'I've the body of a woman but inside I feel like a child'

Madeline Petrillo
Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The traumatic personal experiences of women in the criminal justice system often go unnoticed. Their experiences are ignored; their needs minimised; their support and treatment an afterthought.

Through the publication of short articles, we are providing a space for women's voices to be heard. Madeline Petrillo, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, will tell their stories. She will use their own words where possible as recorded in a series of interviews for a project examining women’s pathways to desistance from crime. All names and other identifying information have been changed.

Please note: This article contains descriptions of sexual abuse and violence.

I can’t understand why people didn’t know what was happening to me and how I was. Maybe it’s because I was put in the background all the time. I wasn’t noticed. It’s as if I wasn’t there.

Lynne was sentenced to more than two years in prison for an offence of wounding her former partner. She is assessed as ‘high risk.’ She is an alcoholic, has mental health problems and a history of acquisitive offending. This is the story the criminal justice system tells about Lynne.

This is how she tells it. 

Lynne first had a drink at the age of seven. Her dad was an alcoholic and would bring beer home from the pub and encourage her to drink. 'Even then, I wanted more. By 11, I’d get drunk. At secondary school I was smoking. I’d had a sexual relationship by then with a girl. We’d both been abused by men. I just hate men. It was very confusing. At 11 I was put on valium by a doctor.' 

Lynne went to the doctor when she was 11 because she was at breaking point. 'All I knew was being beaten up as a child by my father. He never sexually abused me but neighbours, family friends, dad used to bring them home from the pub. I used to get paid for it. It went on till I was 11. Then I couldn’t take it no more.'

As a young child, Lynne learnt that you deal with emotional trauma by medicating it. That she was the problem that needed to be cured. Not her abusers. Not the adults around her who were complicit by their inaction. Not the society that was failing to protect her childhood. 'I can’t understand how people never noticed how I was. I can’t understand why people didn’t know what was happening to me and how I was. Maybe it’s because I was put in the background all the time. I wasn’t noticed. It’s as if I wasn’t there. That feeling of loneliness. Of not being wanted.'

Lynne spoke about how she felt different, how her experiences obliterated her sense of self.

As a child I felt different to anyone in the family. I had to separate myself from what was happening. I was bullied at school. Abused as a child. It took me away. I felt different… I attempted suicide at 15. My dad was being bullying. I was sticking up for my mum. It was hard. Horrible. I wasn’t allowed to be a child. I feel like a little girl when I talk about it…I never thought of myself in terms of me being a woman. What is a woman? I’ve the body of a woman but inside I feel like a child.

Lynne describes herself as a 'very needy person'.  She links the absence of caring relationships in her childhood to a vulnerability in relationships as an adult. In reality, she was not much more than a child when she embarked on a relationship with a man who would continue where her father left off.

I met the kids’ dad at 17. He abused me. Beat me. Domestic violence. Rape. I stayed with him 25 years. I don’t know if it was love. I don’t really know what love is…He could be very nice. He was very good with the children. Not an alcoholic but if he had a drink he’d turn. We’d fight like cat and dog. He’s hung me over a balcony, beat me up, been unfaithful. The way he made me feel. I was no good. No-one would want me. When you’ve been told that so much you believe it.

Throughout this whole period, Lynne had been using alcohol and sedatives to cope with what was being done to her. Despite this, she had started work at 16 and describes being shocked that people liked her. 'Everybody liked me. I couldn’t understand why they liked me'. She later worked as a child-minder. She had a knack for supporting others and wanted to pursue mentoring work on release.  But this was all in the future. Before she was able to think about all that she could be, there was more devastation to survive.

My daughter’s father abused her. It sent me right off my trolley. I kicked him out and I was grieving. I was grieving for the loss of the family unit. I believed he was a wife beater but not a child molester. I didn’t believe it at first so I took him back. Then my daughter said he had done it. I felt sick. She was so young at the time. It was really hard for the kids. I was there, but I wasn’t because I was drunk. My daughter got taken away because I couldn’t stop drinking. I reported the abuse and lost my child. I had a lot of regret that morphs into guilt. I couldn’t cope with it. That’s the story of my life – drinking to forget things I can’t cope with. I don’t know how she deals with her mother being an alcoholic, her dad abusing her. She won’t be able to have anything to do with me properly till she’s 18. Hopefully then I’ll be better. That’s what I’m aiming for.

Just before the offence, Lynne feels that things were so bad that had she not been imprisoned, she would have died. 'I was terrible. I couldn’t get out of bed. I was depressed. I jumped off a balcony to try and kill myself and broke my back. I was psychotic. I’d see different people in the mirror with me. The Grim Reaper sitting me with. Hearing people talking to me.'

Lynne completed two rehabs and spoke highly of her experiences of psychotherapy, but found support services in the community lacking.

There’s no help outside for alcoholism. You go into detox, go back to all the old situations. You need to get to know yourself. Why you? Why have I got my addiction? I learnt in art psychotherapy about keeping things in little boxes. But it wasn’t long enough. When it finished, I didn’t know what else to do. It opened this can of worms and I couldn’t put them back in… I gave up asking for help. I didn’t know whether I wanted to live or die.

Imprisonment saved Lynne. The sadness of this statement was something she was acutely aware of. 'Coming in here has helped me. It’s sad to say that. It’s sad to say prison has helped me. Because a lot of women and men are out there and they can’t get no help at all. I didn’t mind being in here because I felt safe in here. I knew I couldn’t get a drink or pills.' 

Lynne had not felt safe at any point in her life until she was imprisoned. Whilst this reflects positively on the opportunities afforded her in custody, it challenges us to question the legitimacy of punishing Lynne whilst remaining silent about all the harm inflicted on her; to question a system that only acknowledges some victims, leaving those like 11 year old Lynne to develop coping strategies that later contribute to their involvement in the criminal justice system.

Lynne’s story is one of tragedy. But it is also one of hope and resilience.

I believe you can change your day around; from negative to positive. You can turn things around. I can’t go through what I’ve been through again. It’s got me nowhere. It’s got me in here. I’ve wanted to find myself for a long time. Now I’m finding peace with myself. I’ve had so many ups and downs. I’ve made so many wrong decisions. Doing this is making me look at myself and learn about myself. I’m actually finding who I am. I’m liking what I’m seeing sometimes.

Madeline Petrillo is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth where she teaches on gender and crime and is Course Leader for the Probation Qualification Framework. She previously worked as a probation officer, specialising in work with women in the criminal justice system. Madeline is currently undertaking research examining women's pathways to desistance. This is a longitudinal study with a cohort of women leaving custody exploring the factors they perceive as important to their desistance and factors they experience as presenting obstacles to change. 

Read more about the Breaking the silence comment series here.