The powerlessness of grooming
‘It’s just a terrible sense of guilt,’ I explain, ‘but I don’t even know where it comes from. I just know that it was my fault. That it was always my fault. So how can I sit here in therapy and complain that I was abused if I caused it?’
The therapist looks steadily at me like she’s trying to balance a spoon on the end of her nose, and if she twitches a single muscle in expressing a response, it will fall off. I feel slightly disturbed that she is so still. Either she’s going to throw me out – because she’s realised how wrong it is for me to be here – or she’s going to demolish my belief in a single retort. But I don’t yet know which.
She doesn’t speak. She just keeps looking at me. It goes on for about three hours. Or maybe three seconds – I’m not sure. Time has gone scrunchy.
Eventually she takes a deep breath and shifts in her seat, moving slightly closer. Here it comes.
‘Would you say to your foster children that it’s their fault that they were abused?’
But she doesn’t stop there.
‘Would you also, by extension, say that they don’t deserve to be looked after, because they’ve caused the situation they’re in?’
I look away and a strange feeling rushes through my belly, like the moments before vomiting. Up it reaches into my chest and then sits, spiking in my chest.
I sit, full of petulance, at the unfairness of her tactics.
‘But surely that’s different, isn’t it?’ I retort at last. ‘Because they didn’t cause it. Whereas I …’
’Whereas you … what? How did you cause it?’
‘I don’t know.’
And I don’t know. Right at this moment, sat here, in this Thursday morning gloom, the rain spattering lazily against the window, my calves aching from the tension of wanting to run, a boiler in the background murmuring a low growl: right at this moment I have no idea how the abuse could possibly be my fault or why I’ve come to believe it. I have a lot of beliefs like this: beliefs that just feel right. Beliefs that declare themselves to be true. Beliefs that sit like too much treacle in my guts and refuse to budge or be digested. This is how I live. I don’t know how I know what I know. I just know it. And my guilt and responsibility for the abuse is a foundational piece of knowledge, of how I am in the world, and how it all came to be. So her question is moot. Stupid. Irrelevant.
But she presses the point. ‘How did you cause the abuse? What did you do that led to you being abused?’
She’s looking at me with an intensity that says, ‘This is what we’re talking about. This is what we’re working on today. We’re going to sort this.’ And when she’s in that kind of a mood, I know by now that there’s no arguing with it. It’s not coercive, but it is strict. We’ve talked in other sessions about how she needs to balance pushing me to overcome trauma’s natural avoidance, with not pushing me beyond my autonomy. Somehow, mostly, I experience her occasional forcefulness as the passion of empathy, driving me to heal, rather than the coercion of abuse. But it’s a fine balance. I don’t envy her responsibility.
But all the same, right now I want to avoid, and I want to run away. My self-blame sits like a plug in a hole, and I have no idea what will come gushing out if I dislodge it.
‘Think of one or two incidents,’ she says, breaking my thought-space with further instruction. ‘One or two times when you were abused, as we’ve talked about. And tell me what you did in the lead-up to those incidents that caused them to happen.’
I shift myself into gear. This must be important. There’s a certainty about her, a confidence, that is leveraging against my own fear. Maybe I can trust her. If we go there, maybe it will be alright.
But still the words won’t come. I want them to, but my mind won’t focus. It’s not a DVD I can slip in and then hit rewind. The memories don’t work like that. I can’t remember a before, a during and an after: that’s not the nature of traumatic memory. The ‘incidents’ sit as little islands, fragments of remembering, and there is no lead-up to them and no follow-on. They just are.
I’m also making excuses.
Because I do know.
‘With Michael,’ I proffer, and then splutter to a halt again, like my first car: the old red VW Polo which could run and run once it was going, but I had to avoid stopping, or parking, or basically anything involving first gear.
She nods, encouragingly, like she’s giving me a push-start.
