Recently, while having a clear-out at home, I came across an old school photograph of me as a 14-year-old. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and as I looked at that teenage girl, in her grey uniform and hair scrunchie, I realised how true it was.
Yes, I’m smiling, but I can see the smile is hollow. My hair is lank, my skin sallow and my eyes are without sparkle. I know when that picture was taken that I didn’t like myself much. I couldn’t see why anyone else should like me either.
So what was the story behind that picture? That 14-year-old girl had, just a few days earlier, been on a path of total self-destruction. I’d spent the best part of two years drinking, taking drugs, shoplifting and sleeping around. I could easily have died — many people I hung around with back then are dead — but somehow, I managed to turn my life around.
Looking at that photo 20 years later — and now a mother to a little girl myself — I still remember that crossroads, and shudder when I recall how easily I found myself standing there.
For while you may assume my steep decline, which began when I was just 12, was precipitated by a deprived childhood on the fringes of society, nothing could be further from the truth.
My childhood was idyllic. The daughter of a headmaster, my home in Wigan, Lancashire, was one of learning and aspiration.
Rebecca Evans (pictured with her husband Adrian and daughter Rosalyn) has revealed how she was gang raped in the park when she was just 12 years old
I was loved, nurtured and gently encouraged. I took ballet and piano lessons, and spent hours listening to classical music with my father David, an accomplished pianist. My mother, Susan, taught me to read when I was still a toddler.
Top of the class at primary school, I was a role model to my younger two siblings and seemed to be growing into a contented young woman.
But then came a horrific twist of fate that led to an almost unimaginable descent into a world of drug-taking, casual sex and crime, which nearly destroyed me completely.
I say ‘almost’ unimaginable because it did happen. And if it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone, which is why I’m waiving my right to anonymity to tell my story. My message to you, therefore, is here but for the grace of God goes your daughter or granddaughter.
My dark journey was caused by the events of a single fateful night — which just happened to be the very first time I had ever told my unsuspecting parents a lie.
A night that ended with me being dragged into the bushes of a park by a gang of older men and passed around like a piece of meat.
Not long before this terrible event, I had started at a local state secondary school. Other pupils came from a nearby council estate and I stuck out a mile.
Tall, gangly, with very thick glasses and an insatiable keenness to learn, I was bullied dreadfully. I would have given anything to feel accepted.
Rebecca (pictured here at the age of 14) had been drinking in the park with a friend from school, after telling her parents she was at a sleepover
Then, one day, a girl — part of the popular group in my year — asked if I wanted to hang out one evening. I jumped at the chance, but then felt sick with worry when she explained this meant drinking alcohol, something I’d never done before.
The girl told me her dad wasn’t around and her mother worked night shifts. We had free rein to do whatever we wanted. She suggested meeting at a park to see if we could get someone to buy us drink from an off-licence.
I was terrified by the mere thought, but also a little excited. Wasn’t this the sort of rebellious experimentation that adolescents were meant to do?
My parents would never have countenanced me being on the streets at night — they were far too strict for that. Yet I was desperate to make friends. And so I told my first lie, saying I was going to a sleepover.
I remember my mother was pleased I seemed to be making friends at last. She helped me pack an overnight bag with my pyjamas and toothbrush, and gave me £5 to buy snacks and a video. She told me she loved me as I left to catch the bus.
And so commenced one of the worst nights of my life. Looking back, it was worryingly easy to find someone to buy us alcohol and cigarettes. Buoyed by our illicit bounty, we then went to sit in a local park.
I recall I wasn’t wearing my much-loathed glasses, even though my terrible eyesight meant I couldn’t see much without them. I had worn some new jeans to impress my friend, but no make-up, and my hair was pulled back in its usual ponytail.
I may have looked no more than my 12 years, but I felt happy, free and grown-up as my friend and I sat chatting about pop music and passed around a bottle of cider.
Rebecca (pictured here aged four) had previously been a straight-A student, but ended up a path of total self-destruction
Unused to alcohol, I rapidly felt giddy. Then at some point — I couldn’t say exactly when — a group of men came over to talk to us. White and dressed in baseball hats and tracksuits, they were at least a decade older than us.
I felt flattered. No one of the opposite sex had ever seemed interested in me before — as they shouldn’t, for I was still a child, after all. Yet some of the girls at my school seemed to be so much more advanced in that area.
It was dark, and probably approaching midnight, when I realised my friend had gone. I was quite drunk and entirely alone with these men. There were four of them, and I quickly started to panic. I tried to leave. It was only a few miles to my house. But instead the men dragged me into the bushes.
There will always be part of me that blames myself for what happened. I shouldn’t have lied to my parents, I shouldn’t have drunk alcohol, I shouldn’t have been there at all.
But, as the years passed, I started to accept it wasn’t my fault. I was only 12. They were grown men who shouldn’t have hurt me or taken away my innocence in such a brutal way.
Although my memories are blurred by alcohol, I can vividly remember their jeers, the way they smelled of lager and cheap aftershave. I’ll never forget how I sobbed as they passed me around, holding me down as they took turns. After they left, I lay curled up, crying for hours.
My clothes were torn and I was covered in mud. I was so worried about my parents discovering I’d lied to them that I convinced myself I was to blame for what happened. I decided then and there I would never tell them.
