What the books don't tell you

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

‘‘Mummy, there’s a pretend mouse in the kitchen.” Larry has stomped into the bedroom with the imperious air of somebody bearing Very Important News. Instantly – and with a sinking feeling in my stomach – I know what this means: there is a mouse caught in the glue trap.

Glue traps are the last resort. For months, hordes of mice have been frolicking nightly around the slightly too-small flat, snacking on leftover rusks and bits of rice that have escaped my half-hearted attempts to clean up after baby Moe. We have tried “humane” traps, snap traps and poison, all to no avail. They may look small, brown and not particularly intelligent but clearly these rodents are a highly evolved super-breed.

The last straw came at 4am the other night when, having finally dropped off after settling Moe for the third time, I was awakened by the sound of scratching right next to my pillow. One thing I do not need in my life right now is anything else keeping me awake at night. So, the next morning, I marched to the corner shop and bought the glue traps: square bits of paper covered in a substance so sticky that once the mice run on to it, they can’t get off.

I creep into the kitchen. Sure enough, there on the sideboard is a tiny baby mouse, stuck fast to the trap. It must have been there for some time; it is still moving but only feebly. I creep over and look into its bulging, terrified brown eyes. It looks back at me imploringly. All I can think about is its poor mouse mummy, hiding somewhere behind the cooker, watching her baby die a horrible, prolonged death. I think about all the time that she must have waddled around pregnant, how she must have carefully built her nest, foraged for food, fed her baby right through the day and night: all for nothing. All because of me.

But there is nothing I can do. The baby mouse’s legs are so fragile that they would break if I tried to disengage it from the trap. The only course of action available is to kill it as soon as possible. I gingerly pick up the trap and the mouse and shove them into a plastic bag. Then I put that bag into another plastic bag. I don’t like to waste plastic bags but if it spares me the sight of spattered baby mouse guts, I feel it is justified.

“Mummy, what are you doing?” Larry has materialised at my side. I know from his shrewd expression that there is no way I can pussyfoot around.

“I am putting the mouse into a plastic bag, Larry, and then I’m going to take it outside and hit it with a brick.”

“Oh.” Larry looks at the floor. “Can I see?”

“Er, no. Yes. Well, I suppose so.”

So we both tromp down to the garden and Larry watches as I batter the baby mouse to death. In hindsight, I think this might have been the Wrong Parenting Strategy. It is decisions like this that the books just don’t prepare you for.

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.