Bob: 'How Dr Who helped me to dance'

Bob Balfour on surviving childhood sexual abuse.

As a child I loved Doctor Who (I still do). In many ways, The Doctor has helped me to survive my childhood abuse.

Tom Baker, the 4th Doctor (the one with a scarf) tells a story about this intense man who approached him on the street one day and said very seriously “Mr Baker can I have have a word”. 

Tom, feeling nervous, said 'by all means' in his most confident Doctor Who voice and steeled himself for what was to come. The man looked him in the eye and said “when I was a child my life was a nightmare of sexual abuse and violence in a children’s home in North Wales - but every Saturday night I could escape when I watched you as the Doctor, I just wanted to say thank you for saving my life”. At which point he reached out his hand to Tom.

Tom automatically took it. The man smiled the biggest of smiles and simply turned and walked away without saying another word. 

The man wasn't me - but it could have been. I was born in 1960 in Birkenhead. In hindsight I can see my mother was suffering from some form of mental distress. She could be very violent, often without warning and always for minor or trivial things. She once hit me round the head with a Victorian iron. I recall thinking I was lucky it wasn't red hot! She was very possessive and often accused other people who showed me any affection of attempting to steal me, whether family or neighbour. 

My father was not directly abusive, but he was an alcoholic, and often we had little food. Once we were evicted for not paying the rent and ended up in a hostel and had to be rescued by my uncle Bill who refused to leave us there. He was a good man. 

My parents had constant fights about money. I never bonded with either. I adapted to my situation, learning to avoid mother's mood swings and I never really saw my father. I spent a lot of time wandering the streets on my own.

'I said I'd rather die than go home'

Once my aunty Pat found me wandering along the Wallasey side of the Mersey river (miles from home). I was must have been 5 years old she believes. 

Aunty Pat told me to go home, I seemingly replied, “I would rather die than go home”.

She still talks emotionally about the intensity of my feelings and the shock of hearing a 5 year old talk that way. 

I now know that many people had concerns about the ability of my parents to support children but no one ever intervened. 

However, there were anchors of love which I recall to this day. My grandmother, my uncle Bill, aunty Pat and Mrs Ritzen.  A lovely neighbor who cooked me a bacon sandwich every Sunday morning. Her husband had been killed in the First World War and she’d never remarried and had no children. She was lovely and I shall remember her always. 

They showed me unconditional love. Simply given, but which had  positive effect on the rest of my life.  They gifted me a sense of empathy for myself and others and even when challenged it remains at the core of my sense of self. 

'I was abused aged seven'

My parents separated when I was around 6 years old and we moved to my mother's home city. I was not accepted by her family as they believed that because my father was from a mixed race background (West Indian/White). This meant it was automatic that if I had children they had a high chance of being black. This made me ‘literally’ the black sheep of the family in their eyes. 

I was about 7 years old when the first sexually abusive crime was committed against me.

I was picked up off the street by a man aged about 30 who did local deliveries and taken to a layby in a country lane. He told me to give him oral sex. I can still feel my sense of fear, as I believe to this day that if I hadn't complied with his demands I may not have been freed. I’m not sure that would have happened but the fear still a lasting memory. 

I only ever saw the man once again and I didn't go anywhere near him. I put the experience to the back of my mind and never told anyone. I was frightened about how people would think of me for having put a man's penis in my mouth. Shame is a cultural virus which stops boys from telling the stories of their abusive experiences. We all pay a heavy price for that – especially those boys and the men they become. 

My 2nd sexual abuse experience was a with a neighbour who ran a Sunday morning paper round and also did Army cadet instruction. He was aged about 23. I must have been around 8 or 9 years old and looking to earn some money to help keep the gas meter running on a Sunday to allow my mother to warm what food there was. We often sat in the dark in evening when we had no money for the electric, after we’d eaten on a Sunday afternoon. 

After my paper round, the man would take me to the local Army cadet force HQ. I had a great desire to join the Army like my uncle Bill. The man suggested I should learn unarmed combat and needed to take off all my clothes to do so. He would then engage in what he called 'hand to hand training' which ended in him raping me. 

