Archive for the Non-fiction Category

Don’t Give Up – #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek 2017: Blog #1

Posted in Non-fiction, Uncategorized with tags , , on May 8, 2017 by becciseaborne

Ironically, the point at which you feel like utter shit, when you most want to give up, is the point at which you should be most proud and defiant. When it feels that bad, it’s not because you’re a failure, as you believe, but because you’re working your very hardest despite all the obstacles. It is precisely the time not to give up, because you’re just about to win this particular battle. 

Congratulations…and Please…: a Letter to Jeremy Corbyn

Posted in Non-fiction with tags , on September 13, 2015 by becciseaborne

Dear Jeremy

I can’t congratulate you enough on becoming the new leader of the Labour Party. I’m genuinely excited and hopeful for UK politics in a way I never have been before, as I’m sure you are being told by many, many people.
I’m not really sure why I’m writing to you, but something about what has happened in the last few weeks, and yesterday in particular, just made me want to tell you how much what you’ve achieved so far means to me. And to many people I know.
I come from a family of Labour Party members and trade unionists, though we’d all lapsed during the Blair years and beyond. I’d never previously been a member, although I’ve been a trade union member for quite a few years now. I joined the Labour Party a few weeks ago as a supporter so I could vote for you (I’m sorry to say I didn’t as my ballot paper never arrived, despite me chasing it). At that time I promised I’d join as a full member if you were successful; I did that yesterday as soon as I heard the news, and I gather at least 15,500 have done the same. I want to do my part in making sure this works.
Your unwavering commitment to a set of principles which inform your decisions and actions, and which have seen you on the right side of history time and time again, are too rare in British politics. However, what you’ve done, above all else, is offer this country an opportunity to change the narrative, to show that there is a better way to be, a better way to discuss and think about things, and a better way for politicians (and the media) to behave with one another. You set a challenge for the Conservatives in so many ways and on so many levels. You have them so scared they’ve resorted to mind-boggling propaganda about how the Labour Party now represent a serious risk to national security. It’s almost farcical.
The positive tone, the reality, the humanity and compassion you have brought back to British politics leave me breathless with anticipation for what we might achieve for, and with, the people of this country again. What really strikes me is your unwillingness to engage with the negative discourse, but instead to find that positive stance, focusing on the issues and how best to address them. You leave personality, shaming, and put-downs well alone, and deal directly with the issues that concern the public. It is such a long time since someone has done that, and it makes me so grateful.
I think your track record speaks for itself as you’ve managed to maintain your principles and integrity during a really dirty time for politics, so I don’t doubt that you’ve a very real chance of getting us where we need to be in 2020 and beyond. The leadership position, however, is a very different animal, and I guess what I really wanted to say is, be careful. And continue to be brave. Please don’t be swayed. Please don’t allow the spin doctors or the media manipulators or the policy makers of any colour, to move you off course. I can only begin to imagine what the pressures will be when it comes to the crunch, but please always remember that what got you here is what this country really wants and needs…don’t let go.
And finally, I want to wish you all the best in this role – our time has come.
Kind regards
Becci Seaborne
PS – you’ve made a fantastic start already; straight off to the Refugees Welcome rally yesterday, and the mental health open day today – keep that up too please.

Is Stephen Fry right about God? I don’t know…but that’s important

Posted in Non-fiction with tags , on February 1, 2015 by becciseaborne

Conversations about faith and religion happen less often for me these days. I struggle with the closed-mindedness that even some of the more ‘enlightened’ people I know display. It’s almost as if this subject is the last bastion of what it’s okay for educated, liberal/socialist people to be bigoted about. Stephen Fry’s recent, and very public, attack on God did trigger a brief exchange though. It got me thinking.

I was raised as an atheist by atheist parents, one of whom I would say is fundamentalist. But for me there is something quite unsatisfactory about this perspective; it is so very certain and intolerant. There are atheists who can match any religious zealot for their blinkered preaching, and who refuse to listen to – to really hear – what other viewpoints can add to any debate. (Equally, there are those atheists who are curious and open minded of course.)

Stephen Fry described atheism (i.e. the absence of a God) as making things “simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living”. He also criticised a ‘capricious’ and ‘monstrous’ God (if one existed) for creating bone cancer in children and allowing suffering that is not our fault. I have two issues with this, which on close inspection are slightly contradictory I have to admit, so I won’t explore them in depth here just now. But see what you think anyway…

Firstly, he takes an incredibly human-centric view of the issues; these cruelties he identifies are not fair, not “acceptable” to us as humans, but what about everything else that inhabits this planet? Humans are filling up the planet at a rate which is simply not sustainable, and we are only one part of a very big picture, which his comments fail to acknowledge. Surely a God who created all the world would have equal concern for everything in creation and would have to try and hold things in balance in a way that perhaps we cannot conceive?

