Fry so wrong on ‘self-pitying’ abuse victims

Stephen Fry during his controversial interview on US TV
Stephen Fry during his controversial interview on US TV

Who on earth would ever have imagined that the liberal, highly well-educated and open-minded bon vivant, author and TV presenter beloved of millions, Stephen Fry could have delivered such insensitive remarks directed towards victims of sexual abuse?

The actor and wit has always struck me as an affable sort, open about his own experiences with mental illness - a patron of mental health charity Mind to boot - always willing to campaign to combat stigma around the issue. Massively entertaining and someone who seems like an excellent fantasy dinner party guest, what on earth can he have meant when he delivered such unkind statements this week while being interviewed on US TV?

Fry was bemoaning the ‘infantilising’ culture of safe spaces and trigger warnings that have been developed in schools and universities - such as the idea that rape victims could not read Titus Andronicus for fear of being re-traumatised when he rubbished this overly-cautious approach and appeared to dismiss abuse survivors.

He said: “It’s a great shame and we’re all very sorry that your uncle touched you in that nasty place - you get some of my sympathy - but your self-pity gets none of my sympathy. Self-pity is the ugliest emotion in humanity. Get rid of it, because no one’s going to like you if you feel sorry for yourself...Grow up.”

The callousness of such sentiments is astonishing, especially from the mouth of a man who once flounced off on a ferry to France - albeit during a depression - because he felt so sorry for himself over some bad reviews for a sodding stage play he was staring in.

I know - he has now issued an apology for any offence caused by his remarks, but his sentiments nevertheless betray an unforgivably blasé attitude towards a group who have every single right to engage in as much self-pity as they wish.

This attitude appears to grossly minimise the far-reaching effects abuse like this can engender. Studies have found that up to 80 percent of abused people had at least one psychiatric disorder by age 21 - commonly depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation.

The immune system and the brain’s stress response form in childhood so that abuse can have long-term devastating effects: children must be loved and kept save to minimise their chances of adult mental ill health.

Victims have every right to feel sorry for themselves and Fry is quite wrong when he describes self-pity as one of the least attractive human emotions: hatred for others, pleasure in sadism, monstrous selfishness, psychopathic self-absorption, the inability to feel empathy - these are abhorrent. People who sexually abuse others are unspeakably abhorrent, not self-pitying victims. If one has had their home destroyed, is fleeing a war-torn region, has been the victim of terrible sexual assault, is enduring unimaginable penury or tragedy, let them cry uninterrupted as they wish. Victims of childhood or adult sexual abuse deserve unlimited sympathy in particular, have every right to feel aggrieved and angry, and must be treated with patience and compassion. Stephen Fry should not set out to minimise the horrific plight of sex abuse survivors: the only response is mercy, sorrow for what they have endured and a inviolable sense of the duty incumbent on all of us to do what we can to ensure perpetrators of such evil are robustly punished.