‘With Michael …’
Michael was the son of a farmhand. He was an adolescent – to me as a 3 or 4-year-old, he was a giant, but he was probably only 14. Part of my denial was because I didn’t know that children abuse children, but they do. My mind overlaid the template of the stereotypical abuser – dirty man in a mac – on everything that happened to me. And because it was a child, or a woman, or groups of respectable people with barely a mac in sight, I rejected what happened to me as abuse. Or at least, as ‘proper abuse’. It can’t have happened if it didn’t fit the mould. I wish. Oh, how I wish.
‘With Michael …’
And then it comes. Memories that seconds ago were inaccessible come crashing down upon me, like shards of falling glass. In the hay barn, in the stables, in the fields, the ditch that runs along the track, by the woods, in the grain store. Bales of straw. I can feel the stalks scratchy and dry through my trousers, on my skin, against my back.
I do remember.
He gave me sweets. He tickled me. It was fun.
He talked to me. He listened. He touched me.
He said he liked me. No-one had ever said that before.
And I wanted it. I wanted the attention. I wanted the sweets.
It was my fault.
The therapist straightens herself and her neck clicks so loudly that I can hear it. It reminds me, for a moment, that she is here, and it reminds me, for a moment, that she is real. Because everything has gone faint, like diluted pastels, watery and thin.
‘That still doesn’t make it your fault,’ she says, all serious and weighty, like cold-pressed sadness.
The shards of memory are piercing against me painfully and I want to wipe them away. All I can feel is my guilt, forcing itself upon me, pinning me down. I shouldn’t have taken the sweets. I shouldn’t have gone to see him. I shouldn’t have liked him. I shouldn’t have enjoyed his attention. The horror of it is hot and rancid and I hate myself for it: stupid, stupid, stupid girl.
‘It wasn’t your fault,’ the therapist says, gravely, darkly, forcefully, achingly. ‘It’s grooming.’
I look up, surprised. What does she mean?
I have worked in child protection. I know what grooming is. Grooming is … grooming is … My thoughts stick together in clumps in my mind and I can’t make sense of them. Whatever grooming is, it didn’t happen to me. I realise, suddenly, that I don’t actually, really, know what grooming is. It’s just a word I’ve heard of. Its meaning is vague, academic, irrelevant to me and to my experience. Grooming is what dirty men in macs do to get children into their car, isn’t it? I realise I’ve never stopped to ask what it is. It’s a word devoid of fleshed-out reality, mere jargon. Grooming happens to children. And I wasn’t a child.
I hear the voice inside that says this. It is deadly serious. This is what I believe. Even in this edge-of-sanity state, I know it’s incongruous.
‘Grooming happens to children,’ I repeat, out loud, for the therapist’s benefit. ‘And I wasn’t a child.’
Her eyelids flatten, but she holds herself steady. She’s adept at not reacting. Instead, her head tilts slightly to one side.
I know, I know. It’s crazy. But I can’t have been a child.
‘Anyway,’ I say, deflecting, because I need time. ‘What is grooming?’
Now she does look surprised. I have more knowledge of these things than she does. But right now, I have no knowledge of anything. I glimpse my dissociation – this vacuous state of not-knowing, when all the information that is stored somewhere in my head has been unplugged, and it’s as if I’ve never known it.
Normally she might deflect the question back to me, but she’s holding the tension in the room like a taut rope across fragile cargo. She’s not going to let go.
‘Grooming is the transfer of responsibility from the abuser to a victim,’ she says, slowly, poising each word next to each other as if they might topple over. ‘It’s the way that the abuser passes their shame and guilt onto the victim, so that they can sleep at night and not feel bad about what they’re doing. It’s the way that they set the child up to be abused with the child feeling that it’s their fault, so that the child doesn’t disclose what’s happening. It’s a devious and manipulative way for the abuser to avoid detection and to keep the child trapped in an abuse scenario because they’re too ashamed to tell anyone. Grooming is a deliberate act.’
She pauses, looks straight into me, and says, ‘Grooming is what Michael did to you.’
