Completed Collage smallerThis is the speech I gave at the Sexual Assault Resource Centre (SARC), which was celebrating its 40th anniversary and had accepted my offer to speak briefly at the event.

Most of you know me as Pip Brennan, Executive Director of the Health Consumers’ Council. I am also a survivor of a sexual assault during a home invasion in 2002. I was a founding member of the peer group Reclaiming Voices which had as one of its objectives to develop an independent advocacy service for survivors of sexual assault and abuse. After several grants and some promising starts the service was ultimately not able to be established and the organisation was de-incorporated in 2010.

I began my talk by acknowledging that in many ways I am an atypical survivor. I did not know my attacker, he was given nearly nine years imprisonment when finally caught and I do not have residual trauma from this event.

I wrote a memoir, entitled Not My Story about both making my way through the system as a victim, and navigating my way as a victim representative hoping for change. By the time I finished the book, it was 2014. As well as the usual procrastination and fear about any writing project, I was waiting to see if the Recommendations from Prosecution of Assaults and Sexual Offences would be acted on in their entirety. In the end I decided that it was more important to finish the project rather than wait for change. I included the Recommendations in the back of Not My Story for good measure.

I am someone who loves to tidy up at the end of a project and I went through all the many different drafts, annotated copies of my book and I threw them all out. I was also going through a collage phase and one of the last things I found was the blue exercise book I was given when I went to the SARC support group. I looked at the drawings I had done for each of those weeks. The last one I did, envisioning my future self, now sits at the centre of the collage. I also reviewed the messages we had given each other at the end of the group, all those years ago. A copy of the poem “Imagine a Woman” fluttered out of the exercise book. We had been given it one week of the therapy group, and I had forgotten all about it. I read through it and before you could say “scissors”, I had cut up each line of the poem and they now formed “petal” in the collage, radiating out from the final drawing of my future self.

I read out a couple of verses from Imagine A Woman © Patricia Lynn Reilly, 1995:

Imagine a woman who believes it is right and good she is a woman.

A woman who honors her experience and tells her stories.

Who refuses to carry the sins of others within her body and life.

 …. 

Imagine a woman who acknowledges the past’s influence on the present.

A woman who has walked through her past.

Who has healed into the present.

 

Imagine a woman who authors her own life.

A woman who exerts, initiates, and moves on her own behalf.

Who refuses to surrender except to her truest self and wisest voice.

When preparing my short speech for the SARC anniversary, I found myself riffing off this idea, bringing together all my vision for how the victim support sector could work, with the victim at the centre and seamless transitions between health, police, justice and social services:

Imagine A Sector.

Imagine a sector where health, women’s health, domestic violence, victim support and justice services connect and thrive on partnership.

Imagine a sector that meets the challenges of connecting across government and community services with innovation and grace.

Imagine a sector where the emergency is recognised even when years have passed since the abuse but the time to deal with it, is Now.

Imagine a sector that does this and maintains its excellent emergency medical services.

Imagine a sector where women suffering from domestic violence can access this victim-centred emergency and forensic service, even if they haven’t been raped.

Imagine a sector that is just as comfortable providing a world class forensic service

As it is providing counselling, or yoga, or massage, or art therapy or even a quilt.

Like, say the services women can access during treatment for breast cancer.

 

Imagine a sector where women are supported from the moment they make a report

By someone independent and knowledgeable about police and justice processes

And they are supported right the way through the journey by that person.

 

Imagine a sector where women are supported in the court room as victims, instead of being on trial as a witness who may or may not be reliable

Imagine a sector where women are represented by a lawyer, not given a file manager and told “I’m a lawyer for the crown, not for you”.

 

Imagine a sector where women are supported to survive how they will.

By never speaking of it again.

Or writing books, creating art,

Or by wanting to be part of supporting change towards more women-centred services.

 

Imagine a sector where the importance of this work and the wellbeing of these survivors is recognised

And funded accordingly.

Imagine how many more women would emerge from violence able to take their place in the world again.

 

I donated my Imagine a Woman Collage to SARC for the 40th anniversary. With the passage of time the woman in the centre has  I guess become my actual self. I have gifted her back to SARC in the spirit of strength and recovery for all women who need to go there in their hour of need.

imperfectionI have been asking myself this question quite a few times this week.  It is a question to calm my spirit as I try and feel am consistently failing at making a positive difference in the world through the endless committees that I sit on.

This morning for example I am attending a forum about advocacy in the victim services sector, a subject close to my heart.  Only I have found out a key agency won’t be attending.  I know I should not be surprised, but I am, and deflated too.

It seems to be such a fine line between being useful, and being tokenistic.

