Partner testimony continued

On the evening of Thursday 16th June 2016, a week before the Brexit vote, I pressed ‘confirm’ on my computer keyboard and sent an essay off for assessment to the Open University (I’m a part-time student studying for a Master’s Degree). It was not due in for a further five days, and I don’t know what foresight compelled me to submit it early. The following morning, at 7.20 am, our house was raided by the police: my computer was taken away and retained for three months as part of an investigation into my husband’s internet crimes.

My husband (let’s call him Michael) and I had been married for nearly 25 years – happily, or so I believed. We both worked as teachers but in different schools. I had recently reduced my hours to accommodate my studies. Our two daughters are at university, and we were in the process of moving house so we could also run a small holiday letting business in a pretty riverside village. When six police officers burst through my front door on Friday 17th, those hopes for the future were snatched away. My initial feelings were of incomprehension: why were there police officers searching my home? Illogically, when the doorbell first rang, I assumed it was someone canvassing about the Brexit vote - at 7.20 in the morning!! Michael, who had answered the door, told me in a quiet voice that the police had arrived with a warrant to search the house and intended to arrest him on the charge of viewing indecent images of children on the internet. I looked into Michael’s eyes and asked him if he had done so. He kept repeating over and over again, ‘I am not a paedophile,’ and sat in an armchair shaking uncontrollably. The police officers would not let us speak privately, and I was desperately trying to seek some kind of reassurance from Michael’s body language.

My conviction at this point was that there had to have been some mistake: maybe a malicious individual had made a false allegation against him. The attitude of the police was brutal: later, the investigating officer referred to me as ‘collateral damage’. I was not treated as a person with feelings who - whilst not a victim in legal terms - was certainly the victim of horrendous circumstances that had suddenly been imposed upon me. Nobody showed any concern for my welfare. I also found out afterwards that, had Michael not confessed to his crimes later the same day when he was interviewed at the local police station, I would also have been arrested and questioned as a potential suspect! At the time, the investigating officer sat on a sofa in our living room and told me that this is the kind of crime that ‘breaks up families’. All our electronic devices were sealed into plastic evidence bags, then they and Michael were taken away in two police cars. The situation felt surreal. I was left on my own, with no written information and no advice about what to do next. The only thing I could think to do was phone my mother-in-law who reassured me that it must all be some horrendous mistake. Alone in the house, I sat and waited for Michael to ring and tell me when he was coming home - an innocent man.

The hours went by, and there was no communication. I phoned the police station for information, but it was very difficult to find out what was going on. Eventually, I was told that I could collect Michael from the police station at 8 pm that evening. I asked if he had been charged with anything and was informed that he hadn’t been. Driving to the police station, I was convinced that the mistake had been discovered, and my anger was directed at the ‘malicious person’ who had wanted to cause both of us such heartbreak. However, when I arrived at the police station, I was taken to a sparsely furnished room containing a table and two plastic chairs with bare concrete walls. Michael was sitting inside and he looked exhausted. He had just been examined by a doctor, the main reason being – so Michael told me later – to assess whether or not he was a suicide risk! One of the police officers said, ‘Michael wants to tell you something,’ and he left us alone together for the first time since the raid. I will never forget Michael’s words to me: ‘I have been addicted to pornography for ten years, and I have been viewing illegal images for about two years.’ He was to be released on bail, and the only reason he hadn’t been charged there and then was because his electronic devices were going to be sent off for a ‘deep scan’ in a lab. My computer, iPad and camera were also retained by the police because he had had access to them. The investigation would take most of the summer, and he would return to the police station at the beginning of September to be formally charged.

This was the moment of collapse. I can remember screaming and howling like an animal, then the only thing I wanted to do was to get out of that brutal room and go home. In the car all I could manage to concentrate on was driving without causing an accident, so we sat in silence for the duration of the journey.

I don’t have a clear memory of how the conversation went once we got home. I know that eventually I got into bed and pulled the duvet up around me. At first I didn’t want Michael anywhere near me, then I allowed him to sit at the end of the bed so we could talk. I told him to phone his mother and tell her what he had done: I knew he would find this distressing, and I think just wanted him to suffer a bit. I then spoke to my sister who lives in Greece. The time is two hours ahead there. She had just come in after a night out drinking with friends and struggled to comprehend what I was saying. Eventually, when I was completely exhausted, I told Michael to stay downstairs and tried to get some sleep, but of course that was impossible.

