Deneice Florence-Jukes is a victim of a victim. Or that’s how it feels to her, anyway.
Two years ago, the councillor from Staffordshire put in an official complaint after the Tory MP and small-business minister Andrew Griffiths allegedly touched her knee and clutched her waist at a fundraising ball. When, a few months later, he was caught sending a barrage of explicit and, frankly, creepy texts to two other women half his age, in which he referred to himself as “Daddy”, Griffiths was duly sacked from his ministerial job. Public sympathy, naturally enough, was with the women. It seemed a pattern was emerging.
But, this weekend, on the verge of a disciplinary-panel ruling on whether he should be allowed to stay on as an MP, Griffiths disclosed something that will turn many people’s idea of the case upside down. When he sent the texts he had, he said, been in the throes of a mental breakdown seemingly precipitated by the birth of his baby daughter a few months earlier. As a child, he was himself sexually abused by an older boy and so he became obsessed by the idea of protecting his daughter. Griffiths, who spent a month in a psychiatric hospital after he lost his job, now sees those texts as some kind of “coping mechanism” comparable to self-harming and himself as a survivor of abuse struggling with its legacy.
All the armchair diagnoses of Griffiths now being offered on social media by people who have never met him must be taken with a huge pinch of salt. Voters understandably get suspicious of mental-health issues being raised only after a politician gets caught, but casually dismissing some complete stranger’s account of their mental state – let alone of childhood abuse – just isn't right. Nobody but Griffiths’ psychiatrist is qualified to speculate on exactly what was going on inside his head.
But the awkward question is where that leaves women on the receiving end of his behaviour. Their experience hasn’t suddenly got any more pleasant, but they’re now under a kind of unspoken public pressure to be more understanding; to forgive and forget, perhaps, even though Florence-Jukes’s allegations date from before his daughter was born, and before that he was investigated over claims that he’d bullied male colleagues.
Voters understandably get suspicious of mental-health issues being raised only after a politician gets caught, but casually dismissing someone’s account of their mental state – let alone of childhood abuse – just isn't right
This isn’t the first time an apparently straightforward story of politicians behaving hideously has turned out more complicated than it looks. Brooks Newmark, the minister caught sending explicit pictures to an undercover reporter posing as a besotted young woman, checked into a psychiatric clinic afterwards; it later emerged he’d been anorexic as a teenager and suffered depression in later life. Margaret Moran, the former Labour MP caught fiddling her expenses to the tune of over £50,000, was judged mentally unfit to stand trial. Jared O’Mara, the Labour MP exposed as having made horribly homophobic and misogynistic comments online, some years before getting elected, disclosed afterwards that he was autistic and had suffered from depression. In both public and private life, it’s increasingly obvious that mental-health issues are at the root of a fair bit of what would once have been considered just bad or self-destructive behaviour. One of the unexpected by-products of greater openness about mental health might be accepting that it’s unfair to rush too fast to moral judgement in cases like this. (And, yes, that includes columnists like me.)
But fairness for the victims of erratic behaviour means recognising that being able to explain what happened isn’t quite the same as making it go away. Alcoholism is an illness, too, but one of the 12 steps to recovery for an alcoholic is making amends for distress caused to friends and family while they were drinking, precisely because admitting to a problem doesn’t magically make everything forgivable. Although Griffiths says now he is “ashamed” of those texts, what was missing from the article he wrote for The Sunday Times is any real apology to those who say he bullied them.
We might feel great compassion for Griffiths, based on his childhood experiences, and wish him a speedy recovery from his breakdown. That doesn’t, however, instantly wipe the slate clean. Still less should it be used to make those affected feel guilty for complaining.