I know what I would like to happen, and that is change, positive change.  I sit on these committees, hoping to be influential, to somehow access levers of influence that would allow these positive changes to occur.  Victims of sexual assault to have access to end to end advocacy to assist them through the many different stages of the process from offence to final legal judgement or final extinction of all hope that there will be legal redress.

I am not really sure you can do that without power or money.  I want to be someone who has easy access to the $1m plus it would take to get started with an advocacy service, and some clever way of making it self-sustaining and ongoing.

But I don’t seem to be in that kind of paradigm.

I don’t think grassroots works, today.  It feels like it is all about power, money and which school you went to.

Am I wrong? And is everything ok even if it is imperfect?

Paul KellyI am old enough to recall going to the Herdsman Hotel in Perth in 1990, to catch the last set of a Paul Kelly gig before leaving for Europe. No queue, no charge. All the time I lived in Europe, which was pretty much all of the 90’s, I never stopped playing his music.  It drove my Northern flat mate around the twist.  She didn’t get Paul Kelly; he is our voice.

He told first person Australian stories as men, women, black, white, cruel, victimised.

While I thoroughly enjoy all his new material, there are two songs of his that have prodded painful feelings, difficult to articulate. They were a lament, and finally, a call to action.

My karma became entangled with another person’s when he intruded into my home and assaulted me.  I of course reported it, but 14 months passed before he was found.

I had never been a fan of the prison system, no doubt deeply coloured by the experience as a young adult of visiting a friend in maximum security (at the medieval Fremantle Prison before it became a museum).

After the strange limbo of 14 months of not knowing who this person was and if he had struck again, abruptly he was found through DNA back-capture and the police once again required to formalise paperwork and facilitate his arrest.

All weekend, I knew, and he didn’t, that an arrest was about to happen.  Instead of feeling elated I felt a terrible sadness at the waste of his life, from boy to man, in and out of corrective institutions’ revolving doors. A profound grief that we put people right outside society where there is no way back into the fold.  Over and over again I played God’s Hotel that weekend, to help articulate and move these feelings through.

Nearly another year passed before he was sentenced to nine years, seven with parole.  God’s Hotel was joined by How To Make Gravy for obvious reasons. When I heard Paul Kelly play it live some years after that in a vineyard (huge queue, definitely not free now) I couldn’t stop the tears from seeping down my face from behind my dark glasses.

I mobilised on my emotions about incarceration by volunteering to attend a restorative justice Sycamore Tree program in a Perth prison.  I took in a CD and played God’s Hotel and read out my diary entry of how I had felt about the perpetrator being arrested, and cried. A few of the prisoners cried, too. One talked about how he couldn’t ever imagine a victim of crime feeling sad about the lot of the prisoner.

Still, How To Make Gravy  haunted me, encouraging me to take the step of doing a Victim Offender Mediation conference with the unknown perpetrator.

And finally, in his sixth year in prison, I did. I had spent much of the intervening six years feeing that profound loss on his part, for being completely shut out of society. I shared this with very few people as it was an unacceptable feeling. Everyone wanted him dead, or thought about him as little as possible. I could seep tears listening to How to Make Gravy when no-one was looking. Or once, not that long before the actual mediation conference was organised, I startled my 11 year old daughter my crying quite loudly and impulsively in the car when it came on when we were driving home.

The feeling wasn’t going anywhere.

Neither was the Victim Offender Mediation Office, who had created a file for me six years earlier when I had mentioned I was thinking about doing a mediation conference. Every now and then they would touch base with me, ask me if the time was right, back away gently when they sensed my ambivalence.

So when I was sure, they dusted off the file, and just six weeks after startling my daughter, I was sitting opposite the faceless perpetrator, having a mediation conference. He was no longer faceless but I certainly would have walked past him in the street, I would not have known him at all. I had seen him once, six years earlier in the court room, but it was only a quick glance and his features hadn’t stayed with me.

I began the conversation by explaining why I was there, how I felt that the prison and legal system were somewhat flawed, and that I had always felt somewhat distressed by the whole situation. He listened, then when it was his turn to speak, he said he was sorry.

Then, he said how glad he was that he’d had a long sentence so that he could get clean, loosen the hold of the drugs that were threatening to kill him.

And just like that, the heavy feeling I had carried around for six years dissipated.

I can’t say that I never tear up when I hear How to Make Gravy  but I walked out of there a lighter woman.

I’ll end with a question: why he would break into my house and assault me rather than attend a drug rehabilitation service that would have rolled out the red recovery carpet? This is the conundrum I am still pondering to this day.

Some women (and men) may be triggered by reading posts in the Not My Story Blog.  I have put together a simple list for Western Australian women of support services they can access.

For those in Western Australia, the main referral agency is the Sexual Assault Resource Centre (SARC): SARC 24-Hour Crisis Line: 9340 1828 or Freecall 1800 199 888

They also offer counselling for historic assault or abuse, and they have a range of good group programs.  Call 9340 1820.