It’s like being pressed against a flame. I don’t know why it hurts so much. I don’t know why it seems to cover my body with unremitting, putrid effluent. Being abused is bad enough. Realising that it was a set-up, and that I was powerless to stop it, is worse.
I ache agonies in that moment.
Because I grasp, in that moment, that by blaming myself for the abuse I have been able to control it. It wasn’t someone deliberately harming me. It wasn’t the twisted evil of someone setting me up to take the fall – all these years of trauma and damage and pain. It was just that I chose to be abused, and I caused it. And thus, I was in control of it. I could hate myself and blame myself for it, but that was better than acknowledge that I was entirely powerless, and that malevolence had overwhelmed me.
‘But I wasn’t a child.’
We come back to this point: this tiny point of light in my brain that has dessicated all reality from it so that I can shield myself from the pain of the powerlessness of abuse by refusing to accept that I was a child, and a small child, when it happened.
I wasn’t a child.
Back and forth in my mind, arguing.
What was I then, a 3-year-old adult?
It has been a trick of my mind, to cast myself back in my memory as more competent, more autonomous, more responsible than I was. The reality was that I was 3 or 4 years old. Tiny. Helpless. Naive. Dependent.
I twist and wrestle within myself at the biting realisation that no 3-year-old is responsible for the paraphilic machinations of an abuser. I don’t even know how to describe what they did: I have to coddle it in abstraction.
‘I wasn’t a child.’
I have to cling to this unreality to save myself from the horror of it. Because how can someone do that to a human being, to a child who’s barely learned to hold their wee or tie their shoelaces? Ugh, ugh, ugh. The pain of it runs hot and prickly over my entire being.
It is too much. So I switch away into a different part of me. Not because it is a good thing to do. Not because it is a bad thing. But because it happens. It just happens. The therapist goes with me. She soothes. Casting the magic of her empathic, attuned presence, eventually the pain subsides enough for me to dare to be myself again, in the room, and I come back. It’s not a question of whether I should have dissociated or not. The reality is that I did. And the therapist has learned to work with whatever comes, without judgement, without pressure, without expectation.
We sit together now, breathing through the soreness of it all.
‘You were groomed,’ she says again, and this time, with some of the emotion burnt off from switching, I nod, gloomily.
‘It almost feels worse than the abuse itself,’ I say and my fists tighten and clench, back and forth, like a spasm of anger. ‘But what’s so horrific is the idea that someone planned it. They set me up. They tricked me.’ – Here then is the genesis of why I always fear trickery and deceit, am hyper-reactive to the merest scent of it. – ‘They wanted me to feel that it was my fault, so that it wouldn’t be theirs.’
I look up at her as it bursts over me like a balloon filled with wet.
‘It wasn’t my fault. Because I was just a child.’
I’m saying it like I’m trying to convince her. She holds the contradiction of my assertion now and my assertions earlier as she always does, knowing that this is the nature of a dissociative mind. I both know and I don’t know. I feel and I don’t feel. I am, and I am not. Instead, she binds these opposites together in patient acceptance, reconciling my discrepancies. She holds my mind together even when I cannot.
‘And what I haven’t been able to cope with,’ I continue, ‘is the fact that I was so powerless. Not just because I was little. But because I was set up. I was trapped. There was absolutely nothing I could have done to avoid being abused, in those circumstances. And all my life I’ve coped with it by pretending to myself that there was. That I chose to be abused, that it was my fault. Because that’s easier to bear than the helplessness. Being so powerless … it makes me feel so pathetic. I would rather be wrong, and guilty, and at fault, than be so pathetic …’
Here it is now: the explanation for so many of my behaviours, through the years, growing up, into adulthood. Better to be bad than to be powerless.
‘And yet, I wasn’t bad,’ I say, sadness upon sadness. ‘I was powerless. That’s the truth.’
‘Yes,’ she says, and her voice is vibrant with compassion. ‘Yes, you were powerless.’
