Susan Waters is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. She is a poet, the mother of three children and lives in the Midlands. Her story has been anonymous on The Forgiveness Project website since 2005. In 2016, with her parents both dead, she waived her right to anonymity. After her brother Robert’s suicide in 2019 Susan is fully able to tell her story.

My brother was a gentle boy before the darkness came. Robert was ten and I was seven years old when our relationship altered irrevocably. We had started lessons at Richmond Swimming Baths. My brother Robert’s instructor, Bob C, was a loud, attractive personality. He took Robert out for treats and before long invited himself to our home to offer us both a day out in London.

Childhood ended that day. Bob C’s particular evil was to set one child against another, turning Robert against me: he presented himself as the generous care giver (I don’t want to hurt you) and Robert his small henchman issuing rehearsed threats (I will break your legs if you tell). I thought of myself as a thing to be offered up. Bob C was the instigator but my brother continued to abuse me into adolescence. How could I tell our parents about their gross error of trusting Bob C; I was anxious about getting my brother into trouble and terrified about what might happen if I disclosed. It was very confusing.

A year later on a Swimming Club trip, I saw Bob C molesting the girl sitting next to him. Mother thought my refusal to speak to him again as defiance. Despite this strong protest against Bob C, Robert’s outings continued until the day a policeman knocked on our door. Bob C had been caught abusing a boy and named my brother as another victim in his confession. Robert went with our Father to the Police Station to make a statement; a frightening and embarrassing situation for them to face. They returned, stone-faced, not saying a thing to Mother when she came home from her work as a Health Visitor. She only found out later by reading the local newspaper.

There wasn’t the language to communicate as a family back in 1970; our relationships fractured under a toxic silence. It was easier for all of us to bury the trauma beneath a thick sheet of ice and pretend everything was normal.

I had been taught the Lord’s Prayer, forgive us as we forgive others. Would God stop loving me if I couldn’t forgive? This was the fear for a troubled girl with only God to talk to. I said the prayer, but didn’t really mean it; its pressure keeping me silent and unsafe.

When I became a mother myself I found what it is to love and be loved. The crisis arrived when I was bathing my seven-year-old daughter and I recognised the loss of innocence at that age. For a while I quietly tried to find some answers in Christian literature, but these were all perfect stories of reconciliation. What I was looking for was permission to end the relationship with my brother and I could not find this wisdom in Church teaching. Despite the turmoil of everything that had happened to me, I could not abandon belief in a greater goodness. What remains is knowing that pure Love walks with me every day and this faith is empowering.

One day when Robert arrived for a rare visit the façade cracked. His teasing brought my youngest child to tears and I lost control, angrily shouting at Robert to leave our house and not come back. When Mother telephoned to ask why Robert was no longer welcome, I disclosed the truth about the past. I knew my confession would split the family apart, but my first loyalty was to my children. Overwhelmed by shame, I suffered a complete mental collapse.

Eventually Robert married, moved abroad and cut off all contact with the family. Despite everything the primal blood-tie remained. On better days it was possible to remember Robert in happier times; safely loving him at a distance.

When our Mother died ten years later, as sole Executor I was legally obliged to find him. The ground of memory began to shake again. For my healing I went for trauma counselling, leaving my shoes at the door to stop me running out. Working through the rage, I recalled something Robert had said long before in our one frank conversation: If there is one thing I could change about my sorry little life it would be that [to have protected me from Bob C]. There was both remorse and the fear he still held for Bob C in the tremor of his voice.

We conducted the business of the Will via email. This time I was in charge. It became clear that Robert’s interest was the money, as there was no enquiry about our Mother nor how I had fared in the intervening years. Somewhat provoked, I raised our past and requested a small part of his bequest to cover counselling costs as an act of restorative justice. This was given without further comment or apology.

So there we were; battered siblings in our defensive corners.

The last thing I typed, knowing it would be our last conversation, were sincere words of forgiveness and in this resolution I found liberation for myself.

As Desmond Tutu counsels: Forgive others, not because they deserve forgiveness, but because you deserve peace.

Robert’s wife dearly loved him, but his demons held him tight. He sank into alcoholism and four years later committed suicide. Some said he got his comeuppance. I sensed rather, the pain of an angry and lonely death. Early one morning, comfort came to me in a warm and loving presence whom I believe was my brother; I can rest in the peace of that moment.

Meanwhile, I needed to gather the facts about Bob C. The Richmond and Twickenham Times’ report about his arrest revealed further wreckage of lives. He confessed to abusing four boys, but there must have been many more children caught in his predatory net. Robert and I always thought he had been given a prison sentence. In fact, it was a mere £50 fine with the caution to be of good behaviour for two years. It is very unlikely that Bob C’s behaviour did change and I think the light sentence was irresponsible and unjust.

I searched the Census just to ensure Bob C was dead. A wave of compassion took me by surprise when I read his birth record. I saw the man, not as a looming figure, but as a baby. What happened to you, I wondered, to make you the person I knew? Were we all sexually abused as children?

I would never excuse Bob C’s crimes. There is the possibility to transform our shadow side and he chose a different path. In 2017 I gave a statement to the Police for The Goddard Inquiry that examined how UK institutions handled their duty of care to children. Their purpose in gathering testimonies is to inform better recommendations for the future. I tell my story here too and trust that others will find hope in reading it.

Words of forgiveness for Bob C remain heavy stones in my mouth. Once I had accepted that I could not alter the past, I needed some shift towards healing and believed I had the power to change. A way forward was to put reason aside and take a leap of faith. With a child’s trust I visualised Bob C’s soul in the light of God’s hands – the hands of the loving parent that watches over me. It sounds a cliché, but an oppressive weight really did lift away. In middle age I mostly turn away from the ghosts of the past and am open to greater healing. Life is good.

The Buddhist prayer of loving-kindness is another piece of the puzzle. I finally found realistic insight that forgiveness is a process. Within the struggle to forgive others, there is also permission to forgive oneself:

If anyone has harmed me in any way either knowingly or unknowingly through their own confusions, I pardon them. If I have harmed anyone in any way either knowingly or unknowingly through my own confusions, I ask their pardon.

And if there is a situation I am not yet ready to forgive, I pardon myself for that. For all the ways that I harm myself, negate, doubt, belittle myself, judge or be unkind to myself, through my own confusions, I pardon myself.