Being sent to boarding school can cause severe harm to children. This is evident from testimonies gathered by therapists, journalists and courtrooms. So why do parents trust their children to these institutions?
In the UK, around 75,000 children board. The majority are in fee-paying independent schools; 5,000 attend state boarding schools. In total, boarders account for approximately 0.5% of British schoolchildren. However, as adults, they are disproportionately represented in public life. Three of the last six prime ministers went to boarding school. In June 2021, 37% of Boris Johnson’s cabinet had been boarders. Decisions which affect all our lives are made by psyches forged in these institutions.
‘The sorts of damage that people experienced in the past was as a result of a very harsh regime’, then-headmistress of Cheltenham Ladies College Vicky Tuck told The Guardian in 2008, ahead of a parliamentary select committee investigating boarding schools.
‘It is not like that today’, she added.
But it is not just cold showers and canes that hurt; it is the separation of child from home. Denial of this is common among proponents of boarding. In 2011, then-head of the Boarding Schools’ Association Hilary Moriarty told The Independent, ‘I don’t think you would find a single unhappy boarder now because children wouldn’t stay, and parents would not keep them there’.
It is both disturbing and revealing that an adult so ignorant of the child psyche led the boarding school industry body.
In 2014, experts including psychoanalyst Susie Orbach and emeritus consultant psychiatrist Dr Felicity de Zulueta signed an open letter demanding an end to ‘early boarding’, which begins at seven years old.
‘The suffering caused by the British habit of sending children away from parental love and the safety of their homes to educational institutions has been ignored for much too long,’ they wrote.
‘Boarders lose out on a normal childhood. Children may learn to function competently, but at the cost of dissociation from their feelings of abandonment.’
Yet the Boarding Schools’ Association still promotes early boarding. Its website reads: ‘A seven-year-old is likely to find themself sharing a large bedroom with about half a dozen other youngsters…This companionship, coupled with a busy life inside and outside the classroom, and easy contact with parents, helps a child to weather the early days of missing home and begin to enjoy all that school life has to offer’.
I was sent to boarding school at thirteen. I did not want to go. I told my parents, but they did not listen. Three of my four older half-siblings had also been sent away. The eldest refused to return after his GCSEs. The second-eldest was expelled from one boarding school and ran away from another. The third was badly bullied in their first year. They rang my mother from the payphone in tears, pleading to be brought home. My mother refused.
Despite this record, my parents sent me away too, to the school at which my older sibling had been bullied.
My first dormitory was less than double the size of my bedroom at home, yet was shared with five other girls. Three sets of bunk beds clustered in the middle. Desks lined the perimeter, facing either the window or the wall. The room was so small that only one person could walk round it at a time. The furniture had been used by dozens of girls before me; nothing was mine.
We were told to make little contact with our parents during the first three weeks. Our parents were told to make little contact with us. We were not to return home for the weekend until at least three weeks into term. It would make it harder to settle, we were told.
On the first night, the girl in the bunk bed below me started crying. She could not stop. She cried the next morning, the next afternoon and the next evening. She was homesick, the matron said. It would pass, eventually.
The routine of our new lives became clear during the first week.
We eat breakfast in a dining hall with five hundred other children. It is compulsory to attend; a bowl of cereal in the boarding house is not allowed. Lunch is in the same place. Dinner is at six o’clock. A mandatory roll call takes place in the boarding house at half past seven. If you are late, you are in trouble. After roll call, you must sit at your desk in silence for an hour and forty-five minutes to do homework. There is a teacher on duty every evening who patrols the dormitories. If they enter and find you talking, you are in trouble. Once the bell rings at quarter past nine, you have forty-five minutes until your lights are turned off. There is no lamp next to your bunk bed; you cannot read before you fall asleep.
You are never on your own.
When lessons finished at the school I attended until I was thirteen, I got home at four-thirty and had the rest of the day to myself. I lay on the floor and stroked the cat. I called my friends. I watched Neighbours, and then whatever else I chose. I ate what I wanted from the fridge. I finished tinkering with whatever art project I was working on. At some point, when I felt ready, I began my homework. Occasionally I kept the television on in the background. My mother cooked dinner. Sometimes my father was home from work. We sat at the table and talked. I watched TV after dinner, with my mother and the cat. I read in bed, every night, several books a week. I turned my light off when I could stay awake no longer.
