Greg Lance – Watkins
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The various homes of Charlie Webster’s childhood are imprinted in the television presenter’s mind. Not in sight, so much, as in sound: the tell-tale creaks of floorboards she learnt to avoid in order not to alert anybody of her presence, and the dull thud of her violent stepfather walking up the stairs.
The now 38-year-old remembers while still at primary school mapping out every corner of her home so she could creep around undetected. “It was all about making my presence as quiet as possible,” she says. “To shrink myself like I didn’t exist.”
This was the climate of fear in which Webster, now a sports television and radio broadcaster, grew up. Where some perceived misdemeanour would incur the wrath of her stepfather who, alongside the constant mental abuse and coercive control, would physically attack Webster and her mother.
The most chilling moments, she says, were often simply when “he would just give me a look,” she recalls. “That to me was far worse sometimes than when he physically hurt me because at least then you knew what he was going to do.”
Last week, the Domestic Abuse Bill, on which Webster has campaigned for years for children to be included as victims, was passed into law. It comes shortly before a new documentary by ex-footballer Ian Wright is broadcast on the BBC in which he reveals the shocking abuse he too suffered as a child.
In the documentary Wright discloses how his violent stepfather would make him stand facing the wall whenever Match of the Day was on television (his favourite programme). At night he would lie with his brother covering his ears to muffle the sound of their stepfather attacking their mother.
Webster is a key figure in the documentary. She and the 57-year-old former Arsenal footballer have had numerous heart-to-heart conversations about the abuse they suffered and the struggle to come to terms with it in adulthood.
“He carries this anger and so have I,” she says. “You learn to survive, you don’t learn to love or love yourself and that is fundamentally the problem.”
Webster, who is currently single, admits she has difficulties maintaining relationships because of her childhood experience. With boyfriends she trained herself not to flinch if they attempted to put an arm around her and still sometimes feels a visceral reaction if someone comes too close.
She struggles to show emotion now because, as a child, she forced herself not to cry. “When I cried it got worse,” she says.
Around 1.6m women were victims of domestic violence in Britain last year and in an estimated 90 per cent of cases a child was involved. A vital importance of recognising children as victims of domestic abuse, says Webster, is early intervention can help break a self-perpetuating cycle where some abused children go on to commit crimes themselves.
It’s for this reason that some victims choose not to have their own children. After years of confronting her own experiences and seeking professional help, Webster says she is ready to have a “happy healthy relationship” and “cannot wait” to be a mother.
“I do really want children and I know I will by whatever way that is,” she says. “I know now I won’t pass that down but it was something I was very paranoid about… For me I was really determined that it stops at me in my family.”
While she and Wright both came from working class backgrounds (Wright was raised by his mother and stepfather alongside his two brothers on an estate in Brockley, South London) she is at pains to stress that domestic abuse cuts across social class. Victims contact her on a near daily basis, and one example of someone she helped “was rich but her husband ensured she had no access to anything,” she recalls.
Webster’s mother, Joy, gave birth to her aged 16 and for her early childhood it was just the two of them and her grandparents. When she was seven, her mother met the man who would become their abuser in a local pub. As is typical of so many stories of domestic abuse he was charming at first, quickly moving into their home in the Crookes area of the city and proposing marriage. “This man was wonderful to her and I embraced that,” she says.
Soon subtle put-downs turned to full-blown insults. He would call Webster and her mother “weak and pathetic” if they cried. He stopped her mother from seeing certain friends and started to slam cupboard doors and punch objects a hair’s breadth from their faces.
Webster says: “When I was nine or 10-years-old I became his punchbag. He used to say it was to toughen me up and that I was a weak cry baby.”
Drink was a catalyst, but it was by no means the root cause of his violent rages. She makes a similar point with regard to the soaring domestic abuse during lockdown, with a 60 per cent rise in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline between April 2020 and February 2021. “Being an abuser is a fundamental behaviour that is already there.”
The difficulty of talking about what they were experiencing at home meant that the abuse also drove her and her mother apart to the point where they hardly spoke for fear of provoking him.
“I felt like I lost my mum and that was more painful than anything he did to me,” Webster says. “An abuser takes away the other parent from you and to watch your mum in so much pain is so heartbreaking.”
Initially cheerful and outgoing at school, by her mid-teens she existed in “robotic survival mode”, attempting to block out all emotion. Some friends had an inkling of what was going on. If ever anyone came round, which Webster tried to avoid, the tension and fear in the house was obvious. Her grandparents also had an idea of the abuse although she doesn’t know to what extent.
There was also a cry for help – while studying for her GCSEs at Tapton School she wrote an English essay in which she described a man with “psychotic eyes” charging down the corridor towards her. She was given an A* by her teacher, but nothing more was said.
During her A-levels her stepfather moved her mother away to another city and Webster was sent to live with her grandparents. The departure was almost left unspoken between her and her mother. “He said to me he’d won,” she recalls.
Despite everything, she got to Newcastle University to read language and linguistics. Her fierce desire for self-reliance kept her going and she believes she chose a career in the male-dominated world of sports journalism not least because she knew “I could survive it”.
And she still visited her mum every Christmas in spite of the continued “degradation and abuse”. “He wasn’t going to ever get rid of me and take my mum fully away from me,” she says.
It is only recently that her mother, now 54, has finally been able to escape. Around four years ago Webster helped her flee (taking two bags of clothes and £60) and moved her into her own home for 18 months or so.
At first, she says, her mother didn’t even know what she liked to eat or do because she had lived in fear for so long. But now she says she is thriving. Looking through some old photograph albums together Webster says that in the earliest pictures, before her mother met her stepfather, the two of them were smiling and laughing. As they flicked through those smiles slowly faded in the photographs, the harrowing experience of the abuse worn upon their faces. This is now what motivates her to help others: “What happened to me was horrible,” she says. “But I refuse for it to count for nothing.”
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