On April 12, 2008, while visiting Belfast for the US-Ireland Alliance’s commemoration marking the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, I was raped by a 15-year old stranger in Colin Glen Forest Park, off the Falls Road. Ever since then, I’d harbored an unspoken dread of ever returning to Belfast.
However, I had to return many times — for the trial of my attacker, for his sentencing hearing, and later, to be assessed for Northern Ireland’s Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme. On each of those visits, I would board the plane from London to Belfast with a mixture of trepidation and nausea, reluctant to return to the city of my rape, wishing instead I could hide in my bed.
As a Mitchell Scholar, I was acutely aware of the irony of being raped in Ireland. As if all the understanding and goodwill built through my relationship with Ireland had taken an unexpected turn when I met that 15-year-old boy.
Last summer, I returned to Belfast for the first time in years. It was a necessary step in researching for my novel, Dark Chapter, which is based largely on my own attack. I decided to take the ferry from Liverpool, and after seven dull hours of spotty Wi-Fi and a long blue horizon, I found myself leaning against a deck railing, staring at the stacks of storage containers that line Belfast Harbour and the city drawing near. I knew my rapist was now out of prison, living on probation somewhere in Belfast. But I tried to keep this fact at the back of my mind as I went about my research.
Over the next few days I met with police, community leaders, forensic psychologists, and public prosecutors. I was invited back in August, when West Belfast had their Feile an Phobail Arts Festival. And so seven weeks later, I lived with a family off the Falls Road, went to talks on the Troubles and Boyzone concerts alike. I spoke with Probation Services, other rape survivors, social workers, and visited the new sexual assault referral centre in Antrim. In a pub on the Falls Road, I met the community leader who had organized the neighborhood protest against my attacker, when they discovered who he was.
My friends often ask me why I felt compelled to visit Belfast again, or even write this novel — but for me, this is all part of a necessary process of recovery and discussion. It’s not enough to just be raped, and never talk about it again. Women (and men and children) are raped with shocking frequency. Yet, our society feels too ashamed to look a rape victim in the eye, to ask about what happened to them — and what they are doing to recover.
That’s one reason I started the Clear Lines Festival, the UK’s first-ever festival dedicated to talking about sexual assault and consent through the arts and discussion. It’s something I founded this April, on the 7th anniversary of my rape. I thought if only we could create a space where artists, the public, and experts could come together, we could bring to light some of the human stories behind sexual assault, and reach a greater understanding about it.
We have an exciting line-up of talks and performances for the Clear Lines Festival, and just a week after launching crowd-funding, we’ve already raised 60% of our initial target. But £ 3,500 is the bare minimum we need for the festival to happen. We take international pledges — so help us reach our stretch target of £ 9,000. Then we’ll be able to film the events, post videos online, and impact even more people around the world.
Please consider pledging what you can and spread the word — the sooner the better, so we can continue building our momentum. Just as my relationship with Ireland has changed for the better, I’m hoping we change our relationship with this issue. Let’s replace the shame and silence, with insight, understanding, and community.
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