The next morning, my sister phoned and told me that, for the sake of my reputation, I needed to get out of the house. As a teacher, I should be very wary about having contact with someone who had been associated with such serious offences. I live at the end of a close, so everyone in the close would have had the opportunity to witness the arrival of the police cars the previous morning. My sister arranged for a friend of hers, Sarah, who lives locally, to come and pick me up and take me to her house. As a passenger in Sarah’s car, I remember driving past several of my neighbours who for some reason all seemed to be outside on their drives that particular Saturday morning, washing their cars or standing around in small clusters chatting. I felt an extreme sense of unreality as we travelled to Sarah’s house: everything looked the same but it felt as if I was experiencing the world through a thick, impenetrable layer of glass. I was completely numb and felt incapable of making any decisions independently.

I stayed with Sarah for about a week and she was very kind and understanding. Michael remained in our home, and my first concern was for his safety. I phoned him on the Sunday morning, and had to make him promise not to take his life! He sounded incredibly depressed. I tried to persuade his mother to come and stay with him, but she was reluctant to do so: this led to some tension in our relationship that has yet to be resolved. Other members of his family also behaved rather oddly. One of the in-laws even suggested that perhaps I was pleased this had happened because it gave me an excuse to end a marriage I wanted out of! Michael’s sister still won’t have anything to do with him at all, and his father has been very inconsistent in the nature of the support he has given – offering help one moment and withdrawing it the next. For these reasons, I have had to completely break contact with all of Michael’s family, at least for the time being. It is too difficult dealing with people who want to turn what happened into a crisis about themselves and their own feelings. I have learned the hard way that it is not necessary to feel responsibility for other people’s selfish attitudes. It is best to just remove them from your life for the time being.

The first week after the arrest was extremely busy, and I had to make some major decisions at a time when I was still reeling from shock. However, it did help psychologically to do some practical things, rather like arranging the funeral helps a grieving relative. My first tasks were acquiring a sick note from my doctor and informing my headteacher. I made an appointment to speak with the head after school on the following Wednesday afternoon, and took along a representative from my teaching union for a bit of moral support. The head tried to conceal his shock when I told him what had happened, and clearly struggled to decide what to do next: this was beyond his experience even though he has been a secondary head for many years. He told me that he would have to seek advice from the Local Authority and believed - correctly as it turned out - that I would myself be subject to a child protection conference before I could be cleared to return to teaching, not that I was emotionally fit to work at this point anyway. I subsequently learned that, had I been teaching children aged under eight and had decided to stick with my marriage, I would have been sacked from my job even though I had done nothing wrong! My head was also concerned to minimise the number of people ‘in the know’ in case the news leaked into the community before Michael’s trial. I told him that I wanted to tell one of my close friends at work and that I would be visiting her house that evening. He rather reluctantly agreed this. I also booked an appointment with a solicitor that week and initiated divorce proceedings. It felt incongruous to be discussing a permanent separation from my husband of nearly 25 years when only a week previously I had believed that we were happy and secure in our marriage. However, as the solicitor pointed out, it was better to ‘start the ball rolling’ because a stop could be put to the process at any point, whereas a delay in getting started would mean that I might have to wait longer than necessary for a divorce to be finalised in the future.

Despite our long and seemingly contented marriage, the decision to divorce was a relatively easy one for me to make. It would have been hard to retrieve a relationship that for the last ten years had fundamentally been based on a lie. I have great sympathy for Michael and understand that his unhappiness and lack of self-esteem at work rather than problems in our relationship contributed to his desire to view indecent images. I don’t think he is a bad person, just a weak individual who made some very foolish choices and lacked the moral courage to put a stop to his disturbing behaviour. However, I was not prepared to sacrifice my career, reputation, home, friends and standing in the community for someone who had betrayed my trust so horrifically. In the early weeks after he was arrested, I actively sought information in an attempt to try to understand the reasons why someone would do what he did. I scoured the web looking for academic studies about the psychology of internet offending, including visiting the ‘Professionals’ section of the StopItNow! website. Essentially, I needed reassurance that the likelihood of him committing contact offences (i.e. approaching children in the local community) was extremely remote. Furthermore, I wanted to try and get my head around the ethical aspects of his offence: to what extent is it a crime and to what extent is it a mental illness? I still have no answers to those questions, and neither it seems has the law. Apparently, internet offenders are sometimes given extended prison sentences in order to allow sufficient time for their ‘treatment’ to take effect. To me this is contradictory – a confusion between punishment and therapy. As far as our marriage was concerned, it was now over because - even if Michael recovered from his addiction - we could never have an equal relationship in the future. Some people say it would have been easier for me if he had had an affair. I’m not sure that this is true: I did not receive a knock to my self-esteem that would have been the case if he had left me for a younger, more attractive, woman. Maybe people think it would have been easier because they have a better understanding of how to respond to women who have lost their partners in more conventional ways such as through death or infidelity. Many people simply don’t know what to do or say to me because I carry by association the taint of paedophilia.

