By | 12th February 2018

A friend of mine went to boarding school. We met at university and have got drunk together, cooked together, holidayed together and we are Godfather to each other’s first-born children. Once, we nearly died together.

And yet, through the forty years I’ve known him, I’ve never once seen him display a single emotional reaction to what’s happening in his life; not when his children were born, not when his parents passed away, not even when we nearly died in an avalanche.  He’s a big, lovely man, but he’s the most closed off, least empathetic, least responsive person I’ve ever met. A few years ago, having read a piece on how boarding school has affected some of the people who went there, I decided he showed all the symptoms of being a ‘boarding school survivor,’ a term used in the article.

It never once occurred to me to apply that term to myself.

You see, I too went to boarding school; not because my parents were rich, but because my father was a middle ranking civil servant (equivalent to an army Major) and the government provided financial support for me to go to a not especially distinguished boys boarding school. It meant I didn’t have to change school every two years as he was moved round the world. The school was chosen to be near to my grandparents so that I and my brothers could see them occasionally at weekends. I was, I think, ten years old when I went there, maybe eleven.

Only now, as I approach sixty, am I looking more closely at myself and wondering how my own life has been affected by my time at boarding school. I might have done so before, had not my memories of that time all been positive ones. I remember enjoying the camaraderie and the routines, the sport and the music. I remember there being two main groups of boys, two “cliques”: the choir and the rugby team. I, almost uniquely, was in both. Perhaps that’s why they made me head boy. At the end of my last term, I made a speech to 500 people. It was pretty good. Doesn’t sound like a damaging experience, does it?

And yet, here I am, contemplating the ending of a second marriage in which, as with the first, there’s been no big bust up, no huge falling apart, just a gradual degradation, an accumulation of issues not dealt with and a paralysing failure to communicate. When she had a problem she’d tell me and I’d mumble some incoherent response and change the subject as soon as possible. When I had a problem, I’d generally keep it to myself and lock it away, adding it to the festering little pile of resentment I was building up.

I don’t think I’ve been a bad parent, perhaps even a good one in many ways. I loved my sons and still do. I’ve been tactile with them and done my best to show them how important they are to me.

So why go back and revisit my boarding school experience now? In part because I am finally, through my exploration of kink, through the blog and through the relationships I have developed in these worlds, finding that it is OK to bring my emotions to the surface and express them to others. I suspect even Elita may not be aware what an important moment she created when she pushed me over the edge in a heavy BDSM session, helping me realise that to break down and cry in front of another person was not just permissible, but was a normal, healthy response to the intensity of the situation.

Perhaps more importantly, both my boys are having challenges. I don’t want to explore them here but, as a parent, it’s hard not to seek answers to their challenges in my behaviour, to blame myself for their unhappiness. Do I perhaps have some of the same lack of emotional empathy as my friend? Am I too a ‘boarding school survivor’ and has that affected my children’s lives?

I’m trying to dig past the general sense that ‘I enjoyed school’ to find memories that will provide a more complete sense of how that time was for me, pointers to my later emotional development or lack of it.

They’re not there.

Perhaps surprisingly, there’s not a single memory of those times where I could say: ‘Ah, so that’s where I learnt to bottle up my feelings”.

This is not to say that I can exonerate my schooling. Any enclosed institution: prison, army barracks, sports team, school, develops its own unquestioned version of normality built on its own rules and traditions. I dealt with issues and problems in my own head rather than talk about them because that was the normal in that institution and I had no way to recognise that my normal lacked the communication and emotional engagement that others might have grown up with.

I was part of the system, didn’t cause trouble and played by the rules (apart from the occasional trip to the pub in the 6th form – I wasn’t THAT much of a saint). I became in those ways, institutionalised, though wouldn’t have recognised that description at the time. Yes I was part of the two main groups in the school, but that doesn’t mean I had a huge pool of friends, people with whom I was, in any sense, close; certainly not the type of friends with whom I would discuss anything more sensitive than the last rugby match or the next. I knew a lot of people but didn’t know a lot about them.

Having left that environment, it’s taken me 40 years, two marriages and 20 years of parenting, to wonder if perhaps the normal that I grew up in wasn’t normal at all. Perhaps it was repressive and stifling and left me repressed and stifled. Perhaps the normalisation of that clearly abnormal environment was insidiously harmful in inself.

