I read something on Twitter a while ago. A question from a well-meaning friend of someone who had recently been sexually assaulted.
“How do I convince her to go to the police?” he asked.
And I felt an instant pit in my stomach. A combination of fear and frustration.
I wanted to get involved. You don't. You can't. Please don't try.
But I didn't. And thinking about it now I hope that he was given similar advice by others online.
There's a lot of talk about rape and sexual assault. Figures being dropped that indicate the low rate of complaints compared to the high number of attacks.
Questions over why people don't press charges. Questions over how we can get more prosecutions. But little discussion over exactly why it is that when someone is raped, or attacked, or violated, the most difficult thing possible would be to press charges.
I know. Because I did. And to date it's my biggest regret.
I was still at school when I initially spoke to police. And incredibly naïve. I was young at the time of the assault. He was a much older man. I'd trusted him. He'd shattered that trust. And the guilt that I felt for years was unbearable. When you trust an adult, and they hurt you in the worst possible way, it's impossible for a child to realise that they somehow didn't make it happen. Because adults are there to protect kids. To conceptualise anything else as a kid who trusts that the world is a good place in inconceivable.
But ultimately, that was the easy part.
I never approached the police. They came to me. Actually, they went to my mum. She passed the message on one day after school. I walked in the door and she sat me down. The police had been to her work that day, she told me. Told her that other people were involved. That my name had come up. And should they talk to me?
They wanted to talk to me with the promise that there would be no pressure to lay charges. They just wanted to talk. So I agreed. And there began a four year whirlwind of police, lawyers, courtrooms, accusations, red tape and second guessing myself.
When I met the detective for the first time I found myself not having a casual chat, but making an official statement. It took a couple of hours and I found myself having to describe intimate details of the abuse to a complete stranger. The detective was a middle-aged man – nice enough – but the whole ordeal was intimidating. The initial statement was the first, but certainly not the last, time of having to recall and describe personal, intimate moments, in intricate detail to people whose job it was to judge whether I was telling the truth or not.
And then, when it was over, he gave me a ride back to school. I walked into calculus class and tried desperately to forget the past few hours and pretend everything was fine.
Then he was arrested. And it all became very real. Word got out. I overheard teachers and students discussing who they believed and I had friends no longer talk to me because they'd decided that I was in the wrong.
Possibly the most difficult thing, once the charges had officially been laid, was not being able to move on in any real sense. Rather than trying to forget the past and get on with life, I HAD to remember. And remember everything. And it felt like life was completely on hold while I waited for anything to happen.
I assumed, in my naivety I guess, that the wait between the arrest and court date would be smooth and relatively short. Years later I was receiving regular calls from the detective to update me on various moves by the defense.
When charges were laid it looked likely that I would give evidence to support another complainant’s statement. There was a lot of evidence and a number of victim statements.
Over the years evidence was thrown out and dates were postponed. By the time I went to court I was too old for any sort of barrier protecting me from seeing him so I was forced to sit a few metres away from him throughout the trial.
Finally though, a court date arrived. I have never been more intimidated or frightened as walking into the courtroom that morning. I was taken to a small room and had to sit there for a couple of hours while a jury was chosen. I had no idea what I was about to walk into. I desperately tried to stop shaking and my mind was spinning with the idea of entering a courtroom full of strangers and talking about details of abuse, with the man responsible watching and listening to my every word.
I'd read about the process. But nothing can prepare a person for actually sitting on a stand, being called a liar and being yelled at for hours on end, by a complete stranger, while a room full of people judge your every word and try to figure out if you're lying.
I didn't want my partner or family with me. It all seemed too personal to want to talk with them beside me. So the court appointed a support person to sit with me. When she walked in she seemed more scared than me. A friendly-seeming woman, but her timidness made me incredibly uncomfortable. So I denied the offer of her sitting with me. I was on my own. In a way I'd never felt before.
