I was sold by Mum and Dad to make images of child abuse
One of Raven Kaliana’s earliest memories is being taken to a family portrait studio by her parents, at around the age of four. The studio was in the basement of a department store in a town 50 miles from their home. Once they had arrived, they waited for another couple to arrive with their own child.
“Would you like to have your picture taken with this cute little boy?” her mother asked, before the parents left the kids with the photographer and retired to the cafe upstairs. But while they sat eating ice cream, the images being made in the studio down below were far from happy family portraits. Raven and her companion had just been sold into the child abuse industry.
It was to be the beginning of a 15-year ordeal, which saw Raven regularly trafficked by her parents and other members of an organised crime ring from her home in a middle-class suburb in the American north-west to locations all over the US and abroad. In her teens, the crimes were often perpetrated in Los Angeles, where many film studios provided ample opportunity for the underground child abuse industry in the 70s and 80s.
Her father, precariously self-employed after losing his teaching job, was violent towards her younger brother, but since she had become the family breadwinner, Raven was granted a peculiar status. “My father always favoured me because I brought in the money – I was supporting our whole family. My younger brother was jealous because of my dad’s special treatment of me.
“My father was also quite affectionate towards me whereas he would beat my brother to a pulp. Although he did hit me, he wanted me to stay intact because the less scars I had, the more I was worth.”
Inevitably, as she grew older, Raven’s value to her abusers decreased and subsequently the kinds of films she was required to take part in became more extreme and violent.
Yet from a young age, she had learned from her parents to rationalise and deny what was going on within the family. “It’s the same way that someone who has a problem with alcohol will rationalise their behaviour – ‘It’s only this many drinks. It’s before noon but, oh well, just today’.
“I remember my mother saying things like, ‘Oh, they’ll never remember it,’ like people do when they get their babies’ ears pierced. I told myself that my parents meant well, that what I was going through was what was necessary to help my family. It was paying our mortgage.”
As we sit talking in a central London cafe, there are two large suitcases on the floor next to us, both full of puppets she has made. A graduate of the puppetry course at the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama in London, Raven turned to this artform as a way of telling her story without the gaze of an audience focusing on her directly – something she finds too uncomfortable.
Her adult life has been driven by the belief that it is important for survivors of child sexual exploitation and trafficking to tell their stories, in order to make people realise that these aren’t crimes that happen “somewhere else, to someone else”. She moved to the UK to create Hooray for Hollywood, an autobiographical play in which the children are represented by puppets, while the adults – their parents – are only shown up to waist height, from a child’s eye view. This critically acclaimed drama has toured the UK, Poland and France, and has been made into a film.
One of the most shocking aspects of Hooray for Hollywood is the banality of the adults’ conversation, as they rationalise the choice they have just made to sell their children, from the cosy confines of a cafe. These appear to be ordinary people, struggling a little to make ends meet; not monsters or weirdos, but the kind of people who might be your nextdoor neighbours.
“You hear about a perpetrator being processed in a certain way, you hear about the police getting hold of the images, but you don’t hear about the reality for the children in those images – whose children are they? How did they come to be in this situation? And how have they been traumatised or damaged by what happened?”
Through her organisation Outspiral, Raven recently launched a national campaign to raise awareness of sex trafficking and familial abuse. She now uses the film of Hooray for Hollywood for public education and training for professionals working in social services, education, law enforcement and children’s charities.
The biggest challenge, she says, is getting the bystanders in the child’s life – neighbours, relatives, teachers, care workers, counsellors – to consider the possibility that a child might be a victim of this form of abuse. Child abuse is such a taboo subject, and the concept of parents being complicit in the crime so unthinkable, that frequently there is a failure to recognise that it might be going on. Yet since Raven’s childhood, the internet has led to an explosion in the industry, which now has a worldwide market value of billions of dollars, according to the UN.
Britain’s Child Exploitation & Online Protection Centre, a division of the police, says the number of indecent images of children in circulation on the internet runs into millions, with police forces reporting seizures of up to 2.5m images in single collections alone, while the number of individual children depicted in these images is likely to be in the tens of thousands. The commonest way that offenders found their victims was through family and personal relationships.