I believe I spent so much time controlling how I expressed myself that it became easier not to have strong feelings, easier to live life on an even keel, neither happy nor unhappy, and just refuse to recognise any sentiment, positive or negative, that threatened that equilibrium. Perhaps it’s taken BDSM with it’s physical and emotional intensity to break down those barriers and let me rediscover those long buried feelings. Elita’s whipping certainly achieved that, stripping away all my defences and leaving me sobbing into her shoulder, an experience that is still with me now, nine months later.

I hate the thought that my character, and in particular those attributes of it which make me a Boarding School Survivor have, in some way, caused hurt to the people around me. I know they have though. My first wife told me she’d given me the best years of her life with nothing to show for it. My second has two wonderful children, but for years has talked about feeling lonely, even when she wasn’t alone; lonely because of my inability or unwillingness to communicate with her. What about the boys?  I’ve loved them and done my best to demonstrate that love. Was that, in some way I don’t understand, not enough? The truth is. I’ll never really know. All I can do is help the people they are now to grow, overcome their difficulties and head out into the world.

For a long time I argued that we should send our boys to boarding school. Now I’ve got these thoughts out of my head and written this post,  I’m actually, and for the first time, glad we didn’t.



Hogwarts – the most famous boarding school


This is an extract from the website of an organisation set up to provide help and support to ex boarding school attendees. You can find it here.

The symptoms of what we call being a Boarding School Survivor are varied and complex. They include difficulties in relationships and parenting, workaholism, inability to relax, isolation, being experienced as a bully, substance abuse, a sense of failure, as well as physical, sleep, and sexual problems.

These and other problems may be due a complicated mix of neglect and privilege, of being exiled from normal family life to an institution with easy exposure to bullying and abuse. Such an education is not a good recipe for normal life and is a disastrous preparation for relationships.

In part this post came out of Twitter discussions with @PosyChurchgate . You can read her thoughts on her time at boarding school and its later effects on her here.

I’m going to add a note here that hopefully isn’t needed. The kink community seems quite political and leans in a somewhat leftwards direction. I wouldn’t like people to assume that, because I went to private school, I am a Trump loving, Ultra Right Wing, Brexiteer. I am none of those things. I feel privileged to have had my education, not in any sense entitled by it.



I’d like to add a post script prompted by further thinking and the wonderful comments below where people have shared their own experiences:

It’s not only my own experience that influenced me. My Mother was a boarding school survivor, probably a more obvious case than me, and she also lost her father early on. She once told my wife (not me) that she hadn’t been openly loving to us when we were small because she knew we would have to go to boarding school and wanted us to be ready. I think that was her way of rationalising the fact that, because of her own upbringing, she hadn’t really known how.

But, in another way, that might have been a good thing. I’m certainly not passing any blame back up the generations for my mother being who she was, and indeed, still is. Perhaps I thrived at school, which I did, because of that preparation. I was certainly happy enough there and that wasn’t true of everyone. Only now do a look back and judge that time through more suspicious eyes.

Who we are is a consequence of our genes and our experience and of the decisions we take. Any influence I can have had on the genes of my boys was set before they were born, but I keep trying to give them the best experience that I can, and help them make their decisions as they grow up. I’m trying to be there when things get hard. I suspect that, when they were younger, when it might have been even more important, I might not have always achieved that. I have to live with that and help them as much as I can now.

The experience of writing this piece and reading the wonderful comments and shared experiences has been positive for me so I would like to thank all who added their thoughts below.



  1. Exposing40

    I can’t add anything to the comments above but I just wanted to say thank you for writing another thought-provoking and vulnerable post. Xx

  2. Julie

    A powerful piece B1, I don’t think I have much to add that hasn’t been written in the comments here. But it explains a lot about some of the people I have known during my life.

  3. Jo

    Your thoughts on your adolescent experiences and how they affect(ed) your adult life are so self-aware and show a great deal of emotional intelligence, I think. I’ve never heard of boarding school survivor syndrome; this is a fascinating read.

