Authors: Cassie Harte
The True Story of a Little Girl Betrayed By Those Who Should Have Loved Her
For every child who has suffered abuse in silence and every adult who has had the courage to tell.
here was never a time in my life when I wasn’t lonely and afraid. Right back as a toddler I already knew I was different, the odd one out, the reason for all the conflict in our family. I knew because I was told that every single day.
‘I never wanted to have you,’ Mum said constantly. ‘You’ve ruined my life. You spoiled everything, you did.’
Anything that went wrong or got broken was my fault. Every day she told me I was getting under her feet, driving her mad, making her ill. Her life would have been so much better if I had never been born. My sisters and brother were blameless but I was the troublemaker, the source of all the family’s problems.
When you are told often enough that you’re plain and worthless, stupid and a liar, you believe it’s true. What was wrong with me? Why was I so rotten and bad? I was only a little girl, trying her hardest to please, trying her best to make her mother love her.
If you think you’re worthless, you don’t stand up for yourself in life, don’t make any demands. You believe you deserve no better. So when there is a bad person, an evil person, around, then you’re really in trouble. There’s no one to turn to and nowhere you’ll be safe. Evil people target the vulnerable; they can sniff them out.
Right through my childhood and into my twenties, I was never protected, never safe. Most children run to their mothers when they are scared and unhappy or when something unspeakable happens to them. For me, that was never going to work. I was unwanted. Unloved. Completely alone.
y sister Ellen was ten when I was born and Rosie was eight, while my brother Tom was only two. Ellen was special because she was the first-born, while Rosie had been very ill as a baby and suffered learning difficulties as a result, meaning she was cosseted by all and sundry. Tom was Mum’s favourite, her ‘precious pup’ who never put a foot wrong as far as she was concerned. And then there was me, Cassie, otherwise known as ‘Plain Jane’, with my long, dark curly hair, much darker than any of the others.
I was never in any doubt about my position at the bottom of the heap in the family, as Mum never missed a chance to make it clear to me. When my nan came to visit on Sundays, we would have afternoon tea of ham and salad followed by fairy cakes with different-coloured icing, and I was always the last to get a cake. Everyone else was allowed to choose: Tom would go first, and he took the chocolate one; then my nana would go next, then Ellen and Rosie, and when there were two cakes left
on the plate, Mum would take one and I’d be left with the last cake that no one else wanted. So I knew exactly where I stood in the pecking order. There was no question about that.
Everything that went wrong in the house was my fault: if there was mud on the carpet or a broken plate, I got the blame. When the doll’s house furniture got left out on the floor and Mum accidentally stood on it, it was me she shouted at.
‘It wasn’t me,’ I protested, tears springing to my eyes. ‘I didn’t do it.’ I knew I hadn’t because I’d been at my dance class that morning, and it had definitely been put away before I went to bed the night before. Ellen and Rosie played with it as well. Why didn’t they get the blame?
‘Liar!’ Mum yelled. ‘You’re always telling lies. I don’t know why I have to put up with this. My life would have been so different if only you hadn’t been born.’
There was no point arguing. She had spoken and that was that.
When our cat was allowed to escape out the back door just before Mum was due to take him to the vet’s, once again it was my fault.
‘You stupid girl!’ Mum screamed at me, utterly furious. ‘I’ll never catch him now.’
I knew it hadn’t been me because I’d been in the back bedroom the whole time rubbing milk on the patent leather of my tap shoes until they shone, and cleaning the soles of my ballet shoes with chalky stuff so they didn’t slip.
‘That’s it!’ Mum decreed. ‘You’re not going to your dance class until you find the cat.’
When you are blamed for things you haven’t done quite so often, you stop protesting after a while. I went out into the cold and searched for hours until I found the cat hiding in an outhouse, safe and sound, but I was too late for my class by then. I supposed it must somehow have been my fault after all, but I didn’t know how.
Dance classes were my favourite thing in the world in my pre-school years. I’d been going from the age of two and I think I was quite good. Certainly, I could walk right on the tips of my toes and I always got a part in the concerts they gave. Once I played Little Bo Peep. My hair was already curly but Mum decided I needed to have ringlets for the role so she yanked my hair tight and tied it up with knots of rags on which I had to sleep the night before the show. She yanked my hair a lot, in fact. Long curly hair was the perfect thing for her to vent her frustrations on and my hair would often be tugged if I stood too close to her.
It sometimes seemed as though my siblings were living a different life than me, even though we were all in the same family. Mum used to take Tom and my sisters out shopping and they’d come home laden with new toys and clothes, but she never bought anything new for me. They went for picnics and fun day trips, while I was left behind with Mrs Rogers, the next-door neighbour. I accepted this because I had never known any different, but it made me very confused. Why did Mum cuddle them and not me? Why was I unwanted, unloved? I craved her love and approval, but no matter how hard I tried I could never get it.
