We need to talk about rape
It’s not every day that I’m invited to see a world premiere of a play, so I was really excited to fly over to Cork for a night to see the stage adaptation of Louise O’Neill’s novel “Asking for it” at The Everyman.
I met Mary and Dola from the Sexual Violence Centre in the foyer, which was buzzing with excitement. They gave me my tickets and then introduced me to Louise. She told me Mary had mentioned to her I was coming along tonight, but I wasn’t really sure if she knew much about me or what I do.
I call myself an accidental activist and speaker, as after sharing my own story in 2014 publicly I have been invited to speak many times at conferences, schools, events. I have taken part in radio and TV interviews, had many articles written about me in newspapers and magazines and have written my own memoir, Unbroken.
I have felt the healing power of sharing my story many times and I now share my story and speak out to help end the shame, stigma and silence surrounding sexual violence as it was my crippling shame that silenced me for decades.
And I really thought that I was ok, totally healed and grounded, not affected from the past in anyway. A silence breaker speaking out for all those who can’t find their voice yet.
But something happened to me when the curtain went up as Emma O’Donovan’s story was performed on stage, which I never expected.
For those of you who don’t know the novel it’s about a bright, popular and beautiful eighteen-year-old with a happy home life and a promising future, until the day she wakes up on her own doorstep after a party, sunburnt and covered in bruises with no idea how she got home.
Then she sees the pictures plastered all over social media. The public gang rape of Emma affects all of aspects of her life which ripples out to her friends and family too.
She feels like she has lost her identity and is now known as that ‘Ballinatoom Girl’, and her case is not only discussed by experts on radio or locals in the pub; but she is shamed, judged and blamed online too.
Watching her story unfold during the play was like having an arrow shot through my heart and found myself weeping for Emma, knowing I was helpless to protect her.
I found myself crying for my younger thirteen-year-old self and all the other Emma’s across our planet and it felt like my heart would explode. It’s been nearly forty years since I was gang raped and what changes have been made? What have we learnt? Why do we still behave like this? So many questions were flying around my mind
When the violence of my own gang rape escalated I found myself counting the wallpaper border of pink and grey bows over and over again, ignoring the two young men who were violating my body. Each wall section had eleven bows; there were four walls in the room: forty-four bows in total.
And when the counting didn’t work anymore I found myself floating out of my body up to the wardrobe which was very surreal and dreamlike, because there I was on the floor tied by a wrist and an ankle to the pipes of the radiator being gang raped but at the same time I was also sitting on the top of the wardrobe watching the scene below me.
During the party scene in the play I felt sick, full of dread knowing what was coming for Emma. And during her narration I found myself drifting away from the gang rape scene and started to count the windows on stage.
When the violence against Emma escalated I found myself counting the windows over and over again, ignoring the three young men who were violating her body. There were five rows; each row had ten windows: fifty windows in total.
I started to feel like my old defence ability of dissociation was kicking back in as I floated away whilst counting, watching the stage from high up above, detaching myself from the scene.
I was so shocked that my old coping strategies came back to me with such ease that when the first act ended I couldn’t move. My friend reached for my hand as I was now shaking, glued to my chair, unable to speak and we both cried, ignoring people trying to get past us. Looking along my row, I could see that Louise was weeping too and also looked unable to stand.
The second half of the play wasn’t any easier as it highlighted the impact on her family and how her life slowly starts to fold in and gets smaller and smaller.
I have felt so much guilt over the years for what I put my parents through following my rape. Suicide attempts, anorexia, hospital, depression, drinking, drugs, promiscuity, rebelliousness, attitude, anger etc. Only adding to my own self-loathing and dark feelings of believing I was dirty, contaminated and worthless.
Worse of all I felt that I was to blame as I had been drinking and lied about where I was staying that night. It’s taken me a long time, but I know that it was NEVER my fault. The only people responsible for my rape that night, were the rapists.
I was shocked by the vulnerability I felt during this play, exposing some hidden residue of my trauma buried inside that I was completely unaware of. I think of it as another layer that had to be worked on and cleaned up, showing me that healing and recovery is an ongoing process that is not linear or easy to measure. It was yet another frozen part that I now had access to that needed to be defrosted.
I was invited to go for a drink after the play but didn’t feel I could be sociable as I couldn’t speak much and needed to be still and quiet. I also recognised that I had to acknowledge my surprise of being triggered and it was important not to ignore that and sit with it for a while.
I hope this play leaves people with many, many questions about rape, victim blaming and consent and encourages people to talk. We need to keep the conversation going and challenge it in every way that we can.
This play is powerful, shocking and disturbing, it doesn’t sanitise rape or it’s fallout in anyway. We should be disturbed and feel uncomfortable. It should make us angry that this still goes on. I receive messages every day from readers sharing their stories of rape with me. It has to stop.