Interview: Dana Fowley, Rape victim

IT IS the simplest word in the world, the most natural. Almost every language on earth has developed a word for mother that is closely linked to the first distinguishable sounds a human baby makes. Ma, mama, mae, ami. That's how instinctive we feel the concept of mother is. But Dana Fowley is struggling. The word will not form easily on her lips. It requires effort. "I hate saying the word mum," she says. "I hate it."

Betrayal is only possible by people of whom we have expectations. There are few more instinctive expectations than those a child has of its mother. Dana Fowley was just five when her stepfather, Billy King, first sexually abused her when they were alone together. The next day, she was relieved to see her mother, Caroline Dunsmore, at home when she arrived back from school. Her mother had never been very warm, but Dana noticed how strangely cold her eyes were that day. Dunsmore held her own child down while King raped her again.

Last year, the case of Vanessa George, the nursery worker convicted of abusing children in her care, brought the subject of female abusers to public attention. George's case was shocking because it seemed so unusual. In fact, Childline has recorded a 132 per cent increase in children reporting abuse by women in the last five years. In 2004, 993 children told the charity they had been abused by a woman. In 2009, that figure had risen to 2,142 and 445 of those cases were in Scotland. "The majority of sexual abuse is perpetrated by men," acknowledges Dr Lisa Bunting, a senior researcher with the NSPCC, "but you do no service whatsoever to victims if you don't acknowledge abuse by women. What do you do when those cases occur if you can't get your head round it?"

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Female abuse is often distinguished by women co-offending rather than acting alone. Sometimes, that may be because of coercion. But we must also start looking at female sexual motivation, argues Dr Bunting. "As soon as a man is involved it becomes, 'the bad man made her'. We are much more comfortable with the idea of women as victims than the idea that they might be sexually motivated."

Childline statistics suggest that when a child is abused by a woman, the perpetrator is most likely their mother. "Some women will facilitate abuse to keep a man," explains Dr Bunting. "The value they put on the relationship is much higher than the emphasis they place on their children."

Caroline Dunsmore always put her sexual partners above her children, says Fowley. In 2007, a series of trials saw her jailed for 12 years and fellow abusers Morris Petch and John O'Flaherty jailed for life and 13 years respectively. It was considered one of Scotland's worst ever abuse cases. There was the scale – at that time, it uncovered the biggest ever paedophile ring in Scotland – and the sheer depravity of it. But somehow, it wasn't the wider significance that shocked most; it was the microcosm of Fowley's family.

The details of what happened to Dana Fowley as a child are repellent. Yet there is a kind of redemption in her story. Only by glimpsing the horror of what she survived can you come to understand what that is. She was abused by most of the key figures of her childhood. Her stepfather, Billy King. Her step grandfather, Peter King. Her step grandmother, Mary King (a fact that suggests female abusers are not a new phenomenon). Her maternal grandfather, William Dunsmore. But worse, every rape, every act of torture, was done with the full collusion or participation of the woman most charged with her safety and welfare: her mother. For Fowley, who has written a book called How Could She?, that betrayal cut deepest. "They are all evil, the lot of them. But it was her place as a mother to say, 'No you can't do this to my child.'"

It's one of most poignant things about children: their absolute trust that their mother will protect them. It takes a lot to destroy that instinct. Even as an adult, Fowley has struggled to balance the needs of the inner child who wanted a mum with the grown-up who needed justice. She only revealed her traumatic childhood gradually over many years. Her mother was the very last person she exposed to police.

"When she first went to jail I was devastated. My whole world tumbled apart. I actually felt like someone had died. Her." She was grieving, not so much for the loss of Dunsmore as a person but for the loss of the mother she never had. All her need and longing continued to pour into the only mother she knew. "I think I wanted it so much because I wanted her to change. I wanted her to say, 'I'm sorry this happened', and give reasons. But she has no remorse. She blames me for being in jail. She'll actually have a conversation with you about how other people should be in jail, like she wasn't involved in it. And I think, for God's sake you were part and parcel of this!"

At first, Fowley visited her mother in prison, making public pleas for her safety. She was continually drawn back to Dunsmore yet repelled by her. "I was mixed up, messed up." Inside, she knew her mother only wanted her to visit because she had no one else. "When I look through life, I actually don't think she liked me as a person. I think to be truthful if any of them had murdered me, she would have gone on with her ordinary life. I really do." Then came the final straw. "She was going on about girlfriends she had in jail and I thought, you are talking to … the nature of your crime … and you are talking about a girlfriend you have. I got up and walked out. I really haven't seen her since."

