‘The Little Prisoner’ by Jane Elliott

A Commentary by David Lane

This book is a best seller, and the review which we published in Children Webmag has attracted a lot of responses. In case you are one of the few who have not read it, the book is an autobiographical account of a girl, ‘Jane Elliott’, who was sexually abused by her stepfather throughout her childhood – indeed, over a seventeen-year period. It is graphic and horrifying. Much of the record concerns the ordinary mundane things of daily life for a young girl, but the pervasive theme of the abuse which Jane was suffering contaminates everything.

Jane wrote in the Introduction that she had concluded that there are two sorts of reader – those who had experienced similar problems and could identify with the author, and those who had never been abused in this way and were seriously shocked by the account, finding her experiences barely imaginable.

We would add another category, which might be drawn from both groups – those who professionally have to deal with such situations. They face the problem of trying to understand such situations and find solutions while bearing in mind their own experiences. If they have experienced abuse the risk is that they make assumptions about the victim’s needs, which might be different from their own. If they have never suffered abuse themselves, they may find it very difficult to get a grasp on what abused children have been through.

No one who has written to Children Webmag has suggested that the account given by Jane is anything but true. It is clearly the truth from her viewpoint, and her stepfather and some of her relatives might well express different opinions, but it has the convincing ring of truth about it. Having read many case files of children who have had similar experiences, I find Jane’s account utterly believable.

The question is whether – and how – such abuse could have been stopped or minimised. Jane is understanding about this, pointing out the times when social workers and teachers (as well as her mother) could have intervened, and explaining why, perhaps, they did not.

The physical standards in the family home were high. Stepfather was always decorating. This could well have thrown the social workers who called; the family did not look like a problem family.

Aggression as an Indicator

Perhaps more important was stepfather’s aggressive stance. There were shades of Baby Peter here. Aggressive parents – mothers, fathers or step-parents – feature regularly in cases where children have been abused. They challenge visiting professionals, often with a ready wit and a sharp tongue, and they can be threatening, cruel and frightening. At times they are violent towards professionals and over the years a number of social workers have been killed by clients. The danger is real.

The danger is real too for the children in such families. I have come across a number of instances when it was decided that social workers should only visit a family in pairs because of the dangers they faced, but it seemed that it was acceptable for the children in such situations to be subject to the risk twenty-four hours a day, not just during a twenty-minute visit.

The situation is also, of course, at times exacerbated by drug-taking or excessive alcohol, leading at times to unpredictable and aggressive behaviour.

Maybe the key lesson is that if a social worker, health visitor or teacher feels frightened by a parent, this should be accepted as a serious cause for concern about the children’s safety too. Research findings have suggested that people who abuse their animals often abuse children too. It would make sense to recognise that if adult professionals are frightened by clients, the clients may well be terrifying their children. In themselves, the professionals’ feelings would not be evidence of abuse, but they would be an indicator that closer observation would be needed, particularly as the victims, family members and neighbours may be too frightened to speak out, – as in Jane’s case, where her family terrorised the neighbourhood.

The Aftermath

A key social work dilemma is the timing of action. If there is clear evidence such as bruising which professionals can observe, record and testify about, the situation is more straightforward. If one is relying on the victim to speak up, it may be years before s/he is ready to talk, whether driven to despair or sufficiently confident because of the support of a friend or partner.

In Jane’s case she had been away from her mother and stepfather for some time before she decided to deny her stepfather access to her daughter, which represented the turning of the tide and the beginning of her standing up for herself. It was a long process, which culminated in court action and a lengthy prison sentence for her stepfather.

One would like to say that this was the end of the story, and that they all lived happily ever after, but the book carries an important twist in the tail. Well after the court case Jane’s relatives attacked her and beat her up for the trouble she had caused the family. There are two important messages from this incident.

The first is that for the family members who attacked her family solidarity and the avoidance of the shame associated with the court case were more important than protecting her from abuse. The law may be clear about abuse but this does not mean that families, neighbourhoods or subcultures necessarily agree with the law and they may have norms of their own. Professionals need to be aware that their own personal and professional norms may be at odds with those of the families with whom they are working.

The second is that the problems arising from her abusive childhood will remain with Jane for the rest of her life; they are a part of her history and will have affected her permanently. This may not all be bad. Her heightened awareness of abuse may ensure that she protects her daughters, for example, but then there is the risk that she may overprotect them. Her decision to stand up for herself may have heralded an adulthood in which she can approach problems with self-confidence and maybe take on a career in helping others facing similar problems, but again the patterns of behaviour she learnt as a child may re-surface in other ways in later life. Jane faces a life of complex actions and re-actions and layers of memories and feelings which may surface at times.

The Message

The main message, though, is that however ghastly children’s experiences are, victims can find resilience, they can survive and they can build happier and more fulfilling lives when they have escaped their prisons. In Jane’s case, her stepfather was her gaoler, using the knife to her throat as a threat that was both symbolic and real. Thereafter, for many years, he had programmed Jane to see herself as his prisoner.

It is said that if you draw a line in front of a chicken it dare not cross over and is a prisoner. This is part of the chicken’s psyche; there is no physical barrier. Jane faced the same type of problem. The question is when the prisoner feels able to take the steps to freedom. Those steps may entail facing real physical threats, such as the violence posed by Jane’s stepfather, but they also require facing up to one’s own inner demons and in some respects that is a tougher battle.

The Little Prisoner describes the whole process well. Social workers and other professionals working with children often face only the problems immediately presented to them; this book provides a two-decade panorama of the way things unfold and is invaluable reading.

Elliott, Jane (2005) The Little Prisoner

Harper Element, London

ISBN 13 978 0 00 720893 7

To read the Children Webmag review by Wanda Gibson of The Little Prisoner, click here, and to read The Little Prisoner Revisited by Valerie Jackson click here.

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