Secondly, there are atheists who lack precisely the kind of compassion and humanity that Stephen laments as absent in this ‘maniac’ God. Many atheists, looking to science, make claims about what is true and known, and consequently what is right. Richard Dawkins is essentially, technically right about a lot of things. But it doesn’t make him morally right, or even good. He ultimately apologised for his comment about how expectant parents should terminate “abnormal” foetuses, but that doesn’t change the fact that he clearly believes this to be true, a moral requirement, based in scientific reason. Pure rationality would dictate that he is “correct”, but where on Earth is the humanity, compassion, hope, and love in a view like that? How can anyone but the most utterly diminished kind of human being think and function in this way?

This kind of narrow thinking and insisting on rationality alone blocks out other possibilities and closes down opportunities to gain a far deeper and richer understanding of what it means to be human. Not only does this approach diminish the discussion itself, often rendering it a pointless monologue dressed up as academic debate, but it causes other, wider audiences to switch off too.

I was brought up by people who thought they knew best, were right about things, and raised me to believe it was important to be right in that way. I’m sure this isn’t uncommon, however being sure of things is very limiting, and I’ve spent most of my adulthood trying to cultivate a sense of assured uncertainty. Learning to live comfortably in the ‘I’m not sure zone’ is difficult but interesting. The thing that has helped the most, has been choosing an area of work that means I get to be with people from all kinds of different worlds (colleagues and clients alike).

In various roles around the criminal justice system, involving support and/or rehabilitation I’ve been lucky enough to meet people who have challenged my assumptions and changed the way I see the things around me. They’ve enabled me to realise I don’t know best, and I don’t have all the answers, but that it’s alright as long as I’m prepared to ask questions. And to listen to the answers I’m given; really listen.

In the end I don’t know if Stephen is right about God, but what does it mean to be right anyway? For me it’s important that I don’t know, because it means I’ll keep on asking questions, and when you ask questions you learn things you never expected to know. I can’t think of much that’s better than that.


Epilogue I

I once asked my Dad if he preferred writing or playing music; Mum looked at me as if to say, “You know the answer to that”, and I was pretty sure that I did. But what I found out was that he’d written a piece of music for a friend’s wedding. And I got to hear it too. I may have never known that my whole life if I hadn’t asked that question.

Epilogue II

Within hours of first posting this, I was on the phone to my Dad talking about a music recital he has coming up. He’s played in rock and folk bands all his life, playing by ear with no musical theory knowledge, and his recent foray into the learned world of classical music practise and theory is being put to the test for the first time at this recital. I asked him how the apprehension for this is different to all the other gigs he’s ever played. Quite a lot of discussion and information flowed…including the fact that his band, St Willys Cool School supported Jimmy Hendrix in East Dereham in 1965/6. I couldn’t believe I’d never known this. Ironically, East Dereham is precisely where Stephen Fry got married last week.

A Vaguely Female Type Thing

Posted in Non-fiction with tags , , on January 31, 2015 by becciseaborne


Allison Torneros


For quite a long time in my early twenties, I refused to identify as female and wouldn’t allow people to refer to me as female, or as a woman, girl, lady, whatever. Recently, for some unknown reason (perhaps because I’ve been reflecting on related topics of late), this fact came back to me.

It’s not to say I thought I  wasn’t female, or that I thought I was anything else. I was, I insisted, a ‘vaguely female-type-thing’. I’m still not entirely sure what this was an expression of; it certainly wasn’t an outright rejection of the female gender itself. Perhaps it was more a reflection of my confusion about what being female really meant, what the expectations and conventions were and whether I agreed with what I found to be held as true by others. More particularly, it may have been connected to how that was perceived by others in relation to  me, and especially those close to me at the time. It may also have been linked to aspects of sexuality; it certainly emerged at the time of a particularly…let’s say ‘problematic’, relationship with someone whose own sexuality I’m still not sure of. (I’ve no idea if he is either.)

Given that it was a time when I was still pretty aggressive and obnoxious, I’m sure most people thought I was either taking the piss or trying to provoke an argument (again). But in reality it was quite a sincere statement about an undefined uncertainty. This was probably located in confusion about what I wanted as well as what it was okay for me to want, specifically as a female. This was most likely in relation to life goals generally; career, relationships etc. By this time my idea of what I might want to consider as a career was gaining some clarity (the ‘how’ being slightly less straight forward), whilst my experience of intimate relationships was deteriorating, and I was finding interesting ways to distract myself from the latter. So my sense of identity was a little out of kilter.

