On the day Jimmy Savile died, I read a comment on a popular online message board which read:
‘The skeletons will be tumbling out of his closet soon; good friemds with Jonathan King; what more can I say?’
I admit, I misconstrued that comment somewhat (knowing little of Savile’s personal life) taking it to mean, that like King he was an ‘openly closeted’ (something of an archaism these days) gay man who levered his elevated status within the entertainment industry to exploit starstruck young men. What little I did know – his longstanding ‘batchelorhood, his apparent mother fixation – served only to confirm such an impression. Well, so much for stereotypes – and living and working within Brighton’s gay community I ought to know better…
It appears I may have only been half-way mistaken, though, insofar as Savile‘s alleged victims are female, not male. In Savile‘s first memoir, ‘As It Happens’ (1974) , he boasts of his many intimate relations with members of the opposite sex “… there have been trains and, with apologies to the hit parade, boats and planes (I am a member of the 40,000 ft club) and bushes and fields, corridors, doorways, floors, chairs, slag heaps, desks and probably everything except the celebrated chandelier and ironing board.” Nothing inherently sinister, admittedly: many men, and women too – especially in the entertainment world – have found recourse in bragging of their ‘conquests’ through the medium of autobiography.
However, a soon-to-be-aired ITV documentary, ‘Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile’ places this in a more sinister context: from today’s Daily Mirror:
‘…revelations came to light in a bombshell TV investigation carried out by former detective Mark Williams-Thomas. It has left the BBC, where Savile worked for more than 40 years, facing claims that the star’s activities were an “open secret” among some staff.’
Two BBC producers even agreed to speak on camera to Mr Williams-Thomas, with one admitting he thought Savile was abusing young girls. He confesses he didn’t speak out at the time as he feared he’d lose his job because of Savile’s immense influence. A source who worked on the programme – ‘Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile’, to be screened on ITV1 at 11.10pm Wednesday – said: “The BBC has massive questions to answer. So many people knew, or at least suspected what was going on, but it was never investigated. The suspicion is that it is because it was one of the BBC’s favourite sons. It’s truly shocking.” The programme also interviews a number of Savile’s former colleagues. One, former BBC production assistant Sue Thompson, told how she once walked into his dressing room while he was kissing and groping a girl.
One of the most persistent criticisms of these kind of – post-mortem – allegations can be illustrated by a couple of posts from the comments board at www.mirror.co.uk
‘Why do this now? Why not bring the allegations when he was alive and able to stand accused? No doubt there’s money to [be] made somewhere!’
‘Go away you loathsome women. Funny how you decide to trot all this out now.’
To the credit of the wider online community – or, less cynical visitors to that site, at least – both comments were voted down. Superficially, they may appear to have merit. But do they? Non-reporting of sexual assault is the rule, rather than the exception; especially so when the victims are children, or were at the time of alleged abuse. Attention needs to be paid to why this is so often the case. There is much to be gleaned from studying the testimonies of alleged victims; and the reflections of these women contained in the forthcoming documentary are characteristic of the kinds of testimonies that thousands of sex abuse victims have been making for years. The first comment is easily dismissed: financial compensation (for rape) is rare in a criminal lawsuit, more possible in a civil suit; though to date no such (civil) suits have been registered in Savile‘s case. Criminal suits have been, though they have been dropped for lack of evidence (a common situation in sex assault cases, where it is often one word against another – with the word of one, the male, the adult, the powerful – carrying rather greater weight than the other – the female, the child, the naif, the slut). The second quote reveals more of the poster’s rank misogyny than any worthwhile comment on the specifics of the story.
Let’s examine some of the testimonies…
‘We all went into this caravan and Jimmy Savile was there and the teacher was saying to us: “Oh he’s going to do a recording of all you girls and he’s going to play it on the radio”. I don’t know if he beckoned me first but I do remember that I sat on his lap. And then the next thing, I felt this hand … go up my jumper and on my breast. I jumped up, I absolutely freaked out and started swearing and “What do you think you’re doing?” And then I was just dragged out of the caravan by two of the staff.
I was told what a filthy mouth I have, how can I make those terrible accusations, Uncle Jimmy does nothing but good for the school and he was just so wonderful and me, I need to retract what I’d said, I need to apologise. I was taken upstairs to the isolation unit, left there for two or three days and said that I could come back when I refrained from saying such filthy things.
