em.’ This leads me to conclude that his hand contained far fewer brutal rapes than mine.
* * * * *
One June morning, when I am nine years old, I wake before my brother and sister. I go to my mother’s bedroom to ask her to make breakfast. She’s not there. Then I spy the note. It’s tucked behind the carriage clock on the mantelpiece. It’s a long note, double-sided, and I sink into panic because it’s too long to be telling us that she’s at the shop. My eyes get stuck on the words: I can no longer cope with the children. They will be better off without me.
In my dream I scream at Granddad: ‘He raped me and you sided with him.’ He starts to cry. That is what I want
Something leaves me then and it never comes back. I don’t know the word for it – trust or love or hope – but it’s the thing that makes you want to get up in the morning. My little sister is only five. I cannot bear to tell her the truth. I tell her that Mum has gone to buy sweets. This gives me and Isaac a focus as we try to stay calm for Katie’s sake. But we can’t stop ourselves from crying, so the three of us huddle together, soggy and bewildered.
With Mum gone I become a negative of a person. My life is defined by the things I do not do. I have stopped going out to play. I try to stay as still as possible. I watch television closely. I would like to climb inside it and live those other lives.
One by one, like they are light-switches, I turn off my needs. It makes Karl angry that I have feelings, so I keep them for night-time and my pillow. I vow that he will never again make me cry, but I always fail. As he hits me with a leather belt I have to listen to him tell me that it hurts him more than it hurts me. I live in a world of dualities, where nothing is true. I am taught to believe in a God who is living, but who does not love me as I am. I am learning to distrust my own intuition because it so often contradicts the rest of my world.
At the Kingdom Hall meeting, I work hard to conjure a daydream big enough to absorb the boredom. Me as a film star, a rich orphan. But my heart is raw and I just want my mum. Tears roll down my face. The elder glares at me, ‘How dare you cry in the house of God.’ I sit there wishing I was dead. If I could not exist it would be better.
* * * * *
They went to Karl’s place of work this morning and arrested him there. He denied everything, of course, but he’s been charged and bailed and now it’s up to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to decide whether there is sufficient evidence to prosecute. There are two persons alleging rape (my mother and me) and another statement which details physical abuse (my sister). I stand a chance. Today is a great vengeful, smiling day. I am telling him what I think and who I am and what can be done to me and what cannot.
* * * * *
I miss my mum. I ache for her. I cry quietly so as not to wake my brother and sister. Then I hear a noise downstairs. A voice I recognise, though I dare not hope. ‘Move out of my way,’ the voice says. ‘I am going to see my children.’ And here she is, like a dream of peace. I rest against her skin, enjoying the feel of its rolling landscape. She tells me she wants me to go and live with her. Then the front door opens and closes again. A rumble of voices, men’s voices. My mother untangles herself from me and goes downstairs. I pick out the quiet, reasonable voices of elders from Kingdom Hall.
‘They are my children,’ my mother’s tone is sharp, unbending. I am afraid for her, because they won’t like that. ‘I’m not going without my children.’
One of the elders says, ‘You can’t take the children, Hannah. Your parents are coming to pick you up, you have to go with them.’
* * * * *
When I was 12, Mum married again. I wear a pink bridesmaid’s dress. There is so much goodwill here, men and women dancing together. Karl’s wedding the year before had been a different affair; he is married to a ‘good’ Jehovah’s Witness and she is unintelligent, violent and mean. But at least now that Barbara is here I no longer have to share Karl’s bed.
* * * * *
February 2007. Detective Constable Wayne Cleaver sounds very grave and very official on the phone. He has heard from the CPS. They have decided to take no further action on either statement. I don’t know how to carry this. The world changed shape again today. There are two statements alleging rape, and there’s no case to answer. There are people in prison for not paying their TV licence.
Cherry says that I can get him with the book. ‘But the book was supposed to end with Karl going to prison,’ I say. Cherry says the book is important, whether Karl goes to prison or not.
* * * * *
Here is a list of things that, at one time or another, I find myself deeply afraid of: hands; washing-up liquid; walls; men in suits; the outside of my body; the inside of my body; my mind; my feelings; belts; the sound of car doors slamming; the sound of keys in a lock; raised voices; whispering; swallowing; eating slimy food; children playing; my own voice; people knowing me.
This is what he did to me.
* * * * *
Mum brings her father over for dinner. Faced with him, the suit-jacket, flat-capness of him, I slide automatically into politeness. ‘You’re looking well, Granddad.’ I wonder how to move out of the small talk. I sent him a letter last week asking if he’d talk to me about Karl for my book.
He clears his throat. ‘Will it be made clear that Karl is a Jehovah’s Witness?’
‘Yes. Well, he is.’
Granddad shifts in his chair. ‘That’s the reason I didn’t suspect him for a moment. I never suspected a Jehovah’s Witness would be capable of such things.’ Then he adds, ‘The Bible will repay harm done.’
‘Well, I just want to make doubly sure,’ I say.
A few days later Mum drives me to Granddad’s apartment. A strange man opens the door. ‘Do you remember Simon?’ Granddad asks. ‘From the Kingdom Hall? I’ve told him, in confidence, about the progress of your case,’ he continues. ‘I think it’s best if the elders aren’t surprised by events. He’s advised me not to discuss this with you for the time being.’
I can’t believe he’s a double agent. ‘I’m really hurt that you’re worried about protecting them,’
I say. ‘What about me? Why don’t you want to protect me?’
He looks uncomfortable but defiant. I am breathless as I think back along all the opportunities he might have given Karl to prepare himself. I dream of Granddad. In the dream I’m shaking him violently. I scream at him: ‘He raped me and you sided with him.’ Granddad starts to cry and I leave him be. That is what I want from him. I want him to cry for me.
* * * * *
Detective Inspector Suzanne Hughes phones and introduces herself. It seems there is to be a reinvestigation after all and she will be heading it. When she meets me, with Detective Chief Inspector Paul Hurley, she says their next line of inquiry will be to look into any records the Jehovah’s Witness institution might hold. ‘How difficult do you think it might be for us to approach them?’ asks Paul.
‘Very,’ I say. ‘They believe in a higher power than the laws of men. I think most witnesses would put their duty to their religion before the law.’
‘Are you clear about what’s going to happen next?’ Suzanne asks.
‘I think so. You’re going to try to get access to Jehovah’s Witness records. Then you’ll submit the file to the CPS and they’ll most likely reject our case for a second time, and we’ll appeal again.’ My voice is edged with tears.
‘I’m sorry,’ Suzanne says. ‘Nine times out of ten we just can’t get the evidence we need.’
‘It’s not your fault,’ I say. ‘The law doesn’t work.’
* * * * *
An inquiry into the original police investigation into Beth’s case was set up by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Their findings, published in December 2009, resulted in written warnings being issued against Detective Constable Wayne Cleaver and his supervising officer. It advised the South Wales Police to revise their policy regarding allegations of historic rape and serious sexual offences.
Adapted from Bad Things in the Night by Beth Ellis (Ebury Press, £6.99). To order a copy for £6.49 with free p&p, contact the YOU Bookshop on 0845 155 0711,you-bookshop.co.uk