**The contents of this post, like all of them, may contain descriptions and scenarios which may be triggering to sexual assault/rape victims**
There are some things you hope you can avoid in life. Meeting an Anaconda. Contracting Bird flu. Surviving a helicopter crash. You know, because they sound like bad experiences, right? Traumatic. Dangerous. Scary. Certainly unforgettable. What if you had to face them TWICE?
I am going to add to that Things You’d Like To Avoid List being cross-examined in Court. Hands up if you have been in the witness box..? I don’t know about your experience but I can tell you about mine. And how close I came to having to do it again the other day. Which was TERRIFYING.
When the man who sexually assaulted me, ok, raped me, was charged, the case was heard in the County Court in the city. I had to testify. And I had to be cross-examined by the defence. I can remember such acute details of that day. In other ways it feels like a hazy bad dream. I was very anxious about testifying. In one way I knew that it was my one chance at being heard. Yes, the chance to roar. But what a way to go about it! The police officer who was with me from taking my initial statement to that day in court (she was amazing) helped as much as she could. But there really is no preparation for being a witness in your own rape case.
The night before Court I had one of my younger sisters stay the night at my house. She talked to me, held me and let me cry. That’s something no little sister should ever have to do. But I needed her and she was there for me in the perfect way. She can summarise people so succinctly that you would think she was twenty years older. Wiser. From a young age, my sister could see right through anyone and tell you what you needed to do. Her six-year-old self told another sibling one day, “Look, get a job. Clean your act up. No one can take you seriously when you’re not helping yourself”. I like to think we have that in common. So she was the right companion for a really shitty time. I had a notebook at the
time (many, really. First, I was a teacher and they are mostly stationary freaks. Secondly, I had Court notes, inspirational quotes, counselling notes…anything and everything). This notebook was mine to help me get through the experience of testifying. In it she wrote on a random page ‘Every Dog Has Their Day’. She was referring to HIM being a dog in the derogatory sense and that his day was coming, and I was the one who held the power. Pretty smart, no? My siblings don’t read this blog but my mother does, I’d say. She knows who I’m talking about. Bravo, again, mother. Job well done there, too. That girl is a winner and most of the time, wise beyond her years. I still have that piece of paper.
The policewoman took great care to keep me out of sight in the Court foyer but the OTHERS, my colleagues who KNEW what I had gone through and how I had come to EACH OF THEM over time ASKING FOR THEIR HELP, walked past me in a pathetic group. They had to ready to be called to testify and it seemed to me that they clung to each other like the yellow-bellied cowards they are. Our eyes met once and I like to think that my glare was like lasers, cutting them down. It was probably more like a sad little puppy at the pound, watching their family leave them, abandoned and facing death. I tried for daggers, though. I really did.
I consider myself very lucky that I was able to testify via video link (or however they do it) from another room in the Court. I think I would have fainted at the very least if I had been able to see his eyes. I imagined leaping out of the stand and throttling him. Spitting in his face. Screaming, ‘You know what you did!’ But I really just would have vomited, I think.
It was bad enough knowing he could see me. Someone told me that his wife was sitting next to him in Court. That made me feel all sorts of things. Was she there because she believed it all to be a lie? What would it be like for her to see me describe what her husband did to me? Would she hear something I said and in an instant, know I was telling the truth? Know that he would say that? Do that? Would he watch the screen and see my face? Or hang his head?
I hugged my sister as tight as I could and was led into a small room far away from the Court room they were in. There was a lady who was in the room with me, a minder of sorts. She explained the screens in front of me and what would happen when Court was in session. It seemed to me to look like the control room at a tv station. There was a monitor on which I could see the Magistrate and another where the lawyers would be visible as they questioned me. I sat at a small table and the minder was to my right. The door out, the one that called to me ‘here I am, in case you wanna run’, was to my left. I remember I wore a blue shirt that day, buttoned up all the way. I held a small teddy in my hands, hidden from anyone’s view under the table. My very little brother had given me that teddy and I squeezed the hell out of it, held it tight. Of course, I still have that teddy.
I don’t remember the prosecutor questioning me, to be honest. I will never forget the defence. He was a round-ish man with grey hair. Pompous looking. An air of arrogance and contempt for me. The inference in his very manner was that I had caused a lot of trouble and he thought my words a joke. I had wondered if Court would be like it is in the movies. It was. Except nobody leapt to yell ‘Objection!’ and save my skin when the questioning got out of control. I remember the female Magistrate’s face – a floating head on her own television screen – peering at me with her brow furrowed. I noticed when the Defence became cruel, she moved forward, trying to read me. Was I handling this? Did she need to stop him? I remember thinking she was quite compassionate and her face showed a human interest. Unlike the Defence barrister. That pig of a man. He was rude, vile. He pushed me. Mocked me. Accused me of lying. He described my body parts. He described my genitals to the Courtroom. Yep, my vagina. How I had described my genitals in my statement. WHAT HE DID THEN. It was revolting. They let me take breaks. Maybe I looked too upset. I sipped some water and howled. My sister told me later that hearing my guttural moans through the wall but not being able to get to me was torture. I can’t imagine. The minder was very nice considering she was not there for me, just to ensure I was safe from myself and the technical side of things was working. I had my head between my knees and she lay a gentle hand on my shoulder, just for a second. It was a comfort that she felt my pain. What a job to do!
