Behind closed doors, Maria Le Mesurier’s privileged childhood was a nightmare of sexual abuse – by her own father. She tells Eimear O’Hagan how it’s taken her whole life to finally break the cycle of shame. PHOTOGRAPHS: KATE MARTIN
Lying in bed at night, Maria Le Mesurier would wait, frozen with fear, until her father John crept into her room and – under cover of darkness and whispering threats to her to remain silent – began his ritual of touching her body, the abuse reaching its culmination when he took his only daughter’s virginity.
It is a shocking revelation; an incomprehensible violation of the bond between parent and child. Where other forms of sexual violence have been brought out of the shadows, survivors encouraged to share their experiences in the pursuit of justice and healing, the taboo around incest is so powerful it has remained largely in the dark.
It is a desire to escape that darkness that has seen Maria, now 47 and a married mother of five, make the decision to share the secret she has carried for 37 years. ‘This isn’t about vengeance – I’m not fuelled by anger. And there can never be justice because my father is now dead,’ she says. ‘Finding my voice after all these years is about healing myself, breaking the cycle of shame I’ve been trapped in and, I hope, giving others like me the confidence to speak out, too.’
Growing up, Maria was always told what a ‘lucky girl’ she was. Home was Uppark, a 17th-century stately home in West Sussex. Set in 5,000 acres of land, the grand house, filled with art and antiques, had belonged to her mother’s family, the Meade-Fetherstonhaughs. In 1954, it was given to the National Trust by her grandfather Richard Meade-Fetherstonhaugh, with the caveat that the family could continue to live there.
Maria, her parents and her elder brother Charlie split their time between Uppark and their second home in Fulham, Southwest London, where Maria was a day pupil at a private school, while her father ran a company selling Madeira wine. ‘During the week we lived in London; Uppark was home for the weekends and holidays,’ she says.
Long before the abuse began, Maria says her relationship with her father was strained. ‘He was a pompous man with a terrible temper, and I never felt comfortable in his presence. There was nothing natural or relaxed about being around him,’ she says.
‘I was a shy, quiet child and tried to stay out of the way as much as possible. My family nickname was Mouse and my brother was my security. We were incredibly close.’
It started when Maria was ten. Late at night her bedroom door would silently open, her father would lie next to her in bed and, while her mother was in a neighbouring bedroom, the abuse began. ‘His hands would be everywhere, all over my body,’ says Maria. ‘He’d whisper that I must be quiet and never tell anyone, and my body would freeze until it was over. I knew what he was doing was strange and uncomfortable, but I didn’t question it. He was my parent, and he used the power of that relationship and my trust in him against me. It was how he controlled me. As I got older, I knew instinctively this was wrong. By then it was a way of life, happening almost every night.
‘Around the time the abuse began, my younger brother was born and I remember my mother taking me to look around a boarding school, because it was expected I’d attend one, but I refused. I was too scared of leaving him on his own with our father, in case he became my replacement.’
Over the course of four years, what began as touching escalated to Maria’s father raping her when she was just 14. ‘When he was finished, and left the room, I’d lie awake until dawn, too terrified to sleep, adrenaline coursing through my body. To this day I suffer from chronic insomnia, a legacy of those terrible sleepless nights.’
Like many survivors of sexual abuse, Maria has asked herself why she didn’t tell anyone. ‘I didn’t think I’d be believed. I was such a “lucky” girl, I was sure nobody would have believed that this was happening to someone like me. I saw myself as damaged and dirty, and not wishing anyone else to see me that way– that shame silenced me,’ she says.
The horrors of the nights with her father seeped into Maria’s days as she grew up, and she describes early teenage life as ‘like being on the outside, looking in. I isolated myself at school, and was very quiet and withdrawn, completely at odds with how a girl from my background was meant to present herself, which was to be outgoing, clever at school and sociable. I was scared that if I let people in, they’d find out my secret. I was a very “good” girl, obedient and compliant, because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I’d strive to appear “normal” but it was a façade.’
It’s barely conceivable what it must have been like for Maria to be abused at night, then by day sit down for family meals with her father and play the role of his daughter in the well-heeled circles her parents moved in. ‘Living with him, I existed in a constant state of adrenaline and anticipation. I was so scared, and had no strength in me. I was like a rag,’ remembers Maria. ‘A voiceless rag.’
She is adamant that had she come from a more ‘ordinary’ background, she may have been saved from her father’s clutches. ‘I’ve taken safeguarding courses as part of my role as a school governor, and now I look back at my demeanour and behaviour as a child, and believe that had I come from a different world, someone may have raised a red flag. The fact I was from such a “good” family, my parents’ social class, our grand home – it all protected my father. It fed into the idea that things like that don’t happen in families like ours, when of course they do.’
When Maria was 15, the abuse stopped. ‘The last time it happened was in London. Afterwards something inside me snapped. I’d had enough and threatened to tell someone. I think he was scared I was going to blow the whistle. It took time for me to accept it was over – in a physical sense at least. I’d still lie awake, waiting to hear him enter my bedroom, but he never did again.’
It was not the end of Maria’s torment. Physically she was safe, but the emotional repercussions of the abuse were to define her adult life. ‘In my late teens, my father moved to Madeira. By then I’d oscillated from good girl to off the rails, drinking and taking drugs to numb myself, as the realisation of what I’d gone through – and that it was my own flesh and blood who’d done it– caused me profound trauma. As I began to have relationships, I was scared of sex. I didn’t want to be touched, but I also had no boundaries – I didn’t know how to say “no” or “stop”. I was never raped again, but men did take advantage of me.’