Michael was generous with regard to the financial arrangements meaning that I have been able to keep the house, although obviously money is tighter now with only one income. The divorce was quick because it was uncontested, and from the end of October I was a single woman once again.

The weeks following Michael’s arrest were very strange. I decided that I couldn’t return to work for the rest of the term. I spent three weeks with my sister in Greece where I was still plainly in a state of denial because I spent most of my time swimming in the sea and throwing myself into the next unit of my Master’s Degree which proved to be a welcome distraction. I found I could make most of the practical arrangements in Greece as easily as at home, and it was certainly better to be away from the house. Michael, suspended from his teaching job, used the time I was abroad to pack up his things and move out for good. Returning to the UK was hard: I went into work on the last day of term because I felt it was important to be seen in school in case anyone in the future should question the appropriateness of me being with children. The kindness of the staff and pupils, who had obviously missed me, was very affecting. My intention was to go back to work in the autumn term for as long as possible, although Michael’s return to the police station to be charged in the middle of September was looming on the horizon. I dreaded the impending media furore!

At the beginning of the summer holiday, I visited both of my daughters in the Midlands. They had taken the news of their father’s offending in very different ways. My elder daughter wanted to discuss everything openly, including phoning her father and interrogating him about how he had accessed the images. My younger daughter hardly communicated with me for a couple of months, sought solace from her boyfriend and his family, and cut herself off from Michael completely. However, one positive to come out of the dreadful experience we have all gone through is that I now have a much closer relationship with both my daughters. We have experienced so much as a family that the girls have matured as a consequence. Now I depend on them for support as much as they depend on me, and we are much more willing to openly discuss our feelings, including our fears and weaknesses. They have both suffered in many ways over recent months and find it difficult to concentrate at university. I am concerned that Michael’s actions might have cost them good academic results. They are both in contact with him, and I think he is fortunate that they are generous enough to still want a relationship with him after what he has done.

Returning to an empty house after visiting my daughters was one of my lowest points. Not only was I coming to terms with the nature of Michael’s crime, but I was also (and still am) mourning the loss of 25 years of marriage. I feel a huge and persistent anger and resentment regarding the fact that I am now on my own: my marriage - one of the most precious things in my life - has been taken away from me. I will have to learn to accept that I am likely to be a single woman for the rest of my life. I hate the idea of having to accept a circumstance that I don’t want. The worst thing anyone can say to me is, ‘It will be alright’. I have been told this several times, and I know it is meant kindly, but from where I am right now, it is hard to believe that my life will ever be properly ‘alright’ ever again. Nothing can replace 25 years of intimacy and companionship. There will always be something fundamental missing from my existence from now on.

I spent two desperate weeks in the house on my own, at a bit of a loss as to what to do and crying most of the time. I gradually started telling people about my circumstances, and it was really difficult knowing what to say to whom. I even hid rather than answer the door when I couldn’t face a well-meaning friend who had come round to see if I was okay. I made excuses to avoid going out and visiting people, and spent a miserable birthday sitting in the back garden trying to distract myself from my negative thoughts by reading a novel that was supposed to be funny but only served to irritate me. A lovely friend who I had confided in early on took me out for a birthday meal in the evening, which to a certain extent made up for the depressing day. During this fortnight, I was apprehensive even about stepping outside into the close in case I was accosted by one of my neighbours, perhaps someone who had seen the police cars outside my front door back in June. I then spent a week staying with close friends in Devon who had to put up with me crying and complaining most of the time, but who took it all in good part as close friends do. Increasingly, I was developing a paranoid fear that, when the news finally got out, my house would be attacked by angry members of the community who would come down the close ‘looking for the paedophile’ even though he had moved out in the middle of July. I returned to my home a nervous wreck!

Things began to improve once I started telling more people about my circumstances. I didn’t give the same information to everyone: for a long while some of my friends only knew I was divorcing Michael but not the reason why. I spoke to many individuals directly but in some cases I asked friends to inform others on my behalf. I have been extremely lucky with the support I have received from friends and family. A fairly wide range of views has been expressed with regard to Michael and what he has done, but the vast majority of people have shown exceptional kindness, love and support towards me and my daughters. Once my neighbours knew I was able to go outside again with more confidence. Most have left me alone and some have shown genuine concern for my welfare, especially in helping to allay any concerns that my home might be attacked.