He also often took photographs of me naked in different positions. He talked endlessly about his sexual encounters with women whilst he abused me. I am currently attempted to have him brought to trial for a second time. Having previous failed to get the Crown Persecution Service (CPS) to pursue the case. The CPS are now reviewing their first  decision to determine whether its now in the public interest to take him to court. He is I’m told one of the most prolific sexual abusers on the sexual offender register-having spent the last 45 years proactively  hunting children to sexually abuse by any means he could. 

He also encouraged me to have sexual encounters with boys and girls of my own age in the school toilets and report back to him. He said it was a normal part of my growing up. I never did follow his advice. I remember thinking this man is not normal. Children have a sense of these things and we should listen to them when they flag their concerns to us. 

The last memory I have of him is visiting a public toilet at a seaside resort. I remember entering a cubicle with him. I avoided him from that point on and I have no recall of what he did to me in those toilets but I knew never to go back to him. 

My 3rd sexual abuse experience occurred when I was visiting a student at the local University. I must have been around 9-10 years old. He did voluntary work at the local youth club and had befriended me. I so much wanted to go to university and loved his attention. I felt grown up. But on my final visit he asked if I'd ever masturbated. I just stood up and left. 

'I thought everyone wanted you for sex'

Around this time a girl aged about 14 started encouraging me to have sex with her. I remember ejaculating and wondering why my semen seem different to the men's I'd experienced - mine being all watery. I must have been 9-10 years old. She told me she was a Catholic and men liked sex and that she always confessed to her priest about our encounters. I suspect she was being abused herself and her self harm was to give her body to males of any age. 

I remember thinking everybody wants you for sex and you can't trust no one. 

From this point on I became increasingly disturbed and was seen by many professionals. I was referred to  a children’s mental health hospital to have the electrical impulses of my brain scanned!  But on the day the taxi arrived I refused to go. Something told me it wasn't a good idea. Nothing was ever followed up to my knowledge. What I do remember well is I became increasingly violent towards adult males from this point on-wards.

In the end I convinced my social worker to put me into care. I think with hindsight my aim was to escape. I was sent to the Bryn Alyn Community which was based in Wrexham, North Wales, owned and operated by a John Allen. His sexual abuse crimes are well documented in Sir Ronald Waterhouse's Lost In Care report (2000).  From the frying pan into the fire comes to mind. 

I spent nearly seven years in the the Bryn Alyn Community. I was only approached once by John Allen for sex (whilst in bed). I must have been around 13 years old. I was so damaged by then that I just looked him in the eye with pure hate and lay on my bed frozen as he ran his hand up my leg towards my penis. As he touched my penis he stopped and looked ashen and left without saying a word. He never approached me again.

Many of my peers at the Alyn received expensive gifts, even though they were in trouble often. The grooming process seems clear now, but as a young boy it was confusing and not clear at all. 

I attended a 'normal' school outside of the Alyn. I used to run to the bus stop. I loved being in a normal world for a while. But I can't recall anybody ever asking how school was going. They just saw me off and made sure I was back at tea time. I grew up not only with the shame of sexual abuse but also thinking I was not as good as the other boys.  Even though many committed endless crimes, they received bigger and better gifts than I did. A sense of not being good enough, regardless of my achievement in life, has always been a powerful legacy from my time in care. Thankfully, as I approach my mid 50’s that legacy is less powerful and better understood, both rationally and emotionally.  Good therapy is something all male survivors should have access to. 

'Nobody asked me about me'

One of the saddest things is no one ever asked me about me. The staff were untrained and not skilled mostly. However, many, privately admit they suspected. They called John Allen's favorites his 'bum boy's'. If only they had told someone. Perhaps the new police investigation (Operation Pallial) will offer more insight into events all those decades ago. In the meantime I am also a complainant in that investigation as well. I hope when you read this John Allen has been held to account by the law again. Court is only one part of victim justice but all victims deserve that validation opportunity. 

Not all staff were abusive. One of the most untrained staff took the time to make an effort with me. His rather blunt manner was actually very safe. What you saw was what you got. He never attempted to have sex with me, which was a bonus. He treated me like a normal boy. I still visit him to say thank you. 

He and others supported me to join the Royal Air Force  I joined 3 days after my 17th birthday (I had to leave care at 17). It's amazing I was allowed to join up. It's clear that I'd decided that I wasn't going to be abused again. I was a blunt and hard young man.That strategy had worked well at keeping the abusers away. However, it also made it hard for anybody else to like me. I took no prisoners you might say.