When she was 22, Maria lost her beloved brother Charlie to suicide. She is adamant he wasn’t abused by their father but, out of respect for his memory, doesn’t wish to speculate about his state of mind on the day he took his life at the family home. ‘He died without knowing what had happened to me but I’m sure that wherever he is now, he will know, and will feel he let me down,’ says Maria. ‘I know how it feels to want life to be over. Before my children were born, there were so many times I wanted to stop the noise in my head, end the pain I was in. They’ve taught me life is a gift to be cherished.’
Maria is the first to acknowledge that the fact she maintained sporadic contact with her father, including staying with him in Madeira throughout her 20s, following her parents’ divorce, will confound many people. ‘He was a monster but I couldn’t cut him out of my life, and I know that sounds crazy. I carried on with the charade, still trying to project to the world I was “normal”. It’s so hard to change patterns of behaviour, even in the face of the most awful abuse, and I struggled to break free of my role of dutiful daughter. Also, if I cut him out of my life, people would think badly of me because they didn’t know the truth. As someone who had always been desperate to please and be liked, I couldn’t bear that. Most of all, I had zero self-worth and didn’t believe I didn’t need him in my life.’
Aged 27, Maria married her first husband, with whom she had her eldest three children; her father was a guest at their wedding in 2001. ‘I told him that my father had sexually abused me, although not the extent of it. It was he who convinced me to have children because initially I was terrified I was too damaged to care for a baby. But holding my eldest child, with deep, pure love sweeping over me, I felt a happiness I’d never known before.’
Maria allowed her father to spend time with her eldest two children. ‘It was a head-on collision between the habit of playing the good daughter and the fierce protectiveness I felt for my son and daughter. I never left them alone with him for even a second.’
In 2008, when Maria was pregnant with her third child, her father died. ‘I flew out to Madeira with my younger brother and saw him in hospital, before he died alone that night. I organised the funeral alongside my brother and my godfather, who lived on the island. I did what needed to be done, as ever playing my part perfectly.’
Did his death bring Maria any sense of closure? None, she says. ‘I felt no different knowing he was no longer in the world. There was no relief nor peace, no feeling it was over. He had died, his reputation intact, and I carried on, still largely silenced with shame.
‘I had also confided in a few friends over the years, but I could see the disgust and shock in their eyes even when I only told them a little bit of it. They didn’t know what to say; people can’t cope with that sort of information. And those reactions only reinforced my shame.’
Suppressing such dark memories and emotions for so many years has, says Maria, had a detrimental impact on her health. ‘As well as decades of insomnia, I’ve suffered from severe headaches, stomach and digestive issues, fatigue and problems with my thyroid. I should be an incredibly healthy, energised person – I’m vegetarian, I run daily, I don’t even take painkillers – but I believe carrying this trauma has taken its toll on my body.’
After her first marriage ended, Maria remarried in 2011 and had another two children with her second husband Paul. ‘It was one of the first things I told him about myself, because he is such a kind, wonderful man and I didn’t feel I deserved him. I tried to put Paul off by telling him, but he was able to handle it.’
Today, Maria and her family – her children aged between five and 19 – live in the shadow of the setting for her childhood abuse, in the converted stable blocks at Uppark. Other family members also live on the estate while the main house is partly occupied by them and open to National Trust visitors.
‘I don’t like living here – for obvious reasons – but I wanted my children to have outside space and a bigger home than we could afford to buy ourselves. However, we’re hoping to move soon and that will be good for me – to get away from here and all its memories.’
Confiding in her children recently was an important step in Maria’s journey to speaking publicly about her abuse.
‘I told my eldest daughter, who is now 17. A few months before, she’d asked how old I was when I lost my virginity, and who it was with. I wasn’t ready to have that conversation but, over time, I realised I needed to. I’d grown up with my life shrouded in secrets, and I wanted to be different with them, to be open and break that cycle of hushing up difficult things.
‘She and my eldest son know everything, my 14-year-old too but in lesser detail and my eight-year-old knows my father physically hurt me, but that’s it. She’s too young for the full story, as is my five-year-old. In time, I will tell them. It’s a conversation no mother wants to have with her children but it helped them understand more about how I am– why I always put myself down, why I’m never kind to myself, the health problems I have had.
Also, why I’ve always been so vigilant with them, structuring my career as a creative director around them, because I want them to feel they are at the centre of my world, and so precious to me. It’s a lot for children to come to terms with but they’ve been amazing and so supportive.’
Now Maria has made the courageous decision to share her story more widely. ‘Partly, this is for me. With each person I’ve told, I’ve felt more healed. Verbalising my memories and my emotions, my health has improved and I feel stronger than I have for decades. Now I have my voice back which my father took from me.
‘I’ve had some therapy over the years but nothing has been as therapeutic as simply talking, getting these words out, when they’ve been stuck inside me for so long. Some may think this is about exacting revenge; it’s not. This is about me, and others like me. I want them to find their voice and experience this feeling I have now – that I’ve been locked away inside myself, but now I’m free. I feel I’m stepping from darkness into light.’
If you have experienced something similar, visit thesurvivorstrust.org for help and support
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