At boarding school, that kind of existence disappeared. The institutional control over our time extended to the weekends. On Saturday, lessons ran until twelve-thirty, following which you played a sports match. In the evening, a movie was on in the common room. It would not be chosen by you. On Sunday morning, you had to attend a church service at ten o’clock, in uniform. The single concession made by the institution on Sunday was that school lunch was optional, not mandatory. However, you had to be in house for a roll call at half past one, half past four and half past seven.
As the nature of my new life revealed itself, I was floored. Was this really what my parents wanted for me? Was this going to be the next five years of my life? I had so many hopes for my teenage years, so many projects I wanted to launch with my best friend from home. Previously, school had been an inconvenient sideline; I had been lobbying my dad to help me start a clothes business. I had spent my weekends with my friends at our various houses, cooking up our own plans. What I dreamed for my future had just dropped away.
The social culture was entirely different to what I had known. Boarding, I was thrown together with the children of parents who shot birds for fun at the weekend, who had got rich in banking, and who used the term ‘people like us’ to label acceptable company. Few of the mothers of my new peers had careers; the men were the breadwinners. Neither of my parents came from the English social class into which they had launched me; both were anxious to be accepted by it. But I felt alienated. This countryside set was not interested in what you read, or what was going on in politics, or in the culture. What mattered was who you knew, where you went on holiday, and how entertaining you were.
I had been sent here by my parents, to be among these people. There was no escape – I could not return home in the evening and leave the culture of the school behind, for at least a few hours a day. Not fitting in was a round-the-clock affair; there was nowhere to be at ease. Displaced, I understood my discomfort as a fault within me. In the therapist Nick Duffell’s words, ‘if parents think this is good, it must be good – the logic may be that therefore I am bad’.
It was my task to assimilate into the school’s ‘unfathomable culture’. So I did my best. I pretended I was less clever than I was; I stopped venturing thoughts and answers in conversation. I adopted the tic of preceding everything I said with ‘I don’t know, but…’, denying my own position before I had even stated it. I tried to learn the social codes of these new kinds of families; I copied what the other girls said, wore and wanted. I disowned my intellect and cut off my ambition. I had to; the alternative was a desolate isolation too great to bear.
I was also indentured to the school. I had won an academic scholarship which paid half the fees. A few months before the beginning of term, a thick brown envelope arrived, with the terms and conditions of the scholarship. I read them carefully. If I left the school before I was eighteen, my family was liable to pay back the fees saved by the scholarship for the time I had spent at the school. It would be thousands of pounds; I was not sure this was possible. Even before I started there, I told myself that I would have to stay. Saving my father money was more important than saving myself.
When I returned home at half-term, I was a guest in the house I had grown up in. My bedroom was static, unchanged. There was dust on the desk. Nothing was alive in it; no projects were on the go, no daily spirit of life was shifting and colouring the room, as happens when you live in a place.
‘Charlotte has settled in well,’ I overheard my mother tell her sister on the phone. ‘I’m so relieved.’
I felt a rush of anger towards her. I had not settled in at all. I hated it. But I could not leave, because of the scholarship.
When half-term ended, I returned to school.
Sometimes, at the weekend, older girls would hang around the common room, in full uniform. This was called ‘being gated’. It was a punishment for misdemeanours such as skipping lessons, or smoking and drinking. They were not allowed to leave the house, except for meals. They carried a form with them, which a teacher had to sign every hour. You could be gated for a week, for two weeks, for three weeks.
I began to feel incredibly uncomfortable in my body. There was too much flesh on me. I was too big. I was too fat to be attractive to the boys, which was the most important thing to be. ‘Frigid’ was a dire insult. Older girls warned us about a bench outside the library. Boys sat on this bench and yelled out a number as you passed. This was your ‘rating’ – how hot you were – from one to ten. My stomach lurched. I avoided the library.
I felt on show all the time, at breakfast, lunch and dinner. I had to look pretty and available, so I’d be rated highly. In this new place, the pleasures of thinking were no longer possible; the pleasure of being desirable was now what mattered.
At the same time, our bodies were punished for being female, although I could never have articulated that at the time. The girls’ uniform included a brooch, which had to be worn across the collar, on which the top button had to be fastened. It was uncomfortable and itchy. Some girls tried to wear the brooch without the top button, which made the shirt neck looser. But if a teacher saw it, they told you off.
