This is the face of my 19-year-old self, free and innocent, at a party in Italy with a heart full of hope and excitement about the future. Just a few weeks after that photo was taken, I was raped.
I have chosen to write publicly about this for the first time in 35 years because of the recent story that has been unfolding about a rape that took place within the walls of the Australian Parliament. A young professional female, Brittany Higgins, who worked in the office of a government minister reported that she was raped by a senior male colleague. The alleged rape took place on a sofa in the minister’s office in the dead of night while the young girl was passed out drunk. In a televised interview, Brittany told of how she had been out for drinks earlier in the night with a group of co-workers including her senior colleague who bought her a number of drinks. Brittany realised she was drunk and announced that she needed to go home. Her senior colleague offered to accompany her in a taxi after asking where she lived, saying he was going that way anyway. While en-route in the taxi, he suddenly remembered he needed to pick something up from the office and had the taxi drop them off. Brittany admits that she just tagged along without thinking too much about it. Rather than wait for him in the empty corridor, she followed him to the offices where they worked together. The next thing she remembers is waking up on the sofa in her boss’s office in pain, her senior colleague pinning her down on the sofa, digging his leg into her thigh while raping her. She told him to stop more than once but he didn’t. When he had finished, he left her there alone. Brittany found her way home in a disoriented state and cried herself to sleep. The next day she took photos of the bruises on her legs.
Brittany reported the crime to police at Parliament House. In a subsequent meeting with her superiors, Brittany was made to feel that, with a federal election imminent, pursuing a police complaint could end her career. She was offered a role in the election campaign in Western Australia, on the other side of the country, which she took while informing the police that she would not proceed with a complaint. Since Brittany decided to change her mind and go public with her story, two more women have come forward with their own accounts of being raped by the same man.
It is absolutely disgusting to think that men continue to take advantage of vulnerable women in the belief that they can get away with it.
When I first read about this ugly incident, my immediate reaction was to think ‘how stupid can you be, to get drunk like that and jump into a taxi with a man you hardly know.’ I also questioned her integrity for choosing her career over pursuing the complaint against an alleged rapist. And then I listened to myself… I realised quickly that I was judging Brittany for doing something that many of us would have done in the same situation. He wasn’t a stranger; he was a man that she worked with and respected and probably trusted to some extent. She had worked hard to get her dream job in a government department and suddenly all that was hanging in the balance. Wouldn’t it be easier to just forget it ever happened?
And that’s when I decided that it is time to share my own story that I have kept bottled up for over thirty years and thanks to Brittany taking a stand for truth and justice, I am feeling brave enough to share it. There are some parallels with Brittany’s story too which I feel need to be brought to light in the hope they might give courage, hope and comfort to other young people.
The man who raped me in Italy died an old man without ever being brought to justice, at least not by me. I often wonder how many other women were taken advantage of by him. For a long time, I blamed myself for allowing it to happen to me. I lived in shame for 35 years. Like my initial reaction to Brittany’s story, I told myself for over thirty years that I had been stupid and deserved what I got. Is it any wonder that I sought solace in the bottle for decades afterwards.
My story starts in Florence where I lived for about ten months, working as an au-pair while studying Italian and devouring Renaissance art at the Uffizi gallery as often as I could. When I met a handsome boy called Bruno at a concert, I was drawn to his love of music. It was 1985 and I was in search of adventure. When Bruno told me that he had to move back home to look after his sick grandmother, he really endeared himself to me. When he invited me to visit his hometown with him in the southern province of Lecce, I thought why not. I was open to new experiences. My job was going to be coming to an end soon anyway. I was already a competent speaker of the language and felt confident in my ability to talk to just about anyone. So off I went.
Within moments of arriving in his little village about 40km from the city of Lecce, the locals glared at me as though I was extra-terrestrial. Looking back now, I can picture myself wearing shorts and a singlet, my long blonde curls bouncing off my shoulders as I trotted up the main street like a tourist. The women wore long black clothing and sat huddled together in circles all along the footpath, looking me up and down as I passed. This was Southern Italy of the 1980s, where woman were segregated from men in public – even to the point of even having separate beaches. Young women were not seen in public without a chaperone and were deemed to have no morals if seen out by themselves. But I knew none of this and had no idea what I was getting myself into. On my second day, I told Bruno I was popping to the café to get a coffee. He was a carpenter and was in the middle of creating a chest of drawers and said he wasn’t able to go just yet. I told him that I was perfectly capable of going by myself. Well, he lost his cool with me, telling me that it was not the done thing. I went anyway and the next day one of the villagers spoke to Bruno about how unacceptable my behaviour was.
