A woman who was sexually abused by her older brother half a century ago when she was a young girl has waived her right to anonymity to describe her decades of torment and to encourage other victims of familial abuse to come forward.
Liz Roberts, 59, a former police officer, said the abuse carried out Andrew Herbert when she was about eight had led to a life of self-loathing and shame punctuated by episodes of depression, anxiety and self-harm.
“I felt unloved, unlovable, weak and stupid,” Roberts said. “I felt guilt and shame. It’s important now to put the shame where it belongs. It’s not my shame, it’s his. I’ve watched him for the last 50 years living a big life while I’ve been in the shadows, shrinking away. If I don’t speak out, he’ll reinvent himself and carry on and I’ll go back into the darkness.”
Describing familial sexual abuse as a “hidden scourge”, she said: “I’m aware this is happening to some kid right now and there are thousands of people whose lives are being poisoned.”
Herbert, 67, from Goodrich in Herefordshire, was given a two-year community order at Bristol crown court on 4 November after admitting 10 counts of indecent assault against Roberts and a second girl in the early 1970s. He was ordered to undertake sex offender treatment, do 225 hours of unpaid work, and will be subject to a curfew and restraining orders. The judge, Julian Lambert, said: “These were very serious offences with the most severe effects.”
Roberts, who was brought up in south Bristol in a strict Catholic family, said Herbert was often in trouble as a boy and young man, always pushing boundaries.
When she was about seven or eight and her brother about 15, he sexually abused her over a number of months. “He did it in a wheedling, pleading kind of way and it was terrifying,” she said.
“I felt scared and miserable all the time. I remember smells, touch, feel. You don’t know words like sexual abuse but you know it shouldn’t be happening. It was compounded by the fact it was done in a family environment where you’re supposed to feel safe.”
It was only during the court case that Roberts realised her brother played on her love of horses, inventing a game called “bucking broncos” in which he would let her ride on his back. The game would turn into abuse. “I didn’t realise until the trial that he had groomed me in that way. That was clever.”
Roberts went on to become a police officer in Bristol, then worked as a rep for a pharmaceutical company and now is the managing director of an online learning company. She is a mother of two and grandmother of one.
Over the years she has had an eating disorder and low self-esteem and trust issues. “I get flashbacks. It seems to get easier and then something will happen and, whoosh, it’s all back again. If you have a stressful situation you overreact, you’re on hyper alert. At the first sign of trouble you go into meltdown.”
When she first confronted her brother several years ago, he began to cry. “And then he went on about his problems. I boxed it all back up and carried on.”
Roberts began intense psychotherapy and she wrote to Herbert, who was married and a father, detailing what she felt about the abuse. She ended: “I’m asking you to leave me alone. I never want to hear from you again.”
To her surprise, he wrote back, accepting he had abused her. She realised she had evidence and went to the police. In court, he claimed he was suffering from a “tsunami” of guilt. “But honestly it was a tsunami of self-pity. He’s just been caught,” Roberts said.
As a police officer in the 80s, Roberts said, she saw first-hand that victims of sexual abuse were often not believed or taken seriously. But she has been impressed by the support she has been given by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and organisations that provide help and counselling. “There’s a lot of support for survivors,” she said.
Roberts said she hoped her story would give confidence to other survivors to come forward, and she plans to campaign on the issue. “Familial sexual abuse is a hidden scourge and I think it happens far more often than we think. People like Andrew get away with it by passing their guilt and shame and literally hiding in plain sight.”
Roberts, who now lives in west Somerset, said she was determined to “sort this” for the little girl abused by her brother. Pointing to a photo of herself as a seven-year-old feeding a horse on a beach, she said: “I’m telling that girl it’s safe now, he can’t hurt me any more, he won’t hurt anyone else. He’s the one who did wrong.”