Deirdre Sullivan: ‘The seed of Needlework was anger, and I wanted it to feel raw’

‘I wanted you to see her hurting and not to be able to do anything. That is the experience of a reader but also, far too often, of a friend in these situations’

Needlework, my most recent young adult book, is about a teenage survivor of abuse and domestic violence. I wrote the first draft in a month, and left it for over a year before coming back to it. I wrote it between my first novel, Prim Improper, and the second, Improper Order, two books in a trilogy I wrote that were lighter in tone. But still about a teenage girl going through terrible things, because I am me, and that is what I do. I did two huge edits on it, the biggest one in 2012. But I think I could only have written the first draft in a big angry glut. I’d sit on the sofa after work and type and type and type. It felt like vomiting something out of me. Exorcism.

I think the reason it was such a fast and rage-filled draft was because sexual abuse and domestic violence are such common things. We don’t talk about them, but they are. Forty-one per cent of Irish women know someone in their circle of family or friends who has experienced intimate partner violence. And when a person close to you is hurting you, there’s a mixture of love and self-loathing involved that makes it all that much harder to break free. It’s everyday torture, and also the experience of a lot of people, not just women. People I’ve encountered in real life. Friends. I read a lot of first-person accounts of domestic violence. The different faces of it. What it feels like. How small you become. The seed of Needlework was anger, and I wanted it to feel raw. I wanted you to see her hurting. To see her surviving. To see that and not to be able to do anything is the experience of a reader, but it’s also, far too often, the experience of a friend in these situations. All you can do is keep visiting. Keep contacting. Keep hoping. Keep witnessing. Keep on.

There’s a lot of pain in Needlework, physical and emotional. I think we have more sympathy for physical. I wanted to make the comparison, because internal stuff can be every bit as painful, and sometimes more so. It’s harder to treat, it’s harder to fix and it’s harder to understand. People’s experiences shape them in ways they can’t control or predict. Some people crumble. Some people fight. Both are valid.

There’s a narrative that runs through society of the “good” victim. Ces is aware of what people say about rape survivors in Ireland. The price they pay for having been abused. Women’s sexual and personal history splayed out for all to see. We live in a world where people talk about “rape” and “rape-rape”. We live in a world where men pass around private photos of naked women, and people think the women should have had more sense than to share themselves like that. Don’t trust men with your bodies. They will break them. They will display you. They will laugh. And it will be your fault.


Survivors of crimes are not complicit in what has been done to them. Ces is trying to reclaim her identity, her body. And it’s a battle, as it so often is. I wanted Ces to be reclaiming her body and her spirit. Her sexual relationship with Tom is about that. I didn’t want her to huddle in a corner and be scared to have sex. I wanted her to fight for the right to take pleasure in herself, in other people. To rewrite her experience. Because rape is different to sex. It uses the same body parts but it is not the same thing. It really angers me when I read headlines like “Five South Dublin Teens charged after alleged ‘line-up’ sex with girl (15)”. Line-up sex isn’t a crime, nor should it be, if done properly and by consenting adults. The word they’re looking for is rape. It’s easy to find. It happens every day.

We need to look at why people feel entitled to women’s bodies. There is not one woman I know who has not had her body touched against her will. Not one. And if you speak about it, that’s a trap too. Your bad experiences can so easily become the most important thing about you in people’s eyes. Tragedy is bigger than normalcy. I wanted Ces to fight against victimhood. To fight for survival. And fighting is what survivors have to do, once they have left their abuser. The resources aren’t there to support people who have been through this. And what’s there is stretched, people working harder and harder with less and less money. Funding is being cut to rape crisis centres, to shelters, to charities that support survivors. The infrastructure isn’t there for the majority of people.

Ces is removed from the world. She isn’t being supported. She’s supporting, and surviving, largely alone. Which is a part of why her art is so important to her. I believe she would have come to it anyway, with or without her experience of domestic violence and abuse. But in dark times, making something can be healing. She would have always drawn, I think, but I’m not sure if, without the emotional and internal scars that have been imposed on her, she would have chosen tattooing so early on in life. She wants to take her body and make it her own again. She wants to have beautiful scars of her own choosing. To make her mark on other people’s bodies. I have hope for her.

I have so much hope for her at the end of the book. But the world she lives in is the real one, and it is an unkind place for people who are suffering. Ces doesn’t have the money to pay for counselling, she can hardly afford to go to the GP. Her mother doesn’t have the organisational wherewithal to apply for a medical card. No one is minding them. Nobody cares. There’s only so long anger can drive you. I fear she’ll stop fighting. Give in.

Family is important. But when family is the reason you’re hurting, where do you turn? Her circle of friends, even if she let them in, is ill-equipped to cope with what she’s going through. And I say that with so much respect for teenagers. They are strong and socially aware and so, so full of support and love for their friends. It’s hard to find the resources needed to help a person at any age. It’s impossible to “cure” someone. To “make” someone happy. It’s something that they need to find themselves, and sometimes that’s a long, slow process. Abuse is systematic, and so is recovery.

Home is a blessing. So many people aren’t safe in theirs. There’s no haven for them. And we need to do our best to support people who are suffering in big and small ways. My publisher suggested during the editing process the possibility of writing an epilogue for Needlework, to show where Ces will end up. And I tried to. But the thing is, I amn’t sure what exactly happens when the book ends. The world we’re living in isn’t kind to survivors of domestic violence. Individuals can be, and there are so many organisations that are doing their level best, but as a whole, there’s a mountain of work to be done.

We need to be vigilant. We need to be educated about the signs. The same way we check for lumps, we need to scan our relationships and those of the people we care about for symptoms. And we need to teach people about consent. About what is and is not okay in the context of relationships, domestic as well as romantic. What your parents can and cannot do. What a positive role model should look like.

Ces is a patchwork quilt. She’s sewing herself together. Mending. She needs her art to help her do that. Whenever I facilitate workshops, and I know I’m not alone in this, I’m always amazed by the wealth of creativity and talent young adults have, how well-read they are, how educated. Ces is like that. She’s working hard, and doing a great job with what she’s given. But she needs more. So many people do. And sometimes what you need is so big, the only thing that you can stretch to fill it is your creativity, your imagination. It’s mutable and portable and real. And people can shape it, but they can’t touch it.