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"Earl Spencer opened up about the emotional impact of his experiences with boarding school abuse, stating that he believes it stunted his emotional development."
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“Earl Spencer opened up about the emotional impact of his experiences with boarding school abuse, stating that he believes it stunted his emotional development.”

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Charles Spencer shared that writing about his negative experiences during his childhood was one thing, but having to discuss them with strangers was a completely different challenge. During our meeting at his publisher’s office, he was still coming to terms with this new aspect of his life. The more gripping parts of his memoir detailing the difficult five years he spent at Maidwell Hall, a preparatory school in Northamptonshire, had been prominently featured in the previous week’s edition of the Mail on Sunday. The following day, he was a guest on Lorraine Kelly’s morning TV show, where he had to recount the painful memories for the audience. As a result, he explains that he has been dealing with intense headaches and vivid nightmares for the past two days and apologizes if he appears a bit overwhelmed.

Responses to his book, revealing his experience as an eight-year-old being sent away from home to endure physical and sexual abuse at school, have been informative. On one hand, he has received numerous emails from other survivors, commending his bravery in shedding light on the mistreatment of “privileged” students at boarding schools, like himself, who endured frequent beatings and sexual assault before reaching puberty.

Unfortunately, he has also faced the unwarranted obsession of the sensationalist media, which focused on salacious details in his book for the sake of generating more clicks. Ever since his speech at Westminster Abbey where he blamed tabloid journalists for his sister Diana’s death, he has been a target for their relentless scrutiny. The Sun, for example, chose a headline that was inappropriate and disrespectful for a book about the long-term effects of childhood trauma: “Di Bro’s sex at 12 with hooker.” Another writer, William Sitwell, who attended the same schools as Spencer, openly dismissed the validity of the memoir in two articles for the Telegraph. In the first, Sitwell labeled Spencer a traitor to his own social class, saying, “One of their own – an earl, uncle to princes, with extensive land, a grand estate, a deer park, luxurious furniture and exquisite art – is revealing secrets from within…” In the second article, he made the bizarre claim that “Spencer has not indicated that he or anyone else was a victim of abuse beyond corporal punishment.”

A recent head and shoulders photograph of Earl SpencerView image in fullscreen

Spencer admits to having actively avoided reading any columns written by Sitwell, but he disagrees with the belief held by many of his peers that enduring daily beatings and rampant pedophilia in their school years had no negative impact on them. In fact, Spencer wrote his book specifically to challenge this idea. When he read Sitwell’s piece, he was reminded of a statement made by journalist Alex Renton, who has brought light to the history of abuse in top private schools in Britain. After Renton shared his own experience of abuse as a child, he encountered an old schoolmate at a party who warned others present to stay away from Renton, claiming he would inappropriately touch them. Spencer shakes his head at the absurdity of this situation.

Spencer’s account is impactful due to its depiction of how predatory violence was normalized during his time at school. Maidwell Hall was portrayed as a paradise for wealthy families to send their young sons, but in reality, it was a nightmarish place. Teachers used fear and physical violence to control vulnerable boys and even went as far as subjecting them to humiliating “special” swimming lessons. The situation was made worse by a matron who enjoyed humiliating bedwetters and another who sexually abused 10-year-olds and engaged in illicit activities with 12-year-olds at night. According to Spencer, the topic is difficult to discuss, and he made a conscious effort to make the book as easy to read as possible. However, there may be moments when readers stumble upon triggering events that leave them wondering, “What was that?”

Ritual beatings were a timetabled part of the day. Every evening after tea, a senior boy would read out the names of small boys who had committed some minor transgression of opaque rules. They would be sent to line up outside the headmasters’ office, inside which he would require boys to drop their trousers and then choose the implement with which to inflict punishment, slipper or cane or switch. Some of the contemporaries who have shared their stories with Spencer still have the physical scars on their backsides to this day, 50 years on.

The author mentions that it was not until he was in his 40s that he began to truly reflect on the emotional impact of his past experiences. This was after his second marriage had ended and he was undergoing therapy to address his destructive behavior. During therapy, he briefly mentioned his time at Maidwell Hall in relation to his parents’ failed marriage and abandonment issues. When asked to elaborate, he found himself unable to stop talking about it. With his 60th birthday approaching and becoming a grandfather for the first time, there was a sense that it was now or never to tell his story.

Spencer with his sister Diana and nanny Mary Clarke in 1972.View image in fullscreen

According to him, he began thinking about writing the book at the age of 54. He had been using his own experiences at the school as a form of therapy, but as he heard from other former students who had suffered even more, he felt a sense of survivor’s guilt. Despite being a part of the mainstream crowd and doing well academically and in sports, he realized that the school was a ruthless environment, similar to the chaos depicted in “Lord of the Flies.” He also felt guilty for not standing up for the quiet students who were often targeted by bullies. Despite being a small child at the time, he wished he had done more to defend them.

