"It must have been a difficult thing, writing about your rapist?"
Lately, I’ve been asked this a lot, what with my debut crime novel, Dark Chapter, coming out this month. The novel is inspired by my real-life rape by a stranger, but it’s told equally from the point of view of both the victim and the perpetrator.
For me as an author, exploring that character — the perpetrator — was the more interesting challenge. I wanted to do something that hadn't been done before in addressing this topic.
There is a tendency for rapists to be portrayed as "monsters" — you know, subhuman weirdos who are perpetually lurking in bushes, breathing heavily and providing the kind of shaky-cam perspectives which will prompt any TV viewer to think: "Now, that woman is about to get attacked."
In 2008, I was that woman. The attack was a brutal one. It took place in a park in the middle of the day. I ended up with 39 separate injuries, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety and depression which lasted for years. If I wanted to tell you how the rape has permanently impacted my life, well, that would be a whole new article.
And maybe it would have been easier for me to attribute all that damage to the work of a twisted monster, outside the realm of human society. But my rapist was 15 years old. In real life, he was sentenced to eight years — half his lifespan — in prison. And, in all the years since my assault, I’ve never been able to write him off as a monster.
Because who are we kidding here?
Nobody’s born a rapist. That kind of violent behaviour is learnt somehow — and, the more we ignore the lived experience of perpetrators, refusing to see them as humans, the less likely we are to understand how that behaviour develops in the first place — and how it can be stopped. In reality, nine out of 10 victims are raped by someone they know, not by strangers.
In my case, I wanted to know more about that stranger. That person who violently, selfishly changed the course of my life when he raped me.
I was only able to glean a few facts about my real-life perpetrator, as the police kept reminding me he had a right to privacy. I learnt that he was a member of the Irish traveller community, he’d had an unstable upbringing and that he was illiterate. That was all I could find.
I’ve done a fictional version of confronting the injustice that was my rape. In the process, I’ve tried to recognise my rapist as a human and not as a monster
Yet it was enough to remind me of my own privilege: my middle-class stability, my education and the opportunities and skills that came with it. And that stark difference in our lives underlined the arbitrary nature of the circumstances we are born into, and how so many factors beyond our control — our genes, race, class, background etc — affect our behaviour and the decisions we make. These factors also influence the aftermath of the crime for victims and for perpetrators alike. Do wealthy, privileged predators often escape facing the consequences of their actions? We need only look to the media to see multiple examples of this.
But, in my instance, as I couldn’t access many actual details about my perpetrator, I realised that, through fiction, I could imagine a character who could have been him. What had happened in that boy’s life that could have led to his violent behaviour at such an early age? Instead of seeing him as a monster, I wanted — as a writer — to accord him that humanity which every individual deserves.
So, the perpetrator in Dark Chapter is a person with hopes, fears and insecurities in the same way that all of us are. He has a sense of humour. He appreciates the way the moonlight falls over a nighttime landscape. He wishes his older brother spent more time with him. We see Johnny from a very young age — a two-year-old like any other, who seeks comfort from his mummy. Later, he goes through puberty, toughens up, starts to think about girls in a certain way. It’s a journey many boys take but, in this instance, the journey goes wrong somewhere. And by 15, Johnny is a sexual predator – who happens to cross paths one day with Vivian, the other protagonist in the story.
Vivian is me in a lot of ways. Writing Vivian’s experience meant reliving the worst episodes in my own life, so writing Johnny offered a creative breath of fresh air — a chance to understand a character very different from myself and my world. That, after all, is the point of writing fiction.
In my research for the novel, I spoke with social workers specialising in juvenile sex offenders. I learnt that no perpetrator "goes from zero to full-on violent stranger rape". There must have been a series of escalating assaults, at first smaller in magnitude and unreported, which led to his attack on me. I wondered: what were those other assaults like? And who were those victims? And if I hadn’t reported my rape, what other lives would have been affected?
We become the victims of circumstance. Under an entirely different set of circumstances, my rapist would not have grown up to be a rapist. I am not absolving him of his crime. Even at his young age, he would have known right from wrong. But random circumstance is the determinant of so much of our human existence. It led to my own rape, which has resulted in an entirely different adult life for me. That much I have to acknowledge. I played no part in this crime befalling me. It was just bad luck.
There’s another question I get asked a lot: “Do you feel like you would ever need to confront your rapist in person?”
The answer to that is no. Because that "need" has been taken care of in the writing of this novel. I’ve done a fictional version of confronting the injustice that was my rape. In the process, I’ve tried to recognise my rapist as a human and not as a monster. And that’s the best I can do, as a writer and a survivor.