I watched the Louis Theroux documentary on Jimmy Savile tonight, and I wondered why it wasn’t obvious to Louis how slimy and two-faced Jimmy was. It stood out for me from the original documentary, let alone from the rushes shown in the update, how clear it was that he was inappropriate about personal space and made a number of particular types of comments – normalising sexual content, implying connections to power and influence, and schmoozing/bestowing favour – that I associate with people who sexually abuse children that I have met through work. He also behaved differently when he wasn’t on show, and was with someone he didn’t perceive as having influence, in the unguarded footage shot by the producer late at night. I’ve learnt to take note of that too, from bitter experience.
It reminded me that my initial gut reaction to the original documentary was “ugh, my sense of him being creepy as a kid was right – it appears he has a sexual interest in children, and from the way he talks about enjoying his time with her body it seems likely he had sex with his mother’s corpse”. Yet that response at the time was unspeakable, except to my husband. After all, you can’t just say someone is a criminal, a necrophiliac, an abuser and a risk to children without proof and based purely on second hand information. That would be inappropriate, and potentially defamatory, particularly for a professional.
But Louis was there with Savile and heard his entirely unsatisfactory responses to questions, his jokes and inappropriate behaviour, saw his invasion of people’s personal space, heard him made threats to sue and name drop his connections to both establishment and underworld power. Yet, despite being an intelligent guy with suspicions about Savile, Theroux’s reaction wasn’t one of repulsion and scepticism. He was won over by Savile’s charm, and carried along by the fiction Savile had created that he was some odd relic of the 70s with his own rules not quite being in sync with the present overly PC world, and being inappropriate was harmless and par for the course. He probably felt flattered by the attention, and tantalisingly close to being the confidant that would get the big scoop when Jimmy was ready to tell his story. But he stopped being a critical observer and started to consider him a friend, and was present when he continued to behave in inappropriate ways and failed to remark on it. And that shows how easily it is done.
Because if it is your mate, and they just go one step further than you are comfortable about as if that is perfectly normal, then perhaps that is just the way that they are, and you can start thinking that maybe they are too old and odd to have to conform to social norms. And once you start to think that, your own boundaries shift and you become complicit. Something you would instantly baulk at from a stranger, is somehow normalised. You turn a blind eye without realising you have done so. Louis said that he didn’t feel he had been groomed, but I think he was wrong. Sure, he hadn’t been targeted as a potential victim of Savile’s sexual advances, but he had been drip-fed the self-crafted story of the harmless oddball doing so many wonderful things for charity. And he had been slowly habituated to be complicit in accepting the small infringements into the unacceptable, the misogyny, the recurrent sexualised content of his interactions, the invasions of personal space. And he tolerated the evasion, the flattery, the name-dropping, the sinister undertones as part of the special relationship they had developed. And that, to me, is grooming.
I’m not implying Louis is to blame for that. He has shown his intelligence, empathy and insight in other documentaries, so my expectations are high. But it is easy to be groomed. By definition, recurrent sexual abusers who have not been caught are devious and effective in fooling those around them. Plus Savile had a lifetime of practise and an enormous reputation and network to carry him. Nonetheless, I can see why Louis has been looking back and wondering what he should have noticed. I’ve been there and done that.
The first child sex abuser that fooled me (that I know of) was more than 15 years ago now*. He shook my hand, spoke politely, seemed to have a benevolent interest in the wellbeing of the children in the family and always agreed with what the professionals said. He was well educated, middle class, and married with adult children. He was the one who reported concerns about the grandchild who was referred, and was critical of the parents. The child was developmentally delayed, but also underweight and unkempt, with no sense of personal space. In retrospect, I can see that this idealised grandfather was remarkably unsympathetic to his daughter, whose lifestyle of alcoholism and domestic violence punctuated with inpatient stays after self-harm didn’t match up with the facade of happy families he portrayed. But at the time he seemed very concerned about the wellbeing of the child. The receptionist took me aside to mention that he spoke to his wife “like a dog” in the waiting room, but turned on the charm in the presence of clinicians. I didn’t even make a note in the file. I only remembered the comment 6 months later when the social worker said to a case conference that just prior to proceedings to move the child to the residence of these grandparents, the mother had disclosed childhood sexual abuse from her father, along with sadistic punishments like having her hands held against the hot oven door if she didn’t do as she was told quickly enough. This had then been corroborated by another family member, and her records showed the school had reported the burns to her hands. The child was placed in foster care instead.
I remember how stupid I felt. The clues were right there in front of me. The child was vulnerable to abuse, and the developmental delay and unusual behaviour with no sign of organic cause showed that something was going wrong in their life. But it was too easy to attribute it all to the ‘bad’ parents and not the ‘good’ grandparents, falling into the polarised thinking of the family, despite normally having more nuanced formulations. The mother’s story didn’t match the grandparents, and her lifestyle didn’t fit with their descriptions of her upbringing, but she had been branded an unreliable reporter. So why did someone from such a happy middle class home get into such a mess? The answer was given to me on a plate – she had fallen into a bad crowd as a teenager, and ended up drinking and in a destructive relationship – so I didn’t look at other contributory factors. It wasn’t my job to pry, I was just doing a developmental assessment of the child. Yet I know that severely troubled adults have rarely had idyllic childhoods, and have often experienced multiple adverse childhood events, and that attachment styles are often carried through the generations. Likewise I know that trying to charm professionals can be a warning sign, but nonetheless numerous small compliments on your insight, empathy and skill as a clinician can flatter your ego without being so excessive as to raise a red flag. And the receptionist’s comments were given outside of the clinic room, and whilst I didn’t have the file open to take notes. Plus she wasn’t a clinician and may not have heard the full context of the comment, so the team didn’t give it much credence.
Thankfully, the disclosure came in time to protect the child from being placed with someone with a history of abusing children, but it wasn’t thanks to my skill as a clinician. Sure, I was quite early in my career and still quite naive, but I suspect most clinicians think we have uniquely sensitive radar to pick up on abuse and abusers. Sadly, we don’t. Whilst we might not rely on the stereotypes that the public are fed, of dirty old men in trench coats exposing themselves at the park, or strangers trying to tempt children into their car with sweets or puppies, I do think we have some internal stereotypes. The abusers that are easily caught are often socially gauche, lower in intellectual ability and/or socioeconomic status, and we tend to think of men who are unsuccessful in adult relationships and are prolific and opportunistic in their offending, but abusers are a highly heterogeneous group. Few have overt mental health problems, some may appear to be morally upstanding citizens, some are female, they come from all walks of life, cultures and religions, they may have functional adult relationships, and most are known to the child. about a quarter of perpetrators are under the age of 18. The majority of abusers have a single victim or a small number within their immediate network. A tiny minority with a primary inclination towards children are prolific abusers like Savile, but the damage is so wide ranging and the cases more newsworthy and memorable, which is why people are more aware of them. So there is no clear alarm bell, apart from the inappropriate interest in or behaviour towards children itself, the presence of child pornography, or sexualised behaviour or disclosures from the child.
In hindsight, it is easy to recognise signs you may have missed, and if you know there is a history of sexual offences against children certain behaviours show in a different light. And I have learnt to be both more observant and more wary. Those flirtatious comments to the receptionist, or the attempts to find common ground with or flatter the assessing clinician stand out, just like the cringe-inducing examples of Savile’s behaviour we saw in the edited highlights from the rushes that Theroux had of his time with Savile. We can only hope that we learn from experience and aren’t so easily fooled next time.
*all case details have been suitably anonymised