In the run up to the publication of Sussex thriller, LETHAL TIES, I’ll be discussing some underlying themes behind the story. If anything good is to come out of this though, it is to raise awareness of some of the complex emotional issues modern-day people face.
The abuse of young people is nothing new. People will have read about cases such as the Rotherham children’s homes (2015). Even footballers have spoken out recently of being sexually abused by their coaches, as revealed in a long-awaited report, ‘Football’s Darkest Secret‘ broadcast on BBC1.
But when I started writing Lethal Ties, I wanted to focus more on the long term psychological effects, rather than the abuse itself.
- The sense of powerlessness.
- Low self-esteem.
- Anxiety and depression.
- Addiction to alcohol and/or drugs.
- Serious mental health disorders leading to suicidal feelings.
This story was always intended to be character driven, an emotionally charged psychological drama that delves deep into the minds of the characters.
Abuse can take many forms, be it physical, emotional, sexual or neglect, but leaves a scar of damage on the victims. Thinking of my characters, the long-term effects are very different. Maisie seems content. Raised by kind, caring foster parents, she has a successful career, a flat, the stuff most young adults dream of. Yet deep down, she is troubled; suffers anxiety and panic attacks, finds it difficult to form relationships. Joe on the other hand has made a complete mess of his life and with no career prospects, spends his life drifting from place to place, sleeping rough.
Joe, however, is the one I want to focus on, starting with his experiences.
What you need to know about Joe
- Joe has suffered a troubled childhood, including physical abuse at the hands of his violent criminal father.
- Incarcerated in a children’s home, he is abused in ways he does not even understand yet, a truth that comes to light gradually.
- Being suspicious, Joe has stood up to the boss, Mr Mortimer, but with terrible consequences. So when an 11-year-old boy vanishes, he fears the worst.
- It is a slow drip feed of fear and threat that forces him to escape the home, but a campaign of intimidation that follows him into his adult life.
Like many abused kids in care, Joe, the runaway, falls into a downward spiral of crime, prison, drug addiction and ultimately ends up homeless. This is not uncommon. Abused boys tend to gravitate towards trouble in the same way as girls turn to prostitution. For kids made to feel worthless, this often becomes their path in life. Nobody wants them, people have treated them badly, so therefore they must be bad. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Research into Joe’s Character
Writing the first draft, I had never really met a man like Joe, but all that was about to change when in September 2019 I was introduced to Graham Levell, by my author friend, Dan Jones. Dan, who worked in a number of children’s homes in the 90s, (the era of Joe’s back story) shared his own experiences, which went a long way in helping me depict the hostile environment inside the children’s home. Introducing me to Graham however, turned out to be the biggest inspiration behind Joe’s character.
The best part of Graham’s story is how he turned his life around. I have included a tribute in the book, but feel a powerful need to get it out there. For those who download my book, the tribute appears at the end, but publishing it on my blog is important – not just to spread the message, but to make his life more meaningful.
Tribute to Graham LEvell
Graham’s story began when he worked at Butlins but at the age of fourteen, decided to leave home and spend the next fortnight sleeping under Bognor Pier. At no time did I get the impression this was traumatic, more an adventure, as he colourfully alluded to the homeless culture in Bognor.
“That was before they put down anti-homeless alarms. Sit on a bench for too long, it makes a horrible noise so you can’t sleep.”
Graham had dreams of going to college, to avoid the predetermination he would follow the path of many local youngsters and work at LEC. The more he talked, the more I got the impression he was unhappy with his life. Working at Butlins however, the next turning point was Dan’s girlfriend discovering he was sleeping rough; as a result, they invited him to come and stay with them. This was 1997, at a time when he had been gravitating towards other troubled youths, getting into drugs and alcohol. He described himself as quite a suspicious, cynical person.
“I mean I don’t have any lasting relationships and Dan was just about the only person I had a long friendship with.”
Shortly after this, the police got involved. His mum had reported him missing and Social Services intervened; said he couldn’t stay with Dan (19) and his girlfriend, and that as a fourteen-year-old runaway, they felt uncomfortable about it.
In the next part of Graham’s life, being in care, some really enlightening stories began to emerge. I asked him about the process of being fostered, which he described as being “really scary… where they used to force us into these gatherings. It was all well-intended, but all a bit weird and false. Social workers present, theatre groups… others were just ‘happy clappy’ Christians.”
During these gatherings, he would meet all sorts of people – girls who had been sexually abused – but with the lads, he remembers a sense of brotherhood, the usual teenage dominance (chest beating), and then laughing and joking about the different foster carers they’d had.
“There were some right bastards out there caring for people… One couple used to have the kids living in a caravan at the end of their garden and then drag them indoors for bridge games every Wednesday night, and the kids would be made to work this huge great big garden and were generally slaves and dogsbodies around the house. These days, they wouldn’t pass the fostering board.”
