IT IS hard to know where to start with Alice Wells’s story. It’s a shocking tale of loss, betrayal, and abuse; of a sudden bereavement — her husband died in a car crash, leaving her with two pre-school children, thousands of miles from home — immediately followed by something far worse. Yet it is also a story of finding hope.
To start with the facts. “Alice”, now in her forties, met “Mark”, an American, on a last-minute holiday in Egypt, 20 years ago. (All names in her book have been changed, for understandable reasons.) She was 26, a junior doctor, in need of a break. He was in the United States Air Force, but stationed in the UK. Mark was older, charming, and romantic. Alice, a self-styled “good girl” from a churchgoing family in small-town England, was swept off her feet. “We fell in love with being in love,” she says. Two years later, they had married, and moved to the US.
“There were lovely bits to our early marriage,” she says now. Yet ten years on their marriage was in difficulties. She was working full-time in a university hospital, as a hospice and palliative-care doctor. Professionally, she was doing well, and her work was gratifying. But she found it hard to fit into Bible Belt society. Church life was very fire-and-brimstone. “And they have such a strong national identity. All they care about is church and family and deer-hunting. I don’t hunt, I’m a vegetarian, and I didn’t have any family there.”
She missed home terribly. Her father died of cancer in 2006, back in England, and she found it extremely painful coping with his illness and death at a distance. Add to that the fact that they now had two small children (Grace, aged four, and Joseph, eight months), and Mark was out of work. For Alice, as the main breadwinner, the pressure was on. “I was juggling way too many balls.”
ON AN ordinary day in July 2007, Alice came home from work — furious that Mark had failed to collect the children from nursery and was not answering his mobile — to find his car missing and the door ajar. His office in their basement was in total chaos: cables and papers were scattered everywhere. In the kitchen, Alice found a search warrant from the federal court: Mark was being investigated for child pornography. Of her husband himself, there was no sign.
Stunned by the news and by the state of the house, Alice left a note for Mark to say that she and the children would spend the night in a hotel. Before breakfast the next morning, a state trooper arrived with the news that Mark had been killed in a car accident. She still does not know exactly how the crash happened.
Worse was to follow. When she first saw the paperwork, Alice assumed that the investigation might concern teenagers. It didn’t occur to her that small children could be involved, or that Mark might be an abuser. But the police investigation soon revealed that Mark had been a key administrator in a huge child-pornography site. In fact, he had amassed one terabyte — around a thousand gigabytes — of indecent images. Many of these were at the most serious level, meaning that they showed babies and very young children.
About a month later, while Alice was still reeling from the initial shock, the family was struck down by a stomach virus. Grace ran a high temperature, and became delirious. In her delirium, she shouted out words and made gestures that made it absolutely clear that she had been abused by her father, and possibly by other men. Further investigation into the cache of pictures turned up 800 indecent images of Grace.
DID Alice really have no knowledge of this? “Absolutely none at all,” she says. “I had no idea whatsoever. The clues might have been there earlier, but I had a lot on.”
No one suspected Mark, although Alice admits that her grandmother hated him, and “my mother never felt comfortable with him. She felt he was always arguing a point, trying to prove he was her intellectual superior. And Mark could argue that black was white. My father wanted to like him; it’s a blessing he died without knowing [the full story].”
One possible early-warning sign emerged only after Mark’s death. “My brother told me later that, before we had children, when he and my sister-in-law were visiting, they once found Mark looking at pornography late at night. They never told me. They felt terrible — they still feel awful — about that, because it might have been a turning-point.” She does not hold this against her brother: there are too many “what ifs” and “if onlys” as it is.
THIS is one reason why she has written the book. It is entirely possible for a partner to be in the dark. “Some years ago, I read a newspaper article about one of the killers of James Bulger, who was found to have sexual imagery on his computer [after his release from prison]. He was living with a woman. Someone commented: “These women are just as bad as the paedophiles.” I want people to understand that this is untrue, and it’s highly traumatic. It can happen to anyone, in any walk of life.”
