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Tag: personal

Grace saved for weeks and bought this knife…

Ten days after I first arrived in Finland, back in 1994, I met a girl. Not very long after that I met her mother Kexy, a civil servant who was a serious horsewoman, and had hunted with her father when she was younger. Rosy, the girl, told me that her mum was nervous about meeting me; most Finns are pretty shy. She also told me what had happened the first time she had brought a boy home. It wasn’t planned; they were passing her home and just popped in to pick up a book. There was Kexy, sat at the kitchen table, cleaning a 9mm semi-automatic pistol.

You can imagine the effect on the boy.

I recently posted a link to this article on my Facebook profile, and it gathered quite a lot of comments, mostly from people who seem to agree with the basic premise, and some who are very much of the “I’ve got a gun and a shovel” school of parenting.

This lead me to think a bit more about the issue.

I totally understand the visceral satisfaction of the idea of being able to murder anyone who hurts your child. I remember walking through the park near my home with my 3-month old firstborn in her pram. A young man on a motorbike (which aren’t allowed in this park) came blasting by. If I’d had a gun, I would probably have shot him. The black rage that came over me at his daring to put my baby at risk was so deep, so fundamental, that only smashing the person’s face through the back of their head would have assuaged it in the moment.

It would, of course, have been entirely inappropriate, and instead of taking my kids to the park, they’d be visiting me in prison. It’s hard being a good parent when you’re at home; it must be way harder parenting from jail.

If a person is threatening your child’s life, and killing them is the best way to stop it, then by all means, taking their life is justified. But the “gun and shovel” meme isn’t about that. It’s about how fathers want to protect their daughters, not from assault, or rape, or anything like that. We want to protect them from sex. Because we (most of us, I assume) remember what it was like to be a teenage boy, and how desperate we were to get into the knickers of the girls we went out with. It was, in the 80s at least, still a truism that girls had it, but didn’t want to give it; boys wanted it, and had to persuade them to give it up. “It” here being sex, of course. There was also a pretty universal assumption that girls didn’t want sex, and so would only do it basically as a favour to the boy, or under some kind of coercion from the relatively benign but still horrible ‘he won’t love me if I don’t’ to worse forms of influence like drink and drugs.

So let’s unpack some of these assumptions.

1) Girls don’t want sex. This is just not true in most cases. Indeed, for centuries it was believed that women wanted sex MORE than men did.  So let’s move on.

2) Whether the girl has sex or not is up to her father or her boyfriend. NO! NO! NO! It is, or should be, up to the people doing it: her and her boyfriend, assuming they are both of legal age. Of course, good parenting includes educating kids to understand the possible consequences of sex, both good and bad. But the core problem here is that in the gun and shovel scenario, the father and the boyfriend have agency, but the girl does not. So whether the woman has sex or not is down to an agreement between these two males. This was normal in the Stone Age, but it is an utterly disgusting pattern of thought in this day and age.

3) Sex = assault. Umm, no. So long as there is informed consent all round, sex does not equal assault. So while murdering a rapist has a certain appeal, murdering your daughter’s boyfriend should not. And if the daughter in question consented freely, then while it may be appropriate to counsel her against it if you think it’s not in her best interests, the boyfriend is innocent in this.

4) In the case of a woman being assaulted or coerced by a man, you should focus on the man… You see it in films and tv shows all the time; when a woman is hurt by somebody, her husband/brother/father/whoever doesn’t stay by her to help her get better; he charges off to wreak his revenge. As if it’s him who has been hurt. But the loving thing to do is to attend to the woman, not race off after the assailant; and only go after the son of a bitch if that’s what the person sinned against wants you to do. 

So what is my plan, with my two daughters?

1) Sex education. That’s number one. If they know what they are doing, then they can grant or withhold informed consent.

2) Self-esteem. I want my kids to feel that they do not have to do anything to ingratiate themselves with anyone, or do anything they don’t want to. They can say no. If they have been brought up in an environment in which their desires, opinions, and consent matters, they are that much less likely to put up with abuse of any kind.

3) Self defence. Bad stuff does happen, but my kids will know at least the basics of how to spot bad situations before they kick off, and have the wit to walk away in time. I’ll teach them physical skills if they are interested, but by themselves, those skills are useless if you’re not willing to use them.

4) Support. They should know that no matter what happens, I (and my wife of course) will support them. That ranges from picking them up from a party at 3am, no questions asked, so they don’t get in a car with a drunk driver, to helping them get through whatever bad things happen to them. They should also know that Daddy isn’t going to shoot anyone unless they specifically ask him to, and he agrees it’s a good idea.

