Prime Edition

Sumana Roy
Free Verse

Behind the rhymes, the rituals of abuse

An illustration of Jack and Jill

pril is 'Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Month'. It is impossible not to connect this with TS Eliot calling it the "cruellest month", especially when the morning newspaper brings you a story about a bottle and a candle inside a five-year-old girl. The same day, my niece, now nine years old, came back from school with a secret. "A dirty joke," she confessed, and then set about to recite it self-consciously, her eyes averted, her hand on her mouth, almost stopping the words from coming out.

Jack and Jill went up the hill
to have a little fun.
Stupid Jill
forgot her pill
and now they have a son.

My first reaction was of shock. Where had she picked this up from? It was a group of "Senior Dadas" who had teased her with these words when she'd fallen down on the playground and her classmates had shouted, "Jill came tumbling after". I did not believe her. It was impossible for a child to retain the parody of a rhyme after just one listen, I was certain. The girl who sat next to her in class later wrote it down in her 'Rough Notebook', she said. My investigation was followed by her stern declaration, "I don't like nursery rhymes. Everyone falls in them".

That was true — in rhyme after rhyme, someone or something kept falling, whether it was Humpty Dumpty, London Bridge, children with "a pocketful of posies", or the "rock-a-bye baby, on the treetops", with the cradle falling. When she asked me why the "Senior Dadas" had chosen the Jack and Jill rhyme instead of these to embarrass her, I could not give her an answer. She seemed to empathise with both my shock at the discovery of this parody of the nursery rhyme and my ignorance about the ways of children only a little older than her. "There's another," she whispered, "about Hickory Dickory Dock, not dock, but the rooster".

Chris Roberts, in his book, Heavy Words Lightly Thrown, says that "Jack and Jill is a cautionary tale of pre-marital hillside sex, with a metaphorical breaking crown". The boys in my niece's school had discovered that without reading the historian, it seemed. "Like folk songs, football chants have anonymous authors but thousands of people know them and sing them. They have no beginning, they just erupt," says Roberts. "And, yes, I do know people who croon football songs to their children at night."

Where, then, had the schoolboys picked up their version of Jack and Jill from? Who was crooning it to them at night?

larmed as I was, the discoveries that I had made reminded me of the McMartin preschool trial where several members of the McMartin family were charged with sexual abuse of children in their preschool in California; it reminded me of the many MMS incidents recorded in high school toilets in urban India. Schoolchildren in the McMartin case had said that they had seen witches fly, travelled in hot-air balloons, and through underground tunnels. There was an element of fairytale-gone-wrong in what has been described as 'bizarre' accusations, but what I had not forgotten after all these years was the taunt that had been used to tease children:

What you say is what you are,

You're a naked movie star.

That is a rhyme. And as countless victims of sexual abuse have reported, the paedophile's easiest trick is to trap, hypnotise and perform to self-recitations and repetitions of nursery rhymes, the ritual abuse.

As everyone would have noticed, there is a bogeyman in every third child rhyme that we read to children. It's been used to scare children over generations, the bogeyman being an aid to the disciplinarian guardian. Reading poems by child victims of sexual abuse, it is impossible not to be angry and sad about how the children wait in fear, for yet another instalment of abuse to come their way: the paedophile is the real bogeyman.

Jessica, a young girl, writes I Trusted You seven years after the cycle of abuse came to an end:

I hear the floor creek
Closer and closer toward my bedroom door
I try to stay quiet hiding under the covers
Though I know he will find me

I hope he doesn't hear my heartbeat
Or hear me praying God will protect me tonight
But as I do I start to cry because I know

.... He gets on top of me holding me down
As I try to turn away
He pulls me back covering my mouth
I am too scared to breathe

.... I must have been bad that night
I hear him coming closer as I'm lying on the floor
Lord I would do anything
If you would keep him from walking through that door

The bogeyman in Crystal Collette's poem, The Attic, is of a similar species:

In the attic I hide,
Fearing the rage that keeps
banging on the door,
Knowing that outside the storm
gathers its strength.

The next time we teach a child the rhyme, "Georgie Porgie pudding and pie/Kissed the girls and made them cry/When the boys came out to play/Georgie Porgie ran away", we should perhaps also tell them why Georgie Porgie made the girls cry.

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