• Mark Stibbe


In all my posts on this site, I have been using my Hexagon for Prosperity, a simple tool describing the six essential things you need to master if you want to stand a good chance of success in your writing career. What success means, of course, is a big question in itself, but let's just restrict that word to four things at the moment; (1) significant sales for your book (significant understood as "big numbers for your particular genre"), (2) significant appreciation in terms of glowing reviews, (3) significant standings within the bestseller's lists for your genre, and (4) significant impact and influence within the culture for which your book is written.

One of the toughest challenges is promoting your book, which is why I am devoting so much time to this subject on this blog site. So many writers, particularly those who self-publish, find this the hardest thing of all (along with distribution). If you haven't read my most recent blog, in which I interview Claire Stibbe about her top marketing tips as a prolific self-published author, you need to do that. There's essential advice there, garnered from years of hard work in the form of research and development, as well as trial and error experimentation. It's a truly priceless and invaluable treasure trove of great pearls of wisdom. I learned a lot myself. I know you will as well.

One of the things my twin sister didn't mention was making use of a quality PR and marketing consultant - someone who can represent you and your book to the many media outlets that authors need to try and access in promoting their new books. When I wrote Home at Last - my book about recovering from boarding school pain - Rhoda Hardie handled my PR and was outstanding. She managed to get me on the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2. The audience that day was well over 1,000,000 and the book shot up Amazon's list for all books from 250,000 to 114 within hours! It has frequently had a bestseller tag on Amazon since then, within its niche genre.

While I haven't made a lot of money from this book (that's not what it's about for me), it has changed lives, as is evidenced by the many letters and emails I've received from ex-boarders who have read it and who have received healing as a result. All this has taught me how vital it is to enlist a quality PR person in the promotion of your book. I work regularly with Rhoda now on my new books because I recognize that the investment is thoroughly worthwhile. Good PR people do cost you, or your publisher, but they do pay dividends for both you and the publisher if you have a great premise, a great product and great packaging.

Indeed, an excellent PR person is essential for achieving a great platform and great promotion.

As a result of Rhoda's work, I have found myself speaking and writing about Home at Last not only on radio and TV, but in The Times and other media outlets. My book was also given a push when I spoke out on BBC 1 and Channel 4 about abuse within boarding school culture.

I thought you'd like to see the transcript of my interview on the Jeremy Vine show. Jeremy was away that week, so his stand-in, Vanessa Feltz, took over and did an excellent job. Vanessa had been to boarding school herself, and was sympathetic to a faith-based approach to therapy.

Here's the interview. I hope it inspires you to use a great PR and marketing consultant to achieve great promotion with your new book.

Vanessa Feltz: Boarding school. I wonder what images float into your mind. A former stately home may swim into view, set in acres of rolling parkland. You may be thinking of incredible facilities and world class teaching, that only expensive fees can provide. Mention one of Britain's top boarding schools, and it's shorthand for describing the future elite, who'll end up running the country. And because the institution is home, rather than just a case of education, the pupils form friends for life in the shared dormitories.

However, the reality isn't always quite like that.

The writer, Mark Stibbe, says in his book Home at Last that when he was sent away to boarding school at the age of eight, it had a devastating effect on him. With the emotional damage continuing deep into his adulthood. It wasn't just the brutal beatings that he suffered, but the separation from his parents that caused so many problems. Mark says that generations of former boarding school pupils have homesick souls and boarded hearts. He believes it's an untreated wound at the highest levels of British society. And he joins me on the program this afternoon.

Mark, you were adopted and that was one of the first major incidents in your life. And you were adopted very happily; you had a great early childhood with your adoptive parents.

Sitting in a Radio Leeds booth, talking live with Vanessa Feltz in London on the Jeremy Vine Show, BBC Radio 2

Dr Mark Stibbe: I would describe my years from about one to seven as golden years, the golden years of my childhood. I was exceedingly happy.

Vanessa Feltz: And then I think your mother broke the news to you, that you were going to be sent away to boarding school. Your adoptive father had been a boarding schoolteacher, so your family was steeped in boarding school and all that it meant. And your parents most definitely felt that they were doing absolutely the best possible thing they could for you and for your future.

Dr Mark Stibbe: My father was a housemaster at Bradfield College, which was a reasonably prominent, and is, a reasonably prominent public school. And so, I was brought up in an atmosphere, and a culture of boarding school education. So, in a sense it didn't come as any great surprise when at the age of seven I was told I was going to be sent away to prep school. But I did feel the shock waves in my heart at the thought of being separated from my adoptive parents, from my twin sister, and from my older brother, and my black Labrador.