In 2009, further prosecutions were brought against two men accused of blindfolding and raping Fowley. Dunsmore confessed she was watching television during her daughter's ordeal. Then she changed her mind, withdrawing her evidence. She was "mistaken". The case collapsed. Fowley had never been angrier.

"I was really raging. Raging." Was it true she went to the prison, shouting through a megaphone that Dunsmore was evil? "Yes. But … I don't know … I was quite embarrassed about it afterwards. At that point I thought, I don't care what people do to her." Fowley talks quietly; she has learned throughout life to internalise so much of her emotion. But at times, the animation in her voice betrays anger, frustration, sadness. "Do you know what it was?" she says. "That whole book was about her first betrayal and it just happened all over again in that court. She betrayed my childhood and even in adulthood she wants to stick up for paedophiles. Because she's one. These are her people. I have to say of my mother: Caroline Dunsmore, paedophile."

She no longer wants Dunsmore in her life. "It doesn't matter how I feel about being a daughter. You cannot be a daughter to something that's not a mother."

The door of what Dana Fowley calls the House of Hell in Edinburgh has been painted a different colour now but it still provokes the same instinctive shiver in her. Built next door to an electronics factory, it used to be the home of Billy King's parents. It was here that Fowley and her sister Heather, who has learning problems, were raped, throttled, urinated on and sadistically beaten by the elderly Kings. Heather was never abused at home, a fact Fowley can only put down to some strange kind of control Dunsmore and King were trying to exercise in case one of the children "told". But she was delivered to the House of Hell, same as her sister.

If Heather wasn't there, Dunsmore and King would join in with King's parents. The worst violence took place once when Fowley was alone with King senior and he beat her with a poker after raping her. But it often seemed her mother would instigate things in a bid to "prove" herself to the others. There were no sexual boundaries between the participants in that house and none outside it either.

Fowley was regularly sent to the homes of King's friends to be raped. There was an unspoken web of connections between these people extending to Dunsmore's family too. Dunsmore, who was of low intelligence and went to a special school, claims she was abused by her own father, William. Yet she left Fowley with him to be raped too. He was later jailed for the abuse. His wife did not participate but she offered no protection to her granddaughter and Fowley always suspected she knew. "I wouldn't like to say anything bad about her because I don't know, but it would be hard to say she didn't know. She sat downstairs all the time."

Fowley wants to know what Billy King told her mother after he abused her that first day. How do you tell a mother something like that, she demands. But isn't it more likely the conversation would have taken place before the abuse? Caroline Dunsmore met Billy King because King was a friend of her father's. Both men were paedophiles. King's father and mother were paedophiles. King's friends were paedophiles. That was surely not some kind of catastrophic coincidence, stars lining up in the worst possible formation to blight Dana and Heather Fowley's lives. Wasn't that organisation?

Billy King was a 20-stone diabetic. There was nothing physically attractive about him, says Fowley, that would have naturally drawn her mother to him. But they were bound by inclination. Just as King's friends were. One of them grabbed Fowley and raped her in the close of her flat when she was on her way home. Fowley told her parents but the next day she came home to find the friend with her mother and King. All three then abused her together. She was ten when she was blindfolded and raped by the anonymous men. Weren't these planned activities by people bound together by their sexual instincts?

"I think you're right," Fowley says, but even she sounds confused by the exact relationships between participants. She says her step grandparents and maternal grandparents didn't mix and were only linked by Billy King. But she is uncertain, she admits. She recognises the possibility they were part of something bigger. "It's really horrifying. I was in their home but you don't know what they have done outside the home and what children they have damaged."

"Why didn't you tell?" is one of the simplest questions in the world and one of the hardest for victims to answer. You only ask it from a position of strength. When you are frightened, isolated and abused, it becomes redundant. The power dynamics of abuse mean the child feels guilty and responsible for their own situation. Don't tell. People will know what you're like. This is your fault. You asked for this. It's the most insidious part of abuse: the transferral of blame.

"You feel ashamed, embarrassed," explains Fowley. "It's not easy to come out and say my mum and stepdad abused me last night. You sort of get trained into it. Because it happened to me from when I was five, there's nothing better. It didn't matter at all. It just didn't come across that I should tell people because as a child, you don't know that it's as wrong as it is. It becomes your reality."

In December 1992, when Fowley was 12, her grandfather King died suddenly of a heart attack. It was one of the best days of her life. Two years later his wife followed and another year after that, Billy died in his sleep. The day of Billy's funeral, Fowley remembers laughing out loud with the nervous energy of it all. She went to the graveside, joined in the family display of grief, then while the others went on to the wake, she went back home alone and sat on the bed where she had been raped so many times. It was finally over. "I can do anything I want to do," she said aloud to the empty flat.

