I spent much of yesterday evening crying my eyes out. The kind of wracking sobs that leave you weak and shaky for hours afterwards.
This is not normal.
I was packed off to boarding school at the age of eight. Unlike most other boarders, I did not get to go home every three weeks. Because we lived in Botswana, and school was in England, I got to go home 13 weeks later. This went on for the next ten years: three terms at school, three holidays at home.
It was not okay. It is not okay. I am not okay.
There, I said it.
One of the difficulties I have found in dealing with this over the years is that people in the English-speaking world treat boarding school either as some kind of naughty club (in the decade I was incarcerated (that is not too strong a word) I was never once beaten or buggered. Are we entitled to a refund?) or as a bastion of privilege (which it is), which I should be grateful to have attended. Those from the rest of the world get this look of pity and horror when they hear about it.
Before I go on, a couple of points.
- my parents honestly believed that boarding school was the best thing for me (and my siblings). Except in this one thing, they have been excellent parents all round, and I love them very much.
- the schools I went to were in general staffed by some excellent, kind, and decent people. It’s not the people that were the problem; it’s the system they were working in. The savage sadists and pederasts of boarding school legend were mercifully absent.
- the education I got was first-class, and has been very useful. It’s not the school I have a problem with. It’s the boarding.
The main reason that this is coming up now is that my eldest daughter is about the age I was when I was sent away. I look at her, a small child, charmingly innocent and childish as she should be, and it breaks my heart. I could no more abandon her to the mercy of strangers than I could chop off my own leg.
Other things have triggered this too. I have started to come across studies and stories about “boarding school syndrome”, and recognised myself in the list of symptoms. I was on the phone the other day to the mother of my goddaughter, who will shortly turn 12. Away at camp, after two days she was very homesick. So she called her mum, who came and got her. Of course she did! For fuck’s sake, children need their parents! But when said mother casually mentioned this like it was nothing, as indeed it should be, it took all of my self-discipline not to both break down in tears, and howl at her: nobody came to get me!
Clearly, this has all the hallmarks of unprocessed trauma. My attitude to trauma is neatly summed up in this article. Yes, fuck your trauma. And fuck mine too. Get over it. I will.
So the question is, how?
And that’s where swordsmanship comes into it. I am a swordsman, which means that the primary toolkit I have for solving problems is swordsmanship. So many bullied kids end up doing martial arts. So many victims of assault of all kinds look to martial arts to make them feel safe. So did I. And I have trained for long enough, and deeply enough, that I have a range of strategies for dealing with injury, and dealing with the sort of psychological issues that prevent a person from living up to their best self.
In brief, this is what I am going to do:
- own the problem. This blog post is part of that. This is my problem. I will fix it. The problem is in two parts: the trauma itself, which is relatively simple, though not easy, to address. And the coping mechanisms that I developed to get through boarding school. These saved my sanity at the time, but have been causing problems ever since. Looking back I can see dozens of instances in which the persona I created to survive abandonment has hurt good people, and betrayed my core self. Time to dismantle it. But that is way more difficult, as it was built 33 years ago and has rusted in place. This is like breaking down scar tissue to restore range of motion; something I have done hundreds of times to joints and muscles. Less so with minds.
- recruit allies. The first step in any campaign. To this end, I have already recruited my wife (obviously, to normal people. But oh my god, that was really hard. Because the first thing you learn in boarding school is show no weakness. But howling your eyes out is much more effective when you are in the arms of someone who loves you) and two of my closest friends. I will be reaching out further afield in due course, and there is a list of organisations and survivor groups at the bottom of this post.
- gather intelligence. I am reading up on the effects of boarding school, working out the exact shape of the problem, and studying what other people have done to solve it.
- make a plan. I am formulating it now, but it will certainly include talking to professional therapists, crying a lot, and finding ways to dismantle the defences. This is, right now, training priority #1. Way more important than my fencing skills.
- ruthlessly execute the plan. This will hurt, like pulling out a splinter. But it’s necessary.
I am also a writer. Those of you that have read Swordfighting for Writers, Game Designers, and Martial Artists will probably recall that I wrote about being bullied at boarding school in the section on handling fear. That was my first real attempt to crack the seal on this great big pot of shit. I felt when I was writing it that it was probably the thin end of a big and horrible wedge. I feel a book coming on; possibly a memoir. But there are so many facets of this that I need to break it up into pieces. And this blog feels like the right place to handle those, one at a time.