Sexual abuse is “more common than breast cancer”, she says, and yet we get passionate about breast cancer. While not defending their actions, she believes that some abusers are groomed into abusing. “We need to open our eyes as to how damaging the internet can be, do more research, so that we have a better understanding of why some men, and some women, go down this road. And how can we better protect our children? It’s not the man in the park we should be afraid of.”
She also feels a calling to tell her story. “When it first happened, as the fog was clearing, I felt a message from God, saying, ‘You’re going to write a book about this, to reach out to others who are experiencing these feelings of shame and despair.’
“I had lots of friends and family around me, but I felt very alone. My only comfort was my faith. If people think somebody understands what it’s like, it might help them find comfort.”
WRITING about her family’s experience has been a cathartic, if painful, process. “Because it was so painful, it took seven or eight years to write,” she says. “I spent quite a few years procrastinating. Then a couple of years ago, I had another image. It was as if God was saying, ‘Put your seat belt on, and belt it tight.’”
She had kept a few notes at the time, and also spoke to friends who had been with her in the aftermath; but the memories turned out to be deeply imprinted. “I also wrote it for my children,” she says. “They were so young, but one day they might want an account of what happened. There’s a tendency to pretend, to sweep it under the carpet, but that’s not a healthy way to live.”
Joseph, who is now ten, knows nothing of his father’s story. “But I’ve started throwing out warning shots. I say things like ‘Daddy wasn’t perfect,’ and ‘Ours was not a happy marriage.’ He used to refer to his father as a Jesus-like figure.”
Grace, on the other hand, remembers what happened. “She doesn’t talk a lot about it. We’ve had a handful of conversations over the last ten years.” One of Alice’s battles has been to find the right support for her daughter. There is help for children who have been bereaved, and help for children who have been abused. But you cannot split a child in two.
How is Grace now? At 14, the teenage years “bring new challenges”, Alice says. Unsurprisingly, she imposes particularly strict rules on the use of computers and phones. “They say I’m way too strict. But I’ve had to be very clear with Grace about that.”
ONE of Alice’s difficulties as a mother is not to catastrophise every episode of challenging behaviour. “It won’t go away, and we have to live alongside it,” she says. “It’s very difficult to work out what is normal, and what is worrisome. I’d love to be able to turn the pages inside [Grace’s] head. But when she has dark moments, she flips out of it pretty quickly, which I think is a good thing. She worries about the same things as any other teenager: her friendships and her peers. We thank God that she is not taking drugs and is not a mess.”
Grace is musical, and sings with the church worship band. She’s currently lobbying her mother to be allowed to go to Soul Survivor this summer. They both go to church, and they know God loves them. That continues to be a source of comfort.”
SHORTLY after Mark’s death, Alice moved back to the UK, where she continues to work in palliative care. She has recently embarked on a new relationship, which has meant more upheaval. “Bringing in a man has to be challenging, after ten years dedicated to the children. We’ve been a very close unit: Mum and me, Grace and Joseph.”
Her new partner has helped Alice to let go of Mark. “I’ve seen how different a relationship can be, how it feels to be truly loved and cherished. I so wanted it to work with Mark, but I can see now I was a convenience, a good cover, a breadwinner. With time, I’m less able to be charitable. I am angry at him. I get particularly angry when I see how my children have lost out. I’m angry for me, when I realise that life could have been very different.”
Alice herself has suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, flashbacks, and vivid dreams, but this is lessening with time. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I have bad days. Something happens that reminds me of something.
“I’m still a work in progress. But I’m determined not to get stuck. It would be very easy to spend a lot of time ruminating and asking what my part in all this was. But the right thing for me and my children is to move forward. My faith tells me that is what I should be doing.”
Eating the Elephant by Alice Wells is published by Mirror Books at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20).