If our skirts rose above our knee because we had grown taller, we were scolded and forced into a longer one. If our tights laddered, our housemistress reprimanded us, as though it was our fault. She was supposed to act as a stand-in for our mother; her job was to make the boarding house a home. But she blamed us for the ways in which the clothes we were forced to wear did not fit.
In uniform, we were not allowed jewellery or nail polish. We could not decorate or celebrate ourselves.
By the time I returned home for Christmas, I was going mad. I hated my flesh; I wanted it gone. I told my family I had to lose weight. I refused anything fatty, and learnt the calories of Ryvita and diet yogurt.
Six months previously, I had been at school in Oxford, at ease with intelligence, looking forward to expanding, being a teenager. After one term at boarding school, I was destroying myself.
Time began to stop mattering; it went unmarked. The new term drifted by in a starving haze.
One morning, while the rest of us were at lessons, a girl in my dormitory cut her wrists. We were told at lunch break, when we returned to a room smelling of disinfectant. Mauve drips, scrubbed of their deep colour, stained the wiry grey institutional carpet. The girl had disappeared; she had been sent home.
‘She mutilated herself,’ said my father when I told him, characteristically pleased that he alone was able to describe the event without emotion. ‘She must have very low self-esteem.’
The message was clear. Her suffering was her fault.
After two weeks, the girl returned to our dormitory. No one spoke about what had happened.
At home during the Easter holidays, my family failed to notice that I was fading, body and mind. Nobody knew me anymore. Disappearing was dangerously easy.
The summer holidays were torturous. None of my peers from boarding school lived closer than two hours’ drive. My best friend from my previous school had gone to day school around the corner from my home. She had new friends, none of whom I knew. We kept in touch, but things were different. It hurt to see her, for reasons I could not reveal to myself at the time. Now, I know it was terrible envy. She had not been sent away from home. She still belonged in a known universe. I, on the other hand, was drifting towards a black hole.
At this point, I should give some background. When I was eleven, while I was still at day school in Oxford, my father’s business went bankrupt. The same year, I later learnt, my parents separated. However, my father banned my mother, my four adult siblings and the wider family from telling me about the separation. Because of the bankruptcy, our house was the only asset left. My parents continued to live in it together.
The atmosphere between them was cruel and deadening. On good days, my father treated my mother with indifference; on bad days, with malice and contempt. Home was no longer safe, but tense and frightening. Nobody asked how I felt. Because of my father’s gag on the truth, I began to inhabit a reality separate from everybody else. The family in which I had grown up was disintegrating, but my father prevented me from mourning.
I knew he did not want me to ask questions. Like my mother and siblings, I was scared of him. I worried about what he would to do to her or to the house if he knew I knew about the separation. There was no way not to know; my eyes and ears perceived my parents hated each other. But, for my father, I pretended I could not see, hear or feel. I condemned myself to the solitary confinement he constructed for me.
For a child to build a sense of self, she must receive confirmation from the external world that her internal subjectivity is real and can be shared. From eleven, I was taught to deny what my own experience was telling me. I must not know what I knew. I must not speak what I thought, or voice what I feared. There was no common truth in my world. There was the reality that my parents and siblings shared – the family was over, my father and mother were apart – and then there was the lie I was forced to inhabit – that nothing had changed.
Life as I knew it had broken down. This could not be acknowledged, let alone grieved. At the same time, my father pressured me to achieve. I came first in my class. I won the top academic scholarship to boarding school. He insisted that my knowledge win prizes, and yet I was denied knowing who I was and where I came from.
My parents had cohabited for fifteen years, but the house was in my father’s name only. Later, I learnt that he refused to give her anything. She was on her own, he told her; she was entitled to nothing.
My mother hired a lawyer, who asked her to recount the relationship. Soon after she met my father, she had sold her own house and given him the proceeds, at his request. When he bought what became our family home, she spent eighteen months renovating it. Under the legal doctrine of primary estoppel, which makes a promise (such as the sharing of a home) binding by law in certain circumstances, my mother was in fact entitled to half the house. My father was furious. He had no choice but to sign over her portion whenever he decided to sell, the timing of which remained out of my mother’s control.