I was on the stand for a day and a half. I sat, on my own, in the witness booth to the side of the courtroom. Opposite me were the jurors. Every time I looked their way I could see them dissecting every word I spoke. When I started breaking down a few of them seemed sympathetic. Others seemed to portray a look of total disbelief. When the defense lawyer stood up to cross-examine me, he immediately went on the attack. I was accused of lying, making things up, being vindictive, being overly imaginative, dreaming what happened, of the whole thing being in my head. When I couldn't answer his questions immediately he started yelling. So much so that the judge would intervene at times and tell him to stop.
The questions never stopped. “What way were you facing? Were the curtains closed? What colour were the curtains? How old were you in spring of 1992? Why are you hesitating? If you don't know that then how can we believe anything else you say? Was it raining outside or sunny? What happened, word for word? Where did his hand go? For how many minutes? What did you say? What did he say? Did he ejaculate? What did he do then? Did you tell him to stop? If you were so scared why didn't you cry out? What did you do after? You stayed with him? Why would you stay with him if you were so scared? Were you pressured into pressing charges? You've spoken to people about this? They could obviously have put thoughts in your head. You used to have vivid nightmares as a kid didn't you? So this could easily have been a dream? Oh, you say you've developed social phobias? That's an easy thing to say. You look fine to me.”
It didn't stop. When I cried, he pressed harder. When I got defensive he used that as evidence that I was lying. The day ended and he still wasn't done.
“Remember that you're still under oath,” the judge told me as the court adjourned for the day.
“So you can't talk to anyone about this tonight.”
I left. I cried. And the next day I returned for more.
The whole trial lasted a week. The jury left to make their decision and I received a call from the detective about six hours later. They couldn't decide. It was a hung jury. We had to go back and do it all again.
“I'm sorry,” he told me. He sounded like he was struggling not to cry.
So the waiting began again. I went back to my life. All the while, once again, not being allowed to forget and move one. In fact, having to remember every detail.
At the time I was drinking and partying a lot. Trying to find normality by living to excess and putting myself in dangerous situations. It was during one of these situations that I was raped by somebody I thought I knew reasonably well. Looking back, it was a deliberate thing. I was drunk but had gone to bed and was asleep. He woke me, bruised me, ignored protests and raped me. Then he got up and left me in tears.
At Family Planning the next day, while getting the emergency pill, I told the woman, through tears, that the sex was consensual. All I could think was that if I said otherwise I'd be pressured into going through the whole process again. And that was something I'd never do. After all. I got drunk. I let him drink in my house. I put myself in unsafe situations. These things don't happen on multiple occasions without some blame being placed on the person that let it happen. So I tried to forget and focus on what was still ahead. Another trial, another judge and 12 strangers judging every word I say. I focused on remembering the details of the childhood assault while trying desperately to forget the details of the adult rape.
And before I knew it I was once again sitting in a corner room of the courthouse with the prosecution lawyer and the detective – both of whom I'd come to respect and rely on – both of whom had let this case take over their own lives as well as mine. The longest wait was the hour or so of sitting in that room, trying desperately to distract myself with music and books, while also trying my hardest to focus on not losing control of myself throughout the day.
I will always be grateful for the two people that went above and beyond their roles to support me through the months I spent in and out of court. From the detective sneaking my cigarettes into the courtroom so that he could sneakily let me have one with a makeshift cardboard ashtray when the court took breaks, to the lawyer who tried desperately to prepare me for any question that the defense might throw at me on the stand and who objected passionately every time the questioning got anywhere near personal attacks.
But none of this made the ordeal any easier. His family would wait outside the courtroom so that as I walked down to enter, I'd have no choice but to see them, standing as a group, staring, glaring at me as I entered.
That added to the guilt. This person was someone I trusted. And they were people that he loved. And I was actively trying to tear their lives apart.
While in court the first time around he had said, “I never hurt her. I only ever loved her.”
Self doubt brought about by manipulation started playing on my mind again. I felt like the most vindictive person possible. I just wanted out. But once again I made the by-now-familiar walk into the courtroom and took my place on the stand – facing a different group of 12 strangers – the people that would ultimately decide my, and his, fate. One of them, a woman who sat at the end of the front row, had a kind, almost sympathetic face when I spoke. I made a point to focus on her as much as I could throughout the day.
