My Story: Young people talk about the trauma and violence in their lives

Roger Grimshaw
Wednesday, 23 November 2011

“a groundbreaking report”

The Daily Telegraph

My Story tells the stories of childhood trauma and violence experienced by young people convicted of serious acts of violence.

Based on in-depth conversations with three young people in prison and presented in their own words, it offers a unique insight into the kind of severe, multiple and prolonged trauma experienced by many who while still children go on to perpetrate serious, violent acts.

There is growing policy interest in the violent and traumatic backgrounds experienced by many young people convicted of serious violent acts. A report from the Children’s Commission for England in June 2011 commenting on young prisoners stated that ‘the majority of children who commit offences have awful histories of abuse, abandonment and bereavement’. The cross-government report on gang and youth violence published in November 2011 observed that parental neglect, abuse and violence ‘recur time and again’ in the childhoods of young people who commit violent acts.

All too often, however, consideration of the childhood backgrounds is superficial and tokenistic. My Story is different in offering detailed, first person accounts of trauma by three young people who went on to be convicted of serious violent offences. The trauma recounted by the story tellers includes:

  • witnessing domestic violence
  • abandonment and loss
  • neglect
  • sexual and physical abuse
  • kidnapping
  • growing up in a family where crime and violence is a normal state of affairs

The descriptions of their experiences are graphic, disturbing and challenge simplistic assumptions about culpability and personal responsibility. One story teller told of the intergenerational violence and sexual assaults he witnessed:

‘My dad’s always struggled with drink and drugs, my dad’s dad is an alcoholic, he used to beat up my dad. He used to rape my aunties and he used to have his friends abuse my aunties.’

Two of the story tellers show direct repetition of their childhood trauma in their later behaviour. One was sexually abused and went on to become a sexual abuser himself. Another was traumatically held hostage by her father after witnessing repeated domestic violence against her mother. She was later convicted of kidnapping and false imprisonment.

One of the story tellers experienced neglect and abandonment by both parents, as well as physical and sexual abuse. With abandonment trauma comes feelings of “I am not worth much”, producing repetitions of self sabotage, of ruining good things because they are not felt to be deserved. As he explains:

‘One minute I can be okay and then a minute later, I can start to kick off, I can just change in seconds and my whole attitude, my whole mentality. I’ll be calm and then I’ll just get angry and then I’ll just think “I’ve got nothing to work towards now, I’ve lost it all anyway, just go do what you’ve got to do”.’

The story tellers sometimes also offer moving advice on how we can respond to and learn from these stories. As one said:

‘I don’t want people to read it and go “Oh, I feel sorry for him”. I mean there’s no need to, I’m perfectly fine. Everything’s that’s happened to me happened for a reason and it’s made me the person I am today. So I want people to read it and say these are some of the reasons why I got in the situations that I got in because I thought everything was normal, and I didn’t really understand a lot of things when I was young. So maybe, for example, a young parent reads this and then goes, “Oh I’m a bit like his parents”, and then they go, “Well I don’t want my kid going to jail, I don’t want him to feel like how I felt as a kid, I don’t want him going to jail when he’s like 14, 15 for getting involved in a murder or something like that”. So that’s where I’m coming from really.’

Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies said:

‘Most people can accept that children who commit serious violent acts have themselves experienced deeply traumatic and violent events that have shaped them and their responses to the world around them. Yet when it comes to the appropriate response, far fewer can think beyond mere punishment.
‘My Story challenges us all to make the link between the damaged child and the violent act. It asks us to think seriously about where violence comes from, how it can be prevented and how we can respond, with humanity and understanding, to those who commit violent acts.’

Dr Roger Grimshaw, editor of the report, said:

‘Young people’s extensive accounts of their childhoods, captured in their own words, demonstrate links between trauma and violence in a way that has few parallels.’

Tom Wylie, trustee of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, which sponsored the research, said:

‘Why some young people commit serious crimes can be hard to understand. Yet understand we must if action is to be taken to discourage others from taking a similar path and, indeed, to help all those involved to recover and come to terms with the violent act. Hearing the voices of the most marginalised and encouraging action based on them is at the heart of the approach of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to social justice.’