I can not deny it. As a boy I occasionally wet the bed. Look this is no great admission. We all did it. I was a very young boy, alright a baby even. My mother forgave me, changed the sheets and that was the end of it. So she occasionally mentions it to girlfriends, but it is no big deal. No really. But it was for a least one girl. Bed wetting that is. As a child Clare, also wet the bed. Not just the once, or even the odd time, but practically every night. She even had attached to her bed something called a bed-wet alarm to warn her of the impending danger. But for her the danger was not so much the bed wetting, but her mother. For Clare was abused, both physically and mentally throughout her childhood, and to this day lives with the scars. This is not a story of pity and of shame; but one of bravery and of hope. This is the story of an abused child who through courage and dedication became a barrister; a part time Judge and a bestselling author. This is the story of Constance “Clare” Briscoe.
“I removed the top from the bottle of bleach, diluted it with tap water, drank it and went back to bed. I chose Domestos because Domestos kills all known germs and my mother had for so long told me that I was a germ. I felt very sick, happy and sad. I was happy because if the bleach worked, I would die.”
Earlier that day Clare had attended her local Social Services office to ask them to take her into a Children’s Home. It was their failure to act that persuaded her that suicide was her only option.
Clare Briscoe was born on the 18th May 1957 and lived in and around Camberwell in South East London. She was one of six children. Her father George walked out soon after she was born as a result it would appear of one too many fights with his wife, Clare’s mother Carmen. Like the occasion when the Carmen allegedly took a machete to her husbands head; or the coat hanger which “pierced his face just below the jaw and came out the other side” or the time when she stabbed a pair of scissors into his stomach. But this is not the story of a marriage; this is the story of a child and of lost innocence.
As a child her name was either Clear, Clearie or Clare. She was also however called “Ugly”, “Pisshead”, “Miss Piss-the-bed”, “Scarface” and the “Black Bitch”. But that was just by her mother. The irony is that she never actually knew that her real name was “Constance” until she applied for University and a discrepancy as to the name on her birth certificate and her qualifications became apparent. “This came as an almighty shock. It had never occurred to me that my name was not Clare Briscoe. I had no idea that I was really Constance Beverley Briscoe.”
Constance’s book Ugly: The true story of a loveless childhood tells the story of Clare’s life. It tells the story of how Clare was shamed and humiliated, continually told that she was worthless and ugly. It tells how she was starved, kicked and beaten. “At the age of six my beatings were as regular as ever. My alarm continued to fail to wake me in time, and my wet bed would earn me a beating with a shoe or a belt or a cane”. Two years later she was still wetting her bed “I prayed to God to stop me wetting my bed.” Her prayers were unfortunately not answered. She continued to wet her bed and she continued to experience abuse. It was discovered that she had lumps in her breast. “When I examined them [her breast] after one of my mother’s nipple-squeezing sessions, that I realised that both were lumpy and deformed”. As a form of punishment for the bed wetting her mother would ritually punch her and pinch and pull at her breast. “She dug her nails in my nipple and pulled me towards her. The pain was such that I imagined my nipple coming off in my mother’s hand. The tears welled up in my eyes”. She was taken to hospital, examined and operated on. Doctors thought that her “deformity” was so rare that they used her as a teaching aid to seventy or so other doctors. She was twelve at the time. Whilst in hospital nobody visited her and she never wet the bed. However when she went home again the bed wetting started again.
Her mother cut her arm with a knife and inflicted upon her serious head injuries. Bumping into her; pushing her; punching her; shoving her; kicking her; even taking a piece of wood from the stairs to create a weapon the “split-split plank”.
When I met with Constance Briscoe in her London Chambers, she looked like any other barrister. Cool calm and somewhat serene in her black elegant almost regimental barristerial suit. She has come such a long way. I asked her the most obvious crass question anybody could ever ask an abused child. What do you put the abuse down to?
Constance explained “I put it down to my bedwetting, I think”
Why is bedwetting a bad thing?
“Because I was the only one that wet the bed, and if I had not then she would not have become so obsessed with trying to get me to stop wetting the bed”
The unanswerable question. What comes first? The bedwetting or the abuse?
“Yes, that is true. I had not really taken that on board until after I wrote the book and then some people were saying ‘well hold on a minute. Is there not a connection between bedwetting and your mother?’ And it had not crossed my mind that there may have been a connection. I think that my mother became obsessed because I wet the bed and I was the only one that wet the bed and it was this kind of trying to control me, to stop me wetting the bed. When that failed we went to see the various experts and I had all of these bed alarms.”
But the bed alarms failed to work, creating even more tension.
“When that failed my mother was completely exasperated with me and then my mother decided to try and get me to stop wetting the bed her own way, and that got out of hand. Because it was stopping me drinking to start off with and then instead of washing the sheet which was causing her a lot of financial hardship, because they had to be washed. Well daily really, in times when you did not have a tumble dryer. So there was quite a lot of financial hardship there and so, when that failed, she was then saving up the sheet to put back on my bed at night and then when that failed to stop me, it then moved on to, you know pulling my pubic hairs out, twisting my nipples, that sort of thing. So I think, if I had not wet the bed, then my mother would not have behaved in the way that she did. And that sort of thing”
So how long have you had that thought?