Growing up, I gained an overwhelming belief that I should not accept any limitations placed on me by dint of my gender and that I could and should  be anything I wanted to be. In more recent years, as with many other aspects of my upbringing, I realise that what I received were, in fact, mixed messages. The conflicting aspect of these messages came from two different sources. Firstly, my parents have very different aspirations for my sister and me. Primarily, my Mum wants us to be happy; over and above anything else she wants us to be ourselves and to be happy, regardless of how or why. Of course my Dad wants our happiness too, but he sees the route to this as being categorically prescribed through convention and achievement; good education, stable relationship, respectable career, stick to the rules, plan everything, and avoid anything risky, unusual or potentially painful.

Secondly, the way I see it, there was a discrepancy between some of what my Dad articulated and some of the messages he gave off subconsciously, that we picked up by osmosis. Looking back there were many inconsistencies. In particular, I grew up understanding it was important to be informed and have an opinion (and most importantly, to be right), but mostly I felt painfully, knot-inducingly unheard.

My Dad assesses many important (and unimportant) things on the basis of the skill and effort that has gone into them and the level of the achievement that is gained by this. Whilst moderately liberal in some ways, he holds onto some quite traditional views, which although he doesn’t mean them to be, are sometimes expressed indirectly in ways which give quite judgmental, limiting and prescriptive messages. For me these frequently have the effect of inducing somewhat self-flagellating episodes of self-criticism, self-doubt and a reluctance to make decisions based on my own inclinations and desires. The further effects of this in the past have included an inability to discern what it was I actually wanted at all. Of course there have been many other factors at play in these situations, but this backdrop certainly hasn’t helped. These conflicting notions formed a powerful contradiction within me which I’ve only perceived and explored more recently, but which was partly expressed, I think, through the ambiguity in that chosen label in my twenties.

Well over 10 years later I’m still pretty confused about what it means to be female, the difference now being that I believe I’m in good company on that score, and that I’m equally confused about what it means to be a human being. So the gendered aspect of my overall perplexity is somewhat diminished, though it’s still significant for me. The other difference is that I generally tend to feel a bit more okay about my various confusions and am usually able to take them as the signal of the starting point for a journey rather than as an indication of failure, or as a barrier to some unknown goal, the genesis of resentment and anger.

So how can we take these journeys? It seems to me that the more opportunities and routes of expression we have for the various aspects of ourselves – aspiration, inclination, sexuality, gender, all of our passions – the better. For me, risk taking is an essential part of this…it’s a cliché that keeping on doing the same things will only get you the same result, but it is nonetheless true. This presents me with a challenge in terms of my inner contradictions. My nature is that of a risk taker, but I was raised by a powerfully risk averse figure who formed my learned behaviour, and that is hard to break out of. I also love and care deeply about him, and do not want to cause him disappointment or heart ache. Perhaps secret subversion is the key? It certainly has been at times, but I don’t think that’s healthy for positive self-image or identity either. So honesty and bravery are perhaps a better course. Those have certainly featured at times too, and continue to be a work in progress. This phrase has become somewhat of a mantra in recent months and years. Maybe a carefully plotted line between the two, occasionally straying a little wider than intended in one direction or the other as life’s messiness intervenes?

In the end, a significant factor in my moving beyond being a Vaguely-Female-Type-Thing, whilst still in my twenties, was the transition to a much happier and sexually healthier relationship which accompanied another transition into a more stable and assured self-identity. This continues to be a work in progress, and has not been a linear process, not least of which because that relationship ended a long time ago. What it showed me, however, is what it is possible to hope for. Hope and possibility are so important for human existence; we can only survive and grow if we insist on seeing them, even (or especially) in our darkest moments. In the presence of hope and possibility, we never stop looking for the opportunities to take a risk, or for the routes to connection and expression. That Vaguely-Female-Type-Thing does visit occasionally still, but I understand enough of what she tells me to find a path and start walking.


 (Art: Allison Torneros)

For a Sister on Her Marriage

Posted in Non-fiction with tags on January 23, 2015 by becciseaborne

Ellie & Jon 4

It will shock some of you to know that I won’t be saying much – well not in this bit anyway. Some things are so important it is neither easy nor desirable to use lots of words about them.

Most of you will know that that Ellie and I are lucky enough to be very close as sisters, although I’m not sure how much of it is really down to luck; I know Mum and Dad have been a big influence in how our relationship grew from the very beginning. But the roots which join us together go way beyond biology, blood or DNA. Some people just have a permanent connection in time and space – our shared roots go to the centre of the Earth and are fused there forever.