Allambee offer specialist counselling services in Mandurah: 9535 3869

Victim Support Services: they offer a range of support services especially during any justice processes

WA Police: if it is not an emergency it is really important to make an appointment to see someone senior.

Victoria’s Centre Against Sexual Assault is a great resource too

justiceI have been doing a lot of thinking this week about accountability and what happens to Inquiries when their voluminous reports are released.  Specificically I have been thinking about the Recommendations from the West Australian Inquiry into the Prosecution of Assaults and Sexual Offences undertaken several years ago now; the above link is to the 2008 report. PASO for short, for there must be an acronym.

Ostensibly fuelled by the preventable death of a young girl after her murderer had escaped prosecution on prior offences, the Inquiry aimed to look at what had gone wrong to allow the perpetrator back out onto the streets after a bungled handling of a prior offence.  After its inception it grew to encompass sexual assault as well, and that is when I became involved, giving evidence at the Inquiry.

The Inquiry undertook all the processes that typify Inquiries.  Thoughtfully conducted, with painstakingly recorded testimony from victims, secondary victims and service providers.

And at the end there was more than 250 pages of report,  and 37 recommendations.   This is it quietly entering into parliament – need I say that 2009 has long come and gone, with no Hansard mention of a Report?  I liked this 2009 soundbite:

To this end, I will be asking the Sexual Assault Services Advisory Group to investigate a number of the issues that these reports have raised, including addressing the reasons for withdrawal of complaints of sexual assault and ensuring that established processes put the onus on victims or complainants to access supportservices themselves. I restate this government’s determination to ensure that individuals who are victims of sexual assault receive a very clear message that their issues and experiences are important and deserve the highest level of care.

Alas, alas this laudable sentiment did not survive the change of West Australian government, and there has never been an obligation, other than a moral one, for any of the relevant service agencies to report back.  At risk of breaching confidentiality, I can say that I sit on the Sexual Assault Services Advisory Group as a victim representative, and have done since its inception in 2008.  I was motivated by wanting to know what happens with a public Inquiry, whether all the work, time, care and effort that goes into writing recommendations actually translates into action.  Five years on I certainly question when I think it might be time to step away…

Certainly there are recommendations that have been actioned or superseded, but others still awaiting time and attention.  For example,

Recommendation 19: The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions,in collaboration with the Department of the Attorney General, investigate and report on the meritsof therapeutic justice.

I was googling for the PASO Inquiry’s link today to write this blog when I came across this UK article; the tragic story of a woman who felt so violated by her time on the witness stand being cross examined that three days later she took her life.  It just made writing this blog all the more urgent; as the article states:

Victims of burglary do not have to prove that they have been burgled or to justify their behaviour before the burglary. With rape and sexual assault allegations, victims still find themselves subjected to hostile questioning.

This is a really key part of the issue with sexual assault and abuse cases and why they are so difficult to prosecute, so hard for the victims to make it all the way through the process to hopefully a conviction.

I really would like to know more about Recommendation 19 – what therapeutic jurisprudence might look like, whether survivors of sexual assault are routinely offered a pre-recorded interview to give their evidence, if so what the uptake is, what the legal outcomes are in relation to trials using pre-recorded interviews vs trials where women are excoriated on the witness stand.

So back to the meeting next time I will go, to see if I can winkle out some more answers…

Many many moons after my early brush with The West, I once again was contacted, through channels that are hard to be clear about (probably old online references to Reclaiming Voices) to contribute to a GP magazine.

Hold on a minute, GPs.  I run a not for profit that supports women’s choices, including homebirth.  Not perhaps a sympathetic audience.  I can also be ambivalent about disclosure in the health sphere, as there can be a different kind of response from that in the community.  Sometimes, dare I say, a bit of opporbrium and judgement can creep in.

But what the hell, I did it anyway.  An opportunity to raise awareness of the issue.  Here it is, the GP Medical Forum Article.

http://www.medicalhub.com.au/wa-news/guest-opinion-editorial/3989-sexual-assault-the-silent-epidemic

newspaper

One of the defining experiences for me in wanting to write my book, was my early brush with the media.

I had always had it in my mind that I would speak up about my experiences, once all the legal processes had been completed and there were no possible repercussions on that front.   Hell my need to talk about it was all-consuming in the early weeks and months after the assault, to the point of wanting to blurt out my story to an unsuspecting woman working on the IGA checkout in the first week after the assault.

While this particular need to over-share was well under control by the time the legal all clear was imminent – nearly 2 years later – I knew I really wanted to have a chance to have my say in the media.