She had had no income of her own for the past fifteen years, and had to find a job at fifty-two. She was terrified, and unprepared for my father’s ruthlessness. As well as losing a family and a home, I was also losing a mother. There were no foundations left.
Consequently, when I started boarding school, I was already without language. I had been existing in an unbearable situation at home for almost two years. No one had tried to enter my reality. I was unreachable, and whatever I thought and perceived was unshareable.
My pain deserved no comfort; my fear deserved no attention. I learnt to respond the only way a child can in such neglect: I repressed the unendurable. My longing for home, my loss of love, my hatred of the boarding house, my loneliness among my new peers, my yearning for my bedroom and my freedom and my old friends – none of it could come into words. I did not know how to speak about such things. I had never been given the space to do so.
Many children sent to boarding school come from families in which what matters cannot be expressed. Years later, when I told my psychoanalyst about the girl in the bunk below me who cried for three weeks, he said, ‘perhaps she was crying for all of you’. Yet at the time, the dysfunction was located inside her as ‘homesickness’, rather than in a system that cuts children off from home. (The therapist Thurstine Bassett has proposed the term ‘school-sickness’ instead.)
Because however awful my home was, it was mine.
‘Homesickness is a terrible thing’, writes Eva Ibbotson in The Secret of Platform 13. ‘Children at boarding schools sometimes feel as though they’re going to die of it. It doesn’t matter what your home is like – it’s that it’s yours that matters.’
Before boarding school, my house had become a frightening and lonely place, but I had the run of it. I had my bedroom, and a garden, and weekends to myself, and my best friend down the road. Now I had a sixth of a tiny dormitory, with no freedom to come and go. We were not even allowed outside for evening air without permission.
But my parents did not want me at home. My father wanted me away, so he could continue to deny his destruction of the family. And my mother seemed pleased that I had ‘settled in’. I found myself in what the anthropologist Gregory Bateson called ‘a double bind’ – when parents put a child in a situation in which all options are maddening. I was not allowed to be at home, but I could not survive boarding. The only way ahead was to go numb, to shut down, to leave myself behind.
The psychotherapist Joy Schaverien coined the term ‘boarding school syndrome’, which she describes in her book of the same name. She wrote it after noticing similarities, over twenty-five years, in her adult clients who had been sent away from home as children. (I wouldn’t have chosen the term ‘syndrome’, but Schaverien insists the word should not pathologize.)
A common theme, Schaverien says, is that children sent to boarding school are so often told they are privileged that they feel guilty about articulating deprivation. But deprived they are.
Schaverien looks closely at the process of beginning boarding school. ‘The broken attachments of the first days in boarding school amount to a significant, but unrecognised, form of bereavement,’ she writes. ‘The rupture in emotional attachment is the first boarding school trauma. The child must to learn to live without love.’
It is worth quoting from a recent paper of hers, Revisiting Boarding School Syndrome, at length:
‘As a consequence of the abandonment, and the sense of exile, the child is bereaved and enters a phase very similar to the mourning suffered in other forms of bereavement. In boarding schools this is known by the more familiar term homesickness. It is true that the children are sick because they are missing home; but over the years this term has become diluted, such as in saying ‘you are just homesick, it will pass’.
‘This does not take account of the depth of the grief endured. Suddenly children lose their home and all their primary attachment figures. Like refugees who are ripped suddenly from their place in the world, the children lose all that is familiar in one go. They are banished. The sense of place that revolves, for small children, around their familiar circumstances is all gone in one moment. Children are bereaved and it is therefore appropriate that they go through a period of grief and mourning.
‘The phases of this grief are similar to those described by Murray Parkes in relation to the death of a loved person There is an initial searching, hoping for the person to return, then there are stages of anger, bargaining, self-questioning and self-reproach, until ultimately acceptance is attained. In that moment of acceptance, a part of the child is lost. The term bereavement is therefore more appropriate because this is a grief reaction to the sudden loss of significant primary attachment figures. The emotions can be so overwhelming for children that they have to close down psychologically in order to survive.’
Schaverien emphasises how this period of mourning, which typically follows bereavement, is often not permitted:
‘For the child in boarding school their losses are minimised and glossed over as insignificant. This contributes to the hidden aspect of the trauma. The child is bereft, alone and feeling the loss of those people who have always loved and cared for her. The familiar in every sense is gone: family and place are lost in one movement.’