Bizarrely when we were younger, I always thought that what made us close was that we were similar. Of course if you know us, you know that’s ridiculous, and as we’ve grown up (a bit) over more recent years, it’s become patently obvious to me how very different we are, and it’s become just as clear that this is one of the most important things about us. Even now we still grow and learn from each other, and we couldn’t do that if we were too alike.

Having said that there are some pretty fundamental things we do have in common – that are in those shared roots – which provide the safe environment for us to explore and celebrate our difference. We both value loyalty, integrity and a sense of personal responsibility. Having shared beliefs and values like this to form the basis of a happy lifelong relationship is crucial, and I couldn’t be happier to know that these are all things Jon is just as passionate about too.

For Ellie and Jon, loyalty to family and friends is fundamental to who they are, and their concern and commitment to the social and physical world around them has informed so much of what they’ve both done with their lives so far.

You will be blessed if you stay true to these things you believe in. If you are as loyal to each other as you are to your friends and family you will always have a home and feel loved, and if you look after each other as well as you look after the world around you, you will grow together forever. That is what I wish for you both.

Needfulness: Thoughts on Obedience and Empathy

Posted in Non-fiction with tags , on December 3, 2014 by becciseaborne

There is much that’s contested and disputed over what restorative justice “is” – and what it isn’t. Despite this, I think it’s fair to say that most would agree that at the core of restorative justice – and restorative practices more widely – is a concern to identify and meet the needs of people who have been affected by the actions of one or more parties. Volunteering for Circles of Support and Accountability brings me into contact with people (core members) who have caused serious harm, but who also have significant unmet needs. Meeting these needs will not only support them to have a better life, but will also enable them to manage their behaviour and reduce their risk of reoffending. What also strikes me about many core members is the apparent inability and unwillingness to recognise or address their own needs. In getting to know core members well, the reasons behind this often become clearer, but recently I came across a discussion by Hal Pepinsky which I thought shed some interesting light on the subject.

In his essay, ‘Empathy Works, Obedience Doesn’t’ (1998), Pepinsky makes a powerful case for the dereliction of the concept of obedience as a tool which forces us to subjugate ourselves to the wishes and directions of others, losing any sense of our own needs and inclinations in the process. I find this argument fascinating. It’s not without its problems, particularly in framing it with the logical conclusions he wishes to draw from his assessment (a complete absence of punishment or the requirement of obedience). What his discussions highlight for me, however, is that there is a need for a better balance between what we sacrifice of ourselves, and how we are enabled better to identify, understand and meet our own needs. This seems crucial in order to function in a healthy, balanced, empathetic and emotionally literate manner, as Pepinsky, and many others besides, articulate cogently.

Reading his discourse, I was minded to reflect on my own experiences of addressing needs, what tools I’ve been given to do this throughout my life and by whom. We would all imagine, I assume, that our parents and families would be the primary source of such qualities and skills, followed perhaps by school, and friends. But here, as with so many things, families are able only to pass on what they already possess – any deficit is nearly always inherited. And Pepinsky is right in one very crucial sense; our socialisation is about how to fit in and how to please others. When our baby sibling is born, our parents undertake careful exercises of incentivising our “good” behaviour toward them. And so we learn that addressing someone else’s needs, and pleasing others brings reward and gratification, and that this should become our priority. We learn that attending to the needs of others is more important than attending to our own. It seems to me that very soon, not only will we lose the inclination to engage with our own needs, we may well lose the ability to distinguish between our own needs and those of others at all. We switch our internal gratification through self-fulfilment for a second-rate external version, handed out by others for pleasing them; our fundamental needs supplanted with far shallower, but more amenable ones.

This is different from being compassionate and altruistic, where we are able to work towards the needs of others whilst keeping our own inclinations and requirements in balance with this. Essentially, according to Pepinsky, this is subjugation of the self, and strikes me as being very dangerous. In any given situation, not to know whether our instinct and our decision making is being driven by our own or someone else’s goals creates a deficit in self esteem which can be utterly corrosive, and the consequences far reaching. Every time we undertake an act which fulfils anothers’ needs at the expense of our own, we are sending and reinforcing a message to ourselves that our own needs are less worthy of attention and action than anyone else’s. The result of this, most obviously, is a failure to meet our own needs. This is damaging enough in itself, but is accompanied by a constant downgrading of our own self-worth, and more irrevocably, a further disengagement from our own needs. An additional consequence may be a potentially permanent inability to identify or engage with these issues at all on our own behalf, or at least to be able to separate them from those of other people in any meaningful or useful way.

