By all outward appearances, Maya Meftahi’s father was a loving and devoted man. Escorting her down the aisle on her wedding day in 2008, Maya was keen to show her assembled family and friends the “fairytale” family setup.
“Keeping my father in my life at that distance was my safety net, my protection route,” she recalls, 11 years later. “I had to role play the normal, everyday situation of two families [coming together] … the happy-ever-after fairytale.”
Indeed, Maya was the only person in the room who knew her father’s secret. Throughout her childhood, Edward Colby had subjected her to serious sexual abuse, bribing her with toys and cartoons if she agreed to carry out depraved acts. A “serial stalker”, he controlled every aspect of her life, she says, and her friends joked about him as the “man in the white van” from whom they had to hide.
Colby threatened to kill himself if she told anybody about the abuse, taking her on long drives along the beachfront near their home in Thorpe Bay, Essex, whenever she threatened to call the police. On one occasion, he locked the car doors and showed her the petrol can he said he would use to kill himself if anybody found out.
Leaving home at 16, Maya decided to forget about her dark history, preferring to keep her father in her life, at arm’s length, rather than cut ties altogether.
Maya, 35, a trauma recovery counsellor, has now taken the rare step of waiving the lifelong anonymity given to sexual assault victims to discuss her story in a Channel 5 documentary, My Dad the Paedophile. She thinks her initial decision to keep her father around - even involving him in her wedding ceremony - will shed some light on the psychological trap that many abuse victims find themselves in.
“When you’re a victim, the whole point is to perpetuate silence on you,” she explains. “That’s how they get away with it, that’s why sentencing guidelines are not able to catch up with the crime because it’s a silent, hidden thing. Most people only speak out in adulthood, not in childhood.”
Maya is one of seven percent of British adults who experienced sexual assault as a child, according to estimates from the NSPCC. Around seven in eight of those have never reported the crime, but the so-called “Jimmy Savile effect” is starting to change this, contributing to an immediate 9 per cent spike in recorded sexual offences the year after Savile was exposed. Many abuse victims are coming to believe that now, for the first time, they will be taken seriously by authorities.
Indeed, it wasn’t until 2012 that Maya Meftahi told a soul. She was enjoying a holiday in Tunisia with her husband and son when she received a call from Essex Police. After an anonymous tip-off they had searched her father’s house, where they found video footage of him abusing her.
They also unearthed a diary in which Colby had documented years worth of abuse, recording numbers for how many times he had raped her and scoring her ‘performance’ out of 10. Returning home, Maya made the tough decision to watch some of the footage, a process she says will “stay with me the rest of my life”.
“I needed to see it to believe it,” she explains. “It was too much information for me to take in, and it changed my perspective. When you’re a child abuse survivor, you’ve been conditioned to believe that it’s love … you’re still in this complex emotional state of ‘I hate you, but I love you’. For me to be able to watch this evidence, it showed the other side."
In March 2012, Colby pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Maya eventually moved to Manchester and had two more sons. She tried, once again, to move on.
But six years later, in May 2018, she discovered that Colby was due to be released from prison. Worse still, she says, most people would have no idea that he was a serial rapist because he had never been named in the media due to a quirk in anonymity laws: in the UK, victims of sexual abuse are guaranteed lifelong anonymity, but in some cases this means the perpetrator also cannot be named, in case doing so would identify the victim. Typing in her father’s name on Google, Maya saw that her father was still referred to online as a support worker for a mental health charity.
“I realised that he still had lots of power by having anonymity. He would be leaving prison to rebuild his life, and my life was about to become unstable again. I realised that all I’d done is continue to protect him, as I’d done all my life.”
She went public with her story, and hopes this new documentary - which she describes as a “healing process” - will help other abuse victims make better sense of their own feelings.
In a closing scene, Maya travels back to Thorpe Bay for the first time. She is shown standing in front of her childhood home on a drizzly evening as she points out her old bedroom, where some of the abuse took place. “It actually makes me quite angry, I think more so now,” she tells the cameras. “Being able to reflect back on the innocence of the child behind that window. There was so much silence, and nobody would know what was going on there.”