Orphanages for the Privileged - Boarding Schools and Abandonment - By Dr Mark Stibbe
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Orphanages for the Privileged - Boarding Schools and Abandonment - By Dr Mark Stibbe


If you’re anything like me, you’ll have watched at least one film version of Charles Dickens’ classic tale, A Christmas Carol in the festive season. Maybe you watched what is arguably the best adaptation, A Muppet Christmas Carol, or the Alastair Sim version that made such an impression on me as a young boy when Mum and Dad took me to see it at the Noverre Cinema in Norwich. Whichever rendition you enjoyed, I hope you paused to ask one simple question: “Why did Scrooge become the man he did?”

In the recent animated version showcasing the multifaceted Jim Carrey, we get an answer. Early in the story, the ghost of Christmas past takes the elderly Scrooge back in time, to his old prep school and a dusty room full of desks. There is no one there except the boy Scrooge. Everyone else has gone home for the Christmas holidays and the place is deserted. The boy who remains is described by Dickens as solitary and neglected. As he sees his abandoned, younger self, Dickens simply says that Scrooge sobbed.

This moment, so easily passed over by most readers, so criminally neglected by many movie directors, is the key to everything that follows. The reason why Scrooge becomes the man he does – as cold as the winter snow outside his underheated office – is established by the brilliantly insightful Dickens in this one single moment. For here Scrooge is portrayed to us as an orphan – not an orphan in the mould of the pauper Oliver Twist, but a child abandoned and forgotten in the privileged world of boarding school.

The boarded heart

Dickens knew a thing or two about human psychology. He saw with unusual clarity that the fertile conditions for our destructive human behaviour are so often created by childhood wounds. For Dickens, the root of Scrooge’s problems lay in his prep school abandonment. The boy’s father, who had been aloof and somewhat cruel, had simply abandoned him. This caused the young Ebenezer to disengage emotionally and cultivate frozen feelings. He created a boarded heart in order simply to survive.

In this respect Dickens was anticipating with remarkable prescience recent developments in psychology. Psychologists such as Nick Duffell (author of The Making of Them [Lone Arrow Press]) and Joy Schaverien (author of Boarding School Syndrome [Routledge]) have demonstrated that being exiled at boarding school at any early age leaves severe emotional scars. Not everyone, of course, is damaged. Some enjoy the experience. But many do not and go on to live their whole lives with boarded hearts and homesick souls.

It’s fascinating today to see how many ex-boarders are beginning to come out in the media, confessing how being abandoned, sometimes also abused, at the age of seven or eight at prep school left a destructive legacy – the loss of emotional health and an inability to relate to their nearest and dearest with intimacy. Celebrities from Benedict Cumberbatch to Kirstie Allsopp are now beginning to tell their stories of boarding school pain. Broadsheet as well as tabloid newspapers frequently contain such testimonies.

Succeeding at work, failing at home

It will come as no surprise that this kind of confession doesn’t always meet with a sympathetic hearing, especially from those who have a vested interest in supporting the boarding school system, or from those of an anti-establishment persuasion. Whenever any ex-boarder has the courage to stand up and say they were wounded by their boarding experience, someone will always claim that boarding school does a person no harm whatsoever, or insist that they shouldn’t be complaining at all.

Look at the fallout over the recent storyline in the long-running and much-loved radio show, The Archers. I don’t listen to the programme myself, but I am very aware of the current furore about it. The scriptwriters have come in for vitriolic criticism for suggesting that the behaviour of Rob Titchener, an abusive husband, was caused in part by boarding school abandonment and abuse. Rob is apparently the most hated character on radio, with 5 million listeners booing him every month.

When it was suggested that Rob’s bullying was at least partly caused by his boarding school wounds, the chair of the Independent Schools Council couldn’t hold himself back. “Private school pupils generally make excellent husbands and wives,” he claimed. Quite what the empirical data was for that comment was not disclosed. The latest research by psychologists suggests quite the opposite. Boarding school too often sets a person up to succeed at work but fail as a spouse or parent where it matters, at home.

