Andrew Ravensdale endured sexual abuse at the hands of his mother when he was a small child growing up in Cornwall. Later, as a confused but exceptionally bright young man, he got into Cambridge to read English – yet could only cope, after his childhood experiences, by drinking and taking hard drugs to flatten out his pain. In his 40s he sought treatment, and eventually started working for MIND, the mental health charity, as a Community Advocate, working with people who were severely mentally ill.

“I would describe myself as a lucky man and a happy man,” he told me in one of our first correspondences, and he did manage to find an escape from his childhood that other people with similar experiences never do.

In person, Ravensdale is intelligent, reflective, and caring in a practical, unfussy way. He has a strong physical presence, tallish, with a white beard, lively eyes, and a manner verging on the distinguished, his seriousness is tempered by occasional bursts of sophisticated theatrical wit. He's now 66, and has left MIND for the time being, but still takes a strong interest in mental health debates.

Not everyone who has experienced sexual abuse in childhood will freely talk about it, and men can be especially reticent. It's not easy for Ravensdale to talk about either; he hardly ever speaks out about what happened to him. “I have told a number of people different things. I have never told anybody everything. It seems too much. Yet somehow I live with it,” he explains, in one of our early conversations.

Life-threatening 'accidents'

When we finally met, I started by asking him how the abuse began. “It started when my brother [Louis] and I were both under five; he was about 16 months older than me,” says Ravensdale. His father was out a lot, which is when the abuse took place. “Memory is not great at that age, so I'm sure there are things I don't remember. Whether it started with my brother or me I'm not completely sure, but I know my brother was badly physically abused.

“My mother used to stage life-threatening accidents for him. She would tell the story years later, word for word, it would be the same every time. She would tell them at teatime, cute little childhood stories. They were, in fact, attempts by her to murder him and conceal that she'd done that.

“I witnessed one of these. She stuck his fingers in an old-fashioned electric socket. You can tell how small his hand was. You can also tell her state of mind, because she didn't appreciate that she would be electrocuted at the same time.

“There were several other incidents, and it wasn't until many years later that I remembered the one I had witnessed, and realised that these were cover stories, and that she had repeatedly tried to kill him. The first one was when he was a babe-in-arms, and she capsized a canoe on the river. He only survived because he floated to the surface on a cushion.”

Did his mother say anything during these incidents? “She said a lot during the incident with the electric socket. She was saying, 'You're a bad boy, you're playing near electricity, it's dangerous, you have to be punished.'

“She was really in very strange state of mind, I need to emphasise that. She would not have been responsible for her actions, I'm quite clear. But I would have been three or four when I witnessed this. She was yelling at me the whole time. There were, literally, blue spots coming out of her hair.

“We were both screaming. What she wanted me to do was go round and turn off the switch. I couldn't understand. I wasn't allowed to turn off switches. I remember what I did – I got hold of the door frame and kicked it as hard as I could, which is what I used to do at that age when I was really frustrated.

“The scariest thing, and again, I didn't remember this for years and years and years, is when her personality changed back. We were out in the hall with our little coats on, and we were going to go to the clinic, and she was leaning over my brother and saying, 'Are you all right, dear?' - that was chilling.”

“It started, with me, being drawn into exciting games, based on my mother's fantasies. They had a lot to do with her grandfather, who abused her when she was a child. She got hold of stories of abuse that don't make sense in her family history. Her family are from the mining villages in Cornwall and conditions three or four generations ago there were dire. Mexican miners would send sailing ships to little Cornish ports and fill them up with unemployed miners. My grandparents were respectable petit bourgeois, but there's a dark past to it. The games eventually led to full-blown incest.

“If you can imagine that – an adult woman and a boy under five, and also try to imagine that the woman in question is the boy's mother. Pretty difficult to think about. I find it difficult to think about.”

“I don't like to call it rape because it wasn't. There's a word 'grooming' that people use, there's a manipulation, a conditioning, a suggestion. A psychological process. And I won't call it sex because it isn't. It's just a gross caricature.”

There were other incidents. Ravensdale remembered one in particular when he had gone down to Cornwall as a young man with the intention of committing suicide. He found the den in the woods near their family home where he had played as a child, and subsequently remembered spending the whole night there after his mother had locked him out of the house. He was four years old at the time.

After the age of five, the abuse stopped. Ravensdale's mother did not abuse her daughter, with whom she bonded better.

Despite all this, Ravensdale does not see his mother as a bad person. “She wasn't evil. She really was not in her right mind when she was doing these things,” he says. “She was way more than ill. I've seen her psychotic, I've seen personality change, I've seen hysterical rage – major indicators of something very badly wrong.

“I do know, though forgive me if I don't go into details here, of at least one occasion when she committed incest with me and she was delusional - she believed I was her grandfather, and I was abusing her. So in a sense she was re-enacting, re-experienced what had happened to her.”

Illness as a mask for mental health problems

His mother did not go to work; she was an invalid, and though she was diagnosed eventually with leukaemia, Ravensdale says that her illness was also a way to mask mental health problems. “In her parents' generation, being an invalid was quite a good cover for chronic mental illness,” he says.

“Madness would have been a huge shame. This was a long time ago … what you were afraid of [then] is that they would lock you up and throw away the key,” he says.

“Remember, up until the mid-1950s, young women who were abused and had babies could be confined in effect for life as 'moral idiots.' That's within living memory.”

Yet Ravensdale insists being taken into care would have been detrimental for him and his siblings.

“I'm quite clear: we were all better off with no intervention,” he says. “We were better off staying in a psychologically and emotionally abusive environment than being in care. After the gross physical and sexual abuse had stopped, there would have been absolutely no benefit, no merit in any intervention from outside with my mother. There would have been no point. There would have been nothing anyone could have done for her [at that time]; it would have made no difference to us.”