I managed to clean myself up in some public toilets and arrived home just after breakfast. My parents could tell I was subdued, but had no idea what had happened.
That night changed something inside me. I stopped caring about anything or anyone — my parents, my siblings, my education. I fell in with a bad crowd. Gone was my parents’ bookish, conscientious daughter. She was replaced with a headstrong tearaway.
I was so worried about my parents discovering I’d lied to them that I convinced myself I was to blame for what happened. I decided then and there I would never tell them
For the next two years, I drank and took drugs almost daily. By the time I was 14 — yes, just 14 — I could be found in grotty bedsits regularly, consuming a potent cocktail of alcohol, cannabis, LSD, ecstasy and amphetamines, often all at once.
I had older boyfriends and paid no regard to STDs or falling pregnant, although thank heavens I somehow avoided both.
I was a child in a terrifyingly grown-up world.
I remember, on one occasion, emptying a sachet of amphetamines, or whizz as it was known, into a glass of water and drinking it in the morning on one of the rare days I went to school.
What on earth did my loving parents make of this extreme change? They were, understandably, exasperated and heartbroken.
While they were aware I was drinking and smoking, they had no idea I was on drugs. That sort of world was just not on their radar — despite the fact I was stealing money from them and shoplifting to pay for my habit.
Once, I even stole my brother’s computer games to sell for drug money, which left him devastated. He and my sister were so young, only in primary school, and had no concept of what I was up to.
Mum and Dad tried grounding me but I would run away. I remember Mum hiding my shoes to stop me leaving, but I would climb out of the window in my socks, staying with friends whose parents were less strict than mine.
I would often be gone from home for days, leaving Mum and Dad phoning round to try to find me. On one occasion, they called the police and I was brought home — only to run away again.
They also sought my teachers’ advice, but they were equally perplexed by my behaviour. From being a straight-A student, I had become someone who was once caught rolling a joint during woodwork lessons, as well as sniffing glue during my lunch breaks.
Needless to say, it all took a huge toll on my parents. They endured endless sleepless nights and Dad would drive the streets trying to find me. Under such pressure, they would often fall out. Our once happy home was on a constant knife-edge, but I didn’t care.
I didn’t value myself at all. I felt I wasn’t worthy of anything, least of all my family’s love. I was in a terrible spiral. Many people I knew later died from drug overdoses.
I just wanted to blot out the memories of that awful night, to be numb. I had learned to ignore the quiet voice inside all of us — some call it God, others your conscience — that warns you to stop what you’re doing.
Then came rock bottom. I had been badly beaten up by a gang of older girls while out one evening. I looked in my bedroom mirror and saw my hollow red-rimmed eyes. Bone-thin, my face bruised, I looked exhausted and years older than 14.
I still don’t know why, but for the first time in two years I said a prayer: I was sorry for all the bad things I had done, I knew that I didn’t deserve to be forgiven, but if God was there, please would He help me?
Something stirred inside me. I resolved never to take drugs again — a pledge I kept — and to turn my life around.
I slipped downstairs and told my poor mother how sorry I was. That I was going to try harder. That things were going to be different. She embraced me, and said she loved me.
Yet she and Dad were wary any change in my behaviour might be purely temporary. To help me keep clear of bad influences, they scrimped and saved to send me to a small, private school in Bolton, Greater Manchester.
In this environment where academic prowess wasn’t something to be ashamed of, I thrived. Within a year, I was a prefect, and after much hard work to fill in the blanks of those lost years I managed to get nearly all As in my GCSEs. I did equally well in my A-levels before going on to Durham University to study politics.
After leaving university, I met my husband Adrian, who works in finance, and pursued my dream career of journalism.
From the start, I felt comfortable enough to be honest with Adrian about who I am and what I have been through. I have never doubted his love for me. He tells me every day how brave he thinks I am. He is my rock.
My past is part of who I am, but it doesn’t define me. I cherish each day I am alive, as it could have ended so differently. Eventually, I did tell my mother what happened to me that night in the park. I didn’t reveal every detail, I just said that when I was 12 I was raped by four men. I felt she should know.
By then, I was at university and had started to realise it wasn’t my fault. I asked her to tell my father as I didn’t feel I could.
She wept and said I should have told her at the time, that we could have gone to the police.
You may wonder why I’ve never gone to the police. But I have covered enough rape trials in my time as a journalist to know it would be impossible to prosecute.
I don’t know who those men were, it was a long time ago and I was drunk. There would therefore be no reasonable expectation of a successful prosecution.
I do wonder if those men, who may have daughters of their own, ever feel guilty for what they did. I’ve wondered whether they’ve hurt anyone else as they did me.
Wigan is no utopia, and I suspect that what happened to me is not uncommon there. Indeed, friends at school confided similar things had happened to them.
Thankfully, my life has exceeded all expectations. Two years ago, I became a mother to my daughter Rosalyn, who is a new reason to be the best version of myself.
I pray she will make it through her teenage years, the most challenging of times, less scarred than I did. Indeed, it’s one of the reasons we live in rural north Devon, away from the lures of city life.
Whatever happens, I want her to know she will always be worthy of my love, and that nothing she could ever do will change this. I want to spend every day making her proud to have me as her mummy.