Pepinsky argues that in such a state of needful disenfranchisement, people resort to dissociated violence and aggression, perpetrating crimes against their fellow citizens. Whilst this line of thought feels intuitively plausible, I would go further and say that there are many people for whom the subjugation created by obedience leads to a very different but equally corrosive dynamic. Imagine, for example, how someone who is unable to make emotional decisions based on anything other than meeting someone else’s needs (without even necessarily being aware of this), would go about creating and sustaining healthy intimate relationships. Imagine how they might fare at work in negotiations with colleagues or business contacts; how they might build supportive and healthy friendships; how they might cope with stressful and demanding situations at home or work. Imagine how they might raise and nurture their own family. Acknowledging and addressing our own needs is, foremost, an act of self acceptance, which is a permission giver in the most positive sense. It enables us to say ‘no’ in a respectful and engaged way; it allows us to put ourselves first, to negotiate, to change our minds, to move on from things, and to feel less guilt about all of these things. It even gives us permission to try – and fail – at things, which is possibly the most important thing of all, especially for core members who are trying to rebuild more positive lives, often in completely new ways.

It is a very slow and complex piece of work getting people to unlearn such an ingrained response pattern, which is usually established in a formative stage of development. For many, it can never be fully undone, but as the cliché goes, awareness is the first step to addressing an issue. So I guess vigilance is the key, and crucial to that, is having the right people walking beside you too. Fundamentally that is what Circles of Support and Accountability is about. As is true friendship.

Ched Evans has Served his Sentence for Rape – Should he Play Football Again?

Posted in Non-fiction with tags , , , , on October 17, 2014 by becciseaborne

In her comments on 15th October, (, Clare Carlisle encapsulated, to my mind, the essence of the dilemma around this issue for us as a society in our current cultural framework. She identifies our need to find forgiveness (there is so much literature on the healing powers of forgiveness, try for information and resources), alongside our desire to set an example and send a message that sexual violence is harmful and wrong. In agreeing with her, I do not mean that victims or survivors should have to find forgiveness towards their assailants; this cannot and should not ever be an expectation placed on those who have experienced sexual abuse. However, no human behaviour occurs outside of or distinct from the culture of the community in which it takes place. As a society we have a duty to understand what has happened in order to find a response that reduces the likelihood of it happening again.

I have worked professionally with survivors of sexual and domestic abuse, and I’ve worked with sex offenders who have served long prison sentences and been through heavy-duty therapy and treatment programmes, who make a genuine commitment to an offending-free life. I have family and friends who have been affected by sexual violence. My thoughts and beliefs here are neither routed solely in the personal or professional (though they partly spring from that place of course), nor are they overly abstract and idealistic. My experiences inform my practice, which informs my thinking, and the same in reverse.

If all we can do as a community is hate, then what can we expect in return but resentment and hatred (however unjustified we might feel that is)? These feelings fuel the sort of permission-giving thinking that leads to sexual violence. Who wants that? Isolation disconnects people from positive influences and the reinforcement of pro-social beliefs and values. What we need is for people to take responsibility for what they’ve done and understand the harm they’ve caused; admitting to these things is difficult for any kind of transgression, let alone something of this magnitude. No one in their right mind is going to do that if they think they’re going to be met with both barrels. That’s human nature, and nearly all of us will have denied something or minimised it to avoid the consequences and the associated emotional stress. We all fear hatred, disgust and stigma. Creating a safe space, by promoting meaningful reintegration into society whilst at the same time not letting anyone off the hook, can go a long way to achieving this sort of shift for people who have offended sexually.

The even better news is that this often delivers things that survivors of sexual violence need too – to be listened to, understood, validated, vindicated. We don’t have to exclude people to deliver these goals and send a strong message to society (and other past, present or future survivors). The message can be, you need to be fully accountable and commit to a new life that will not create any more victims (…survivors).

In the case of Ched Evans, my feeling is that whatever happens should be informed by the extent to which he accepts responsibility and intends to alter his behaviour accordingly. He pled not guilty at court, and put his victim/survivor through the pain and exposure of a trial. This should not be forgotten or left unaddressed. However, there is, in my professional and personal experience, a world of difference between what someone will admit to within in a criminal justice process, and what they may come to explore and acknowledge outside that process, given the appropriate context. The extent to which Ched Evans is able and likely to do this will, almost certainly, depend on the space and support he is given by being allowed to rebuild a life which is connected with his community. This doesn’t mean letting him off the hook; it means seeing the behaviour as distinct from the person and reflecting back to him the hope and belief that he can change and become accepted once more into society.