  4. Marie Rebelle

    Back when I was a teenager, I always envied the children who lived in the boarding school, imagining the magic times they had living there. Of course, as I grew older I realized it’s not all that magical and now reading this, I am happy that I grew up at home and not in a boarding school. Thank you for reflecting on your time back then and how it has influenced your life and that of the people around you. In the end we all seem to partly be the product of our upbringing…

    Rebel xox

  5. May More

    Great post – particularly because you have written it in almost in a matter of fact way without over dramatising the effect it has had on you, but nevertheless recognising and owning how your behavior, as an ex boarding school pupil, may have caused hurt to people close to you.
    As a child I was desperate to get out of my home environment and into boarding school. But my families financial situation and/or work circumstance did not afford that.
    However, as a parent I would never have been able to send my kids to such an institution – TBH i wanted to home school them but it was not such a popular thing to do 15 years ago. So many people out there ready to influence their young minds when I wanted that person to be me…

  6. Indigo Byrd

    I read this story with a good degree of wonder. My previous partner didn’t go to boarding school but he was in institutions from a fairly young age. He was very closed off even though he didn’t want to be – I remember him saying once that he wasn’t sure if he could love. He was a very damaged man and he damaged other people including me but this post actually gives me some insights into his behaviour. Thank you.

  7. Molly

    The description of someone who is a boarding school survivor fits my ex husband almost perfectly, minus the substance abuse. I spent the best part of 18 years trying to bring those walls down, but eventually I realised the only person who could that was him and I couldn’t wait any more for him to try. Even now he still struggles to engage with our children, he is better with my son but utterly at a loss with my daughter. I think she is an truly alien creature to him. I think most women are to be honest but a nearly 15 year old doubly so.

    I think spending substantial amount of ones formative years in an institution does have a huge impact. He always told me he loved school and was happy there and I actually believe him but that does not mean that the long term impact of being in the environment has not shaped him into the man he is today.

    This is a brave post to write my friend but I actually think, like so much of your writing, that is shows a huge self awareness and desire to learn yourself fully and those are good and powerful things


  8. @Katteroo_

    I am sure that it is possible to attend boarding school and still grow up as an empathetic, expressive person, but equally I know for certain that it is possible to be a “boarding school survivor” without having gone anywhere near one – I was married to a man who fit that description. Despite growing up in a household that supposedly revolved around family, he was completely closed off on an emotional level. Not expressing anything much in the of upset or joy, he just seemed to be blank most of the time, just… existing. Even when something did upset him, he would just shut down. Emotional communication was almost non-existent, and that is very, very lonely to live with.

    I don’t know what the answer is, but your writing here is always involves such brave introspection. Your self-awareness and willingness to examine your emotions so articulately certainly would suggest you aren’t nearly as closed off as others may be. Maybe it’s more about finding the right circumstances /people with whom to open up and communicate. xx

  9. HappyComeLucky

    I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to suggest which of the aspects of a very positive boarding school can have an impact on relationships later. I’m the child of a person who went to boarding school and over my life, I saw my parent have a different understanding of life and the effort that both my parents put into making communication and properly sharing with each other work. I’m also very grateful to my grandparents who, whilst they chose boarding school for their children, did many things that kept them rooted in a family experience.
    Maybe you are not nearly as extreme as your friend but we are the product of our environments and to be in a 24/7 institution for such formative years has an impact, just as it would if we spent those years in similar now.
    Reflecting, thinking and being truly aware of who we are and how we interact with others is so very important to others but even more so, to ourselves.
    Be kind and afford yourself aftercare when you strip yourself bare with reflection.

  10. Posy Churchgate

    Yes this piece resonates with me. I like it and feel you have probably grown, or shed a layer during the thought process required to write it. Great stuff.

  11. Rebecca

    I went to boarding school from the age of nine as like you my father was a middle ranking civil servant in the diplomatic service. Although I saw the world (flying home in the holidays) it was only when I became an adult I realised what I missed out on. My husband asks me about tv programmes on when we are teenagers, he then said oh yes you were at boarding school, and although a poor example it becomes apparent in so many different situations. My skewered vision of family became different as we never had the day to day routine which families have. Compounded was the fact I went to Catholic Boarding School, which considering the childhood my mother had at the hands of “nuns” always seemed a strange choice, and that darn religion has blighted life in the present. Restricted in so many ways whilst stifling the passage of adolscent. I vowed never ever ever to send my kids away to school, and stuck to that for all of them. Yes we have challenges and issues, I find myself with the ability to cut people off with ease with never a backward glance, and have a coping mechanism which stemmed from those nights at school. Boarding school kids carry the unnatural childhood into adult hood. I can’t remember being unhappy, as it became the norm but it does affect life in the future. On a lighter note I never lost the ability to walk through a swing door correctly, interrupt at dinner parties when a person was uncomfortable, and to enter and exit a low slung sports car…………………. Deportment every other Monday!!


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