The author of the book has chosen to conceal the names of his classmates (referring to them by the names of those who played a role in the execution of King Charles I) in order to protect their identities. He also remembers and mentions the names of his deceased teachers, such as Jack Porch, the headteacher who left his position at the young age of 51 without giving a reason.

“He was a fascinating case of a very intelligent paedophile sadist,” he says, “because he’d constructed a system that fed him little boys’ buttocks every night. He had this ability to present to parents a sort of charm and humour. But he was deeply deviant. A chilling presence. I received the audiobook [of A Very Private School] today and I listened to the first bit again. The preface is about this incredibly sweet kid being systematically made to feel like nothing every day. I started crying, actually. The idea that such a thoroughly sweet boy has had to live with that for the last 50 years is appalling to me.”


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One of the photographs in the book shows the moment that changed his life, as he stands waiting to be taken to Maidwell for the first time. He wears a stiff jacket, resembling a miniature version of his father, the eighth earl. Behind him is a large trunk with his name written on it, while his older sister Diana sits on top of the trunk, smiling. Their nanny stands nearby, looking worried. Charles was given the nickname “Buzz” by his absent mother, as she felt he had the lively energy of a bee. The book is dedicated to “Buzz”, the boy he thought he had lost when he was handed over to the care of Porch.

The book poses the question of what the parents of young boys, aged seven and eight, who sent them to these institutions, were thinking. One possible explanation is that they adhered to a peculiar British belief that young boys, particularly those from privileged backgrounds, must endure pain and hardship, and sever their ties with their mothers and homes in order to develop into leaders. Another motive could be that the parents wanted to rid themselves of the responsibility of their children so they could focus on their social lives (with some prioritizing “horses, dogs, and children”, in that order). Spencer’s book delves into his own parents’ decisions without placing blame.

“I have experienced various forms of psychotherapy, one of which involves exploring my relationship with my parents and releasing any feelings of blame. I believe this influences how I communicate with others. My own mother had a complicated relationship with her mother, and I suspect these issues can be inherited. She was also quite young when she got married and became a mother at the age of 19, coming from a privileged background. Navigating those responsibilities must have been challenging for her.”

Maidwell Hall in Northamptonshire. The school has launched an inquiry into claims of past abuse.View image in fullscreen

Frances Spencer decided to leave her husband and marry Peter Shand-Kydd. Due to losing custody of her four children, including her two-year-old son Charles, she split her time between a Scottish island and a sheep station in New South Wales. During school breaks, her son would visit her in Scotland and assist with her newsagent business in Oban. He remembers her as a fun party host, but not a particularly doting mother. In her later years, she devoted her time to helping children visit Lourdes, but also struggled with guilt and alcoholism. She passed away at the age of 68, after a decade of sadness. Despite this, her son holds no grudge against her.

In the novel, there is a heartbreaking moment when the main character, Spencer, finds solace in a secluded spot on his school grounds to escape the strict attention of his teachers. While there, he sees his father drive by in his luxurious Rolls-Royce, returning from a lunch outing. Despite Althorp, the grand estate where his family resides, being only a short distance from Maidwell, the school felt like a completely different world. Spencer even contemplated resorting to self-harm to avoid going back to school after a holiday break. He wonders if he could have confided in his father about his overwhelming unhappiness.

He states that the thought never crossed his mind and none of the individuals he conversed with mentioned it either. He believes they were hesitant to let down their fathers. Whenever the term ended, he would return home with a report and his father would discuss it with him. This was their usual short conversation about school. His father was strongly influenced by his social class.

With his first wife, Victoria and daughters Kitty, Eliza and Katya, outside Althorp House, Northamptonshire.View image in fullscreen

Spencer has made a conscious effort to be more involved in his seven children’s education. While all of them attended day schools, his two sons chose to board in their late teens. He tries to accompany his youngest daughter, 11-year-old Charlotte, on the school run and engages in conversations with her along the way. He does this in an attempt to stay informed about her academic progress and make up for the time he feels he may have missed in the past.

Despite attempting to appear normal, there are multiple instances in the book where the reader can see the author is still confined by his social class and memories of school. He consistently acknowledges his privilege and recognizes that others have faced even greater hardships, yet he includes remarks from his teachers that suggest he is better off in his current school, despite the potential for abuse and violence from staff.


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The rules for our interview state that Spencer will not discuss anything related to the royal family. This is because he knows from experience that any statement he makes will be taken out of context and shared worldwide. Therefore, I am unable to ask him whether he sees this book as a companion to his nephew Prince Harry’s “Spare”, a call for help from within the world of inherited privilege and desire for change. In the preface of his book, he addresses the fact that many influential figures in British society, including prime ministers and members of the royal family, have received a private, boarding school education. While some have benefitted from this experience, others have been negatively impacted by mistreatment during their formative years. Unfortunately, some of these damaging effects have unknowingly been passed on to society.