Both this denial of mourning, and also the scale of the loss, can lead to the psychological closing down that Schaverien calls dissociation, a ‘split that is essential for survival’. It enables the child ‘to appear to be coping, even though that is far from the emotional reality’:
‘This unspeakable loss causes a psychological freezing; the child is literally ‘lost for words’. An encapsulation of the self takes place and a protective shell is formed…From then on the child lives communally but feels no longer known intimately by their parents. An unconscious but deep and permanent lack of trust of loving relationships may ensue.’
At home, when I complained that school was like a prison, I was scoffed at and told I was exaggerating. To read Schaverien describe the ‘captivity’ of boarding schools was vindicating:
‘Many ex-boarders have made the observation that boarding school is like prison (Fry 2004). The association is not new but taking it seriously may be. The comparison is often made as a flippant remark by an ex-boarder but, when treated with the gravity it merits, we realize that the schools are just that; prisons, where children are held against their will. Children who board in school are indeed captive. They are powerless to leave, unless released ‘on parole’ by adults. Like prisoners they wear uniform, and they are expected to eat and sleep at times prescribed by the authorities.’
One ex-boarder told the therapist Marcus Gottlieb: ‘there are rules for everything and you won’t get far if you question them, however eccentric. You cannot go here, you mustn’t go there, but you cannot stop people from invading your private space.’
The boarder looks forward to release when the holidays arrive. But even the release brings punishment, because you have to return to school when the break is over. Schaverien recounts one child’s ‘awful feeling of doom’ at packing; ‘it was as if the sun went in,’ he said.
One May evening, when I was seven, I stood at the bottom of our lawn, bouncing a shuttlecock on my badminton racket. It was six o’clock; the sky was bright light. Our black cat was lying in the flowerbed under the apple tree. Suddenly, there was shouting on the terrace. I looked up at the house; it was my sixteen-year-old sister. I had witnessed this scene many times before. It was Sunday night. She had to return to school. She did not want to go.
I was gripped with fear on her behalf. I held the shuttlecock still on the racket. The thought of leaving home, at this moment, was abysmal. The house was busy with people – my parents, my two older brothers and their friends, my cousin. The two cats, the guinea pig, the rabbit, the hamster. My mother had a roast chicken in the oven. And yet my sister had to leave.
After a while, my sister stopped shouting. She began to cry instead. When I went back inside, I asked where she was. Gone, I was told. She was on her way back to school.
I shivered at that being my fate one day. But my parents would never do that to me; it was impossible.
Looking back at that scene now, I cannot understand how my mother thought her daughter belonged somewhere that made her so unhappy.
When I was eventually sent away, memories of that evening reminded me how powerless I was. My sister’s rage had failed to save her. So what was the point of my resisting? My sister was far better at expressing fury than I was, and even she had been sent back.
Schaverien describes how boarding distorts time. ‘Imprisoned in boarding school, the child lives suspended in timelessness,’ she writes, ‘longing to return home but powerless to do so, often counting the days until the end of her sentence’.
When family birthdays occur during term time – those of the child themselves, as well as her parents and siblings – there is no group celebration.
‘A child depends on the memories carried by, and shared with, attachment figures to reflect a sense of continuity of being and of belonging to a community…Without these shared memories the child is separated from the continuity of his or her young existence.’
Captivity didn’t just distort time; it stripped me of my ability to use it. The self-direction I had possessed at day school, in control of my afternoons and weekends, evaporated. I stopped investing in new projects or enthusiasms, either at home or at school, because they would be interrupted within a few weeks, to return to the other place. My existence was whittled down to the suitcase which I had to shuttle between the two locations, a hundred-and-twenty miles apart.
As one of Gottlieb’s adult clients told him: ‘I can never belong to anything, because for so many years I was forced to belong to the school. I wore their uniform, obeyed their rules, jumped out of bed and went running to the chapel or the refectory whenever they rang their bell…I would rather live like a hermit than have anyone ever tell me what to do and when to do it.’
The years wore on. I turned fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, always marking the day at school.
Finally, after five years of silence, my mother told me that she and my father had separated. It was like being informed of war after half a decade of carpet bombing. My world had been laid waste to long before; her words were too late.
