When he was growing up, the former Arsenal striker Ian Wright’s favourite TV programme was Match of the Day. For this reason alone, when the programme began his stepfather would force Wright to turn away from the TV and stand with his face pressed uncomfortably close to the wall. If Wright turned to look, his stepdad would fly into a violent rage.
Wright, his elder brother Maurice, his mother and his stepfather lived in a single room in a house-share in Brockley, south-east London; there was no escaping the violence and psychological torture. His stepdad beat his mother, his mother in turn beat Wright and would often tell him she wished she had aborted him. Who can say how these different forms of abuse ought to be weighed up against each other? But when Wright, now 57, returns for the first time in decades to that single room in Brockley he keeps thinking about that wall, how it felt as a child to stand for so long with his nose squashed up against the orange patterned wallpaper while behind him the people on the TV erupted in cheers.
Home Truths (BBC One) is one of the most affecting and urgent documentaries I have seen in a while. It documents Wright’s attempts to confront the impact of his childhood abuse and to understand how to break the cycle of domestic violence: how can those who suffer abuse as children come to terms with their traumatic pasts? How can you prevent the victims of violence from becoming perpetrators? Wright has children of his own, and his good fortune and happiness seem to almost scare him. He has never been violent with his wife or young daughters, he says, but his family understand that his past torments him. They speak vaguely of how he struggles at Christmas and birthdays.
Wright did not talk publicly about the abuse he experienced until he was interviewed on Desert Island Discs last February, and when he talks about it on Home Truths you can hear how quickly these memories return him to the fear, pain, anger and confusion of his childhood. He recounts it from the perspective of the hurt and angry ten-year-old he once was. “He was so big, his voice was so growly,” he says of his stepdad, his face twisted in disgust. There was “a lot of grabby stuff going on”. When he tells a psychiatrist that his mother repeatedly told him she wished she’d terminated him, the psychiatrist tells him that this constitutes “clinically severe emotional abuse”. Wright is shocked. How could he not have recognised that earlier, one might wonder. But, of course, that is why abuse is so insidious and so damaging. The victims often blame themselves. They often can no longer see where the abuse ends and their own perceived wickedness begins, and start to believe that they are unlovable and worthless. Wright sobs as he absorbs the reality of his mother’s abuse: to accept it, he must reassess his relationship to her. It’s an incredibly powerful scene, revealing in just a few minutes the complexity of domestic violence, the intertwining of intimacy, power and terror, the magnitude of the betrayal it entails.
Each year in the UK 1.6 million women experience domestic violence; 90 per cent of the time a child is present. Even so – astonishingly, infuriatingly – it was only this year, with the passing of the new Domestic Abuse Bill in April, that children who live in homes where abuse is taking place were legally recognised as victims themselves, rather than merely witnesses. It shamed me that I did not know this until I watched Home Truths, or that I had primarily thought of domestic abuse in terms of violence against women and had given less thought to children. It is very difficult and dangerous for a woman to leave her abusive partner, but children have even less power or agency. One in five children will experience some form of abuse by the time they are 16. “If I saw my next-door neighbour walking around with bruises, I’d notice it!” one man, who was regularly beaten as a child, told Wright, and you could hear the hurt and pain in his voice. If only, this man still thinks, someone had helped him. We shouldn’t need a TV programme to expose the violence and abuse that, in all likelihood, is happening on every street, in every neighbourhood, and yet we all seem so good at not noticing it.
The pandemic has made the situation more desperate. Domestic violence rises in times of high stress, and the lockdowns have left women and children trapped inside with their abusers. One study found that during the first lockdown, there was an 11 per cent rise in people reporting domestic abuse to the police; between April 2020 and March 2021 the children’s charity NSPCC reported a record 85,000 calls to its helpline, many of them about domestic abuse and neglect. Wright, who credits a former teacher, Mr Pigden, with turning his life around, visits his old primary school to hear about the school’s efforts to identify and support children suffering from violence at home – but such safeguarding measures are harder to implement when schools close.
Wright also tours a number of projects aiming to prevent domestic abuse. At the Hampton Trust in Southampton he meets Wes, who has referred himself to the trust’s programme to help perpetrators of domestic violence learn better ways to manage their anger. One of the many things Wes had to learn was how to feel empathy for his partner when he physically threatened and intimidated her. He had to learn these things, things that feel so instinctive if you have grown up in a safe home, because when he was not much older than my own children – who are one and four and still view me almost as an extension of themselves, a being that exists solely to care for them – he saw his father almost beat his mother to death.
As Wright learns more about the impact of violence on mothers, he comes to forgive his own mother for the hurt and damage she caused. We often think of forgiveness as a gift we can bestow on those who have wronged us, but I can only hope that by forgiving his mother Wright could feel unburdened and liberated himself, that his forgiveness represented his determination to no longer feel defined by his past. Home Truths is structured around Wright’s personal story, but he’s also resolved to make it about much more than that. “Abuse creates a vicious cycle, and it’s up to all of us to stop it,” he concludes. Sometimes the truth is hard to hear.