Breaking the silence
The writer and broadcaster Jane Grayshon talks to Stephen Tomkins about a memoir of living with and surviving abuse
Jane Grayshon’s Goodbye Pink Room is a remarkable book. Co-written with a woman known to readers only as Rose, it tells the story of the years when Rose suffered sexual abuse from a family friend, Uncle George, and of some of the repercussions in later life.
It is not the first book to tell such a story, but what makes it special is how it avoids the pitfalls of voyeurism, revulsion and confrontation that come from explicitly detailing such sufferings. Instead, it revisits the inner life of a girl who cannot put into words what is happening to her, so that the focus is on the person, in all her tenderness and vulnerability, rather than what is done to her. The reader who does not want to be confronted with the details can still be with Rose in her story.
All this makes the book easier to read and engage with; it does not make the issues it deals with any easier. When Reform met with Jane on a sunny day at the end of April, a challenging conversation lay ahead.
The feeling I was left with at the end of reading Goodbye Pink Room surprised me: It was a beautiful book. Does that make sense to you?
Oh, that’s a lovely word. Yes. Nobody’s used that word.
Because the focus was not on the things done to Rose, but the person they were done to. I wasn’t imagining these events as a spectator, but imagining her as a little girl and felt her innocence and fragility. It made me want to listen to her and sit with her.
I’m really pleased about that. I wanted to avoid writing a voyeuristic or confrontational book. I didn’t want to have any details of things that happened, and Rose didn’t want to be explicit. So I’m very glad that, because of that, one could see the person.
I imagine even that amount of disclosure – not about the events so much as disclosing herself – may have been hard for her.
Definitely. A lot of what I have written is putting words to her silence, and it was very, very important that she was happy with the book. She read it, and when she said; “That’s OK.” I said; “No, let’s leave it for longer.” So it took a long time for her to be really happy that I hadn’t put any words into her mouth.
How long did it take?
Fourteen years. I had written nine books before that, and each one took under a year. This one took 14.
Was it hard for you?
Yes. Yes, and it still is. At Easter time this year, my challenge was: Just as Mary stood at the Cross, can I picture myself sitting with Rose while what was happening to her happened? What is the difference? That was very challenging. Could I do it without getting very angry with the man, Uncle George?
I’m very grateful that a friend of mine who knows Rose shared a picture that came to her: Jesus coming through the crowd, going up to Uncle George and just tapping him on the shoulder and saying: “Come away with me.” He gave Uncle George dignity and didn’t expose him. My friend felt a huge sense of relief that she could let go of him, knowing that what will happen is in God’s hands and it was a serious thing and she could let go of it. I found that very helpful and important.
In such a collaboration you must have to keep your emotions out of it as much as possible, and yet you want to be a human being interacting with another human being, so how can you keep emotion out of it?
I needed to do my homework when I wasn’t with Rose and think: “What am I feeling? And how much of that is me? Is it part of this story or do I need to keep it out?” Which is why it was so important that Rose was absolutely happy with the whole story.
There’s a strong sense of Rose’s belief that she is to blame for what’s happening to her, which is heartbreaking, but the reader gets the logic of it for her.
I hope this story will help those who don’t realise that people who have been abused do feel that. I’m writing to the Pope because he said: “Please forgive us.” It’s as if he doesn’t realise it’s not a question of forgiving. Rose feels guilty. She is still terrified of the sound of a cine camera, because having a film of her is how Uncle George manipulated her and he had her absolutely in the palm of his hand.
How much healing is possible for someone in Rose’s position?
Oh, what a question! Would you like to answer that one?
I’ve no idea. I imagine it’s a very hard process, but you’ve made it seem harder than I thought. Towards the end of the book Rose starts sharing with other people – which is supposed to be the main thing that can start to help – and it just seems to make things worse.
Yes. And remember Francis Andrade, the violinist who gave testimony in court but then committed suicide because hearing her story – I think – was so appalling she couldn’t live with it. So: “Tell others, then you’ll be OK” isn’t true.
I think this is where I should show my own colours, having had this sort of experience myself. It has wrecked so much of what would have been good, could have, should have been good, looked good, was God-given. But this process of healing seems to take so bloody long. And I would have wanted, and I’m sure I would have said 20 years ago, that it would be much quicker.
But it took me until my mid-40s before I could admit that things had happened. I suppose that was the journey of healing beginning, but it is so hard.
One is confronted by the reality of people not believing you or saying unhelpful things, which is heartbreaking. If that is one’s best friend then we have to be very close to God to say it is enough to have God.
Was it therapeutic for you at all writing…?
No! It wasn’t. It was quite the opposite. It was very hard.
But you kept at it.
