IMAGINE forgiving the perpetrators of a violent gang rape. That’s what Madeleine Black, rape survivor and bestselling author of Unbroken: One Woman’s Journey to Rebuild a Life Shattered by Violence, eventually decided to do.
This mother of three young women, who works as psychotherapist in Glasgow, wished her rapists would kill her to blot out the pain and degradation they inflicted on her at the age of 13.
Black had consumed a lot of alcohol — her first time drinking — with a friend in London where they lived.
They managed to buy the booze in an off licence — “it was the late ‘70s” — and they were taken back later that night by two American students aged around 17, in a taxi, to the flat belonging to the mother of Black’s friend who was away for the weekend. (Black was supposed to be staying with her friend in the friend’s grandmother’s house.)
“I knew one of the boys and my friend knew them. I think they were diplomats’ sons. I was really drunk and had been sick in a cafe.
“When we were in the taxi, one of the boys started to assault me. When we got back to the flat, they put us in separate rooms. I thought they were just putting me into bed to let me sleep off the drink. But it became very clear that they were there for something else.”
The attackers held a knife to Black’s throat “and raped me many times over, for about four or five hours. I begged them to stop, but they just kicked me and laughed at me. I remember wishing they would kill me to make it all end.”
One of the attackers urinated on Black. She says that given everything they did to her, this act was the most disgusting and the memory of it haunted her for years.
The next day, the students having left, the girls cleaned up the flat and decided not to tell anyone what happened as they had been drinking and weren’t supposed to be in the flat.
While Black was being raped, she became aware of the presence of a young Tibetan monk dressed in burgundy and orange on her right-hand side.
“I never used to speak about that because people would really think I’m bonkers and that I was making it up.”
The monk was praying and telling Black that she was going to be all right. Now aged 52, Black has an explanation for the sighting of the monk.
“I was very close to being killed and I really did leave my body. Maybe I went to another dimension. Maybe we are protected. Maybe most people don’t really see what goes on all the time in life.
“I think a lot goes on that we don’t really see. The monk was my protector in some way. Later in life, I used to see him quite a lot, especially when I had a hard time when my eldest daughter turned 13.
“I had flashbacks and when I’d wake up from nightmares, the two young men’s faces were hovering over me in my bed. But the monk would always be on one side of me, reassuring me.”
Black, who is Jewish by birth, is not religious.
After her ordeal, she became sexually promiscuous and says this is quite a common side effect following rape.
“When I looked at my experiences, I realise that I was actually raped three more times by different men, what is called ‘date rape’. If a guy tried it on with me, I’d just let him do whatever he wanted. I was so scared of being hurt again and I thought the worst had been done already. I had no self respect and no self care for my body.”
Black became self-destructive, drinking a lot, taking drugs and developing an eating disorder.
She says her parents thought she was just a rebellious teenager. She took an overdose of pills belonging to her mother and ended up in a children’s psychiatric ward for eight weeks.
“During that time, no one ever asked if anything had happened to me even though I was clearly traumatised.”
When Black was 16, she told her parents about the violent rape by writing down what happened to her and leaving it on her pillow before going to school one day.
Her parents phoned her friend’s mother “but my friend denied it all and said it had never happened like I said. Dad didn’t believe her and wanted to go to the police but I begged him not to as I thought it was my fault and that my attackers would come back and kill me. I couldn’t believe what my friend had said.”
Black wondered why her mother didn’t talk to her about the rape but it transpired that she was carrying her own burden, having been raped as an eight-year-old by a neighbour.
At 17, Black met the man who is now her husband.
“Steven was the first man I felt very safe with but I couldn’t understand why he wanted to be with me. My opinion of myself was so low. I felt worthless and pointless. But by him loving me, I realised I was lovable and I was able to love him back. I had been hardened and numbed out by my trauma.”
However, Black didn’t want to have children. She feared that it would be like a violation again. She went through a lot of therapy.
“I didn’t get to where I am right now overnight. It has been a process of what I call ‘cleaning up.’”
When her therapist suggested that Black’s attackers were not born rapists, she was initially outraged.
“I couldn’t believe he was saying this. I fantasised about somebody kidnapping the two guys, beating them up and raping them. But the therapist planted a seed in my head which started to grow.”
Eventually, Black felt compassion for her assailants.
“I would never forgive the act of rape because it is a total violation on not just my body but my psyche, and the effects last for a long time. But I can forgive them for being human and making a mistake. The forgiveness has helped me to let to go of all my anger, rape, and revenge fantasies.”
Black took what she calls, “my best revenge. I became determined to lead the best life I could and I refused to be identified by what had happened to me.
“I said that if I never became a mum, then those two men would have taken away a huge chunk of my life. I would be giving them all that power.”
Black had to learn to not be so over-protective of her daughters. She has no contact with the friend from all those years ago.
And as for the rapists: “I wonder how it all went so wrong for them that they grew to behave so badly. Now, all I can see is by their dehumanising of me, they really dehumanised themselves.
“Imagine what it would be like to be a person that can commit crimes like that against some person? It’s a question I ask myself over and over again.”
You're invited to the Sexual Violence Centre Cork to listen to Madeleine
Black, bestselling author of Unbroken, in conversation with Catherine
O'Sullivan, a lecturer in the Law Dept. at University College Cork. ComeApril 12, 2018
Madeleine Black will be in conversation with UCC law lecturer, Catherine O’Sullivan tonight (April 19) at the Sexual Violence Centre, 5 Camden Place, Cork at 7pm.