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Review| Mark O'Sullivan's Sexual Abuse Sitcom

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As a trauma healer who works with adult survivors of sexual abuse, I was curious to watch Mark O'Sullivan's biographical sitcom broadcasted on Channel 4 UK in 2024 and how he portrayed the experience of childhood sexual abuse, which is often the underlying cause of many severe mental health conditions and chronic health conditions that adults face.

I'll start by saying CSA is an incredibly serious, life altering and terrifying traumatic experience. I was surprised that anyone, let alone a survivor, would want to create a sitcom (situational comedy) about it. So here are my thoughts on #mysexualabusethesitcom

What Happened to Mark O'Sullivan?

At the vulnerable age of 12, Mark O'Sullivan, a British comedian and writer, was groomed and sexually abused by a trusted male member of his extended family.

This betrayal of trust within the family is a devastating reality that many survivors of childhood sexual abuse experience, as sexual abuse tends to be conducted by people who are close and trusted by the child, if not parents and grandparents themselves.

Mark tried to disclose the abuse to his mother but he was dismissed and silenced because she didn't believe him. This is a painful, yet common occurrence for many children. Too often, family members, particularly parents, are unable or unwilling to confront the uncomfortable truth of sexual abuse within their own family. The need to maintain an illusion of a "normal" family, coupled with the fear and some disbelief, can lead to the unintended invalidation and silencing of children.

Decades later, when Mark was in his 30's, he found the courage to speak out and pursue legal action against his abuser who was convicted. However, this did little to undo the profound impact of the abuse he endured as a child. The challenging thing about sexual trauma is that even if the abuser is convicted, the survivor's entire life has been tainted by the wounds. It affects their nervous system, their sense of self, their confidence, their ability to feel safe in their body and their intimate relationships. It can also lead to addiction and severe mental health conditions.

Mark's choice to communicate story via a comedic sitcom reflects the complexity and personal nature of the healing and recovery process. It seems that humour was Mark's coping mechanism, a default fall back pattern that he relied upon to ease the internal tension, fear and emotions that come with experiencing abuse. Personally and professionally speaking, I don't think sexual abuse particularly of children is something that humour should be brought to, the same way we don't bring humour to torture and other human tragedies. But when as a society, we do not have the emotional capacity or moral strength to hold space for such dark realities, there is either a dismissal of 'it's not my problem' or an attempt to turn it into something more palatable. In this case - a comedy.

A Sitcom About Childhood Sexual Abuse?

Mark talks about relying on his sense of humour to make sense of the dark things that happened to him in his childhood. From the snippets he shares, it sounds like part of the reason he wrote the sitcom was to take back some of the power he felt was stolen from him through the abuse.

As a child, he talked about feeling a total loss of control in the bedroom in which he was abused. He grew up feeling inherently broken, defective and even complicit. The loss of agency and autonomy, the feeling of being overpowered and having nowhere to turn and of not being protected is deeply traumatic. It's also common in adult survivors of sexual trauma.

In an attempt to take his power back, he revisits the bedroom using a VR headset.

Do survivors of sexual trauma need to revisit the scene? It's a big question. The answer is, it depends. Some know what happened and some don't. Childhood sexual abuse distorts the memory and creates a dissociative response in the brain that makes memories harder to recall. How do we heal if we don't know what happened? Is revisiting the scene traumatising? These answers are not black and white. The process of healing childhood sexual abuse, which is an area I specialise in, is very personal and needs to be held in a therapeutic space where old memories, feelings, emotions and experiences can be processed through he body. This may require going back to the scene where something happened. Most survivors that I've helped to heal do want to know what really happened, they do want the details because they've spent most of their adult lives wondering if they're making things up, going mad or letting their imagination run wild. The key to healing is accessing somatic memory and piecing together fragments of information, a process that takes time.

You can explore my exact healing method that I offer through my online course, specifically for adult survivors of childhood sexual trauma.

Why use a sitcom to tell a story of abuse?

Perhaps mostly because Mark is a comedian and humour is his defence mechanism and also the primary way he relates to himself and manages the deeper emotions such as shame that he grew up feeling.