Katie Russell of Rape Crisis England, rightly highlighted the need for a strong public message that sexual violence will not be tolerated in football (or more broadly); surely nothing could be more powerful than supporting Mr Evans to make a commitment to behaviour change through a full understanding of the damage he has caused? Whilst we must recognise the extent of the damage – on a societal and an individual basis – and respond to the needs of survivors, it does not seem possible to find a sustainable and satisfactory response to sexual harm without engaging meaningfully with all affected parties. I hope Sheffield United consider such issues very carefully, and consult with professionals when considering whether to re-sign him.

Mirrors: Thoughts on Self-Acceptance and Forgiveness

Posted in Non-fiction with tags , , , on July 27, 2013 by becciseaborne

Distorted image mirrorThe lost soul

When Amy Winehouse died almost exactly 2 years ago, the inevitability of how she died raised issues around addiction and self-destruction. These matters periodically make their way into the public consciousness, mostly in relation to celebrities and talented artists, such as Pete Doherty and others. We have a perpetual and morbid interest in a subject which is at the same time both unsettling, yet confirms our own position of relative stability and normality, whatever that means.

For my own part, although I had no personal connection, I felt a real sadness that a young, fragile person had just kind of slipped off the planet before she had even got a grasp of it. She had a truly fantastic voice, and was evidently talented, yet “troubled” – that cliché that means everything and nothing. Her drug and alcohol problems and her stints in rehab had received much media attention. One obituary noted that her pre-existing insecurities, rather than diminishing once she achieved such acclaim, only grew and fed the self destruction (“Razor sharp, Winehouse changed the music scene for ever”, The Independent on Sunday, 24 July 2011). It was this that caught my attention.


Broken mirror reflectionSelf-perception

In the face of world-wide praise and celebrity a talented, intelligent and engaging young woman seemed to become less of herself. She retreated and seemed to struggle with the identity which her talent surely entitled her to claim. Something about the praise and attention didn’t fit with her. I believe that far from being abnormal, her struggle was a universal human response where there is a gap between self-perception and what others hold up for us to see. Of course the full extent of her behaviour and its consequences are less inevitable, but it does seem to me that she had quite a common sense of being unworthy of the attention she was receiving.

About five or six years ago I met someone who had a similar and very evident dislike of praise or positive attention. It’s a completely different story, but at the same time the underlying issues are similar. I met this man when he was released from prison having served a long sentence for child sex abuse. My role was as one of five volunteers who would meet with him on a weekly basis to work on relapse prevention and offer practical and moral support. The aim was to prevent further victims by guiding him to keep to his relapse prevention plan and to stop him from feeling isolated – a major trigger for dangerous thought patterns and behaviour. This reduces re-offending.

He had been abused as a young boy himself and was used by circle of abusers to recruit other boys his own age. This, put together with his own offending as an adult, and the significant amount of time he had spent in the criminal justice system as a sex offender meant he had built a self-image and identity as a bad person who needed to be punished. There’s no doubt that his crimes were awful and needed to be atoned for. The premise of the voluntary work, though, is that it’s the behaviour which is bad and not the person. In other words, one person is not merely the sum of all the bad things they have ever done. Most of us are able to realise this, mainly through the forgiveness of others for those transgressions that would otherwise cause guilt and maybe eat away at us. Forgiveness allows self-acceptance and we are consequently able to maintain a healthy self-image.

Socially constructed distortionBut for sex offenders there is no forgiveness. They are demonised and stigmatised by every corner of society. And that mirror we hold up to them becomes how they view themselves. So the man I met a few years ago was someone who believed himself to be utterly without good and totally unworthy of anyone’s time, respect or kindness. He didn’t believe that he was entitled to have anything good happen to him.

Some may argue that he didn’t, but the point here is that this fuels distorted thinking patterns which justify the offending behaviour. In other words it makes re-offending more likely, and no-one wants that.


Dissonant image mirror

A new mirror

As time went by we all built up quite a rapport with him and we agreed we wanted to hold up a different mirror for him, a positive one that he could aspire to. So praising achievement and positive attitudes was just as important as challenging negative behaviour and unhealthy thought patterns. He certainly proved himself worthy of both at times. More often than not there was something positive to say, though and we noticed that he seemed to really struggle with this. We talked about it to find out what was going on for him, and it turned out to be pretty simple really; he just didn’t feel worthy of the praise he was being offered; he didn’t see himself in the mirror.

On one occasion this almost led to serious problems. He was struggling to keep to his relapse prevention plan, and although he was doing everything “right” on the face of it, he was having some unhealthy – and risky – thoughts and feelings. He wasn’t talking about these and so they were going unchecked. This meant that while we were saying well done for all the things he was achieving, he was churning over this huge dissonance between appearances and reality. He knew he was getting into murky water, and that things weren’t right. The gap was widening and the guilt he felt about it was probably making it a lot worse too, building the pressure.