An interesting transition from being in care arose when Graham ended up working in care himself. But before this could happen, he needed an education. He missed a lot of schooling, messed up his GSCEs (was even threatened with suspension) but turned things around in the sixth form and finally achieved his dream of going to college. It was amazing how fast he adapted, joyfully describing how this was the making of him; first studying a National Diploma in performing arts and a Diploma in vocational education in business.
“They worked me ragged for four years but I had some wicked tutors and started mixing with people who were fairly decent.”
Best of all, Graham achieved a National Diploma, went on to do a Professional Development Certificate, then a Professional Development Diploma (which is a level 5 certificate) and was hailed as 1 in 10,000 kids to come out of care with a degree level qualification (in Health and Social Care).
I feel blessed to have had this one-to-one with Graham, who gave up his time entertaining me with his stories and accomplishments. To an author this was gold dust, and as the conversation gathered momentum, he became more animated, describing his work in care homes with troubled youngsters, one of which was for young offenders and substance misusers.
“They would get wrecked and come back late after staff had locked the doors… and I was a bit of a soft touch, because one of the rules was ‘three warnings and you’re out’ – and I wanted to keep the kids with me until my dying breath. There was no way I was going to let anyone else look after my kids, because I knew what it was like to have no one you could depend on around the corner. I mean, they used to throw me through doors and everything… I got the shit kicked out of me loads of times BUT no one else was going to look after them. Not as good as me and my team.”
So when did Graham turn his life around? He was quite frank.
“When I got my ex-wife pregnant. With a little baby on the way – the first of my three daughters – I got a job selling mobile phones to retail. Business supplied the learning and I found myself taking on a lot of what they taught me in terms of sales and communication. Knowing Dan, too, was a massive help.”
Graham won various awards in quality of business (still has the glass statue), and even Dan said he felt like a proud father to see him achieve success. This was the start of his professional development.
A darker side of Graham’s musings emerged in some of the stories he came across about kids in care; from a high functioning autistic boy left to fend for himself in a studio flat who became almost feral – to a three-year-old child raped by his adoptive father. He ended up in a foster placement and it completely went undetected, but he used to sleep in the same bed as his foster father and nothing was ever said.
“He was schizophrenic when he came to me, because this had been a repeat pattern with every placement, but looking after him around 2007, he became the abuser. If it happens from an extremely young age it becomes a sense of normality…”
This was one of the last things Graham spoke of, the referral files he used to read, which would make him cry; cases of abuse that emotionally floored him:
‘Awful. Absolutely awful. This is why I would never let my kids go, because I’d seen what they’d been through… I could never be a social worker because I would KILL people.’
I will never regret meeting Graham, not only to hear his amazing story, he became the biggest inspiration behind Joe’s character. I’ve even included some of his quotes, one being that kids in care have a huge chip on their shoulder.
“You’re either a victim or a fighter.”
Anyone who knew Graham might recognise a little piece of him in Joe, from his flickers of insight to his sunny personality, his compassion and sense of humour. For all the while we were talking, I sensed neither bitterness nor regret. Graham was a genuinely lovely guy – had the gift of the gab, portrayed life in a colourful, humorous way and had a wicked laugh.
What I did not know at the time, though, was that he had mental health problems and battled with bi-polar disorder. Sadly in 2020, with his existing problems exacerbated by the impact UK lockdown had on single people during the coronavirus pandemic, Graham died from an overdose of his medication. It broke my heart to discover the loss of this inspirational man, but he often spoke of suicide among males and took his life before I had a chance to properly acknowledge his help. My time with Graham is a memory I will forever hold dear. So I hope I have, in some way, kept his spirit alive in sharing this emotional tribute.
There are better safeguards in place for children now, especially in residential care and foster care, as Graham refers to in one of the sound clips I kept.
There is also more awareness of emotional problems, a better understanding of conditions like Asperger’s, bi-polar disorder, anxiety and depression. Social media too, plays a vital role.
There is no doubt that abuse has a terrible impact on people lives and on society as a whole. But what else can be done to break the cycle?
The underlying premise of my book is that victims MUST come forward and report their abuse, a mantra one of the senior police officers I spoke to insisted on.
If abuse carries on undetected, nothing can be done, the cycle continues and some victims may themselves turn into abusers. Victims should always be listened to and while it is known there are fantasists, some who invent stories for personal notoriety or compensation, genuine victims have nothing to fear or to be ashamed of.
Raising self-esteem is another form of help, which goes a long way in helping some people turn their lives around, but this does not just apply to abuse victims. This applies to anyone with underlying mental health issues, which stem from a variety of causes: Job loss and redundancy; the stigma of unemployment; excessive weight gain; a relationship crisis such divorce or bereavement; alcoholism, drug addition, debt, homelessness… the list seems endless but what I am trying to say is that if you can find it in your heart to be kind, to listen to people instead of maligning them, it could make a huge difference to the way they feel about themselves.
To conclude, here is another sound clip from Graham.
In my next post, I’ll be introducing another character; Maisie, the deep underlying traumas that affect her every day life, not to mention the invisible enemy who is watching her. LETHAL TIES will be launched on April 18th 2021.