Becoming a survivor

This is my story. I was sent to boarding school on my eighth birthday – on 16 September 1968, to be exact. My adoptive parents meant well, assuring me that this would be the making of me and that I would receive a rounded education and become in the process a well-rounded person. But as they drove away, I felt utterly terrified and alone. The headmaster, a sadist who was later told by the governors to leave for chipping a boy’s spine with a cricket bat, beat me with a cane in front of my dormitory on my first night.

After three more severe and humiliating public beatings in my first fortnight, I crawled under the bedclothes one night, hugged my teddy bear, Edward, and made a vow that if I was going to survive the next ten years, I would have to stop feeling. And that’s what I did. I boarded my heart and became emotionally disengaged – a mini-survivor with an armoured soul in an orphanage for the privileged. Having been orphaned in 1960, all I can say is that this was a second orphaning – and far worse, because this time I was conscious of it all.

In the years that followed, I learned to believe the lie that acceptance comes through performance, and so I strove to succeed in everything. I went into my working life with the same philosophy, with devastating results at home. I succeeded as the leader of a very large church and as a global conference speaker – but I failed at home. A lack of emotional engagement, along with some very wrong choices, led to a broken marriage. For this I will always be sorry, even though I know I’m forgiven.

The healing begins

The man who was courageous enough to lift the lid on the great silence about boarding school abandonment and abuse was psychologist Nick Duffell. He has not only written three significant books on the subject, but many articles in psychological journals and newspapers. He also runs regular retreats for boarding school survivors, where men and women can share their stories and, in the process, achieve some measure of healing from the traumas they suffered in their childhood.

I came across Nick’s work when I was receiving two years of intensive psychotherapy after the break-up of my former marriage. I was living on my own at the time in Oxfordshire, driving every fortnight to Derby to sit with a counsellor who specialised in deep-rooted childhood pain. After three or four sessions, she placed a copy of Nick’s book, The Making of Them, in my hands, and with that I began to understand how I had become the man I had. It was painful but also so, so healing.

Gradually, over the months that followed, I began to share stories from those hidden ten years at boarding school. I shared how I’d felt on my eighth birthday as my parents’ car drove away. I exposed my deepest secrets – of physical abuse by the headmaster, sexual abuse by staff, religious abuse by a man who masqueraded as a Christian but whose heart was set on using his wealth and influence to bring many boys into a place of oppression, from which some have never escaped. As I did, the healing began to come.

Our heart’s true home

How, then, can a person be set free from all of this? If you’re a boarding school survivor yourself, remember Scrooge. His breakthrough was a spiritual one – the result, in fact, of the intervention of three spirits. There’s a clue here. Dickens understood that ultimately a frozen heart can only be thawed with help from heaven. He knew, as a Christian himself, that even though there may be pain in the night, there can be indescribable joy in the morning if we open our hearts to the supernatural grace of a good and kind Father.

That is my story too. As I underwent two years of counselling, I laid my soul bare and in the process made myself available to the healing power of my loving heavenly Father – not the remote God of college chapel, nor the cruel God of misguided fundamentalists, but the perfect, loving Father revealed by Jesus of Nazareth, in whose arms our hearts find their true home, in whose presence our fractured lives are made whole again, so that we can be what my adoptive father wanted me to be – a fully rounded person.

Today I share my story wherever and whenever I can. My latest book, Home at Last: Freedom from Boarding School Pain (Malcolm Down), is the story of my recovery as well as a handbook of healing for those still suffering the long-term legacy of pain from boarding school. Along with a virtuoso team (HALT, the Home at Last Team), I run healing retreats for ex-boarders. In every case, I’m seeing people awakened and restored, like Scrooge. If you’re an ex-boarder, it’s time for you to live, laugh and love again.