There is a difference between surviving and living. Plenty of people survive trauma. They exist in some broken form of themselves. But the real triumph is when your traumatic past informs who you are but doesn't define you. If some part of your spirit remains untarnished and capable of more than should really be expected from you. When Dana Fowley talks about her partner Paul and her children, when she talks about love, you sense that triumph. She is a woman who has no reason to trust anyone, no early experience that should allow her to recognise love – and yet she does.

Almost every person she should have been able to rely on, let her down. Her real father, Tam, who disappeared early in her childhood, came back into her life when she was an adult. Briefly, there was hope of a real relationship with at least one parent. Then Fowley discovered he was abusing Heather. She doesn't feel his loss as much as that of her mother because he wasn't part of her life for long. But she doesn't trust strangers. "I have my wee family and I trust them. I don't need to trust anybody else."

It took nine years before she could even begin to tell Paul and the full horror came out only gradually. She attempted suicide twice. It would be impossible to have Dana Fowley's life experiences and remain undamaged. "I don't think anybody that has been abused can leave it behind. You can move on and lead a normal life but it's always there. There will always be times throughout my life that I get upset and emotional." Sometimes, she has nightmares still. "About what they did. And I'll wake up and at times you feel … well, I feel dirty."

Yet there is some inner kernel of her that remains intact. "I won't sit every day of my life mourning. It's not something I live my whole life with. I don't feel worthless." The remarkable thing, the redemptive thing, about her story is how undamaged her capacity for love seems to be. It may be limited to few people, but those she loves, she loves with great loyalty. Even her mother drew her back time and again. How would she feel facing Dunsmore now? "Raging. I wouldn't attack her because I don't think it's in my nature to attack but I'd walk out. I'd probably want to ask her, 'Why?' But she wouldn't have an answer. She's just evil."

Fowley's love for Heather means she has provided her with a home and expects to look after her for the rest of her life. "Heather is very, very vulnerable," she explains. She has the mental capacity of a 13-year-old and tends to mirror Fowley's emotions.

"All that's happened doesn't matter to her and that's a good thing. I'm glad she doesn't suffer with it. I feel sadder for her because she's my wee sister and she's so dependent on me. In the whole time my mother has been in jail, she has never once asked, 'How's Heather?'"

Fowley's partner, Paul, came into her life when she was 17. Twelve years older than her, his relationship had failed and he was left with two children, seven-year-old Paul and six-month-old Ryan. Fowley loved those two boys like they were her own. Still does. How did she learn to trust Paul? "It was very slow-moving. I wouldn't say it happened instantly but I eventually came to trust him and love him and I felt loved back. Paul is a very deep, emotional person."

They hope to marry next year. Even falling in love with the right person is a triumph. Almost every man her mother associated with was a paedophile but Fowley has broken that family pattern. She smiles when I ask if she ever worries she'll subconsciously self-destruct and ruin her relationship with Paul. She couldn't. Oh he's a pain, Paul, like any man, she says with unsentimental humour. "But I actually wonder where he comes from sometimes. He's so good. He's sat and listened to me, cried with me, protected me to the maximum. I don't think there's anything I could say or do that would mess things up. I don't think I'd want to, or try to, and I don't think he'd allow it." Paul tells her the past doesn't matter. Plenty of men might have had sex with her. But he was the first man ever to make love to her.

She always wanted her own children but had a couple of miscarriages before Jordan, the first of her two sons, was born. She smiles, and a rush of emotion breaks through that smile. "I couldn't believe he was mine. I felt such love towards him instantly. There was no doubt. The minute I was pregnant, I think I loved him. I was crying and I thought how can people harm their own? How can they harm any kid? I felt such love for him that I stared at him for hours."

She gets angry when people like her mother excuse abuse by saying they were abused themselves. All the more reason, she says, to protect your own. She trusts no-one with her children apart from one aunt and uncle she adores and her stepsons. Not for ten minutes, not for five. She may be overprotective but the stakes are too high.

Fowley has been left with lasting health difficulties. She and Heather both have bowel problems which she believes are connected to the anal abuse they suffered as children. They both became diabetic, a condition sometimes linked to stress. Then, after her mother was jailed, Fowley nearly died after an ulcer burst. She was in hospital for six weeks but her mother didn't contact her once. Even as a child, Dunsmore never picked her up when she fell or kissed her goodnight. But having her own children has freed Fowley to stop looking for a mother. She now seeks only to be one. She knows the power of that. "Even if I didn't have a million other things," she says, "my mum's love would have been enough." r

How Could She? is out now, published by Arrow, 6.99

• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 24 January, 2010