When asked this question, Mark's answer was, 'I want to make people laugh'.

I found that to be pretty blunt and insensitive. Maybe it was the way it was edited but he could have gone into more depth and detail here. There are plenty of ways to make people laugh, if that is the primary motivation. I was surprised he didn't say something about raising awareness of how abuse takes place in families, or something along those lines.

It's common for survivors of sexual trauma to have a fractured sense of self and hold deep shame. Validation is an almost constant need, and because it cannot come from within, it comes from other people - whether it's a friend, partner, habit or addiction or in this case - an audience.

It is part of the dissociative trauma response when someone hasn't been able to make peace within themselves, with their pain.

Mark openly talks about struggling to feel his emotions after being on anti depressants for 20 years. However, there is no further discussion of the important issue of mass medicalisation of trauma symptoms and the long term effects of using anti depressants which include emotional numbing and dissociation.

Complex PTSD cannot be resolved by taking pills. Read my article on why the drugs don't work, they just make it worse. This issue wasn't addressed in the show at all, and misleads viewers into thinking that taking anti depressants for 20 years is quite normal, allows you to not only function but go on to produce sitcoms for TV, when the truth is, for many people- it destroys their nervous system's and their lives. A review published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry found that long-term use of psychiatric medications, such as antidepressants and antipsychotics, can shrink your brain, reduce neurogenesis (the growth of new brain cells), and change the integrity of white matter tracts. This can lead to cognitive impairments, emotional dysregulation, and other neurological complications that can further exacerbate your mental health challenges and chronic health conditions.

Laughter is not the solution to dissociation after traumatic abuse, neither is medication. It actually masks deeper levels of grief and rage which makes it impossible to truly and deeply heal. I don't think this is an empathic message that as society we should be broadcasting on TV.

The issue I have is that there are so many ways to make people laugh if that is truly your only goal and purpose in life. However, the producers of this show and Mark have clearly chosen the single most devastating and perverse thing to children and toxic to society because of a desire to 'entertain.'

Is it really worth it? It feels like a trivialisation of trauma. Audiences that need a giggle on a Friday night that get to watch something at the expense of innocent children? We could be doing SO much more to educate the masses and actually PREVENT this from happening to children. Isn't that what we should be using the media and public theatres for?

I personally think that this is part of the problem that we have in modern society.

Self degradation may offer some temporary relief in the moment but it is not deeply healing.

It's a symptom of having an abusive childhood and a fragmented sense of self. In the first episode the psychotherapist even points out that it's actually a devastating experience to go through and it's important that Mike doesn't 'lose the seriousness' of it in an attempt to use humour to bypass his pain.

When deeply traumatic abuse experience are laughed about or joked about, or used for the perverse entertainment of the masses who have no real understanding of the issue or topic, it prevents deeper healing from taking place. In part, because survivors are not processing their emotions experience and healing the inner child (as Mark's wife points out she can see the abuse still affects him and he is still trapped in a young boy part), but also because we are desensitising people to the actual seriousness of abuse by making it a comedy. This in a way, is subtle grooming.

Desensitized by Design? The British Media's Subtle Grooming of Society

The British media's relentless pursuit of ratings and profits has led to a disturbing trend of gradually desensitizing the public to disturbing content. Reality TV shows, such as the now-defunct "The Jeremy Kyle Show," have sensationalized personal traumas, exploiting vulnerable individuals for entertainment value.

Similarly, crime dramas and thrillers have graphically depicted violence, abuse, and other disturbing subject matter, potentially normalizing these issues for the audience.

News coverage has often prioritized sensationalism and shock value over balanced and nuanced reporting, particularly when reporting on sensitive topics like sexual abuse or domestic violence.

This systematic exposure to disturbing content can be likened to a form of "subtle grooming," where the media slowly conditions the public to accept increasingly problematic material.