When I came out I just didn’t say anything more because I hated it in the isolation unit.‘
Kids are too quickly, and too often punished for bucking the system, for confronting shibboleths; the more so when they’re female kids. Savile was an icon, a ‘national treasure’, and on the strength of his celebrity and charitable work, rightly so. Many kids and adults alike looked up to him as a paragon of human virtue. Such perceptions inevitably colour any allegations of wrongdoing: there’s an emotional investment in buying into stories of heroism, altruism and philanthropy and an attendent psychic cost to withdrawing said investment. Easier to pass the cost onto the accuser. To punish that which threatens the comfortable status quo.
Scepticism is an admirable trait – to the maintenance of a fair an impartial judicial system, an essential one – but too often within our institutions – schools, press, judiciary, business – women and children face more than that; rather an aggressive disbelief which flies in the face of fairness and common decency.
‘…But being a teenager and not understanding things you do blame yourself and there are so many mixed emotions with this. But I’ve always been full of regret that it happened and that I wasn’t able to do anything about it and I didn’t understand it either. I just feel that he just took huge advantage of me.’
Our teen years are a tumultuous time and we’re just dipping our feet into the ocean of the adult world. It’s a time of transition, dreaming, recklessness and adventure. We’re especially vulnerable because we take mistakes, failures and let-downs very personally: the tendency to blame ourselves for the outcomes of situations that were in fact, beyond our reasonable ability to control is a familiar one to us all. In the context of sexual development this can be especially pertinent: even relatively ‘promiscuous’ adolescents are unlikely to have a true grasp of their emerging sexuality. Abusive relations may feel ‘wrong’ on a profound level, but without a personal ‘norm’ to measure them against it’s hard to muster the confidence to assert as much to an adult world that seems not to want to know. A real concern is that they (victims) will internalise the abusive experience(s) and create a subconscious paradigm for future relations that will prove both demoralising and potentially hard to deviate from.
‘It was only when I was much older I looked back and got more distressed by it. I think when he was alive I would have been too frightened to have spoken out.’
Again, this is typical of the testimony of many adults when reflecting on traumatic childhood episodes. As kids we are encountering brand new (to us) situations all the time, and our desire – encouraged by both adult disapprobation and peer approval – to grow up and deal with it can lead to a misapprehension of our real abilities and limitations. Really ‘dealing with it’ might require breaking away from peer and authority expectation and risking attendent isolation – anathema to adolescents. Too scary to risk the further insult of being ignored, disbelieved, blamed; perhaps further punished like Charlotte.
Easier to compartmentalise, bury the experience. In this way our formative experiences can become subconscious drivers of our behaviour in later life. The fear that led us to hold our tongue as kids may linger even into adulthood, when the catalyst for it has long departed from our lives. It may be many years before we ‘wake up’ from long-established habitual behaviour and reflect on an original situation and see it for what it was; acknowledge our own relative helplessness at the time.
Pedophiles, like most violent offenders, are bullies at heart; and like all bullies they have almost a sixth sense for selecting the most vulnerable targets for their unwanted attentions. Such a sense is not infallible, as Charlotte‘s testimony shows: she instinctively rebelled and made her feelings known but as is so often the case her cries went unheard, and indeed her uncommonly brave efforts were stymied by exponents of the – male, hierarchical – system. Hell, perhaps I’m being unfair; maybe they (the nebulous ‘staff’ of Charlotte‘s testimony) were all-too-conscious of Savile‘s importance in their oeuvre and perceived, in a threat to his standing, a consequent threat to their continued employment; so maybe not misogynists at all. Nonetheless, to sideline a child’s evident suffering, and further, to mete out excessive punishment in the pursuit of (speculative) self-interest is pretty low, either way.
With revelations of each successive case come new expressions of ‘shock’ and ‘horror’ at the cruel, tyrannical treatment of women and children going on under our very noses. But in this media-saturated, media-savvy world we can no longer claim ignorance with any conviction. In truth, we never could. The voices were always there: the onus on us to listen and believe.
In the advent of Savile‘s death, there will be not trial; no justice in the accepted sense. The full truth will never be known, and can only be pieced together imperfectly from the fragmented testimonies of those left behind. Even if not every word printed in today’s Mirror is perfect truth, there is a greater truth expressed therein which we cannot afford to ignore. Trial by media is no kind of trial at all, but we must make the best of it that we can. It is our duty to listen and believe.
And in future, when more victims of this taboo crime come forward with their stories, as they will: we must listen and believe.
And speak out.