Butterfly mirrorMaking the image fit: self-acceptance

It could have gone one of two ways, but fortunately for everyone, he chose the safe option and confessed what was going on. Of course we then had a lot of discussions about how we could make it easier for him to talk about these issues in future so that he didn’t get backed into a corner again. We were also more cautious and more specific about the praise we gave to him. He said it was awful being told how great everything was when he knew that really there was a big problem. Over many months we were able to support him in growing into this new identity, and eventually he came to accept the idea of himself as a person worthy of a normal life. To date he has not re-offended.

The point is, really, that all that positive attention and praise being received by someone who perceives themselves as being unworthy of it can have completely the opposite effect to that which is intended. Maybe Amy Winehouse – on a different level and for completely different reasons – felt the same. Maybe she couldn’t see herself in the mirror that the world was holding up to her. One of Amy’s friend and collaborator, Mark Ronson, talked about how she hated people “gushing” over her or enthusing about her success, how it would make her “shrivel up”, or run away.


What are we meant to do when we find ourselves in a situation like that? Some people like what they see in that mirror and they make it work for them; there are those successful A-list celebrities that exemplify this. But if you don’t recognise or relate to the image the world is showing you of yourself, how do you make sense of it? For Amy, she just wasn’t the person everyone else thought she was. She was just Amy Winehouse, with a sharp wit to fill in the gaps where her self esteem should have been, and when that didn’t work any more because the gaps got bigger, she found drugs and alcohol. There are many, many of those talented and imperfect people who exemplify this, too. Most of them are dead. And nearly all of those died way too young. If they had been able to find a route to self-acceptance – and in some cases self-forgiveness too – maybe they would still be here.

Are Criminal Justice Contracts Viable?

Posted in Non-fiction with tags , on July 12, 2013 by becciseaborne

justice scales and gavelPrivate Sector Companies and Tagging

Many of the responses to last week’s exposure of overcharging on the Government’s tagging contracts have called into question the current plans to contract out much of the Probation Service. Parts of the Criminal Justice System (CJS) have been contracted out for quite some time now and Serco and G4S have received high profile coverage a number of times on these and other Government contracts.  But are CJS contracts actually viable? It is the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) role to manage and monitor CJS contracts but are they always capable of doing so effectively?

Tagging and prisoner transportation are not the only CJS services delivered by a contracted provider. From May 2010 until April this year I was a manager in London for the Bail Accommodation and Support Service (BASS) – a national contract run by Stonham on behalf of the Ministry of Justice. Stonham is part of Home Group Ltd, and began life when three Midlands-based housing charities working with offenders merged in the 1970’s. In other words it is a third sector organisation; not-for-profit.

Bail Accommodation and Support Service

BASS was commissioned by the MoJ in 2007 and was at first run by ClearSprings, who experienced some fairly negative media attention, not least of which after a client was murdered in one of the BASS properties they were managing in Stockton in 2009. That contract ran out in 2010 and it was then that Stonham took over, following a competitive tender process.

We worked closely with Serco, who have the tagging contract in London, to share information that both parties needed in order to fulfil our contractual obligations. This was done under an information sharing protocol approved by MoJ. I found these processes to work well, although often Serco had not been made aware by the courts of changes in a client’s circumstances or of a court order for a tag to be fitted. Sometimes they received this information from us before they received it from the court.

We also had to work closely with several other parts of the CJS – we relied on them for crucial information, which impacted on our ability to meet our contract terms. This included court and prison staff, amongst others, and was always challenging. There are so many different parts of the CJS, some more silo’d than others. Each has a defined role, and each a specific framework and complex set of systems governing their operation to fulfil that role. These do not always dovetail even within the CJS, let alone with third party providers. Often – though not always – the professionals involved were engaged and willing to work in partnership, but the “system” was regularly a hindrance. Occasionally some individuals were less than enabling, for various reasons.

Success Relies on Exemplary Contract Management

The point I’m making is that, as with everything, what you get out of a system or a contract is only ever as good as what you put in. That includes people, processes and information. This is why contract management is so crucial. Of course this starts with the way in which contracts are set up, and many have commented that the tagging contracts were not established adequately. It also extends through the life of the contract and relies heavily on the skill and knowledge of the individual contract manager.