5) Patience. They will bring home all sorts of potential partners, I imagine. Some I’ll like more than others. But the only fair way to judge any of them is “how do they treat my child?” However much I might want one, I don’t get a veto on who my daughter finds attractive. While they are minors I do get to establish curfews, bounds, that sort of thing; where they go, when, and with whom. But if I’ve done my job even half right, they will tend to make decent choices in the end. And if they do come home having been hurt in some way, I hope I’ll have the discipline to do what they need me to do to make them feel better, not what I would want to do to make myself feel better.

The best “meeting the boyfriend” scenario I’ve ever heard though came from my friend Jherek Swanger. I met him in Seattle in 2004, along with his utterly adorable 3-year old daughter. She loved fencing, and would go and get her little mask and a sword and challenge people to fight her. Because all of her daddy’s friends were swordfighters. My own kids were some years away in the future, but I asked him what he was going to do when she started bringing boys home.

I’ve got it all worked out. I’ll be sitting on the porch sharpening a longsword with a stone. Schrrrripp! I’ll look at him and say: “So, you want to take my daughter out, huh?” Schrrrripp! 

Um… yes sir”

“You’re not planning on doing anything with her, are you?” Schrrrripp!

“Um, no sir. Really. I’ll just take her to the movies and bring her right back”

“Really? You don’t want to do anything else?” Schrrrripp!

“No! No, I wouldn’t even think about it”.

“Really? What are you, a eunuch?”

“Oh, Matron” (in the voice of Kenneth Williams)

This is a progress report for the “get over boarding school” project. If you’re here looking for some technical sword stuff, I suggest going here or here.

I usually edit my posts quite carefully. Not this one, because if I do, I will end up deleting the whole thing. So please bear with me.

Shortly after posting the last instalment of this boarding school crap (if you haven’t read them, this post will make much more sense after reading The Price of Privilege and Dealing With It), I went to the UK with my wife and kids for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. It was a lovely family event, as you may imagine. While I was there, I went looking for stuff from my boarding school years, and, in a box in the attic, I found all my old school reports, and all the letters I had sent home. The first few would make you cry. Basically, “I hate it here, please come and get me”, repeated over and over, in my 8-year-old handwriting. That was ok; my wife was worried about the effect they might have, but I could handle it, mostly because I’m out of there now and don’t ever have to go back.

But part of me is still 8 years old, and waiting for Mummy to come and get me. And I have to rescue that little boy.

(I think I’ll transcribe the whole lot and publish them in some format; it might be useful for the psychiatrists working on the boarding school problem.)

I came home to run the Fiore Extravaganza seminar; you’ve probably read my update about it here. My wife and kids stayed in the UK to see more family and friends; they get back tonight. The seminar was great; really productive, and the students and I collaborated on creating a whole new pollax form. That kept the days occupied. I spent most of the evenings hanging out with friends, sometimes talking about this stuff, sometimes not. The major work was done yesterday; I went to an old friend’s place, someone I love and trust, and talked and talked and cried and talked and listened and talked and stalled and talked and set up distractions and listened and cried and talked. I had been dreading it the whole week. My brain is very good at avoiding pain, and I knew that this was going to be really, really hard. I have rarely been so scared. The closest was when my second daughter was born (that was way worse, because she and my wife nearly died that night). But in terms of distress, this was comparable.

That’s the problem with the things that really work. They often hurt. Surgery. Training. Therapy.

And the shit just boiled out. The things I am having the hardest time coming to terms with are the abandonment, the sheer mercilessness of it, and what we might call the Matron Effect.

Let me gloss over this in bold strokes. Picture a big scary old house in the country, populated by 200 boys aged 7-13. The adults are mostly men granted the power to beat you at will, a few women teachers, and half a dozen women, mostly in their twenties, all wearing nurses’ uniforms, and all wielding absolute authority. The Matrons. It is a well established fact that boys are pretty gross. They tend to wash only when coerced into it. So showers were supervised by said matrons; 4-10 naked boys at a time, all under the watchful eye of an attractive older woman? One who could send you off to the headmaster for a beating at any time? Dear god, it’s like they were trying to raise a generation of perverts.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with adults getting up to all sorts of mischief with fellow adults, so long as it’s all informed and consensual. I really don’t care what floats your boat in that department. And I don’t suppose you care what floats mine.

But I very very strongly object to a system that punches holes in said boat while it is being built.