Vanessa Feltz: And you write very movingly in your book, which is called Home at Last, about your mother kissing you goodnight, and you talk about the butterfly kisses, and the nibbling of ears. And the teddy bear, and just all the things that anybody lucky enough to have had a happy childhood associates with home. The kisses and the cuddles and the warmth and the ... Somewhere that you can relax, and just be loved for being yourself. And you talk about that very first journey to prep school when you were just eight years old. The moment when, pretty much, your parents were bundled off and told, "Yes, leave him, we're in charge of him now."

Dr Mark Stibbe: Well yes, that's right. My mum, Joy Stibbe, she, I think, had a very strong inkling that this was going to be hard for me. So, she dressed up my teddy bear, Edward, in the same school uniform that I was going to be wearing on my first day. Shorts, jumper, blue shirt, tie, cap, socks, everything, so that I would have a companion in this exile from home. I do remember very vividly hanging on to that teddy bear and watching as my parents drove out of the gravel drive. I can still hear the crackling of the stones underneath the tires even to this day. I can still smell the polish, the oak polish in the foyer hall and staircase of this big country house where I was deposited along with my bear and my trunk. It was a very traumatic moment, it was abandonment, it was separation, it was a sense of homesickness that invaded my soul in a very, very forceful way.

Home at Last, featured in the Times

Vanessa Feltz: I think lots of people listening to you, Mark, will have expected you to tell the story as something like that. As the car crunched away, you felt utter abandonment, and they won't be surprised to hear that. But what I think will surprise them is what happened to you later on that very night, the very first night that you arrived aged eight at boarding school.

Dr Mark Stibbe: Yes, it's quite hard to talk about, but on my first evening I dropped a bag of marbles and this was deemed to be a felony by one of the teachers at the school who had a reputation, that I only discovered later, for being utterly sadistic. And he beat me in front of all my peers, the other new boys in the dormitory, with a cane. I think that night under the bedclothes hugging Edward bear I made an inner vow. I don't think I vocalized or even realized it at the time, that if I was going to get through the next 10 years, it was going to have to be stiff upper lip. No emotions, baton down the hatches, what I call the boarded heart.

Vanessa Feltz: Did you tell your parents you'd been brutally beaten on your very first night at school aged just eight? And told to pull your trousers down in front of everybody else in the house? Did you let them know what was going on there?

Dr Mark Stibbe: No, I didn't. I think that's one of the things that is very complex about the whole boarding school culture, at least in those days. As this secrecy about brutalization, secrecy about the real feelings that you're experiencing, the real events and traumas that you are being exposed to. Because the biggest sin that you felt you didn't want to commit, is the sin of ingratitude. And so, I didn't want to appear ungrateful, I didn't want to be a thankless child, to quote King Lear, so, I didn't tell them a thing, no.

Vanessa Feltz: So, they had no idea what was going on at all.

Dr Mark Stibbe: No, they didn't because I didn't complain to anybody. I didn't know where to go, or who you complained to, in this sort of situation. I was only eight, I was extremely vulnerable, and so I just went quiet.

My wife Cherith selling Home at Last at a packed out Boarding School Concern conference. Notice the Home at Last stress balls and the banner!

Vanessa Feltz: I mean there will be people listening who will be thinking, "Well, yes, of course it's difficult at first. But very quickly, boarding school pupils, even at the very tender age of eight, find their feet. And they develop independence, and an intrepid spirit. And they either do very well on the sports field, which is one of the things you did do, or they do terribly well academically, they make friends for life. This is the making of children.” People still believe that to be true. What would you say to them?

Dr Mark Stibbe: I think that can be true. We mustn't give the impression that every child is traumatized by their boarding school years, because for some children frankly, it's the lesser of two evils. It's better than the dysfunctions at home. But I think finding your feet for so many children can be code for becoming a mini-survivor, a mini-adult, at the tender age of eight. And missing out on 10 years, effectively, of your childhood because you're having to behave so grownup, so independent before your time.

Vanessa Feltz: And so when you say you're boarded of heart, and an emotional chip just closed down in your soul and in your personality, what do you think is the effect of that on a young child and then, of course, on the adult that you turned out to be?

Dr Mark Stibbe: Well I think for me the biggest fear that I had during those boarding school years, was the fear of appearing wet. Which was the ultimate insult. "Oh, you're wet." And wet meant, basically, showing emotions, being vulnerable, and so forth. It could also mean being literally wet, as in wetting your bed. So, that was the kind of ultimate taboo in those 10 years. I think the effect of that was that I began to live out of my mind, rather than out of my heart. And I experienced what I later describe as a split soul syndrome, in which thinking and feeling became totally detached. Feeling in the end became suppressed, and I became a person that lived purely out of a head. Now that's going to have damaging effects. The mantra that we're all sold before we go to boarding school is it's going to be the making of us. But so often it's the breaking of us, because there's a fracture between intellect and emotion which can then have devastating reverberations in later life as you try to form close attachments with a wife, with a husband, with your children. Emotional disengagement is what you've learnt at a very young age. That's not going to help you in contexts where intimacy is one of the most prized values.

