Suzy was raped as a child by a group of adult men. Forty-five years after the assaults she decided to contact the police to explore the possibility of reporting. She endured many hours of giving her account to the police, and 14 months in what she described as ‘limbo’ as she waited for news of when her case may reach court, before ultimately learning that the case had failed to progress due to corroboration requirements. She is now one of the co-founders of Speak Out Survivors, a campaign group determined to raise awareness of the specificities of justice, and to press for the removal the legal requirement of corroboration.
In March 2017 I emailed a police station local to where the abuse had happened when I was a child. Within a couple of days two local police officers came out to my home. I had agreed that it was okay that they were male. What I didn’t realise was how long they would be there, or for the amount of detail that would be required in that initial interview. I wasn’t prepared at that stage for thinking back 45 years. A week later a female Sexual Offence Liaison Officer came out to speak to me and again, I didn’t realise that she would be with me for eight hours or for the amount of detail that was asked of me to remember.
Where was his body in terms of yours? What size was his genitalia? Could it have been possible that it was full penetration? How did you know you became unclothed? How were your clothes removed? Did you say no? Did you squirm?
I kept saying, ‘look, every time it happened, they would have known because I was in such agony. They couldn’t not have known, okay’. And although she was really kind and she was really nice, I sometimes felt as if I had to justify myself even though I was only 12, 13, 14, at the time. She took me through the whole of those two years. Everything. She brought out old maps of the place, showed me Google images of various streets, even the old house where I used to stay.
Afterwards I was a complete wreck. I was really quite unwell, shaking, feeling sick. I realised at the end of the day of speaking to her that I was doubled over, my body had just very slowly caved in. And then she came back. It was close to 20 hours of statements in total, over several sittings, for several incidents, and to two SOLOs. It was brutal.
It was only after coming to Rape Crisis that I realised that it’s a very common thing for people not to remember massively traumatic events. Something to do with the amygdala that prevents you from remembering something really, really awful. To this day I still cannot remember one bit about how my clothes became removed. It also took me to find Rape Crisis to understand the psychological effects of unearthing that detail surrounded by police officers instead of experts who might have supported me through it.
The more you’re asked, the more you say, ‘I don’t know, I can’t remember’. And you start to imagine, maybe I did it myself, maybe I’m partially complicit. Someone puts the question into your head, and you start to judge yourself again.
And then there were the triggers which emerged through the process of reporting. Constant reminders from emails pinging in my inbox – what now? Or jolts from the phone going with no caller ID – I always knew it was them. I’d be in my own safe place at work or at home then, suddenly, it was coming to me.
As a way to understand and explore her journey Suzy took to working with stained glass, noting the way in which the properties of the medium – its colours, translucency and opacity, fragility and sharp edges that could cut deep – felt fitting to capture some of her own experiences through the abuse she suffered, her life thereafter, and her more recent engagement with the criminal justice process.
And then quite abruptly it came to an end. A phone call from the SOLO saying ‘I’m so sorry. We’re having to close everything now’. To cut a very long story short there were six people involved. Four of them were dead. Of the two left alive, there was a witness to one of them, but she said that she couldn’t remember and wouldn’t come forward. The other guy was arrested but he was told to shut up by his solicitor and then it was all about corroboration thereafter. I was at work at the time of that phone call from the police and just about collapsed. That was the worst I think I’d ever felt. I was so ill, crying in the corridor at work. The culmination of 14 months of waiting, anticipating, searching, asking myself, ‘do I need to do more?’.
When I think back to that decision to report, how it’s affected me, it’s been life changing in a number of ways. Bearing in mind it never even got to court, Rape Crisis have said it’s like I’ve actually gone through the court system with everything I’ve had to give. And I have gone through hell. Having to unearth everything has meant that I’m now on medication for the flashbacks and the absolutely shocking dreams that leave me affected the whole day. I had to think in such detail about rooms, layout of rooms, people. Everything that I had pushed back for 45 years was suddenly appearing. Like still images, like photographs. They weren’t there before, but they’ve been resurrected. It haunts me.
And even though I’m no longer triggered by the withheld numbers or a police officer’s name popping up on emails, there is still that aftermath of having to deal with everything. Because there are people out there alive that did this to me and nothing can be done. The powerlessness of that feeling, that despite the fact that everybody believed me, knew that I didn’t make things up, nothing can be done.
But would I do it again? Would I have sent that email? Yes. There’s justice in others officially knowing what happened to me. Although it’s been incredibly difficult and physically and emotionally draining, I think I owed it to myself to record it.
And gradually, with the help of Rape Crisis, I’ve now started to reach further out. One of the last sessions I had with my counsellor, she suggested I should start talking about this: ‘you know, you come here and we talk about things and then it all goes back into the box and you carry on with your life’. Just a few weeks ago I kind of opened up to a few people at work, and they have been fantastic, just brilliant. And last week I wrote to my cousins. It’s as if I’m getting back from people now what I never got when I was a kid.
The five stained glass panels made by Suzy to represent her journey.
I think I’m definitely in a better place from being able to open up to people and being more honest. That is something that I wasn’t expecting. My self-esteem has always been very, very poor; I’ve had a couple of nervous breakdowns over the years, and the way I feel about myself and certain things that I remember that were done to me, I don’t think I’ll ever get over certain aspects. Because you think, should I have done something differently, why did I keep going back there? You pile on the guilt. But through me telling my story, I’ve had a lot of positive stuff back, sympathy and love and lots of other good things. I mean, obviously nobody’s going to be horrible to you because you say you’ve been raped but people have been so lovely, it’s allowed me to continue to be slightly more open, maybe take a chance in trusting people, and perceive things a bit differently. I saw a photograph recently from one of my cousins. In it we are all together as children and it must have been right when it was all happening. I’m wearing something that I wore the first time I was raped and everybody’s smiling in it and I’m not. I’ve showed that picture to some people since and they said, but you’re just a wee baby. And I was. I was just a kid, and through speaking to others I see that now.
There’s justice in others officially knowing what happened to me. Although it’s been incredibly difficult and physically and emotionally draining, I think I owed it to myself to record it.
Portrait of Suzy taken as part of the Justice Journeys project. © Mhairi Bell-Moodie.