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Interview: Natalie Esther, founder of Survivors of Sexual Abuse Anon

14 August 2015

‘I can help others move from victim to survivor’

My reason for founding Survivors of Sexual Abuse Anon (SoSAA) was that I felt it was a call upon my life from God. I’ve just finished my work as a nanny to focus on this work.


There are so many survivors of sexual abuse, and no free, ongoing support groups. A survivor of sexual abuse does not get fixed through a short course: they need ongoing support and help.


I do everything at the moment: fund-raising, admin, and running groups. I’ll have three groups running in the Lambeth area, and I hope to keep branching out — but people are willing to travel from all over to come to these groups. They generally call me, or email, to keep anonymity. I also have one person who Skypes from another city. There’s such a need, and nobody’s doing this.


I’d been a nanny on and off for 20 years. I woke up one morning in January 2014, and my thought was: "I know what I want to do with my life. I am going to start a charity. It will be for survivors of sexual abuse, and I will run 12-Step programmes."


This was while I was taking a break from church, through being disappointed with God. It made me realise that he can, and will, still use us in our darkest times.


After a lot of research into abuse charities and the 12 Steps, I thought that this was the best way to go. The 12-Step programmes are well-known, and have proved to be a success worldwide. The SoSAA 12 Steps are not dissimilar to AA 12 Steps. The one thing that I wanted to make sure that we kept the same was the reference to a higher power.


My heart’s desire is to see every survivor of sexual abuse across the UK have a support network available to them if they wish to pursue it — regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or faith. I’d love to see SoSAA bring survivors together and be rid of the stigma and myths of people who are sexually abused.


I am a survivor of sexual abuse. I don’t believe that people are defined by their problems. I spoke at a women’s breakfast two years about how I made a decision to not talk about my sexual abuse, but instead about being adopted as a daughter and being a new creation in Christ. I believe that we have a choice in how we react to our problems, and how we choose to see ourselves.


It isn’t easy to believe that when we follow Jesus we are set free — that the same things that have held us back can be the things that move us forward. If it was my choice, I would never have chosen to work with sexual-abuse survivors because it makes me feel uncomfortable. But I’ve experienced the trauma of being abused. Therefore, I can help others to believe it’s possible to move from victim to survivor.


I think that the Church sends conflicting messages when topics of sexuality are raised. You’re told one thing and you see another. I’ve seen a lot of hypocrisy surrounding sex in general, as well as the whole "family" thing. People need support, I guess, and when it comes to sexual abuse, the Church doesn’t want to get involved. If it’s children, there’s lots of interest and funding, but complex adult issues? No one wants to get involved. There’s an element of being British in this unwillingness, too.


But we can’t just ignore it. We have to offer help and support. I’m aware of people high up in the Church who are not willing to speak out about their own personal experiences. Everyone’s frightened about getting involved; and, because there is so much bad press about sexual abuse in the Church, I think that really hinders people as well. You’ll never hear a talk in church on sexual abuse, though it happens in the Bible. Issues like trafficking, yes, but not the effects of abuse on the individuals.


My first experience of God was through a 15-month-old girl. I was her nanny for a while, living in America. She is the reason I am at this point in my life. If it wasn’t for the love that she showed me, I don’t think I would be a Christian. God used a child to show me his character, because at the time I never trusted adults.


I think, over the years, I have been able to see my wrongs, and admit my mistakes a lot more. I realise that I am not perfect. I still don’t trust people easily, and, unfortunately, I’ve had more incidents in the Church that have given me reasons not to. I’m currently not attending a church, and have more of a personal faith that I am working through.


My family was very dysfunctional. I was put into foster care from a very early age, and went to a family at nine months old. I was adopted by them at 11, and stayed with them until I was 16. My foster carers were white, which caused a lot of identity issues for me. They were emotionally, physically, and sexually abusive, and I hated life for most of my childhood. I struggled with bulimia, and made many suicide attempts from the age of nine.


I’ve got friends who have adopted a child of a different race, but what is important is that they learn the child’s background and talk about the differences. I grew up believing that it was a bad thing to be black, and, in a society which defines you by where you come from, it’s hard for me to feel I have an identity, because I don’t know where I come from, except that I’m a quarter Jamaican.


Since leaving at 16, I have not been part of a family. It is probably the thing that I have struggled with the most at churches, as they throw the word "family" around without thinking of the consequences or harm that that may cause people.


The word "family" gets used too much or too lightly in churches. "You’re part of this church family," people say; but then Christmas comes around, or summer vacations, and actually you’re not part of this family. I recognise that we’re human, and we don’t run the church in the way God intended us to, but I also don’t see God providing for me my own family.


I love to travel anywhere that has sun and a beach. I’ve been fortunate to see a lot of the world, and to have lived abroad for 13 years. I lived in America for seven years when I was nannying, and worked on Tenerife for six years at lots of different things. That was my escape from Liverpool.


I’m happiest on a dance floor. I just like to be free. I don’t do dance classes any more, but I used to, and just love music and dancing.


I am also happy surrounded by my good friends, who have known me for many years and accept me for who I am. And I love the sound of children’s laughter.


The last thing which made me angry was being promised something by someone in church, and then it not being produced.


I had to raise myself since I was 16, and, having been in jobs that are without co-workers, I haven’t had many role-models or people to look up to. I have been able to meet with different older, wiser ladies who have steered me in the right way.


My top three prayers are for a family for myself — which makes me feel constantly disappointed, as I have prayed for this for the past ten years, and I’m still without that — and for my friends, and for world issues. As much as God is all around, I want something tangible: the feeling that other people will keep me safe, be on my side, someone for whom I’m number one. I don’t want to accept that God wants me to be on this earth alone. I know what the Bible says, and what theology says — but I still feel that it’s exhausting and unfair.


If I found myself locked in a church with someone, it would have to be Oprah Winfrey. She’s the mother I have been searching for.


Natalie Esther was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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