Trust: A family story

The following piece summarises what Trust: A family story, the memoir I completed in 2021, is about. It is based on a statement I chose to write during the public consultation on the Domestic Abuse Bill (now the Domestic Abuse Act), which seeks amongst many other ground-breaking things, to define economic abuse in law for the first time.

--

I was thirty-six when a routine enquiry about making a will revealed that I'd inherited the capital of my great grandfather's three trust funds on my twenty-first birthday.

From when I was about ten years old, my parents had led me to believe that I would inherit the capital only after my father's death, he being entitled to the income during his lifetime.

Nevertheless, when I was thirty, Mum and Dad had suddenly 'discovered' that three quarters of the trusts could be advanced to them and me, if I consented (their share being twice as big as mine). I agreed because I could see no point in keeping the money tied up for the coming decades. A little before then I'd been asked to sign over a small amount, as a stop gap, and, not long after the large advance, I was asked to approve a loan. Every time I signed, Mum assured me she was just about to sell a valuable painting and I would be paid back for releasing the trust money to them while also receiving a further share of the sale proceeds. I looked forward to the sale, which inexplicably had been on the verge of happening since not long after I left school. It would be a relief to all of us and I hoped that, despite the endless rows and fights that had blighted our lives, it would enable Mum and Dad to be happy.

For almost as long as I could remember, Mum had verbally abused Dad (not that I thought of her behaviour in those terms then, nor understood the dynamics of my parents' relationship). Whenever she tore into him he always tried to stand up to her but over the years she ground him down and isolated him from his family, friends and financial advisors. From my late teens onwards, he seemed to lose all confidence and never did any work. Around the time the loan from the trusts was made, her rages were the intensest I had seen for years - directed at Dad, me and others.

When I was fifty-one, my parents were declared bankrupt, owing a bank, various smaller creditors and the trusts just under a million pounds. Most of my parents' possessions were sold but only a tiny proportion of the debts was paid off and all the creditors lost out. My parents' principal asset, the painting, against which the original bank loan had been made, realised a fraction of what Mum claimed it was worth - she had over-valued it by more than 5,000%. The bankers are supposed to have said that they had been intimidated by Mum and were afraid of her. My dad had started with a lot money - some 5 million pounds at today's values; he and Mum spent that (much of it on her Welsh pony stud, which, though of international renown, lost money); they raided the trusts to get more cash; when that went, they started borrowing. They were driven by Mum's unshakable obsessions.

After finding out about the trusts I tried to explain to our family's advisors about the history of abuse and what I thought had gone wrong. I wrote a 30,000 word essay for one of them. I had to put distance between myself and Mum's controlling behaviour, which also meant putting distance between me and Dad. If I phoned, she always answered. Eventually she seems to have persuaded him that I was part of a fictitious conspiracy against her involving members of her own family and he grew cold towards me.

I decided not to take legal action against my parents. Mum needed help. Besides which, she had bullied my father over decades and made him do things I don't believe he would have done ordinarily, knowing him as I did and knowing what my aunt and other people say about what he was like when he was young.

Despite everything that happened, we were a family and till the end I loved them both. What I'd hoped when I wrote my essay was that someone would help us to sort things out and help Mum to understand that her paranoid and aggressive behaviours were destroying the family. I still believe that would have been the best outcome, though I realise now that when I found out about the trusts it was probably already way too late.

Sometimes, I have also wondered if I would have felt differently had economic abuse been defined in law and had a Domestic Abuse Act been in place. I also realise that taking legal action might have protected others who would be defrauded by Mum in the future, although at the time I assumed I and my father were the only victims.

My father never escaped the abuse he suffered. He died not long after the bankruptcy and his and Mum's eviction from their rented cottage. Mum died a few years later. Shortly before her death, she was diagnosed with a delusional disorder.

I did escape but I lived with the effects of both what had happened and what continued to happen. My life has been badly damaged by the experiences. You don't know exactly why you are hurting. You feel ashamed when you begin to realise - How could I have been so stupid? It takes years to work it through. 

Nevertheless, I have much to be thankful for. I have a wonderful and supportive wife. Financially, things are not as bad as they could have been.

Could any of this have been avoided? I don't know. But I think early identification of the problems would have been key, so that Mum could have got help with her behavioural issues, as well as her learning difficulties (she came from a privileged family but had somehow managed to avoid much of her formal education). She often couldn't read people or situations and got frustrated and angry. She had a pathological need to control those close to her, which, because she was powerful and charismatic, she could do through charm or verbal violence. It was clear that fundamentally she was a very intelligent and talented person and I believe that with help she could have lived a much happier life - and that those who were close to her could have lived happier lives too.