Vanessa Feltz: And yet despite this, or maybe you're going to tell me because of this, so many of our political leaders, and our academic leaders hail from that kind of background. So many of them sent off to school, some of them at seven years old, and they seem somehow as a result to develop these qualities of leadership, which inspire other people, and which propelled them to colossal earthly success really.

An episode devoted to the trauma suffered by the young Prince Charles when his father insisted he should go to boarding school in Scotland

Dr Mark Stibbe: Yes, and I think that relates to what you were saying earlier about the performance orientation of the boarding school culture. One of the ways in which you learn to substitute the affection and affirmation that you miss from your parents is by trying to get it from your peers and from your teachers through achievement. What this sets you up for is a lifetime of being publicly and outwardly successful, but inwardly, and privately broken. So, you get a lot of people who are going to the top of every tree in terms of our culture who may be successful at work but abject failures at home, and that's my story.

Vanessa Feltz: I suppose there are many people listening to this who did stay at home. So few people, such a tiny proportion of the population, gets to go off to boarding school. And they might say they were molly-coddled, they were indulged, they were ignored, they were neglected at home. It's just as possible to be a broken adult when you've spent every day and every night under your parent’s roof, depending on the kind of parents you had, as it is to be a broken adult when you were sent off to boarding school.

Dr Mark Stibbe: And that's a completely and utterly fair comment. But my thesis in my book, Home At Last, is that when you get sent away to this privileged environment it's basically institutionally sanctioned abandonment. And what these great country houses are, effectively I is orphanages for the privileged. And what's going to be the effect of that when you get to lead in various contexts, whether it's business or government? I think the effect of that is going to be emotional disengagement, a lack of compassion, and what others have called an empathy deficit.

Vanessa Feltz: On the other hand, here you are and you're oozing empathy, and you're full of compassion, and you feel sorry for your eight-year old self. And for every other child who was put in that environment, in that predicament. So, maybe you could say that, that feeling of abandonment would actually engender a kind of empathy. That you would remember so vividly how you felt at eight, you'd never want to inflict those sorts of feelings on other people. And you would be a great and compassionate leader, as a result of a boarding school education.

Dr Mark Stibbe: I wish that was true, but I think that it takes a certain amount of healing. And particularly the healing of the heart for a person to get to the point where they're so in touch with their emotions that they can genuinely feel compassion for those in a similar predicament. What needs to happen is the emotion chip needs to be reinserted into the human soul. And that I think can only happen through healing, which is why my book, Home at Last, is not just about the diagnosis of the problem, but it's also about how to come home. How to experience the kind of homecoming that will reengage the emotions and enable a person to relate functionally and intimately to their nearest and dearest again.

Vanessa Feltz: And how do you learn to do that when as you say you've boarded up your heart and switched off your emotional chip. How as an adult can you learn to feel the feelings and really inhabit the emotions that you haven't been allowed to feel since you were such a young child?

Dr Mark Stibbe: Well my book is a faith-based approach to the issue of healing, based and rooted in Psalm 27:10 where we read that, "If my father and mother abandon me the Lord will hold me very close." In other words, if we experience ruptured attachments at an early age through, for example, early boarding, the thing that will produce the homecoming more effectively, completely, and profoundly than anything else, is actually a secure attachment to the Father in heaven who loves us like no earthly father or mother ever could. And it's in that connection, in that spiritual communion, that I believe that this homesickness is profoundly healed. And I also think Dickens, Charles Dickens, portrays this in A Christmas Carol. Scrooge as a boy was a boarding school orphan and required spiritual intervention in the form of three ghosts to come home and experience the delight of Christmas, the joy of being a child again. And I think that's a lesson for all of us that we can't bypass the spiritual in the psycho-therapeutic healing process.

Home at Last, with over 50 mainly glowing reviews and frequent #1 best seller tag within its niche genre

Vanessa Feltz: Thank you very much indeed. That's Doctor Mark Stibbe, the author of Home At Last, Freedom From Boarding School Pain. Now if you were at boarding school and absolutely you agree with him, you went through something very similar indeed, and shut off your emotional chip. Then, of course, we'd like to hear from you. But if on the other hand you had a marvelous time, you thoroughly enjoyed it, and it was the making of you, and you made sure to send your children off to boarding school, we'd like to hear that point of view as well.

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