I had joined the RAF Regiment, one of the toughest units in the British armed forces.

If you wanted to push yourself it was one of the units to join. As an institutionalised care-leaver it was also a comfortable place.

'I never spoke about it even to my wife'

I left after getting married and did my O-levels. I worked in BT and when it was privatized I set up my own business which we later sold to a big newspaper group.

I also worked in the leisure industry and was even a Special Constable in the West Yorkshire police service for nearly 8 years in total. But I never spoke about what was done to me by the abusers, even to my wife, until 2000, 20 years after getting married. (I also worked in NHS mental health services for over 10 years, as a fully disclosed male survivor. It matched the challenges of being a front-line combat soldier in many ways). 

From 1996-2000 the Waterhouse Inquiry took place. I thought I could handle it, However, when its report was published - suddenly there were all these images of children I'd been in the home spread across the TV news. Some had committed suicide. I broke down and cried for hours as it poured down with rain outside. I couldn't stop. I remembered those men as children and the sense of loss, theirs and mine. The silence was broken and all my emotional denial could now longer be sustained. The abuse memories flood back. 

'I needed professional help'

My wife was terrific, as were her family. Knowing I'd been abused helped them to understand me and my self-protective coping behaviors better. The way I could be distant emotionally. How I was always moving on from job to job - always being disappointed by people – very common themes for survivors. But I knew I needed professional help.

I told my GP. He promised to refer me but never did (he was sent for retraining after I complained - so they tell me). I got the referral but the clinical psychologist I saw had only been told that I was 'anxious' and wasn't expecting what she got when I spewed out what had happened to me. She'd been attacked the year before by a male survivor and had just returned to work. I was her first male client! The whole experience could have sent both of us over the edge. All because the referring doctor couldn’t call a spade a spade. I understand she sadly retired soon after.

The taboos surrounding sexual abuse create ripples of harm well beyond the abuse itself. 

Eventually I saw a good therapist. I knew that if I didn't talk about it I'd go mad. I was 40 years old. I had three years of therapy and became an activist. I was angry about the shocking lack of services for abuse victims generally and males in particular.

Fourteen years on, things are better. There is a growing awareness of abuse but government is still struggling to understand how to deal with it. The Savile effect is evidencing how far we still have to go to support victims male and female, adult and child. We are the traumatised victims of a crime and that's still not fully understood by society. The Department of Health, the Home Office, Ministry of Justice and the Police often seem to think they can stamp their will on the issue and it will go away. We desperately need some leadership and perhaps the arrival of Police and Crime Commissioner’s offers survivors a hope that leadership can be found to create new support services for male and female victims creatively. That support built on providing real resources, rather than blaming survivors for the crimes committed against them, which is far to often our lived experience. 

In the end, it's people that make the difference, not governments. The specialist sexual violence-abuse voluntary sector works best for sexual abuse victims in my experience and there are some good specialist services available now (see links). 

Finally, I'd like to return to my friend The Doctor. In one of the new episodes of Doctor Who, a young women who is the Doctor's soul mate, if you like, gets a glimpse inside his mind. She discovers he's a survivor of trauma too and says to him “there comes a time, Time Lord, when every lonely little boy must learn to dance”. I think I’ve learnt to dance with more inner peace and insight than 24 years ago – recovery really is possible. 

But, for any lonely little boy or girl who has been abused, to learn to dance requires a partner. That partner is society. It needs to allow us to tell our stories. By doing so it opens up the possibility of recovery by allowing the rewriting of the chapters that follow. There really is hope for recovery at any stage in one's life. Some of us call it finding ourselves. We didn't do it alone. I leave the last insight to the 11th Doctor: 

“We’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?”

Bob Balfour founded Survivors West Yorkshire in 2000. He recently obtained a BSc (Hons) Psychology with Counselling at the age of 53. Bob is currently commissioned (2014/15) by West Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner (WYPCC) to develop the capability and capacity of 3rd sector agencies in West Yorkshire to bid for funding to deliver a West Yorkshire wide service for adult male victims of sexual violence from 2015. He edits a sexual violence-abuse report series called ‘A View From Inside The Box’ 

Bob also recommends the following links:

This article reflects the experience of the individual. It is not health information from the MHF under the terms of the NHS England Information Standard. It was last updated in 2014.