Page last updated at 20:11 GMT, Monday, 1 December 2008

Ugly tale of triumph over trials

By Andy McFarlane
BBC News

Constance Briscoe
Ms Briscoe said her mother's taunts led her to undergo plastic surgery
A barrister has successfully defended claims made in a book that her mother subjected her to terrible abuse as a child. We examine her remarkable background.

Someone from dirt poverty, from absolutely nowhere, with no assistance whatever, having faced adversity at every turn...

Constance Briscoe's description of herself to a High Court jury was the same one that had captured the imaginations of those who read her first book, Ugly.

In it, she described how her mother repeatedly abused her, variously beating her with a shoe, cane, or belt, pinching her breasts, smashing a model aeroplane into her face and cutting her arm.

She wrote how her habitual bed-wetting fuelled the anger of her mother, who gave her nicknames including Miss Pissabed, scarface and - as the book's title suggests - Ugly.

This tale of a poor south London girl whose single-mindedness and dedication helped her become one of the first black women to be appointed a part-time judge turned Ms Briscoe into a bestselling "Misery Lit" author.

But her triumph over adversity was called into question when her mother, a 74-year-old Jamaican, launched libel proceedings.

My mother would call me ugly, call me a dirty little whore, call me potato head
Constance Briscoe

London's High Court was shown a family riven by the claims.

Carmen Briscoe-Mitchell branded her successful daughter a "wicked thief and a liar", rejecting the claims of routine abuse and even accusing her daughter of forging letters to support her case.

She was backed by an elder daughter, Patsy, who told the court: "I actually couldn't believe what I was reading because it was totally untrue."

But 51-year-old Ms Briscoe's assertion that the claims were "substantially true" was accepted by the jury.

Afterwards, she said: "I can quite understand why my family went into collective denial but whilst child abuse may be committed behind closed doors it should never be swept under the carpet."

Mrs Briscoe-Mitchell had arrived in the UK, aged 18, in 1951 and married George Briscoe, the father of seven of her 11 children.

In court, she described how George would "come and make a baby and go back to his girlfriend", making no contribution towards the care of his family.

Instead, Mrs Briscoe-Mitchell worked as a cleaner and dressmaker to support her children - "my pride and joy", as she described them.

Ms Briscoe, however, painted a very different picture of life at home between 1964 and 1975.

Carmen Briscoe-Mitchell
Mrs Briscoe-Mitchell branded her daughter a "wicked thief and a liar"

"My mother would call me ugly, call me a dirty little whore, call me potato head... and Scarface," she said, explaining that she suffered from bad acne.

The experience had eventually caused her to spend her university grant money on plastic surgery to her nose, lips and eyes, she said.

Ms Briscoe also claimed she swallowed diluted bleach after her mother branded her "a germ".

The inspiration for her escape from misery came from an unlikely source - the TV drama Crown Court, which sparked her interest in the legal profession.

Then, in her teens, she met the influential QC Michael Mansfield during a school trip to Knightsbridge Crown Court. She told him she wanted to be a barrister and asked if he would be her "pupil master". He told her to keep in touch. She did.

Ignoring her school careers adviser, who told her to give up her dreams "for a job in Boots", she took A-Levels at Sacred Heart school in south London.

While typical teenagers left it until the last minute before crawling out of their beds for breakfast, Ms Briscoe had already done two hours' work as a cleaner before arriving at school.

In the background the abuse continued, although she gave an early hint of her legal aptitude by successfully pressing charges against her stepfather for assaulting her.

Dogged determination

She was offered a place at Newcastle University, only for her mother to tear up her grant forms and tell her: "Only clever people go to university".

Instead, Ms Briscoe deferred her place and worked for a year at King's and Guy's hospitals as an auxiliary so that she could qualify for an independent grant.

Eventually graduating with a 2:2, she indeed joined Michael Mansfield's chambers. Her time there was not a happy one, as she recalls in her second book Beyond Ugly, but it did not stop her career from progressing.

Since becoming a recorder, Ms Briscoe has further enhanced her reputation by pursuing a man who racially abused her through central London and eventually securing his conviction.

This dogged determination came to the fore as she fought her mother's libel claims, which could have resulted in her being expelled from the bar.

The jury's ruling ensures that her reputation remains intact.

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