He was a contemporary, among others, of Boris Johnson, whose schooling followed a similar path. Does he see these traits, for example, in him? “I can’t actually drill down on specific individuals,” he says. “But I think it has to be a logical fact that people who went to these schools at that time, of which Maidwell was one, simply had to become desensitised in order to survive.”

His remarks in the book are primarily in the past tense – there have certainly been improvements since the 1970s, yet 70,000 families continue to opt for sending their young children away.

“I know a few individuals who have recently experienced this,” he explains. “One of them is only 25 years old. He’s struggling and he shared with me how his life was ruined by attending one of these schools at the age of seven. He wrote to his father, begging for an apology, but his father was unable to apologize because it was a fundamental part of his principles. Many families with prestigious backgrounds may be struggling financially nowadays, but they still use their child’s education at an elite school as a means of social validation. They are willing to endure their child’s struggles in order to boast about it at social gatherings.”

Did he experience any sense of being a “class traitor”, as suggested by some, while writing his book?

“One aspect of my schooling was the successful implantation of certain ideas,” he explains. “One such idea was that reporting others was a major violation. As I grew older and continued writing, my conscience often felt the weight of this perception. Logically, it may seem absurd, but the belief runs deep. Several individuals, many of whom did not attend Maidwell, have approached me and suggested that I abandon this book, as it may aid those who oppose our cause.”

He is pleased that his book has prompted Maidwell Hall, currently charging over £30,000 per year for boarding fees, to look into their past and reach out to former students. This school is not the only one taking action. Renton has created a list of over 490 independent schools and 300 individual teachers who have been accused of abuse.

Shaking hands with the late Queen and Queen Mother during the Eton Boys’ tea party at Windsor in June 1978.View image in fullscreen

I am curious if Spencer had concerns about identifying the deceased teachers. Did he anticipate receiving communication from their loved ones?

“I spent a lot of time thinking about it,” he explains. “And in the end, I decided that they should be named. The actions of the father should not be blamed on their children or grandchildren. However, it is important to acknowledge that their fathers committed terrible acts.”

One of the teachers who singled him out at nine years old for particular violence – a man he used to fantasise about meeting up with later in life in order to return a beating – is still alive. He calls him Goffie in the book (another of Charles I’s regicides). He has sent him a copy: “He’s very old now. But I just want him to know.”

He contemplated taking legal action against the assistant matron who had sexually abused him and other boys under her supervision. Why did he ultimately choose not to pursue this?

He reflects on his thoughts during the time when there were numerous cases of Catholic priests facing accusations in America. However, the actions of the woman in question were so disturbing to him that he cannot find a way to deal with it. These traumatic instances of abuse, which he could not comprehend, drove him to spend his saved money on visiting a sex worker while on vacation with his family in Italy at the age of 12. As a result, he believes that these experiences permanently affected his ability to have healthy and mature relationships in the future.

The speaker reveals that he hired a private investigator in the past to locate the person in question. This individual has been deliberately avoiding the internet, and has been married multiple times and has a child. The speaker believes that no legal action could justify the harm caused, but states that he would believe and support any other allegations made against the person.


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Karen Villeneuve, a Canadian native, has been e’s spouse for the past 13 years. She currently holds a distinguished position as the CEO of a charitable organization dedicated to safeguarding at-risk children. Is e able to reflect on his upbringing and acknowledge how it may have played a role in the breakdown of his previous marriages and relationships?

According to the interviewee, he did not develop emotionally during his early years, due to not growing up in a loving household with caring adults. Many of his peers from schools like Maidwell also have ongoing struggles due to their past experiences, such as addiction and depression. Upon learning about the book, the wife of a friend who attended Eton and also had a difficult time at a similar school in Australia reached out to express her husband’s happiness. Another acquaintance, who was severely bullied and attended Maidwell three years prior to him, recently opened up about his experiences to his wife for the first time after the book was released. They spent an hour crying together, after being married for 30 years.

He personally believes that the catharsis may have been postponed. He has encountered some difficulty while revisiting this history for publishing and describes it as “quite like a nightmare,” but he is pleased that it has been completed.

He admits that, like many others his age, he used to consume excessive amounts of alcohol. Not to a dangerous extent, but as a way to numb emotions. However, he has not consumed any alcohol since January.

I relayed to him a quote from Billy Connolly during an interview regarding coping with the experience of sexual abuse by his father: “The term ’emotional baggage’ carries weight for a reason – it means you have the choice to set it aside.”

“I completely concur,” he expresses. “I sense that I should record it now.” You can tell he feels a sense of obligation to the late Buzz, to fulfill this last request for him.

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    Charles Spencer’s A Very Private School is available for purchase from William Collins for £25. You can support the Guardian and Observer by ordering a copy on guardianbookshop.com. Delivery fees may be required.

Source: theguardian.com