Content Warning for child sexual abuse.
Last year wasn't an easy year for me. I was starting to come out of the worst, but still struggling, when I saw a message from my friend Anke Richter looking for someone to do some transcription work for her. Perfect. Not too intellectually demanding, but enough to make me feel occupied and useful. I offered, and she was happy to accept.
I was introduced to Anke by David Haywood, whom I seem to remember quietly slinking off as the conversation took in sex work, pornography, and possibly female ejaculation. I'm not sure, it was a long time ago now. In any case, she had reason to believe that I could cope with the material she was about to give me. Anke was working on a book about Centrepoint. Metro is now hosting her article on the process. It's a long read and not an easy one, but worth the time.
I was transcribing hours of interviews with people from Centrepoint: victims, abusers, people who'd been deeply scarred, people who'd been to prison, people who were just around. Anke was trying to get a broader picture of what had happened, a more nuanced one;
As a reporter, I wanted to explore how a utopian dream could turn into a collective nightmare and normal people end up as convicted paedophiles. My aim was to help the reconciliation of former Centrepoint families by sharing their memories.
We weren't talking about a story of unreasoning evil suddenly springing out of nowhere. There was none of the insulation of self-righteousness, but a search for understanding that inevitably leads to empathy.
The odd thing about transcription work is that it happens at such a pace you can't really take in what you're transcribing until you stop. Then your brain starts to process the words that just went in your ears and out your fingers. I'd be cooking dinner and think, "Wait a minute, did she really say that?"
Some reactions were strong enough to cut through that insulation. I was dealing with unfiltered interviews, people were using real names who were intended to have the protection of anonymity. Someone in an interview used a name, and I realised that person was someone I knew of. I hadn't known they were connected to Centrepoint. It was a shock. There is much in the interviews that doesn’t come across in the transcripts: the sound of poured drinks and hospitality, cicadas and sunshine, tone of voice.
One interview in particular had a very strong effect on me. From that point, I started to talk to Anke about my impressions of these people, my reactions to them. I started asking her how they came across in person. We started talking about the effect the material was having on both of us.
I won't name the woman, or use any direct quotes from the interview. She was one of the senior women at Centrepoint. Talking about one of the victims who'd gone to court, her tone was scathing. The woman used her body to get power, she said. If she didn't want to sleep with Bert, or other men, why would she? No, she enjoyed the status it gave her. She was tough.
Anke's gentle German accent on the recording. "She was twelve. She was a little girl."
I had to stop the recording, and go outside. I was shaking with rage and pain. She was twelve.
The next day, about half an hour of interview later, I was sitting at my keyboard with tears running down my face listening to the same woman cry as she talked about some of the other victims, as she expressed genuine remorse, as she said, I had no right to do that. As she talked about wanting to see those girls again, to apologise. The woman I had hated the day before was breaking my heart. She cried again, talking about her parents visiting her in prison.
I got sucked into the story. I started working out the maze of connections. I stopped being just a transcriber and listened actively to the people telling these incredibly personal stories. I would hear someone recount something incredibly personal, and the next week hear someone else say, "That never happened. I don't remember that." The longer it went on, the less there was to be sure of.
Then one day there was an email from Anke. Stop the transcriptions. We're not sure what's happening with the book. After a few weeks of uncertainty, it emerged. A threat of legal action has stopped publication.
What I went through was simply brushing up against the edges of what Anke was living for years. She has shown extraordinary courage in writing not just about what she learned, but about the profound effect it had on her as a human being who was also a journalist. We send writers and journalists into these fraught situations, to come out with the story, and expect them to be unscathed. To bear witness, and be unaffected, neutral observers. It’s little wonder the occupation is famed for its drinking.