The decision to create a sitcom about his own childhood sexual abuse raises some complex questions around where we, as a society, draw the line when it comes to personal expression and freedom of speech versus considerations of morality and ethical safeguarding of vulnerable people. For Mark, dressing up his abuser in a teddy bear costume and making jokes about the paedophilia and sexual abuse he experienced as a child may be a form of personal expression that he is entitled to. However, when this content is then broadcast on mainstream television to the entire UK, it arguably goes beyond just a personal matter and becomes a nationwide message. At this point, we have to seriously consider the ethical obligations and collective responsibility of the producers of such a program. I was surprised, for instance, that there didn't seem to be any kind of content warning or signposting of support services for affected viewers at the start of the show.

More broadly, the public's gradual desensitization to violence, abuse, and other disturbing subject matter due to constant media exposure can be viewed as a form of "industrialized grooming," where audiences are conditioned to accept and even expect increasingly shocking and problematic content. This mirrors the predatory tactics of abusers who slowly normalize inappropriate behavior. It's crucial that the media industry takes a much more thoughtful and socially responsible approach, prioritizing authenticity, empathy, and the wellbeing of marginalized communities over cheap sensationalism. As a society, we must resist this trend and demand higher ethical standards and more nuanced, healing-oriented content from our media.

Dressing the Abuser Up As a Giant Teddy Bear Was Highly Disturbing and Distasteful

I have to say, I personally found the depiction of the abuser Steve as a giant teddy bear to be quite disturbing and distasteful. I understand the symbolic intent behind it, but the sad reality is that sexual abuse in childhood often takes place within the family and by members who are perceived as innocent, harmless figures.

The grooming process frequently involves the manipulation of innocent objects like toys and teddies to desensitize the child and create a false sense of security whilst sexual acts are performed.

I've worked extensively with clients who have experienced dissociation and other psychological defense mechanisms as a result of the trauma they endured. It's quite common for survivors to initially perceive their abuser almost as a "giant teddy bear" figure, as a way for their mind to block out the terrifying reality of what was happening to them.

This dissociation can be a profound coping strategy, but it doesn't make the abuse any less damaging. And I found some of the specific scenes and dialogues to be not just distasteful, but downright disturbing.

I did find specific scenes disturbing and unnecessary. They also were not funny at all. One example is:

The actor wearing a giant teddy bear costume is asked by a member of the team,

'what I really want to know Sam, is can you molest a child with the belly on? He then replies:

'i don't think the belly is going to stop me'

The production team then burst out laughing.

It is strange to watch adults who are creating a show on such a serious and devastating trauma, making such crude jokes.

Childhood Sexual Abuse Is Woven Into The Web of Seemingly Normal Families

Mark's remarks about the "intricate webs that we weave as families" that allow sexual abuse to occur are incredibly profound and insightful. His experience of speaking out and the subsequent division within his own family speaks to the immense courage and personal sacrifice required to confront such deeply ingrained and systemic issues.

It takes an immense amount of strength and resilience for a survivor to come forward, especially when doing so threatens to fracture the very family structure that should have protected them. The decision to report the abuse to the authorities, as Mark did, is often met with disbelief, dismissal, and even ostracization from family members. This can compound the trauma and leave the survivor feeling even more isolated and vulnerable.

The sad reality is that this scenario is all too common. Families can become entangled in complex webs of denial, loyalty, and fear, which allow abusive patterns to continue unchecked. The pressure to maintain a veneer of normalcy and to protect the family's reputation can be overwhelming, leading to the silencing of victims and the perpetuation of the cycle of abuse.

Mark's bravery in speaking out, despite the grave consequences, is a testament to the power of truth and the importance of breaking these cycles of silence. However, it's crucial to acknowledge that not everyone has the same capacity or resources to take on this daunting task.

The personal, emotional, and social costs can be crippling, and many survivors may understandably choose to prioritize their own healing and safety over the immense challenge of confronting their abusers and their family's complicity.

It is essential that we recognize the systemic barriers and the intergenerational trauma that often prevent survivors from coming forward. We must create more accessible pathways for healing, support, and justice, without placing undue burdens on those who have already endured unimaginable suffering.


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