She wasn’t what I expected a sexual assault victim to be like
In Alan Gilsenan’s film about a real Dublin sex crime, only one person could play the victim
She was not what they expected. That was the reaction whenever anyone met or saw a photograph of her.
But exactly what they expected the victim of a violent sexual assault to be was unclear. A broken and huddled figure mutely craving our sympathy or forgiveness? Ailbhe Griffith certainly wasn’t that.
She was – how do I put this, for this is fraught territory – a woman who turned heads. And, to be honest, she wasn’t what I expected either when we first met to discuss making The Meeting.
I knew something of the story. In the summer of 2004, she had left work late at night and was taking the bus back to her family home in south Dublin when she became aware of a man.
A familiar fear took hold of the young student, a vague but persistent sense that a man was honing in on her. She looked away. Dismissed the thought. She had a life to live. She was working to save money to go to California. Life was good. She was tired. It was probably nothing. She was used to the unwanted attentions of men. She got off the bus at her quiet suburban stop. He got off too.
Afterwards, he walked her down the winding road, in some vain search for a taxi, like some sordid parody of a first date
As the dawn rose, the inevitable unfolded. Slowly. Her face in the dirt. Her naked body bitten and battered. Her purple G-string – later to become part of the public record – lying discarded in the muck.
The birds sang. Beyond, in the sleeping estate, her family and neighbours slept soundly in their beds. The man called her a slut. And worse. It was happening, that’s all she knew.
Afterwards, he walked her down the winding road, in some vain search for a taxi, like some sordid parody of a first date. Frenzied now, perhaps aware of what he had done, she tried to calm him. Occasionally he would hit her, bash her head off a wall. One thought remained: would he kill her? She couldn’t speak.
Why didn’t you cry out, people would later ask?
Coming to a roundabout, two lads, walking home from a party, broke the spell. “Are you alright, love?” No. He fled and the lads chased after him. Ailbhe stood there alone. She fumbled for her phone.
Her parents answered, sleepy and disorientated in their warm bed, a mere half a mile away. The dreaded middle-of-the-night phone call. “I’ve been attacked. Can you come and get me?” The worst had happened – that was clear – and only then the slow, sickening realisation that the trauma was only beginning.
He was caught. She went to the Garda Síochána. She was treated well; they were kind and professional. Procedures were followed and further indignities ensued, of course. Photographs taken, her naked body shrouded only in paper knickers. The photographer kept gently apologising to her.
In due course, on the eve of the trial, he pleaded guilty. She read her victim impact statement. Clear, articulate and true. It made front page news. She was heard. She appreciated that she was one of the lucky ones. Anyway, she had got justice and he got time.
Justice felt good. But, somehow, justice wasn’t quite enough. Now, as she walked the city streets of Dublin, her constant reference was where she was in relation to where he was imprisoned. The Monster – for that was how she saw him – had entered her geography.
By her own admission, she fell apart a bit inside. She lost faith in the world around her. People talked about moving on. They meant well, she knew that. Oh, and she didn’t smile. Her family noticed that.
She said to her sisters one day, I want to meet him. I have questions I want answered
She remembered first hearing the Monster’s name. That surprised her. That he actually had a name at all. That he might be a person too, with his own story and a family who loved him, even.
She said to her sisters one day, I want to meet him. I have questions I want answered. I deserve that much, don’t I? Her two sisters, who love her deeply, thought she was mad. Why would you put yourself through all that?
But she persisted and her sisters listened. One day, one of them said: “You know what that is? That’s restorative justice.” One of them knew a woman who had lectured on it. Her name was Dr Marie Keenan and she knew all about this stuff. Ailbhe emailed her.
Marie Keenan has seen it all; working with monsters of all descriptions, rapists and abusers and paedophiles, the people behind the headlines. While acknowledging the awfulness of their terrible crimes she also sees their broken humanity.
Together, Ailbhe and Marie forged a path. Working with Restorative Justice Services in Dublin – who usually work with less grievous crimes – they sought to arrange the meeting. There was some resistance in official corridors but they persisted and, finally, a plan started to take shape.
The offender had served something close to seven years in prison. By 2014, he was out and on probation. He agreed to meet. Preparations began, a meticulous process.
When the morning finally came, there was still some doubt as to whether he would show up. He was not obliged to attend nor did he stand to gain anything tangible from the meeting. But he did turn up. He had made just one proviso: he wasn’t there to apologise. But then she didn’t want his apology; Ailbhe just wanted her life back. The meeting was on.
When we met in 2016, I was sensitive to her, to her story, to all that happened. But, while she appreciated that, she didn’t really want my sensitivity. She wanted her story told. How that meeting had transformed her. How her father saw her smile for the first times in years when she emerged.