It was at that moment I realised I had literally landed on another planet. I had to get out of there. No matter how much I liked Bruno, there was no way I was going to be able to put up with that way of life.
I managed to convince Bruno to take me to the city of Lecce to look for a job and my own accommodation. It was the month of May and the region was getting ready for the influx of summer tourists. I couldn’t believe my luck when I landed a job in a tourist office as a translator and tour guide. The director, Lino, was a man of about 65 years old with a big beer belly and a deep raspy voice who spoke English very poorly. He told me that he was just setting up one of his resorts along the Adriatic coast and needed me to go down there to carry out inventories on all the apartments before the tourists started to arrive. He gave Bruno directions so that he could drop me off to the little office at the resort. The lady in the office showed me around and gave me keys to one of the apartments where she said I could stay for the time being. Bruno agreed to bring my things that afternoon while I got straight into my new job, working with two other local girls counting cups and spoons off against the inventory list. Bruno said he was proud of me for being such a ‘go-getter’, as he liked to call me. Looking back now, it is clear that the local girls weren’t brought up to have dreams, not to mention chase them. Sadly, I didn’t get much of a chance to make friends with the local girls as my world was about to be turned upside down. On the second night of being in the apartment alone, I had locked up and was about to get ready for bed. As I was emerging from the bathroom, wrapped in a towel after having just taken a shower, I heard a key being turned in the lock of the door to the apartment. In walked Lino. He said he was just coming to check on me to make sure I was alright. He explained that my apartment was the only one occupied until the tourists arrived. Then he told me a story about an English girl who had been raped and who had gone to the local police to report it. My heart almost jumped through my chest when he went on to tell me that it had been a very silly move because she got raped at the police station too.
He then forced himself on me and said that there was no point in denying that I was clearly asking for it by leaving the safety of my boyfriend’s house, and that if I did exactly as he told me, that I would not be hurt, and he would look after me and ensure I had a good job for the whole summer.
I didn’t put up a fight. When he left, I vomited and cried. There was no phone in the apartment, and I was too scared to venture down to the street. I waited until first light, and then I ran to the nearest public phone to ring Bruno and, while crying hysterically, told him what had happened. When he arrived to pick me up, he had his hunting rifle in the backseat of the car, he told me that he was going to find and kill Lino. I begged him not to do anything. I didn’t want him to suffer because of me. I told him that I was already traumatised enough, and I wanted to go home to Ireland. I said if he wasn’t going to help me, then I was going to have to run alone. He responded to my pleas and did what he could to get me out of Italy as quickly as possible. Poor Bruno… I left him my address in Ireland so that we could write to one another as he clearly cared about me. I never expected him to sell his car and come to Ireland to find me some months later. He turned up at my parent’s house, but I had already moved on. I never told a soul about what had happened to me and therefore didn’t get the counselling I needed to help me to heal from the trauma. The only way I knew how to cope was to work hard by day, and drink hard by night. When Bruno finally tracked me down in my bedsit in Cork city, I felt sick at the sight of him. I treated him with disdain and sent him packing back to Italy. Needless to say, I never heard from him again. I have lived with all that guilt for too long. When I decided to face my demons almost two years ago by embracing sobriety, I learnt to forgive myself for my failings. I am a work in progress and will be until the day I die. But it is stories like Brittany’s that help those of us who have suffered similar traumas to find healing.
Nobody has the right to take advantage of women, whether they are drunk, or in any other vulnerable state. But just cos it’s not their right, does not mean some despicable sicko driven by his need to copulate isn’t going to take it. It’s one of those conversations we have to have with our daughters. There’s no point in wrapping our girls up in cotton wool or allowing them to live life as free spirits without teaching them about how to protect themselves. This is the advice I have for young girls everywhere: some men are sick and will take advantage of you if they believe they can get away with it. Even men we think we can trust. Try to avoid getting yourself into a vulnerable situation where you could be taken advantage of. For example, we are more vulnerable when we are drunk, under the influence of drugs or alone in a strange place. It is impossible to know all the risks. If something does happen, do not be afraid to seek support and justice. It is never your fault if a person takes something from you that you don’t want to give and being raped is never something to feel ashamed of. The rapist is always wrong and the shame is theirs. Nurture your instincts from a young age and trust them. Be strong and have the confidence to do what feels right. No job or career will ever be more important than your sense of self-worth so do not compromise it. Go out and live your life armed with the knowledge that you are capable and worthy. Be safe.
I hope you will share this story with every young girl you know so that together we can raise awareness of the sad fact that some men will try to take advantage of them if they believe they can get away with it. Our job is to help minimise those chances and to make sure justice is done. Anybody who protects a rapist or prevents the truth from being told should also have the book thrown at them. Thanks for being here today.