I decided on the way back from my one and only visit to the courts – mercifully I did not have to appear as a witness – to proceed with the story with a keen journalist.  She had contacted me coincidentally a few weeks before the legal processes in my case were coming to a close.  At the time she was chasing a comment about another sexual assault case, and the in the vacuum of  those willing to comment, she had approached me.  She still had my details from when I had contacted her trying to interest the West in doing a story about the few of us who were starting to get some momentum going as a voice for women survivors of assault and abuse.

As we had made fortuitous contact, I told her that the legal process in my own case was drawing to a close and I would be interested in having a public say if she wanted to do a story.  She did.  She seemed quite surprised and pleased that I was willing to have a picture of me to accompany the article as well, not pixellated out because what did i have to hide?  Why should I be ashamed?

Accordingly, I made my way from the court house and met with her to get the ball rolling.  I posed for a photo with a considerate and skilled photographer who instructed me how to pose to achieve the calm, credible complainant look of the published shot.

Afterwards the journalist and I talked for about an hour, more than could possibly be used in a 500 word article, and I felt a creeping anxiety about what would come out the other end. It is always difficult in these situations to continue to feel focussed on what you are doing and why.  Was it all just about an overblown need to have my wounds  witnessed, endlessly? Was there a legitimate need for me to speak out? Was The West an appropriate vehicle? (cough!)

I was hoping to have some idea what the article would be like before printing, but as the hours dragged before the deadline on the journalist asked if it could go in without editing from me.  Being a kind soul, I heard her fatigue and trusted the quality of our face to face meeting that she would do me no harm.

Can you imagine with what trepidation I rushed out early to buy a paper the morning of the story, and hurried home to read it? My first reaction was to squirm a bit at phrases that I felt made me sound stupid or didn’t reflect the complexities and subtleties of the conversations we had had or the views that I hold. The gist of the article was about the traumatising process of giving evidence as a survivor of sexual assault.  While I felt that this was important and was happy to lend my face to this so the journalist could write whatever she wanted regardless of my own circumstances, it was not what I really wanted to talk about.  Sure, I was more than happy to heighten public awareness on this shameful area of law, where it seems the witness rather than the accused is on trial.

But I also wanted to talk about  the need to address the “casual sexism” that pervades Australia and is very much alive and well when it comes to prosecuting sexual assault cases – the attrition rate of cases from reporting to conviction is appalling.  I also wanted to talk about the need for better, more responsive services for women, providing longer term counselling for those grappling with issues from years before.  I wanted the message of women’s resilience and recovery with the right supports, and where those supports could be found, to be broadcast.

I also wanted to talk about the ills of society that breed such sad, lost souls, and the prison and justice systems that don’t seem to address the addiction, mental illness and pain that abound among prisoners.

In 500 words?  Somewhat ambitious.

Much more recently I had the experience of meeting a friend of a friend who was interested in my story.  We met and I spoke at length, but she never ran the piece she had planned.  She felt the message of women’s rights was diluted by the added complication of trying to document my feelings of sadness and frustration with our justice system.

But that is what I want to talk about.  All of it.

And so, I have the whole space and time of a book to write about all the complexities that have presented to me, for me to sift through as the years pass, looking for answers when there are none and many.

Edit

Ah what it is to have a day off every week.  I don’t achieve this feat every week but I do my best, and today the stars aligned.  So down to the very last bit of editing before the next print round and edits.  It always seems so difficult to know when to end, to know when to stop fiddling.  Where exactly is the end?

What will reaching the end achieve? Do I want the world to change? Yes!  How likely is that? Well, a little unlikely, truth be told.  But as the saying goes “truth would suffer something by my silence”.  I just have to keep on moving forward and let the outcomes fall where they may.

I remember reading this wonderful paragraph from Nancy Venable Raine’s book  After Silence, Rape and My Journey Back.   It was two years after the assault.  I had marked the first anniversary in 2003, but on the second anniversary I wasn’t feeling it and didn’t mark it.  But still, something niggled.  When I found this paragraph I felt it articulated why I would want to mark such a sad and forgettable occasion:

I began to write about the seventh anniversary of my rape and the six that came before it, and when I wasn’t sure how to end what I was writing, something happened.   Flowers arrived from the flower shop at the foot of the hill; “Happy 7th.  You are not alone.  Love always, Kate”…

The flowers Kate sent that day had power.  For the first time in seven years I had the sense of connection and community.  I was celebrating my anniversary in the only way I knew how, and Kate was there.  This anniversary, unlike all the others, was shared.  I suddenly knew how to finish what I was writing – with an image of women, marching, openly and together, celebrating their anniversaries, speaking their names, carrying flowers.”

Keeping silent does not move us forward.  We need to talk about this stuff, together, and celebrate our survival, preferably with flowers.

Right, off to Officeworks I go to get this next draft printed for the next round of edits! (Did I spell edit right??)