I was helped by those who knew. A friend wrote to me saying: “Thank you for writing Rose’s story. It will help all the other ‘Roses’, and that includes me.” That helped.
But it was a painful process of 14 years.
Yes it was. I felt I lived it with her. To see the devastation, the impossibility of her speaking. It was awful experiencing that. To be with someone at that level of desperation – it was a privilege, I have to remember that, but it was really hard.
Is the Church a safe place to be a survivor?
I don’t find it safe. People there have said to me several times: “I’m sorry I just can’t read this story,” and that really does make me feel angry. I want to say: “Which are you, the priest or the Levite?” Walking by on the other side. Because I’m hurting. I think it’s awful.
I think I can understand it. We all have our boundaries and there’s no point us all reading every awful thing that happens in the world. But I don’t find it a terribly safe place. It would be better if we could find words. I need to learn that some people don’t know what words to use, so: “Jane, would you like to come round for coffee?” is their way of saying: “I’m sorry that you were abused.” I would like to come to a place where I can accept that if that’s the best that they can do, I should receive it as that and not judge, just as God receives the best I can do.
What do you think about that? What would you say? Would you go out of the way and say: “I heard that you’ve been abused and I’m sorry?”
I think I wouldn’t necessarily have that conversation just because I’d heard that about someone – I might not be close enough to feel it was my business.
Just like the Levite and the priest! “It’s not my business.”
OK. But people I have a closer relationship with, I would want to talk to about it, and I think my instinct would be just to say: “I’m sorry.”
And what I want to say is: That is so helpful. I wish people knew that. And if they simply said: “I’m sorry,” that would really help. It acknowledges it and doesn’t let it stay taboo. But while nobody says anything, the onus is on the person to whom it happened to disclose, and that’s very hard. If those to whom it hasn’t happened could take the initiative and open the subject, that would help.
Would some people in Rose’s situation feel that kind of overture was unwelcome?
Probably. Some might shout at you. But do we use that as an excuse not to initiate it? “They might not like it, so I’d better not say anything, then I’m off the hook.” I think we need to risk being hurt and shouted at. I include myself here. I don’t have a right to talk about it to others just because I’ve been in my situation, so it is still a big step for me to overcome my own inhibitions. But I want to learn to take some initiative. A lot can be done in body language and eye contact and how you share the peace.
Thank you for sharing with me and thank you for those words of advice. And I’m sorry.
Well, gosh. That’s extraordinarily potent. It is so potent. I haven’t heard it from someone who hasn’t met me before. Thank you.
Well, I’m a big introvert. Maybe it’s easier to talk like this to someone I don’t know.
Well then, tell people that in the article! We have a lot of assumptions. We’re starting to open doors over the sexual abuse business, and if this is one of the doors we can open – that was very potent.
Rose has a strong faith. Was that helpful to her?
She would have said yes. But she believed that because she asked Jesus to stop Uncle George, and he didn’t, God must want this to happen. And I don’t think that’s very helpful. I don’t know what to do about that because I taught the same to my children: If God allows something, then he has his own purpose.
Is that something you’d want to unteach your children?
What I cannot unsay is: God is sovereign. Whatever happens, he is sovereign. I don’t understand why he allows it to go round such a circle before things get sorted and why there is so much suffering, but I do believe he is sovereign. He says he’s sovereign and he’s not a liar.
Do you find the emphatic theology of that hard to reconcile with the reality of just how unacceptably bad the experience is?
Very. Very difficult. And perhaps when we’re almost going to let go of something that’s when we hold on tightest. I’ve had years of illness, a great deal of which is attributable to the abuse. I am clinging on to the last bits of my faith and, at the bottom line, I do believe in the sovereignty of God, and I think if I let go of that I would let go of everything. I couldn’t do that.
How, if at all, can we talk about forgiveness in this context?
I think forgiveness is God’s, not ours, and we want to feel forgiven. The word “sorry” is much, much more important than forgiveness. Forgiveness follows naturally as someone follows their journey.
In my life, forgiving is about letting go of my anger and resentment for my own sake. I get the impression that the problem for Rose and people like her is the opposite of anger – it’s blaming herself.
Yes, so forgiving misses the point. If I think about the guy who used to do things to me, I think: “Poor guy, he had too much testosterone. Who helped him?” It isn’t about forgiveness. It’s the ones who watch who have the anger; those who are abused feel guilty.
Do you think that as a society we have yet come to any understanding at all of paedophilia?
No. Look at the way the press talk about “monsters”. These are one in 30 men. They’re normal. In Rose’s case and mine, they were nice people. That’s why he could get in there. We all have different bits of ugliness in ourselves and while we disown them and put them onto other people and call them monsters, we’re failing.
This article was published in the June 2014 issue of Reform.