The process went through the same as the time before. It was easier, because it was no longer completely foreign. Being placed under oath wasn't as frightening, my lawyer's questions were comforting, and his hadn't changed. As much as he attacked, blamed and denied everything I said, his questions didn't change so at least this time I knew what was coming. Once again he kept me on the stand for the entire day. And was due to continue the next. Once again I spent most of the day in tears, was forced to recall every detail of every moment. Made once again to recall physical feelings, smells, conversations and fears. And once again told that I probably made it up, or dreamed it, or just felt like being vindictive. And once again I was exhausted, scared, emotional and questioning everything I was doing. But it was easier. And it was almost over. And in a couple of days I would be able to return to my life and do my best to rebuild it.
The next morning there was an article about the trial in the paper. Nothing long or detailed. A small paragraph in the middle of the paper that mentioned a man was “back in court”. And that one word changed everything. “Back”. The last trial had resulted in a hung jury. Another case against him was not allowed to be made known to the jury. So his lawyer took that word and ran with it. After a couple of hours the detective came to me and knelt in front of me.
A mistrial had been called. I'll never forget looking at him as he told me and noticing he had tears in his eyes. It brought home how important this had become to so many people. It was no longer about me. I now had a lot of people counting on me. And the pressure felt huge.
Technically the police were entitled to force me to return for the third trial. But he gave me the choice. Call it off or make a new date and do it all again. I wanted out. I wanted to forget. I desperately wanted to never have to walk into this courthouse again. But by now I had so many counting on me. The person who pressed charges earlier and had a not guilty result. The people coming after me who maybe wouldn't have to if we had a guilty verdict. The police, the lawyers, the countless people that were now invested in this. So I said yes. A new date was made and the waiting continued.
Thinking back now the third trial is a blur. I was exhausted and scared and, years on from initially making a statement, I just wanted it to be over. The sight of his lawyer both made me terrified and nauseous. I got through it. But I broke down multiple times and when I did he went in for the kill. Verbal accusations of lying, making things up, imagining things, being pressured by other vindictive people, being vindictive myself and they didn't stop. I remember giving up the fight. And just crying my way through.
The trial continued for a few days but I didn't return. I couldn't face seeing him on the stand or hearing him talk.
A few days later I was home in the kitchen. I remember it clearly. I was sitting on the bench looking out the window, waiting for toast to cook, when the phone rang. It was the detective and this time he didn't try to hide the fact that he was crying.
The only words I remember from the phone call were “NOT GUILTY”.
I hung up. I cried. And I don't think I really stopped for days. I struggled to find a way to return to a normal life.
Years of my life had been focused heavily on one thing and now it was over. And it had been for nothing. I don't know what he's doing these days. I don't like to think about it. I just hope that this at least gave him a wake up call and nobody else was hurt by him.
Thinking about any alternative to that is not something, even to this day, I can bear thinking about. Knowing that I could have stopped this happening to others and failed. I fear it might break me.
I've struggled with a lot of personality faults over the years. I have an intense fear of being judged. I struggle with confrontation of any sort. I fear failure to the point of panic. I get nervous around figures of authority. It took me a long time to overcome social anxiety and while I always liked the idea of being a court reporter I am yet to be able to bring myself to face stepping into a court room.
I firmly believe that pressing charges and going to court affected me more, in the long term, than the abuse itself.
I suffered nightmares for years about being in court. I can still see his lawyer's face more clearly in my mind than I can his.
I found it difficult not to hate myself. Not to blame myself.
Even now, when things get hard, I fall back into those habits. I still struggle to come to terms with my past. That those months in and out of court have had a more detrimental affect on my life than not having pressed charges ever would have.
My time in court was a while ago. I have no idea if things have changed for the better. But if I, or anyone I knew, found themselves in a situation where the option was there to press charges, I would never advise to do so.
The court process for victims of sexual assault is easily the most traumatic thing possible for someone who is already traumatised. I don't have the answers for how it could be made better. I don't know how to go about making the number of rape and assault prosecutions higher. I don't know how to make convictions more likely without being detrimental to the rights of the accused.
But I know that it's not easy. It's terrifying. It's traumatic. It's something I'd never do again.
And that may be the saddest thing of all to have come to terms with.