On paper, my age was increasing. But I was shrinking. There was less flesh on my bones. There was less room in my mind. Boarding was hampering my education, not only due to the stress it exerted, but also the lack of time and space for exploring ideas. Homework was confined to the time allotted in the evening; once the bell rung, people came in and out of the dormitory, slamming doors. I was terrified of being seen to be too excited by work, too keen to keep learning. I dragged myself away from my desk and joined whatever conversation was nearby, to seem normal.
It wasn’t just the environment that inhibited my learning. It was the teachers themselves. When we were fifteen, a male teacher liked to tell us about ‘vagina dentata’, a mythical fear that women’s vaginas have teeth and will tear off the penis during sex. There were four girls and ten boys in our class. We girls sunk down in our chairs, apologising for our bodies. He was teaching us Lolita at the time, Nabokov’s novel about a paedophile abducting a thirteen-year-old. There were many texts he could have chosen to teach the fifteen-year-old girls in his care; he chose this.
The following summer, before I entered the upper sixth, it emerged this teacher was sleeping with a girl who had been in the year above me. He was 42; the girl was 18. The teacher told the headmaster their sexual relationship had begun after the girl’s final day of school. The teacher was taken at his word. He remains at the school to this day.
After a classmate of mine graduated from university, they met this teacher for a drink. They went home to the teacher’s flat. The teacher told my classmate he had been in love with them for years, and that it was ‘one of the greatest mistakes of his life’ not to have declared his desire earlier.
Another male teacher encouraged our class to email him with questions about the subject. I did so. A week after my own final day at school, the four of us girls in his class received an email from this teacher, who was in his fifties:
‘I suppose my question to the four of you is: do you want to be my Quartet of Muses or do you want to have a go at actually being The Poetry Girls? If the latter, then we have some work to do – that is, intellectual play of the highest order. Let me know.’
I did not reply.
Another schoolfriend tells of a male tutor in her boarding house sitting on her bed while she did her homework, in her dressing gown after a bath. At the time, she was so taken aback she couldn’t speak. It becomes impossible to see, when you’re drowning in the institution, what is wrong and what is right.
As Schaverien writes about cases of sexual assault in boarding schools, ‘apparently what happened was viewed as normal by the perpetrator (often a person in authority) and so children may accept this as just another part of the unfathomable culture of the institution in which they are now living’.
These instances are not anomalies or bad luck; they are systemic to boarding schools. A large group of vulnerable, parentless children attracts a certain kind of teacher.
My parents were astonishingly naïve to the misogyny and sexual politics of such a place; it beggars belief that you would trust your daughter’s safety to it. British boarding schools are what Schaverien calls ‘male-identified institutions’; they were built by men, run by men, in order to turn boys into men. As young women, these institutions taught us the world is not ours.
At the girls’ day school my best friend attended, she did not have to look available all the time. Her mother understood the English class system far better than either of my parents, and consequently would never have let her daughter board. My friend had teachers who expanded her mind, rather than punished her lewdly for her body. The environment encouraged her to think freely as a woman, instead of marginalising her for being one.
By the time I was seventeen, there was little left of me. The child who had arrived at boarding school at thirteen – the child who loved learning, and who still guarded a drive for life, despite the trouble at home – had extinguished herself.
My emotional pain and the conditions of the school had made it impossible to develop intellectually. But I had to get into Oxford University; that was my father’s diktat. I opened a blank document to begin the application. And I froze. I couldn’t write it, and soon I couldn’t write anything else either. My mother arranged an appointment with a psychologist.
In the first session, a few minutes after meeting, the psychologist began teaching me the tenets of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Change your thoughts, he said, and you can change your feelings. Change your feelings and you can do anything! He gave me a worksheet to practice on and mantras to repeat. I tried earnestly to change my thoughts. No matter that I was applying to Oxford because of the perceived quality of my thinking. This psychologist said it was wrong. It needed replacing.
Two months and several CBT sessions later, I failed to get into Oxford. In the aftermath, I told my mother I had eating problems. They had begun during the first term of boarding school, I said. Another appointment was made, this time with an ‘eating disorder’ therapist. I embraced the diagnosis. It was the only tool I had left to communicate to my family that I was in pain. They had been deaf and blind to the child suffering among them. But if a doctor said I was disordered, then they had to take notice.