I have had to remain constantly vigilant regarding confidentiality. There were five or six occasions when various reliable people informed me that the ‘secret’ had come out – information about Michael’s crimes had leaked into the wider community. On each of these occasions, what my friends had picked up on turned out to be mere gossip and wild speculation: teachers don’t normally just ‘disappear’ midway through term. It is possible that someone witnessed the police removing Michael’s desktop computer from his classroom the day he was arrested and drew their own conclusions. Each ‘false alarm’ was devastating. I had to arrange for a network of trusted people to monitor social media and local gossip on my behalf: these friends promised to report back information about exactly what was being said about Michael in the community. His crimes did eventually hit the local press but not until the beginning of January, which was when he finally appeared in the Magistrate’s Court. Frustratingly, dates we were given for court appearances kept being changed. I had originally expected him to be taken to court in September, and the lack of resolution over such a long period of time, coupled with the rumours and gossip, has been extremely stressful. When I knew that the news was about to be made public, I asked my headteacher to inform all my colleagues. I felt that it was important that everyone should be given the same version of events and that it should be disseminated through official channels. Nevertheless, I believe that there are still large numbers of people who don’t know what occurred, including the pupils I teach. I am in a constant state of anxiety about what will happen when they find out. I find casual interactions with acquaintances very difficult to manage because I am always attempting to ascertain what these people do or do not know. There will be more publicity when Michael’s case reaches Crown Court in a couple of weeks’ time.

It is now February and I have not been working since the middle of November. I did go back for half a term and managed to cope reasonably well: I think I was still in a state of denial. One friend described my mood as ‘euphoric’. However, things rapidly took a turn for the worse when I suddenly found that I could not control my moods, and it is clearly better for me to be away from the workplace until Michael’s case is finally resolved. Fortunately, my headteacher has been extremely understanding and supportive in this respect. I still have very bad days when I feel completely hopeless and wonder what the point to life is. Sometimes it is impossible to stop crying. That ‘why me?’ voice constantly rings in my head. However, I do try to keep busy - both socially and performing practical tasks - and it is sometimes possible to forget about the misery for a few hours at least. I’m naturally an optimistic person, and I want to think that there will be something better at the end of all of this. However, I’m also conscious that it will be devastating to go through more heartache in the future because I set unrealistically high expectations now which then prove to be nothing more than a delusion. The stark reality is that I can never have back what has been taken from me. I still feel very angry about this. I am not only coping with the nature of Michael’s criminal activities, but also coming to terms with the loss of a marriage that lasted half my lifetime.

Fortunately, some things have been resolved: I complained about the way the police treated me and was given an unreserved apology with the assurance that changes would be made in the future. Since then, I have worked with the police to help put some of these changes into effect, including writing a set of notes for officers to read before they enter a private house with a warrant. I am painfully conscious that there is very little on the internet written directly from the point of view of a partner of an internet offender. That is why I have written this account. It would have been very comforting and informative to have read something similar when Michael was first arrested.

 

A brief update

 

Six months ago I sat at my computer and wrote an account of my ex-husband’s arrest. My mood at the time was extremely negative: I really couldn’t see a bright future for myself and was living in a state of nervousness concerning the publicity that would surely follow Michael’s Crown Court appearance. However, things are very different now, and I have written this update just to show that there can be light at the end of the tunnel, however unwilling you are to believe it at the time.

In February, Michael was given a non-custodial sentence, and – owing to an administrative glitch – there was no further publicity. I do recognise that there was an element of luck on both counts. It could so easily have gone the other way. Nevertheless, I managed to get back to work in March and was met with only friendliness and understanding from my colleagues. It seems that the pupils and their parents still do not know the reason why I had been off work for such a long period of time, and I have been able to relax to a certain extent. I still have occasional awkward interactions with acquaintances who may or may not know the truth, but that is something I am just going to have to live with. I have very little contact with Michael now, although we did recently meet at a family celebration. And of course my two daughters see him on a regular basis so I tend to hear second-hand how things are with him, which suits me.

I have also managed to move forward in my personal life. Completely against my expectations, I met someone who makes me very happy indeed. We found each other on an internet dating site (I decided to register with one just to see what was out there!), and within only a matter of weeks it was apparent to both of us that we had each found a soulmate. In the event, it was easy to tell my new partner about my past and, as I had anticipated, he has proved to be totally supportive. We spent a very enjoyable summer doing lots of fun things together and have many plans for the future. Occasionally I am reminded of what Michael put me through, but essentially I am once again a happy and positive person. I hope my story will prove to you that, however hopeless you are feeling now, you can get your life back on track.