I am a writer in the same way that I am a swordsman. The process of writing is a method for solving all sorts of problems. One major problem is the culture of silence around boarding school issues. You are taught at the time that you are lucky to be there. You are taught to not cry. To suppress feelings. To not talk about it. So talking about it is of course simply essential. And it strikes me that talking about it in public through writing might serve some useful purpose. It is much easier for me to do what needs to be done if it serves a higher goal, something more than my own benefit. There are literally thousands and thousands of adults now who went through a similar experience; some came out just fine; many more came out deeply fucked up. My writing about this might encourage even one of them to open up a bit, to somebody. Physical injuries require physical treatment. Psychological injuries require psychological treatment; which is mostly done with words, gestures, and physical closeness. Writing might help someone else.
And if it changes the mind of just one parent about dumping their child in a fucking institution, however gilded the cage, then I truly do not care how much it hurts or what it costs. Because just fucking no, don't do it. It's wrong.
One final note. I do not intend to allow this to interfere with my work, nor to I wish to be perceived as a victim. I don’t need your pity. I certainly don’t want to whine about it. So I would prefer it if, when we meet, you not mention it or bring it up, unless it has helped you in some way to read about it.
For those readers who have no idea what boarding school was like: Monty Python nail the incredibly arcane and arbitrary rules here:
And this documentary is, frankly, chilling.
Update: I've written more on this:
Progress report: Letters Home, Abandonment, and the Matron effect
Article about the effects of boarding.
Abstract of another article on the effects of boarding
Thank you for sharing this. I wish I could say more, but I feel my English is not fluent enough. Anyway, thanks.
Brave post. It’s made an impression on me. Do you mind if I share it on Twitter, or would you prefer I didn’t?
sure, that’s ok. Anything I put up here is ok to share. Thanks for asking though.
Excellent post, thank you for having the bravery to write it.
Well said. I’d add one thing though – treatment for injuries should include exercise! Physiotherapy and psychotherapy actually have many principles in common.
Thank you for opening up your heart to the world. Not hiding your feelings, that’s true fearlessness!
Awesome bro, own it, love yourself
Takes guts to plunge into the abyss head first! But our children make us do that. They lovingly bring us to the edge of our own childhood precipice. The healing is herewith and out the other side will come a better father, a better husband and a healed better man. Wish you a lot of strength in your quest.
Well, I spent six years in military schools – a study in violence of all manner, the worst of which was the endless psychological warfare against which one needed to protect himself. There were sadists and rapists in sufficient abundance, whether on the staff or in the student body itself. It was a nightmare. Several students disappeared from one day to the next, as did some staff, not a one of them ever prosecuted for their crimes of extreme violence against children as young as 8.
From the dates you post, it seems I am 25-30 years your senior, but it appears the dementia of some parents, and the Brits appear to be among the top in this category, lives and breathes still. That one parent, screwing up her face sheepishly as she says “I HOPE he will be alright” seems to typify the brand of fool for whom reproductive abilities should by nature itself be denied. It seems they are endlessly willing to rationalize their choices, telling themselves that is “makes them” and that it is for the best. How grand a fool to which an adult may aspire! And I agree with the French on this point: you do not send your children away in such fashion. It is demented in the extreme and may even constitute prima facie and damning evidence that you have no business being a parent.
The things I experienced and witnessed in boarding schools was at times horrible. Seeing one of my schoolmates, oddly of French roots – his parents had been French diplomats of some sort – having been savagely beaten prior to his having been gang-raped, only to sit in a corner in a semi-catatonic state was something I, as a 10 year old, should not have had to see. Worse yet, he as an 8 year old was too young to have developed a thousand-yard stare. But that, he had and it never left him until the last day I ever saw him. I was the only person to help him and I took him back to his room. Not knowing what else to do, I left him there, thankful it had not been me.
The truth of it, especially in the case of these British loons, is that they send their children away out of convenience more than anything else. They can rationalize to themselves all they want, but they cannot hide the truth that they would rather be out doing what they want without the burden of their own children dragging at them, than to have their young with them daily to see to it that they are safe and happy and learning about life in the best way possible: with family.
In even the best case of motives, this documentary shows just how evil some traditions really are.
You did the best you could. You were a child, striving to cope with a difficult situation that you did not create and could not control. You were a victim, but you aren’t a victim now. You survived, took control of your life, and set an example for your daughter. What’s manlier than that?
Fab, brave post 🙂 I love your attitude to tackling it. I have no doubt that you will find a way! xx
Cheers Guy – All this needs to be said. I was boarded from 8yrs old and everything you mention of yr experience is familiar to me. I’ve been seeing a therapist (who specialsises in working with ex-boarders) for two years now and is beginning to enable me to stand for the first time outside the old carapace I made and look at it from time to time. Sometimes I find myself back in there but at least now I’m aware of where I am and I’m concsiously able to get out again. As quality antidote I’ve been doing lots of cycling, cross-country running, chi-gung, meditation, and lots of books about living in the present, Zen Buddhism, making my own music, making my own graphics and putting them on t-shirts – everything I can do to re-affirm my true self. Keep going brave heart!