“All my life, all my life, when I was a child, that was you know, all about wetting the bed. So yes”
So you blamed yourself?
“Oh most definitely yes. If I had not wet the bed, then she would not have, she would not have done what she did”
She made you feel isolated?
“Yes because I would not have been isolated. I would have been one of all of them. I would have been one of all of the children. And I would not have been different”.
And that is why you prayed on occasions not to wet the bed?
“Definitely, definitely, yes. I think it was me wetting the bed that caused my mother to behave in the way that she did. Definitely. Definitely. Yes, I mean I had my own room, because the stench kept everybody else out and my mother did not want everybody else sharing a room with me, and that was because I wet the bed.”
It is a sad fact that a considerable number of people abused or bullied blame themselves, if only they could have done something different it might all have been so different.
It was however not just from her mother that she experienced abuse. Her step father Eastman also abused her. “He took his belt from around his waist and hit me twice in the face with it and then he punched me. The belt had a large buckle”. There were other incidents and as a result she took action.
A private prosecution against him at the Magistrates Court. It was her first court case and inevitably her first win. He was convicted and bound over on good behaviour for the following twelve months. Her reaction was “No more beatings for the next twelve months!” She was twelve.
I asked her whether she thought that someone would come and save her. Her father had tried but (and she does not blame him) just never could.
“No. I wanted to get away. I had already made up my mind I was going to get away and sooner or later I was going to get away.”
And on occasions she did escape. She went to live with a polish school teacher, a “Miss K” (for Miss Korchinskye). However as often appears the case in these stories of tradegy, disaster was always just around the corner. Miss K went home to Poland for a visit when her car was trapped between the tracks on a level crossing. A train reached her before she could escape, and as a result of the subsequent accident one of her legs was amputated. The second was saved only to protect her sanity. On Miss K’s return to England she would struggle to look after herself never mind anyone else. Clare returned home to her Mother.
In this heartbreaking story there are so many other tales to tell of Clare’s existence, and in truth this article can simply not do justice to their telling. That every Christmas she received the same presents, a spinning top and a black doll called “Dollie”. And when I say same, I mean same. Her mother would repackage the same present every year. The rest of the family received normal, different presents. Of the child baldness; of her mothers refusal to sign University grant papers; of being home alone and perhaps of all the sins the lack of love.
But the story is not simply of heart wrench. Her mother moved the family out of the family home, leaving Briscoe there home alone. Not for a few hours, or a few weeks, but years. She was 15 years old and her mother just moved out lock stock and family, less one. There was of course no food, no furniture and no electricity. Briscoe took three jobs and school and survived. Survived through grit, determination and because she had to. She had ambition also, to be a barrister. When she was twelve she taken with her school to the Knightsbridge Crown Court where she met one of the barristers. His name was Mike Mansfield. At that meeting she asked for pupillage for when she qualified as a barrister. He made that promise. A promise he was subsequently to keep.
She went to University and subsequently became that barrister. Her mother was not impressed. She had not been in contact with her mother. But in 1999 with Constance making progress at the bar her mother made contact. She wrote to the Bar Council. She alleged that “I was trying to have her murdered and that I had got some Yardies, who were going to shoot her; she said I was a thief; that I was bringing into the country illegal immigrants; sorting our passports and she said that I should be struck off, because I was just a common thief pretending to be a barrister, or something along those lines”. Motherly love so to speak.
The Bar Council dismissed the complaint stating that there was no evidence of professional misconduct and wrote to Carmen stating “you obviously have a problem with your daughter and we hope you can resolve it.” Yes you could say that.
Constance wrote on that occasion to her mother “I always wondered why she was still alive, because I could not understand what purpose she served and if it is right that only the good die young, then I can quite understand why she is still around. And I said that every night when I go to bed, as a Catholic, I pray, that she goes sooner rather than later. And I said ‘if I never speak to you again, it will be too soon’. So that was that.
Attempting to look at this situation from an objective perspective we find ourselves full of sadness, pity and a resolve to blame. The system which did not find her; her own family who did not save her and her mother who had simply no right to be a mother. For many Constance is a hero, an inspiration and a soul mate. I say Constance because Clare is no longer with us. “The book is definitely Clare but that person does not exist any more”. When I met with Constance I struggled with this concept. But for her it was clear, very clear that the two lives had now been separated. “Well she is gone. I meant Clare never really existed, my name was not Clare. My name is Constance and when I discovered my name; when I was applying to University I became the person, the person that I always was, which is Constance”
At the end of the book Ugly, readers are left with romantic visions of a ‘happily ever after’ But there is to be a sequel: the years from 1979 to 1985. Her University years and her time as junior counsel. “No it was not good. It was the worst time of my life actually, if I am honest”.
Constance Briscoe is a remarkable woman. Endowed with courage, grit and ability. She rose to become a barrister (under Mike Mansfield’s pupillage) and in 1996 became a part time Judge – one of the first black women to sit as a judge in England. Constance is an extremely reluctant role model, somewhat embarrassed with the success of the book and media’s demands upon her. She just wants to get on with her life; write and spend time with her loving family. The book and this interview show that from despair there is hope; but also cause and effect and hopefully for Constance the book will give Clare the peace she deserves.
Constance Briscoe’s Ugly: The true story of a loveless childhood is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is on sale in hardback at £12.99. ISBN 0-340-89597-7