Destroyed by one system, I had fallen straight into the arms of another. My tale illustrates a typical sequence of events which leads psychiatry to form a grip on people.
Initially, an individual is forced to endure an unbearable reality, in which relationships have failed. Often, the individual has been hurt or abandoned by those depended on to protect them. To survive, the individual’s psyche responds in the only way available. When this leads to problems, the individual is given (or reaches out for) a diagnosis, which locates the failure inside themselves. But there is never anything wrong with the individual. It is the systems around them which have failed – in my case, the family and the school. Through diagnosis, psychiatry locates these systemic problems within the person suffering. This often crystallises the maddening symptoms, turning natural, intelligible responses to distress into chronic, pseudo-medical entities – a ‘disorder’ or an ‘illness’ – while ignoring, and in some cases even sustaining, the roots of the initial distress.
Forced to live out of a suitcase from thirteen years old, I spent my late teens and twenties repeating that homelessness, trying to fix myself by moving around, fleeing one uninhabitable place for another.
At boarding school, I went home once every three weekends. My father picked me up at one o’clock on Saturday and we drove two-and-a-half hours back to Oxford. It hurt to arrive, because the house was no longer my home. My parents were cruel to each other, sparing no barbs because of my presence. On Sunday mornings, I drowned my pain in four bowls of cereal, then tried to avoid the chicken my mother roasted as some kind of gesture towards the weekend. At four o’clock, after twenty-four hours at home, my father loaded my bag into the boot again. I longed for my mother to rush out of the house, seize my case and say that I never had to go back, that I was allowed to stay, that she wanted me at home. She never did.
As I got into the passenger seat, my father handed me the Sunday Times, then plugged in his seatbelt. The two-and-a-half-hour drive back to school began again.
In our twenties, some of my boarder peers began to open up. Slowly, we shared how difficult it had been. Mute as teenagers, we used the language that therapy had given us to reveal how isolated, lonely and desperate for home we had been.
The first time I read accounts from ex-boarders gathered by therapists including Schaverien, Duffell and Gottlieb, I was astonished. Boarding school puts you in a perverse position. You are no longer an individual; you are always one among others. And yet, in your pain, you are locked away alone. To read, almost two decades later, that in fact I had not been alone, that thousands of others had felt the same terror and loss, had numbed themselves in the same way, had struggled since, and could not forgive themselves for not saving themselves, was like entering another dimension. I had spent years as a child dying for someone to see my pain – and here, in the words of other sufferers, my fear and grief was finally voiced.
Schaverien describes how one of the ex-boarders she worked with, ‘in order to survive in an alien environment, [had] little choice but to do violence to the tender self, to kill off the feeling state, in order to comply with the institution’.
During my first term boarding, I knew I was shutting down, burying the parts that made me me. I felt guilty about destroying myself, about nullifying all my previous years of development and education. As one of the narrators in Rachel Cusk’s novel The Country Life says of her boarder brother, I knew the school was taking something ‘vital and precious’ away. Today, I can grasp that the destruction wasn’t my fault – that the system and my family demanded it. But remorse about my complicity remains.
Some ex-boarders revisit the experience on their own children. ‘It was human nature for people to wish cruelty on one another simply because they had been shown cruelty themselves,’ says another of Cusk’s characters, in Kudos. The sister of a friend, despite being unhappy at our school, has already put her toddler’s name down to board.
There are parallels to be made with the work of psychoanalyst Ronald Fairbairn on abused children. He found that children who had been hurt by their parents, sometimes in the most barbaric ways, denied being angry at them. Instead, they praised their parents and spoke of them as good people. This was confounding. Fairbairn concluded that for the child to grasp the extent of the horror visited upon them – that those adults they depended on for survival in fact wanted to destroy them – was too much for the psyche to bear. To make reality endurable, the children had to imagine their abusers were caring people.
In my opinion, a similar dynamic is at work in how some adults reshape their boarding school experience. To concede that their school – the institution which should have shielded and expanded them – made them homeless as a child, forced them to forgo the love and intimacy of their parents, and denied them their individuality and their freedom, is too overwhelming. It is easier to pretend the place was good for you.
It has taken me twenty years to put what happened during those first days of boarding school into words. Only after four years of psychoanalysis did I have the peace and safety to look back, and to grieve the loss of home and family which I was never allowed to mourn at the time.