Ravensdale's brother Louis, the one who had his fingers stuck in the socket as a boy, grew up nevertheless to have a busy, committed life. He was a bus inspector and elected branch secretary of his union, as well as being active in the Labour Party. But he was also very paranoid and violent in his youth. In 1984, he shot himself. Ravensdale thinks he probably had a personality disorder.

His other brother, Mark, suffers from serious mental illness. He has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which has meant that he has had to stop work, though he previously worked for many years as a van driver and then a systems analyst. His sister Joanna, a teacher, went to Australia with her husband and is happy there, says Ravensdale. They have two children and two grandchildren.

Impact on a young life

The abuse had a profound effect on Ravensdale, too. When he arrived at Cambridge he was already taking heroin; he attempted suicide in his second year, after which he “flounced out” of his second-year exams. 

“I was reading English and was particularly interested in the novel. Since I had no sense of cause and effect and no insight into human feelings they remained somewhat mysterious,” he says.

He got a 2:1, which to him was a great disappointment, and spent the next few years drifting in and out of jobs in English teaching, publishing and sales and dipping in and out of relationships, still taking drugs, drinking, and unable to manage money. “I would never accept I was mentally ill - I was always afraid that I was mad.”

In his 30s, he had several breakdowns - what might now be called brief psychotic episodes - during which he dissociated strongly and had involuntary memories of childhood trauma. Finally, in his mid-40s, he accepted that he was ill and needed help – but it wasn't easy. A good GP helped; psychotherapy was of little use. He finally got a diagnosis when he was in his 50s and later a referral to the Maudsley Hospital's traumatic stress service, which helped significantly. “It completely changed the frame of mind I was in,” he says.

But this all took time and effort – and, worryingly, would therefore be beyond the possibility of some people who are severely mentally ill.

“One of the things I have learned is that the way the mental health services work is not the way the general public think it works,” says Ravensdale. “No one comes looking for you. No one is eager to give you the service you want. It's very reluctant, very grudging. People don't want to take on difficult cases. People don't want to solve problems. They want to keep themselves out of trouble.” Ravensdale puts this partly down to rivalry within different NHS services, and also because people with mental illness will only normally see a junior psychiatrist who will stay in that job for just six months at a time due to the way the system works. “You have to fight really hard to get a proper review from a consultant,” he says.

“I am frustrated by warring tribes in mental health. If a childhood sexual abuse survivor has symptoms they need to see a clinical psychologist. Psychiatrists and counsellors need to get that.”

'Nowadays we understand more, but care less'

There's also an enormous stigma attached to sexual abuse in childhood. “This is quite inconsistent,” Ravensdale points out, “because [with] the fuss in the media about the high-profile exposes, the fuss about the abductions and about the social worker scandals, you would assume that we all have a positive attitude.

“We don't. We actually treat the kids quite badly. Kids are often bullied at school. One very small example: other parents don't want their kids to go round their [the abused children's] houses because they might 'catch something'. There's a fear of contamination that suggests to me that we haven't quite got away from the notion of taboo … The taboo is very powerful.”

Attitudes in British society towards people with mental illness are less benevolent than we might think, Ravensdale says, drawing on his own experience and his time with MIND. He lists some of the ways in which people will dismiss mentally ill people.

“They're poor, they're losers, they're skivers, 'they could get jobs if they wanted to,' 'they don't really want to get well,' if they're mentally ill then they're dangerous, 'we need to stay away from these people, we're paying social workers and nurses and psychiatrists to look after these people, they shouldn't be bothering us, they shouldn't be on the street like that.'

“I'm exaggerating a little, but there's an awful lot of blame and real fear, and the fear is often to do with ignorance.”

Research has shown that every generation since the war is more individualistic and more materialistic, Ravensdale notes. “We don't care,” he says bluntly. He puts it down in part to the end of the old industrial working class, the move into offices and the adoption of more middle-class values, and the loss of solidarity and a sense of community. “It's a particular stage of late capitalism, if you like.

“We perhaps understand a lot more, but we care a lot less.”

He also says that childhood sexual abuse is on a continuum with other abuse, including bullying at work, domestic violence, and more. “It is on a continuum with abuse in the community and in the workplace. It is on a continuum with people trafficking and human rights abuse,” he says. “It isn't going to stop.” Current economic problems, he says, will only worsen abuse of all kinds.

At MIND he worked with people with severe mental illness, who had usually been hospitalised at least once because they were a danger to themselves or others. A few were very dangerous. He would help them to navigate hospital visits, psychiatric assessments, complicated benefit forms and housing difficulties.

His work showed him that there are constructive things that other people can do to help.

“In almost every case, you can do something,” he says. “You can stop them from being evicted; I did a lot of welfare rights work. The [benefits] system is bewildering, it's far too complex, and the people processing the forms are paid about £12,000 a year, they're pretty resentful – it all goes wrong.

“And if you're anxious, this is very difficult to cope with. There were also hidden problems with literacy, learning difficulties, undiagnosed autism – you name it, it was there. If someone says, 'we'll sort this,' that can make a huge difference.

“A lot of what I was doing was trying to reduce the level of anxiety to the point where people could go on functioning, because if they're not functioning they're not doing other things, they're not paying the rent, they're not eating and so on.”

He urges people to look out for a neighbour or friend who may be ill, to help out, and not to ignore.

Meanwhile this courageous man is now writing his first novel. He emphasises to me once more that he does not see his life in dark colours. “I am one of the lucky ones. I not only survived. I help others.

“I am very grateful.”

(VoR)

To listen to the full interview, please click the Play arrow under the main photo at the top of this report.

Men and mental health: The untold story