I think this is why the Mark Vorkosigan story arc Lois McMaster Bujold’s books Brothers in Arms, Mirror Dance, and A Civil Campaign is so powerful for me. A boy was deeply fucked up by the adults in his life, and over the course of the books gets some pretty stellar revenge, and finds not only his true family, but also a girl who can handle the quirks that he’s left with.

Moving on…

One obvious consequence of all this is that I have a profound distrust of authority. I simply cannot trust anyone in authority to have my best interests at heart. One of the questions I am asked most often is why I never joined the Army. There it is. I was a) determined never to set foot in an institution again, b) I just knew that some wanker of a commander would get me killed for his own advancement. The only hierarchies I can abide are the ones I’m at the top of. Anything that even smells the tiniest bit like somebody being in charge of me: just fucking no. Except my wife, obviously 😉

I’m planning a separate post, something along the lines of “Renegotiating my Contract”, to look at how this stuff has impacted the way I have run my school, and what I’m doing about it. Why, for instance, I never wear all black these days. [Update: that post is here]

I have also figured out why I’m blogging about all this. Partly, it’s easier to go through it all if I have a means to make it useful to other people who may have had similar issues. “If Guy can do it, so can I.” But also it’s to keep me on track. It makes me accountable for progress. Because a large part of my mind wants this whole mess back under wraps where it slept for so long. My students have been keeping me honest in the salle for years. My readers here are doing the same. That’s you, recruited into Team Guy. Thanks for stepping up.

I had a bad night last night. I slept very little, and woke up still scared and tired. I cleaned the house a bit, to settle my stomach before breakfast, and while I was making coffee, suddenly doubled over like I’d been punched in the stomach and howled my eyes out.

I did it again in the middle of writing this.

I’ll keep doing it, until it’s done.

I expected this. It’s ok, it’s part of the process. All sorts of stuff will come up, and most of it will be bad enough that my mind had to hide it from me for over 20 years, until I was ready to handle it.

I’m ready now.

Orwell Park School: doesn't look too bad, does it? Image credit: James Appleton, 2010.


Oh my, what a week it has been.

I was scared of hitting “publish” on my last post, for obvious reasons. I am a big bad scary martial arty swordsman, or at least that’s how a lot of people seem to see me. And now anyone who reads my blog can see me as a great big cry-baby if they so choose.

I had to be ok with that before I published. The risk was entirely about how people regard me. Who wants a swordfighting lesson from a wimp?

But here’s the oddest thing: the single most common response I’ve got has been “you’re brave”. Because, and this is the heart of it, everybody who has lived at all has taken some kind of damage in the process. Some has healed completely, some has left scars, and some is still a big gaping wound. And everybody knows that it can be very frightening to face it, and even more so to expose it to others, because it feels like they could use it to hurt you more.

Because everybody has some experience of trauma, and of being scared of it, so long as the person you’re talking to is actually a decent human being, you get no criticism or contempt at all for opening up about something like this. It’s really not that risky.

Think about that for a second.

Of course, this would be a million times more difficult if I had any shame about it; if I felt that it was my fault, or if I had behaved appallingly. (Which I have at times, but it wasn’t my fault I got sent away.) Likewise, I have no crimes to confess in this process; nothing that might get me sent to jail, anyway. The only thing I risk is my ego. So there’s no real risk, because my ego is not in the hands of the general public; it’s in the hands of my wife and kids, family and close friends.

This is still a very new situation for me, but I thought I’d update you all on what seems to be working for me, and what I see the pitfalls as being. I am moving very fast on this, because that’s how I approach problems: I attack them with a vigorous blow to the head. To give you an idea of how fast: this all came up in such a way that I realised it was a real problem on Tuesday last week. I wrote and posted “The Price of Privilege” on Wednesday. Since then I’ve had three counselling sessions. None with conventional psychotherapists (yet), but the sessions have been incredibly helpful. Perhaps because it means setting aside specific times in which the only thing on my to-do list is deal with this shit. And these lovely people have made me feel safe enough to really go back there and dig. I think that finding the right person to talk to is probably much more important than what therapeutic discipline they practise.

[‘“Therapeutic discipline”, eh?’ I can hear the back row snickering. Fine, laugh it up! Nothing like a good dose of the swishy cane to bring up childhood memories, what? See what I mean about the “naughty club” references in my last post? If you want to know what happens to beaten children, I recommend both Roald Dahl’s Boy and Tall Tales by Ian Kendall. And if you think beating children is funny, it’s not me that needs help.]

