Rape survivor who confronted her demon — and got closure

A real-life victim of violent rape, portrays herself in a new film about confronting her rapist, writes Colette Sheridan
Rape survivor who confronted her demon — and got closure

HARROWING STORY: Ailbhe Griffith plays herself in the film The Meeting, her first acting role

“WHAT’S happening here tonight is phenomenal,” said Mary Crilly of Cork’s Sexual Violence Centre at the Gate Cinema last week.

She was right. A real-life victim of a violent rape, who portrayed herself in a film about confronting her rapist, was at the cinema to answer questions from the audience.

We had watched rape survivor, Ailbhe Griffith, in The Meeting, directed by Alan Gilsenan, with an element of discomfort but also with relief, that she got to say what she wanted to say. (Playing the rapist who had served a prison sentence, was Terry O’Neill, whose excellent performance was suitably awkward. There were times when he didn’t know where to look, chewing his inner lip.)

There is much victim-blaming in our society, with rape victims put through the ringer if they actually go so far as to report an attack and go to court in the hope of seeing their assailant serve time.

As Mary pointed out — and it shouldn’t have to be highlighted —Ailbhe did nothing wrong. What she has done is help break the silence around rape.

She availed of the Restorative Justice Service under Dr Marie Keenan, a forensic psychotherapist at UCD, to organise a meeting with the rapist.

What was heartbreaking about Ailbhe’s story was how the attack totally changed her worldview. It had been a benign worldview. Ailbhe was brought up to believe the best in everyone.

But having been stalked on the bus on her way home by Martin Swan and raped in the vicinity of her home, Ailbhe’s “view of life... changed forever”.

She said that the rapist didn’t see her as human. That has to be the greatest injustice of all, to fail to acknowledge a fellow man/woman’s humanity.

With that absence of empathy, anything can happen, from cold-blooded violence to dehumanising fascism. And it happened to Ailbhe, this negation of all that she was and is.

But — and this is important —Ailbhe was able to say that her attacker has not destroyed her. Yes, he disempowered her and terrorised her on that awful night in a Dublin suburb, “but I never felt ashamed”.

Ailbhe was the picture of strength and dignity at the Q&A session at the Gate Cinema, following the screening of The Meeting. But she wasn’t always so together.

In the aftermath of the rape, she became emotionally numb and felt a huge emptiness. She developed an eating disorder and exercised obsessively. She is all too aware of how fragile we all are.

Some are fortunate to never have their fragility tested. Others, like Ailbhe, are terrorised.

 “Why did you do it?” she asked the rapist.

“I wanted to take you down a peg or two,” he responded, seeing Ailbhe as educated and glamorous. He went on to say that her high heels set him off. “I just saw red.”

The actor playing Martin Swan indulged in a bit of self-pity when he said that he always wanted a normal life. He never had a girlfriend and was “pretty lonely growing up”. But he doesn’t see himself as a hard man.

It’s hard to feel sorry for this man. But such is the generosity of spirit in Ailbhe that she saw his humanity. She told the rapist that she regarded him as very brave to agree to the meeting with her. She felt empowered after the meeting, which was hugely healing.

Ailbhe had been aware of what Martin Swan was likely to say at the meeting. But what she wanted out of it was to not be affected by his attitude. She actually felt compassion for the rapist’s “way of being.” You couldn’t get more humane than that.

Others would harbour a well-justified grudge and total contempt towards their attacker.

In an interview in the Irish Examiner, Ailbhe said that once she came out of the meeting, “it was totally transformative, because not only was I able to genuinely let go of the anger, because I could see the person, but it was also deeply, deeply empowering. I was able to get exactly what I wanted on that basis.”

That Ailbhe is not bitter is a miracle. She has experienced post-traumatic stress. She felt “a nagging requirement” to meet her attacker. She left Ireland for a while but as soon as she returned, she realised she hadn’t left the trauma behind her.

“It was clear it was all still waiting for me.” 

Places reminded her of her trauma.

In 'The Meeting', Ailbhe takes on her first acting role. The original idea was to enlist an actor to play Ailbhe. It may sound exploitative to have Ailbhe play herself. But it was an inspired decision. She acquits herself well. She is articulate and intelligent. And she got a form of closure.

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