I was questioned for most of the day. When I was done (well after I’d passed done, I’d say!) the Prosecutor and policewoman came in to see me. They explained that HE wanted to change his plea to guilty if they would remove the Rape and Stalking charges, leaving two counts of Indecent Assault and thereby suspending a probable jail term. They said that this was a good outcome given the difficulties in getting a successful conviction in a rape case. I knew the statistics well. I also knew I just wanted to get the fuck out of there. I knew that the other people from work, including the woman who’d been a party to it all and gave new meaning to the term slut shaming, would lie on the stand to protect their negligence. I went to my boss about HIM, then eventually about HER as she bullied and degraded me. He warned me they were friends and I’d ‘better watch what I said next’. In the end I had to go beyond the workplace – which also failed. But that’s another topic. The legal system, however, did NOT fail me.
Though this experience undoubtedly sounds shitty, and it was, I want you to know that I do not regret testifying one bit. I would encourage and support any other person in a similar situation (for which I am sorry) to be heard if they can. You don’t feel brave or strong at the time. You indeed put yourself at the mercy of another abusive person in the defence for a time. But what you MIGHT do is slap that bastard in the face with the TRUTH so hard that he changes his plea. In the midst of the tears and exhaustion, there was a part of me that knew I’d had a victory.
I wrote a Victim Impact Statement for sentencing which took place the next day. I asked the Police if I could be there but they said no. I wanted to read it out myself. The policewoman did, however, call me to describe what had happened. She told me that the Magistrate had read out my statement to the Court. What I wrote was pretty raw. It is also an empowering thing to do if you are ever faced with the same situation. Another chance to be heard. It’s never enough but you have to take what you can get. Apparently the Magistrate said in her sentencing that she wished that the Plea Bargain had not been struck because she felt HE deserved jail. I can’t tell you how much that matters to me. So HE got a suspended jail term of 12 months and a fine (I scoff at the fine…I mean, seriously?)
It is possible I will have to testify/explain myself about this issue at least once more before this is done. This I have reconciled myself with. Er, in a fashion. As much as one can.
What I was not at all prepared for was facing the witness box again for something else. Recently I found myself facing the possibility of this helicopter crash in Family Court. The similarities between the two experiences are actually disturbing. I didn’t realise as it was happening (eternally optimistic or deliberately in denial?) but when faced with being cross-examined the other day it hit me like a familiar Mack truck. And I fell apart.
Knowing you are telling the truth can take you pretty far in life. Helps you ‘fight the good fight’, though you’d rather be out playing somewhere. I told the truth then, and I was telling the truth in this other personal battle. I was feeling pretty strong and (unfortunately) had a routine of sorts to get my mind ready for Court because of what happened to me before. But there was a second in time when the lawyer was talking to me the other day and she mentioned taking the stand and I said, “Well, I really want to avoid that actually because oh my god I’ve already done it before and I …” That lawyer didn’t know what I was talking about. Oh, the feelings inside me. I firmly believe in cellular memory. Your body remembers experiences, even ones the mind works had to forget. Well, my body remembered my first cross examination. And it FREAKED OUT.
It passed, though. I survived. Court is done for now. A deal was struck – again. But I am left with a couple of thoughts.
My own ability to move on is more impressive than I thought. It feels like I’m stuck in this trauma many days but really I am only troubled by SOME (read: more than enough) things which affect my day to day experience. I don’t think about the legal process all the time. I couldn’t. I’d be hiding under my bed. (If you are/ have been that person, I’m not mocking it. I understand why you could feel that way).
At the same time I am so fucking angry that I was rendered unable to be a witness in Court FOR THE SAFETY OF MY OWN CHILD due to what these people had done to me in the first place. I was shaking, crying, ashamed, having flashbacks. Shit! In lots of ways, I try to forge a new path and keep on trying. Life my life and be happy. Some days I run, some days I drag my ass and wish I had a teddy bear to hold. The other day in Family Court was a stark reminder that while these experiences can make you stronger, some parts can really just kick your ass. Damn it.
PS Really, if you can do it, standing up in Court IS WORTH IT. You can do so much more than you think you can (and so much more than you should have to!) Take a swing at the bastards if you can.