Amongst the general outpouring of affection and support that I have received this week, for which I will never cease to be grateful, there were also quite a few contacts from people who also went to boarding school, and some who went to mine. It is very clear that I am not at all alone in this.

Now, things to watch out for. This is an aide-memoire for me; I absolutely am not speaking for or about anybody else. But these things might bite me on the arse, so I’m sharing them here.

1) Trauma explains much, but excuses nothing.  Sure, I can point to several occasions in my life where I am 99% sure that my boarding school experience lead me to treat somebody badly. But it’s still my responsibility; I’ll go further: it’s still my fault. I am not responsible for my feelings, but I am 100% responsible for my actions. Unless or until I am certified insane, that remains the case.

2) It’s not a competition. One of the things that held me back from posting about this is knowing so many people who have gone through so much worse experiences. Boarders who made no friends; combat veterans; rape survivors; domestic abuse survivors; the list goes on. What happened to me is utterly trivial next to what has happened to them. It felt like whining, until I realised that even relatively minor wounds can turn septic. In fact, the most dangerous injury I’ve sustained in 15 years of professional swordsmanship was a splinter I got while woodworking. I took it out, but it went septic anyway; without modern antibiotics I would probably have lost my hand. Ignoring it because there are people out there dying of worse infections never occurred to me. Likewise, my experience was empirically worse than some other peoples’s. So what? There is no prize at all for being the most injured. Exactly the reverse.

3) Attention is addictive. It’s really lovely to get such overwhelming messages of support. I can quite see how Munchausen Syndrome develops. This could lead me (especially given the attachment issues that are part of “boarding school syndrome”) to hold on to the damage to keep getting the attention. That would not be good. But I’m aware of it, as are all competent therapists, so it shouldn’t be such a problem. I intend to purge this, heal it, and move on. I have no interest in defining myself as “that kid who was fucked up by boarding school”. I'd rather be a master swordsman, excellent writer, great dad, adored husband, and much-loved friend, thank you very much.

I hope my experiences are useful to you. This is what I’m for, after all. At root, I am by nature a teacher. I can’t quite see the point of mastering a skill if  I’m not going to pass it on; and it’s much easier to allocate the necessary time and energy to this problem if I think that my example might help somebody else. If that's the case, please do let me know. It makes such a difference.

You might be wondering what effects this problem has had on me. Well, there are dozens, some of which I don’t intend to share just yet, and some I may never share outside of counselling, but here’s a big and obvious one.

I have no sense of home being a place. Home is people. Originally my parents, of course; now my wife and kids. The only exception to that is a negative: in my head, England ≠ Home. England is the place I was sent to that by definition was not home. Anywhere else on the planet could be home, but not fucking England.

But rationally, England ≠ boarding school. There is a whole ton of great stuff there that I have shut myself off from. This would have been different if my family had lived in England at the time, of course, and perhaps if I had got into Cambridge University (Edinburgh was my second choice, more fool me). We lived in England until I was five years old, then we moved to Argentina (’79-’80),  then Botswana (’81-’86), and then Peru (’86-’92). They were home. My family then moved to Scotland, which as anyone who has ever been there knows is very much NOT England. And since then, I’ve only lived in Edinburgh and Helsinki (if we don’t count 3 months in lovely Lucca).

Why does this matter? Because to my wife, only England will ever = Home. And I have twisted and turned in a totally irrational way to avoid giving her the chance to live there. Not fair. I realised this when after we got back from Italy, and saw that the School thrived without me (as it should), we decided to go to England for a significant period, from the middle of next year. This is a perfectly rational move to make. And it was my suggestion. But it made me absolutely miserable, and I didn’t know why, until all this boarding school crap bubbled to the surface. So when I have cleared it, the aversion to living in England for any period, or more precisely, calling England “Home”, should clear with it. This should give my wife a fair crack at living in England, as she has wanted to do for the last decade.

I’d say that was worth a few tears, wouldn’t you?

I intend to keep posting about this; to keep it separate from the usual sword-specific stuff I've created a new category, “boarding school”. I think my next post on this topic will be about the people who made being in boarding school much easier than it might have been. [Update: that next post is here.]

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1.  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.
  2. 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.
  3.  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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

The Price of Privilege

Dealing with it

Progress report: Letters Home, Abandonment, and the Matron effect

An actual blog post





Boarding School Survivors

Article about the effects of boarding.

Abstract of another article on the effects of boarding

Boarding Recovery


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