Mum was a big, dark-haired woman—‘handsome’, I heard my nan calling her. She was a very powerful character, physically and mentally strong, and used to getting her own way in life; you would probably describe her as a bit of a battleaxe. My dad, in contrast, was tall, thin and placid, a kind man who was no match for her. Like me, he was used to getting the rough edge of her tongue and he’d slink off to his shed in the back garden and shut the door, looking for a few hours of peace and quiet.
I was born in November 1945, while Dad was still stationed in Burma, where he’d been fighting with the Marines. He didn’t come home until I was six months old, then he went away again on and off for the next few years, and when he came back to live with us for good he got a job as a shipbuilder in the dockyard near where we lived. He cycled to and from work and I remember him always arriving home cold, wet and tired after a long hard day. Every Friday lunchtime, in the years before I started school, I’d accompany Mum to the dockyard gate where she’d take his pay packet off him as soon as he was paid. Mum would count the notes and coins carefully into her purse, then give him back just enough to buy his cigarettes for the week. The rest was for the housekeeping.
We lived in a bungalow with a little garden out the back and a concrete patio. It wasn’t very big—there were only two bedrooms—and when I was little, all four of us kids top-andtailed in the one bed. Tom and I would have our heads at the bottom, while Ellen and Rosie’s heads were at the headboard, and Ellen used to read us bedtime stories every night. We kept our books under the bed. One night she asked for another book
and I stretched my hand under the bed to get one and felt something tickly running over me. I looked down and let out a piercing shriek because the biggest spider I had ever seen was scurrying across the floor.
We all jumped out of bed and ran out of the house screaming hysterically, whereupon the man next door came out to see what was going on. When we told him, he found a jam jar and went into our house to catch the spider, because it seemed the man down the road had lost his pet spider earlier that week. I think it might have been a tarantula or something.
Ellen and Rosie were often left to babysit for us in the days when Dad was still on assignment with the Marines because Mum liked to go out in the evening. Shortly after we’d had our tea, she would put on her best clothes and re-do her makeup, then she’d slip out the door in a cloud of perfume, instructing us to do whatever Ellen told us. But being looked after by my sisters wasn’t a problem for me. I didn’t mind at all because they were nice to me—much nicer than Mum would have been—and usually Tom and I would fall asleep to the sound of Ellen reading us a story. If Mum were at home, I’d probably be in trouble for something or other and sent up to bed on my own with her cruel words ringing in my ears, sometimes rubbing my cheek where a stinging slap had been delivered.
One battleground was at mealtimes. I was a small child, tiny for my age. ‘If there’s a puff of wind, it will knock you over,’ my nan used to say. ‘You don’t eat enough to keep a sparrow alive.’ I never had a big appetite but I particularly hated green vegetables. Sprouts were the worst as they made me feel physically
sick. Every Sunday, Mum would make a roast and serve it with sprouts or great piles of over-boiled cabbage, then make me sit there until my plateful was all finished. It wasn’t fair because Tom and my sisters never had to eat their greens. They chose what they wanted and left the table when they’d had enough, whether they’d cleaned their plates or not. I would sit staring at my soggy vegetables, willing myself to eat it all, but I would start to retch as soon as I raised the fork to my mouth. I just couldn’t do it.
Mum would keep on at me: ‘You’re not leaving that table till you’ve eaten the lot,’ she’d say unkindly, seeming to enjoy my suffering.
I started going to Sunday school at the age of three. We would draw pictures of bible stories and collect little cards to stick in an album, and I loved it, but often I had to miss it because I hadn’t finished my vegetables at dinner. I’d sit there all afternoon, by which stage the vegetables were cold and greasy with fat from the roast. I wasn’t even allowed to go to the toilet, so I became increasingly uncomfortable, crossing my legs to stop me from wetting myself. I could hear my brother and sisters playing in the next room or out in the garden but still I sat locked in this showdown that Mum was never going to let me win.
Teatime came, and I wasn’t allowed any of the meal the others were having until I had eaten my sprouts.
‘You’re ruining the day for everyone else,’ she accused me. ‘Do you think I want to be here nagging you all afternoon? Do you think I haven’t got better things to do?’
Eventually I would give in and choke down the mound of green sludge on my plate. I was then excused and more often than not I had to run straight to the bathroom to throw up. After that, I’d be ordered to sit in the bedroom on my own all evening.
I kept hoping that she would realise how ill this made me and relent. I never lost the hope that one day she might think I wasn’t such a bad girl after all, and that maybe she could love me the way she loved my brother and sisters. Oh, how I hoped! But at Sunday lunch I could never stop myself from glancing over at my brother’s and sisters’ plates and wondering why it was so important that I ate my greens while they didn’t. What was the difference between us?