We sit for a while and the rain spatters some more, like tears against the window. The scalding pain of it all begins to ebb because she sits with me. There is compassion, but she doesn’t despise me. This is what should have happened after the abuse: someone should have sat with me, heard me, validated me, hurt with me, soothed me. It is thirty years later, but it is not a moment too soon.
‘But you’re not powerless now,’ she says, at last. She’s earned the right to say this by sitting with me in the rain-spattered pain of it.
It’s a new thought, whilst also being an old one. Because while I’ve denied for so long that I was powerless as a child, I’ve been unable to see that I’m not powerless as an adult. All of my ‘can’ts’ have stacked up silently around me, the legacy of the freeze response of trauma. But I have denied their cause: I have seen my stuckness, my terror, my patheticness, as being inherent to me.
‘I really was powerless back then,’ I say, chewing on it. I can’t explain, in this moment, why this is so liberating, when all my life it has been the thing that I have worked hardest not to know. ‘Because I really was a child …’
And it dawns upon me that my denial of my helplessness has contorted my view of myself: defending against my powerless entrapment, I have instead projected onto the me of thirty years ago the agency of adulthood, who could have done something, who invited it, who wanted it, who was to blame. But that is not me. That’s not what happened. I was groomed. I was tricked. I was not to blame.
‘I’m not being groomed now,’ I say, almost in a frenzy, because I can see an acute distinction between reality and my magical thinking. ‘I was powerless and helpless then. I really was. Because I was groomed. I was set up. I was tricked. But I’m not being groomed now.’
‘You were rendered powerless by the grooming,’ she agrees.
I nod, eagerly. ‘But it’s not intrinsic to me. I’m not, by my very nature, powerless, or pathetic.’
‘No, you’re not. Not at all. Not in the slightest.’
And we sit again for a while as this drips into me. I was groomed, and thus made powerless. But powerless is not who I am. Powerless is not who I need to be.
I am angry and hot with the wrongness of what happened to me. Grooming isn’t just about wearing down a child’s defences, as I’d always understood it – getting us to like them, getting us to trust them. Grooming is the dark art of shovelling their shit into our back yard, and blaming it on us. Grooming says, ‘You caused this. You deserve this. It’s on you.’ And we believed it.
But no more.
‘I’m angry,’ I say, as I realise it.
‘Good,’ she says, surprising me. She smiles at me, noting my confusion. ‘Anger is the energy not to act powerless any more,’ she says. ‘You just need to harness it and point it in the right direction.’
But this is a big topic, a new vista of wide-open possibilities, and there’s no time for it in this session. But as I leave I notice that my forearms are tingling. Hands that reached out for sweets and couldn’t push back against his weight on me feel connected again. I’m not powerless, I think, as my fingers open then clench. I was groomed.
A word of explanation
I had therapy mainly between 2006 and 2015. These blog posts are not verbatim accounts of sessions, but rather the client equivalent of ‘case studies’ - amalgamations of various sessions, ‘narratively true’ rather than ‘historically true’. Although often written for stylistic purposes in the present tense, they are very much from a past period of my life. Ideally they should be read within the wider context of other blog posts, articles and my book, to give a more integrated and rounded sense of where I was at, where I’m at now, and the process that took place between those two points. I have been on a journey of recovery, and the difference in me from when I was in therapy (especially at the beginning) to now is testament to the brain’s ability to recover from even the most appalling suffering.
My primary work now is writing, followed closely by training therapists, counsellors and other professionals to support survivors of trauma. Regrettably I cannot provide one-to-one support but our charity framework PODS (Positive Outcomes for Dissociative Survivors) provides a helpline and a range of other services: please go to www.pods-online.org.uk for more information, and https://support.pods-online.org.uk/start-here if you are looking for support.
For training, please see our range of live courses at www.carolynspring.com/live-training, and our online courses at www.carolynspring.com/online-training. We also publish a range of resources to support recovery from trauma, which you can see at www.carolynspring.com/shop. My first book, Recovery is my best revenge, is available to buy at https://www.carolynspring.com/shop/recovery-is-my-best-revenge-paperback/