A report by the NSPCC highlighted the particular psychological suffering that children who have been sexually abused within the child abuse industry endure, especially through the knowledge that there is a permanent record of their sexual abuse: “There is nothing they can do about others viewing pornographic pictures or films of themselves, and sometimes their coerced sexual abuse of others, indefinitely.”
For Raven, the psychological effects of her abuse have been extreme. From an early age she began to experience dissociative amnesia – a psychological phenomenon common in victims of inescapable trauma, in which painful experiences are blocked out, leading to gaps in memory. “I started putting things into little rooms in my mind, and it was like: OK, we don’t look in that room,” she says. “When there’s no relief, there’s no one stepping in to save you, and it’s clear you’re just going to have to endure something, then your mind just does that. As a child, dissociation is a serious survival advantage, but in adulthood it can become a disability.”
It was at the age of 15 that the coping mechanisms of denial and dissociation began to break down. “At school, I started getting flashbacks – like remembering being in a warehouse the night before – and I could feel in my body it was true, but it was terrifying because I didn’t want those things to be true.”
Astonishingly, she passed through most of school without anyone picking up on what was happening at home. “I got good marks at school, so teachers tended to think everything was fine. Most survivors I’ve known who experienced extreme abuse did very, very well at school, actually, because that was their sanctuary, a place they could go to be safe.”
Eventually, however, a teacher noticed that Raven was getting thinner. Her mother, by now separated from her father but still facilitating the abuse, had simply stopped buying food for her. “The teacher invited me to stay after school and talk with her one day, and she asked, ‘Tell me the truth, are you anorexic? Bulimic?’ And I started laughing.”
Raven confided some but not all of what was happening at home, but begged the teacher not to report it for fear of reprisals. What the teacher did do, however, was to help her find the wherewithal to move out of home eventually, get a job in a restaurant, and start saving up for college.
At university, Raven finally made a break from her family, changed her name and started to get counselling – the beginning of a long road to recovery that still continues. “I got into a support group for rape survivors, and it was a great help because all of a sudden I was around other people healing from abuse, too. It also gave me some perspective about how the things that had happened to me were really on the extreme end. I saw people completely devastated by one experience of being raped by a stranger, so it was sobering to realise, ‘Oh, I’ve been raped by hundreds of people.'”
Once she was in a safe environment, finally the rage about what had happened to her bubbled to the surface. “I couldn’t believe how angry I was when I first escaped – so angry. In one support group they let us take a baseball bat to a punching bag and told us to think about a specific abuse event and imagine that we were fighting back against it, and that was very helpful.”
She also saw an integrative bodywork therapist, who used touch, guided movement and vocal expression. “Her premise was that post-traumatic stress is a physical reaction in your body, and that reconnecting the symptom to the source helps you let it go, helps you release it, and that you don’t have to talk out every single thing that ever happened to you. It was very helpful for me because there were a lot of strange things that my body was doing. For example, I used to find any kind of physical touch excruciating – even if someone brushed me in the street I would shudder. She told me that was called armouring, which happens when your body makes a shield out of its muscles to protect the bones and internal organs during physical abuse.”
The therapy made it possible for her to move on and start to enjoy life. “I realised that it is possible to get your life back. I started to gain an appreciation for life and a recognition that I only have so many breaths, so I’ve got to use them well.”
But Raven believes she will always need counselling and that her experiences have made it difficult not to fall into a pattern of emotionally abusive romantic relationships.
Perhaps surprisingly, sex has not been a significant issue, but love is inextricably connected for her with betrayal, as the people who were meant to love her most as a child were the ones who orchestrated her abuse.
Yet, incredibly, she says she felt love for her parents as a child and still does, although she has cut all contact with them. Despite their behaviour, she believes they did love her.
“When I screen my film, a lot of times in the Q&A session afterwards people want to know: how could parents do this to their own children? I tell them that abuse is generational: my parents were also abused themselves, so that was normal to them. They had dissociated in the same way I did; they were in denial. Unlike my generation, they didn’t have access to counselling when they were young, and weren’t born in a time when child abuse was beginning to be acknowledged by society. It’s important to recognise that they weren’t born evil – they were damaged.”
Raven thinks that the way in which child abusers such as Jimmy Savile are demonised is counterproductive. “Demonising the perpetrators elevates them to the realm of the surreal. We need to shift that, so people recognise that they are very sick humans and that there’s a context for their crimes.
“Only then can we tackle the source of this suffering.”