As Ailbhe and Marie related the story of the meeting to producer Tomás Hardiman and I, we were spellbound. As we drove away, I said to Tomás: that’s the film – it’s called The Meeting and that’s just what it is, 80 minutes of their meeting, shot in real time, with no messing, no dramatic licence, no artificial twists. The unadorned truth of what happened. That’s the film.
There were no recordings nor transcripts. I interviewed Ailbhe and Marie at length, encouraging them to recall all that they could remember, retracing every word, every look, every gesture. Ailbhe had detailed notes, as she does, bullet points of what she said. We talked to others, too, who had attended.
I found myself getting angry at it all. At him. The bollix
I wanted to talk with the Monster; to hear his story too. We approached him through third parties. I expected anger perhaps, indignation certainly, at this unearthing of his past sins. But he seemed mildly curious. He said he’d think about it. That he’d look me up on Wikipedia. That sent a shiver through me for a moment.
Eventually he declined to meet me. Said something like he was trying to get on with his life, that he had done all he could. I understood that rationally, respected it, even.
Yet I felt a brooding grievance too. That he could do a little more, a lot more actually, for Ailbhe whom he had hurt so brutally. I found myself getting angry at it all. At him. The bollix.
Ailbhe didn’t share my primitive instincts. She was oddly protective of him at times. After the meeting, it was established that she wanted to speak publicly about her experience. It was her right, of course. Yet she graciously appreciated that the offender didn’t want any more attention, that he wanted to escape the constant public opprobrium. So she promised that she would never publicly identify him nor reveal anything about him outside of the crime and the subsequent meeting. We respected that.
While each and every detail of The Meeting is true, we anonymised the man and removed all personal elements. I hope the press and other media will respect and concur with that decision.
So I wrote the script. Curbed my more dramatic instincts and stuck to the truth. It was easy to find a voice for Ailbhe. I knew her, had raked endlessly over the coals, so to speak, and listened carefully to the rythmns of her speech.
It was more difficult with him. Although I knew what he had said – the stark content of it all – I didn’t know him. I had to imagine myself as him. Be his voice in some way. Feel his feelings, his inner and skewed logic, his vulnerablity. I found myself empathising with him; almost liking him. But certainly beginning to understand him. I felt uneasy, owning his terrible crimes.
An actress playing Ailbhe might seem exactly just that. Just acting. For there is something unique about Ailbhe that made her seem right and true
When it came to casting, I had always hoped that Marie Keenan would play herself in the supporting role as Ailbhe’s confidante and counsellor. I felt she would give a veracity to it all.
As the offender, among many fine actors Terry O’Neill stood out. Addressing a long speech from the film directly at me, I wished that he would look away, such was the power of his presence and performance. Terry O’Neill is the real deal: a coming starry talent.
And we were blessed with three other actors: Kevin McCormack, Allan Keating and Brenda McSweeney, performers who knew their creative and emotional contribution was not limited by the number of lines in their script.
I met the ideal actress to play Ailbhe. She was a Famous Irish Actress. Talented and sensitive.
Yet, somehow, there was an unwelcome thought taking shape in my mind, almost of its own volition: that Ailbhe must play herself. That, somehow, an actress playing Ailbhe might seem exactly just that. Just acting. For there is something unique about Ailbhe – her forensic nature, her sense of style, her complete avoidance of sentimentality – that made her seem right and true. And she was not what anyone expected.
When I asked her, she immediately said yes. I said that from here on out, I’m going to have to treat you like an actress rather as the subject of our film. She said that was just fine, and it was.
In July of last year, as dawn broke, I drove down to the road where Ailbhe Griffith was so violently assaulted. I took a camera and retraced her steps. Research, you might say, or maybe even something more profound.
It was quiet as it would have been on that night. But beautiful too. The road weaves its dappled way along what was once a country road. Today, it is a road full of elegant period homes and hidden places, interspersed with modern estates and a shiny new Texaco station. It crosses a small river, flowing unnoticed below.
There is a small roadside shrine for a lovely little boy who was killed in a traffic accident. The wilting flowers and weather-beaten teddy bear seem to echo the sadness of Ailbhe’s experience.
I think of her dignity and bravery. How strong she is now, this woman who was now the mother of a beautiful young girl herself. How she will be an inspiration to that child in the years ahead. How the meeting released her, in some ways at least, from all this melancholy. How she salvaged something of her humanity – and his – from all that inhumanity.
I stand and stare at the place where she was assaulted. The flower bed, the bushes, the rockery. Banal now, in the early morning light, but redolent with horror too. I imagine her things strewn across the ground, her scattered clothes, her handbag, her fallen keys.
I pause. I don’t want to imagine Ailbhe there – naked, vulnerable, terrified – so I continue walking. As I pass along the way, I imagine drops of her blood falling on the pavement, the spray of it staining the walls. Indelibly.