Sidelining the survivors of sexual abuse?

Dr Khadj Rouf and Dr Danny Taggart review Channel 4 drama National Treasure, written by Jack Thorne.

National Treasure is a timely piece of drama, a response to the scale and shock of the abuse uncovered by Operation Yewtree. Rooted in the real world, it references the Jimmy Savile case within the storyline. But here we are drawn into the world of the fictional character Paul Finchley (Robbie Coltrane), a much loved celebrity, and the unfolding narrative that surrounds him after several women come forward to make allegations that he sexually abused them in the past.

Not only does the drama focus on Finchley’s interior world, but there is skilful switching into multiple perspectives of other characters, notably Marie, Finchley’s wife (Julie Walters) and their daughter Dee (Andrea Risborough). The quality of the drama is unquestionable – there are astounding performances from the cast, particularly Coltrane, Walters and Risborough. It is beautifully filmed, with downbeat blue tones, lingering shots of facial expressions and repeated motifs. The haunting soundtrack heightens the intensity and sense of entrapment, conjured by images of long corridors, and people partially obscured in doorways.

As psychologists, we were concerned with whether this drama was psychologically informed, whether it was respectful, whether it was authentic and researched.

At its conclusion, the writer, Jack Thorne, has achieved an immense feat of compelling and disturbing drama. He has created characters who are human and flawed, particularly Paul Finchley, a man who Marie describes as having ‘layers’ where he plays different roles, one of which she thinks is ‘capable of anything.’ Thorne has taken some of the stereotypes that exist in society, the most distasteful of which is the ‘Lolita’ concept, and holds them in a space which is full of ambiguity. The viewer is left not knowing what or who to believe. We are left uncertain, in a zone of discomfort.

In that space, we are confronted with unsettling questions about truth, knowing, memory, abusive attitudes and sexism, mental ‘illness’ and society’s response to abuse cases in the media. Paul is not a panto baddie. He is believable: he is ‘innocent’ and suffering, hung out to dry by the media. Victims are ‘opportunistic’, ‘confused’ or ‘lying’. Marie fiercely defends Paul, ‘choosing to believe’ to the point of shutting down Dee’s doubts about whether she may have been abused. However as the drama progresses, we flashback into the past; we start to see through a different lens, where some stereotypes are questioned. We learn more about the complexity of memory. We walk alongside Marie, as reality dawns and she starts to shift her position about Paul’s behaviour.

Many portrayals of victims have called into question their credibility and their ability to remember. But here, we focus on the abuser too – his denial, his ability to distort what has happened and tell himself a different narrative. Paul hides from himself and fails to take responsibility for his actions. Other characters also have flaws in their memory. There are references to the passing of time throughout the drama – main characters can’t or won’t remember details accurately, ‘it was a long time ago’ is a repeating line. But there are significant events which are remembered, and there are agendas which sway people, as with his comedy partner’s decision not to speak out in order to protect the legacy of their work.

The victims are at the edges of this narrative, until we see their distress in court. Thorne captures how Paul is powerful; rich and well known with the means to buy himself hefty legal support. The emotional distress of the women testifying is painful to watch.

The viewer is still left with uncertainty until the interweaving of flashback about the truth against the jury’s decision. The conclusion contains a depressing acknowledgement – that victims are often not getting justice.

National Treasure is the latest in a series of high profile dramas and documentaries that address the issue of historical abuse, including the Oscar winning film Spotlight and the Louis Theroux documentary, Saville. Society is asking itself searching questions about why it didn’t know and couldn’t see in the wake of high profile cases. However, while these features aim to treat victim’s experiences compassionately, the survivors themselves have not yet been placed centre stage. What is missing here is that survivors of abuse are often more than able to shine the light where it is needed and to articulate clearly the hypocrisies of both perpetrators and the systems that hide them. It seems a great pity that in this series as in other parts of modern life we are unable to see or listen to them properly. For all of the nuance present in this excellent series, it is this sidelining of survivors of sexual abuse for dramatic tension or aesthetic acceptability that is the most glaring. When will their story be bearable?

- Watch now.

Dr Khadj Rouf, Consultant Clinical Psychologist; member of the BPS Safeguarding Children and Young People’s Group; co-author of the BPS (2016) Guidance document on the management of disclosures of non-recent (historic) child sexual abuse. She is also a survivor of child abuse and has also published resources from a personal perspective.

- Dr Danny Taggart, Academic Director Doctorate in Clinical Psychology, University of Essex. Author of the recent Clinical Psychology Forum paper Notes from the underground, a response to the BPS guidance, which details his experience of psychosis resulting from institutional sexual abuse in childhood. 

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