Day after day for months, at thirty-three years old, I woke up dreaming of never having been sent away. In these dreams, I would beg my parents more loudly not to go, or I would refuse to get in the car, or they never would have wanted me to board in the first place. I would be listened to in a way I never had been as a child.
Some mornings, I woke up already in tears. I would beg a God I don’t believe in to turn back time, so I could keep my home, my freedom, my friends and my self. If I thought hard enough, I could rewind the years. Sometimes, a glimmer of acceptance emerged. My childhood had been trashed, something whispered, and there was nothing I could do about it.
I had been trying what Gottlieb advised, making ‘the effort to imagine the shock felt by the child on the first arrival at school…to make contact with the child before he adapted to his new environment and shut down his authentic, feeling part’. But sometimes the grief that surfaced was too shattering.
A prohibition also remains against looking back, both within the family and in the wider culture. Some think that those of us concerned with the past are to blame for our own pain. As I flirted with believing this, it was writers and musicians I admire who quashed that position as destructive nonsense. Without the past, there is no art.
‘Memory is what we are,’ says Nick Cave in the documentary 20,000 Days on Earth.
‘You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water,’ writes Margaret Atwood in Cat’s Eye. ‘Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.’
‘I have this theory that most artists never leave childhood, that you’re endlessly trying to work out what happened,’ Rachel Cusk told the City Arts podcast.
It took Nobel Laureate Annie Ernaux half a century to write about the painful summer she was seventeen, in 1958. But aged seventy-six, she published A Girl’s Story.
‘It seems to me that I have finally freed the girl of ’58, broken the spell that kept her prisoner for over fifty years,’ she writes.
Our cultural conscience exists because some of us believe in facing ourselves.
Nevertheless, the loss can feel unsurvivable. Some afternoons, I cross paths with teenage girls walking back from school. I envy their possession of a home, of a life local to their classroom, of a freedom that I never had to pursue interests.
Ten minutes’ walk from our house in Oxford was one of the best schools in the country, the girls’ day school where my childhood friend went. She flourished, got into Cambridge, and remained on the tracks of her life, where I fell off. That day school had the intellectual focus I was so hungry for. But it was too drab for my parents. They wanted the prestige of boarding school; the wealth and status of the other parents shored up their own class insecurity. From where I am now, it seems senseless.
Sadly, it does not seem likely that the British government will force schools to stop accepting boarders in the near future. This makes it ever more vital to continue building an archive of voices from ex-boarders, who can articulate how much suffering the experience brought.
Duffell’s Boarding School Survivors organization is doing critical work, both in raising awareness about the harms of boarding, and in helping ex-boarders. Boarding School Survivors Support does similar.
Every September, more than 10,000 children become boarders. They face the same shock, disappointment and loss as thousands before them. They learn to go mute, to starve their hunger for intimacy, and to become homeless. This has to end.
I pray that an essay like this provokes one parent to a different decision, or gives one child a voice to refuse being sent away. As Duffell says, once you are a boarder, you never go home again.
Boarding School Syndrome: The psychological trauma of the ‘privileged’ child by Joy Schaverien, Routledge, 2015
Trauma, Abandonment and Privilege: A guide to therapeutic work with boarding school survivors by Nick Duffell and Thurstine Bassett, Routledge, 2016
The Making of Them: The British Attitude to Children and the Boarding School System by Nick Duffell, Lone Arrow Press, 2000
Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion by Nick Duffell, Lone Arrow Press, 2014
Revisiting Boarding School Syndrome: The Anatomy of Psychological Traumas and Sexual Abuse by Joy Schaverien, British Journal of Psychotherapy, Vol 13. Issue 4, Nov 2021
Working with Gay Boarding School Survivors by Marcus Gottlieb, Self & Society, Vol. 33 No. 3, 2006
Reflections of a Survivor by Thurstine Bassett
Wounded Leaders by Nick Duffell, Therapy Today, July 2014, Volume 25 Issue 6
Power Threat Meaning Framework: Overview, ‘Surviving separation, institutionalisation and privilege’ (p.70) by Lucy Johnstone, Mary Boyle et al. (British Psychological Society)
Editor’s note: A paragraph regarding the legal terms of the house sale was corrected on 8 January.