Contract management is a specialist skill. Managing contracts in the CJS is a specialist skill within a specialist area of work within a complex and politically sensitive environment. Not only this, the consequences of getting it wrong are serious; public safety is at stake. It is not sufficient to have sound knowledge and experience of operational delivery of the service at hand in order to manage a contract; the skill of contract management goes far beyond this. It often requires a capacity for forensic interrogation of data, combined with extensive experience in the field of work and sound and intimate knowledge of the specific contract terms. Balanced alongside this, it requires the ability to stand back from the skeleton of the data and facts, and to look at information in its qualitative context to see what is “really happening”.

Can we Afford to Trust MoJ’s Contract Management Capability?

Whilst I support the principles of innovation and mixed-economy, I’m not sure that I have unerring confidence in any government’s ability to consistently meet contract management standards to the high levels that are required for such complex and significant services. During the last three years working for BASS there were re-organisations in the National Offender Management Service that affected those people managing the BASS contract. There were several changes in personnel, and the internal imperatives of the MoJ and NOMS arguably impacted on the monitoring and interaction between contractor and commissioner.

If any of these factors have been in evidence in the Serco and G4S tagging contracts, then arguably the Government is at least partly to blame for things going awry. It has already been noted that they were aware of potential over-charging as early as 2008.

There are many, many reasons why the transforming rehabilitation strategy should be re-evaluated (at the very least the timescales involved), but the issues exposed by the tagging contracts add significant evidence to the case for the defence of the public Probation Service.

Twitter: @BecciSeaborne


Posted in Non-fiction with tags on October 29, 2012 by becciseaborne

Sometimes it’s the small things that make reality bite. For me it was a hug. From someone I get hugs from all the time. But not all hugs are the same, are they?

I’m on the bus to Heathrow, bound for four weeks in Zimbabwe volunteering at an animal orphanage. Yesterday, as my sister left the pub after we shared drinks with a few friends, we said our goodbyes and hugged. It wasn’t a casual au revoir type hug; it was a proper, tight, lovely, warm, meaningful hug. Suddenly I came crashing down to Earth with a bang. She’s worried for me and will miss me and that brings the reality of my trip into sharp focus for me. She talks, tells me to take care, all the usual things. She hugs me again. Tighter. She repeats this at least twice more. Shit. I’m about to cry. I make a crap, dismissive joke.

I really don’t like goodbyes, which means I have a tendency to not manage them particularly well. Before leaving work at the end of August to take my sabbatical leave, I spectacularly failed to say an important goodbye to a colleague. Sue and I had worked closely for the full year that I’d been doing the job; she was the administration team leader supporting me and my management team; I trusted her implicitly and relied on her professionalism, judgement, compassion and commitment all the time. I couldn’t have done the job without her. On top of this we got on really well, we had a great laugh too. I knew I’d miss her so much and was dreading the moment that required a proper goodbye, explaining how important she had been to me. I’m not good with emotions.

I gave Sue a thank-you-cum-goodbye card earlier in the week, but kept delaying the moment of actual goodbye – I had meetings and visits away from our office and would say “I’ll pop back in on my way home tomorrow to finish clearing out my in-tray, I’ll see you then”. In the end I was meant to do this on my last day too, but got held up in London and knew I wouldn’t make it back in time. I rang her to have a last chat and say goodbye. After my sabbatical I’m returning to a different role, so I won’t be working with Sue again.

I tried to say thank you and that I’d miss her but the words got stuck. Then a really weird noise came out of my throat and I had to hold the phone away from me for fear she might think I was being garrotted. I was crying like a child! Really big crying with noisy, struggling-to-breathe-properly type gasping to boot. In the end I did manage to say what I wanted to, but it took a while and I had to navigate the words carefully so as not to set myself off again! Sue was great, although she must have thought I was a complete nutter (to be fair, I think she already did). The fact is I’d spent so long trying not to acknowledge what was going to happen because I didn’t want to think about it, that in the end it all just came splurging out anyway, in an incredibly undignified manner. Very predictable really, but there’s nothing like surprising yourself with the inevitable from time to time.

I haven’t improved at goodbyes much since then, although I was a bit better this time. I’m a bit tearful as I write this sitting on the bus, but I have managed to keep it together – more or less – for the various goodbyes I’ve said over the last few days. I have a lot to look forwards to: new places, new people, a whole new experience, and loads of photo and blog opportunities! There’s also plenty I’ll be missing here in the UK; a friend is due to give birth on 5th November, my sister’s just got a new dog, my cat will miss our little routines. Life goes on wherever else you may be though, and it will all still be here when I get back. So now that I’m on my way, I’m losing some of the trepidation I had started to feel, and I’m relaxing into a slightly unfamiliar feeling of pure excitement.

There are just so many things my next post could be about!