November 1, 2009
What it feels like to grow up with prostitutes
Jeanette Whitton was brought up in a Victorian house full of hookers. She talks about the men, the shame and the lies.
As I was growing up, my mother worked as a housekeeper in a bohemian part of London full of hookers and artists. My family — my brother, sister, mother and often absent father — lived in a leaking basement flat of a large Victorian house, which had rooms that my mother would clean and deliver breakfast to.
When I was 10, three prostitutes moved in. My mother kept their profession a secret from us, but I noticed they were very different from her — they were covered in make-up, wore low-cut tops and would sit very provocatively on the doorstep with their legs open; if she saw us on the doorstep, she would scream at us.
In our teens, we gradually worked it out, after noticing how they’d sleep in the day, then go out at night and return with men. There was only one telephone, so my mum would always rush to answer it, to prevent us doing so, but my sister and I became inquisitive and started picking up the phone.
If we said the girls weren’t in, the callers would ask us if we were on the game. We’d make up names for ourselves, such as Letitia, from EastEnders, and say, “We’ll give you the full works,” a term we’d overheard.
We’d arrange appointments, and men would come round. My mother would answer the door and quickly slam it. A couple of times, men wanted us to go into detail: “What colour are your knickers?” That was too much, it scared us and we’d hang up.
The men didn’t frighten us, but my mother was very protective. The girls had a pimp, and I always felt he would intervene. He was very controlling, and at night he would keep vigil in the bathroom.
One woman was a heroin addict, which shocked me. I never saw her shoot up, but she physically deteriorated in front of us. We became friendly, though I never spoke about it with my mother.
When I was 14, one prostitute’s brother arrived to get over heroin — he died two weeks later of an overdose. I remember the girl coming screaming to my mother.
And there were terrifying police raids in the night that woke us up with loud banging on the door. My mother would soothe us with hot milk and a biscuit. Her policy was never to tell us what was really going on — she covered up the police raids as if they were a treat.
She never showed her emotions — I guess she buried most of the pain — but had the meanest temper, so we didn’t dare ask her anything.
I never felt safe at home, but I couldn’t talk to my mother, and wasn’t allowed to speak to anyone else. My mother wanted us to pretend it wasn’t happening — respectability was the most important thing to her.
She comes from a very proud Spanish family, and was deeply ashamed of her life and didn’t want her relations to know. The shame was infectious.
I took on the habit of lying from a young age, and began a double life. To friends, I invented a happy alternative, that we were middle class, that we owned our home, that I had a normal family.
I put on a posh accent and remember people calling me a snob. Lying was my tool for survival. The lies made the emotion easier to manage, and I became very numb to the events.
I buried a lot as well — I don’t remember half my childhood, but I have diaries from my teens. I was clearly depressed and very insecure. My diaries were the only outlet.
We moved out when I was 17, when the owner of the house decided to sell, but my upbringing influenced everything I did — I had seen how you could end up so low in the class system.
My way out was education, so I was the first person in my family to get a degree. I developed a fear and lack of respect for men — it only seemed to end in sex, which I thought was perverse. When, at 19, I had my first boyfriend, I was frigid and nervous.
I’m 41 now, married with three children — a son, aged 11, a daughter, aged 5, and a 19-year-old stepson — and I’m trying to reverse those influences.
My husband and I are completely open with each other. I found a kindred spirit — his childhood was worse than mine.
But initially he had a very different impression of me. He tells me I used to behave like an airhead — that was my defence to keep men at a distance.
I never confronted my mother, but in my early twenties it came out organically and that was hugely cathartic.
Now we’re adults, she’s totally open. To open up these secrets felt like a great burden had been lifted. It led to a change in our relationship, where she recognised me as an adult. But she wasn’t embarrassed about having lied.
She endured Franco’s dictatorship as a child, where covering up the truth was important. Having left London for a clean start, I didn’t have to tell my close friends about my life — it was upsetting and it made me feel weak.
Then, six years ago, my sister moved to my area.
She is much more open; she has a London accent and, when you meet her, it’s clear we don’t come from a conventional middle-class family.
I felt terror about her arrival. I was going to have to rewrite myself completely.
I was forced to become more honest. I had spent a long time adapting my story so people would like me, but I had to accept some people won’t like me for not being a posh intellectual.
I feel lighter now; the truth has given me back the ability to enjoy life. Lying was always on my conscience, I always felt fraudulent. I finally feel what I imagine normal people feel like. I’m happy with who I am now. In fact, I feel I’ve done very well, considering.
When Jeanette Whitton was young, she lived in the basement of an old house. She lived there with her mother, brother and sister. Her father lived there to, but he was often gone. Her mother worked there as a charlady. When Jeanette was ten years old, 3 ladies came to live in the same house. Jeanette saw they looked very odd. She had no contact with the women. But a few years later Jeanette and her sister notices what was going on. They saw the ladies coming home with men. The also took up the phone when men were calling for a date. Jeanette wasn’t scared of the men, with the exception of when it became too personal. One of the ladies was addicted to hard drugs. Her brother brought her the drugs. He died of an overdose. The cops came by very often. Jeanette’s mother would comfort them and pretend it was a party.
Jeanette couldn’t talk about it to her mother. Her mother came out of a very vigorous family and she felt ashamed. Jeanette also started feeling ashamed. She lied to everyone. She told that they were a middle class, happy, normal family. She started acting presumptuous, so nobody could guess what was going on.
Jeanette doesn’t remember a lot from the time she was young. But she still has her logbooks. She moved and got her diplomas. She couldn’t have normal contact with men.
Right now she is 41 years old. She’s espoused and has 3 kids. Her husband had a bad childhood to.
Jeanette has an open relationship with her mother right now.
It was very hard for her to deal with her past because she was scared that people wouldn’t accept her. But now she is happy and feels she’s has done the right things.
In my opinion, Jeanette had a very difficult time when she was young, but maybe even more when she grew up. She had to lie, because other people wouldn’t accept her way of living.
It’s a sad situation that she had never chosen for.
It’s great that she’s happy now, I think she’s a strong woman.