Dear Stephen Fry: The shadow of rape is long and ceaseless. We can’t ‘just grow up’

In this open letter to actor Stephen Fry, who has caused controversy with comments about abuse victims, an anonymous Irish woman recounts her own rape as a child and explains why victims need empathy, not criticism

Appearing on US chat show The Rubin Report, British television presenter Stephen Fry said that self-pitying victims of sex abuse should 'grow up'. Video: The Rubin Report/YouTube


Dear Stephen Fry,

We’ve been hearing plenty from you of late. Every time I see your name trending on Twitter, my first thought is, ‘oh wow, what’s he said now?’ Down the years, I’ve come to think of that as no bad thing; often you can put words to sentiments and moments with impressive elan and clarity. But your recent musings have, I admit, given me pause for thought. Well, not so much pause for thought as they caught in my throat, toxic and dangerous.

Are you sick of seeing headlines with your name next to the words ‘sparks outrage’ or ‘causes Twitter storm’? I’m no expert, but perhaps making remarks like the ones you did on The Rubin Report isn’t the right way to go about keeping the head down.

To recap, you were asked whether you considered the ‘regressive left, coming after language and free speech’, to be an issue in Britain.

Ever the intellectual, you promptly referenced Shakespeare: ‘There are many great plays which contain rapes, and the word rape now is even considered a rape,” you may recall saying.

“They’re terrible things and they have to be thought about, clearly, but if you say you can’t watch this play, you can’t watch Titus Andronicus, or you can’t read it in an English class, or you can’t watch Macbeth because it’s got children being killed in it, it might trigger something when you were young that upset you once, because uncle touched you in a nasty place, well I’m sorry.”

And here’s where, in your great wisdom, your thought train derailed. Suddenly your ‘bag lady’ comments, made in reference to your friend Jenny Beavan, were a mere blip. That time you claimed that women don’t really like sex? Nothing, compared to this.

“It’s a great shame and we’re all very sorry that your uncle touched you in that nasty place – you get some of my sympathy – but your self pity gets none of my sympathy,” you are quoted as saying. “Self-pity is the ugliest emotion in humanity. Get rid of it, because no one’s going to like you if you feel sorry for yourself. The irony is we’ll feel sorry for you if you stop feeling sorry for yourself. Just grow up.”

For one, I agree with your sentiment about the permanently outraged brigade. You’re right, people are too easily offended these days. It seems to enliven them and give them a sense of purpose, to puff their chests in indignation over everything. The sceptre of political correctness has lynched the beating heart out of many vital things: a healthy debate. Humour. Wit. Frank discussion. Twitter used to be a hotbed of roiling, meaty and uncensored talk, and like you, I miss those salad days, too.

But let me tell you about ‘trigger words’, and why they are necessary; for some, a necessary evil, in modern society. After a trauma – and most of the world agrees, sexual abuse would be classified as such – the brain often attempts to suppress the memory. It’s a survival mechanism. When those thoughts and feelings are recalled, unbidden, by outside forces, it can lead to confusion, hurt, upset: in some cases, an experience of revictimisation. I don’t make the rules here, and neither, really, does society. This is simply how the brain works. But surely you wouldn’t want to use a certain type of word, or phrase, if you thought it would genuinely hurt someone? Surely that’s just empathy, plain and simple, and not ‘political correctness gone mad’?

Whatever about the use of the word ‘rape’ – and in today’s society, the word is so ubiquitous that we’re beyond talk of ‘triggering’ – your comments about abuse victims as self-pitying, and needing to ‘grow up’ are craven. A stunningly callous sentiment, and one I admit I was surprised to hear from someone who often wakes up to a battle-cry from their own brain. Perhaps it’s because you have been so articulate on mental health that makes your observations all the more shocking. When you know how unforgiving and downright malevolent one’s inner critic can be, how lost one’s inner child can get while negotiating the complexities of adulthood, where does this ‘yeah yeah, get over it’ sentiment come from?

I know this from first-hand experience. I was raped when I was seven years old: just the once, by an opportunistic family friend. My complex, beautiful, hard-working brain worked overtime to suppress and negotiate the memory, and it made for difficulties and a frankly exhausting fallout much later down the line.

I am a victim/survivor/delate as appropriate and add your own inoffensive word of choice here, of sexual abuse. Screw self-pity; I use the term ‘victim’. You may hate that. It may reek of misery. But what happened was not my fault. And some days I am nobody’s version of a survivor. And the shadow of childhood rape is long and ceaseless.

I told my parents about what had happened – certainly, more than just being touched in the wrong place – pretty much a day or two after it happened. And then … nothing. Life carried on as normal, my perpetrator living on the same road, head bowed as he walked past my house. In my naivete, I thought I had made the whole event up, or imagined it. I got on with the business of being a good pupil, daughter, friend; a child who brushed her teeth twice a day and did good in spellings. In the main, my childhood was good and carefree.

It was only when I was 18 that my synaptic pathways knitted themselves back together and I realized the truth. My mother, distraught at my recollection of events past, filled me in on the blanks, and her version of events, when I confronted her about it. A young women in her 20s (and in 1980s Ireland) who was essentially unequipped to deal with such issues, my mother was told by others – neighbours, friends, the local priest, an advisory service – to simply let it go on my behalf. Putting me through the vigours of a criminal trial, as a seven-year-old, was ill-advised (the perpetator denied any wrongdoing from the outset). “If you find she is wetting the bed, maybe let’s revisit the issue then,” my mother was told. I didn’t, so it wasn’t.

But at 18, the gravity of my past fell full-pelt onto my chest. Media and societal narratives surrounding abuse don’t tell those who have been abused ‘just the once’ how to feel, or how to deal, with the experience. Certainly, I never knew the horror of watching a doorknob at night, wondering if tonight would be the night that something untoward would happen again. I didn’t feel the excruciating pain of betrayal by a guardian or parent; someone supposed to protect you from the ills of the world. I can’t even fathom how one might recover from that experience. Neither can you, clearly.

But even to this day, I experience repercussions from that one experience as a child. In times of anxiety, I sleepwalk and fully dress myself, convinced that I will be snatched and violated in my bed again. I am quite overweight; something that some psychologists have pinpointed as a coping mechanism. Weight keeps us rooted to the earth. And by extension, harder to snatch by those bigger than us.

I once told a psychotherapist that I had trouble sleeping and, as often happens in a psychotherapist’s office, talk turns to childhood.

“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” I concluded, hoping to move swiftly on from discussing the rape (strangely, I never use the word ‘rape’, though this is what it was. I often just use the euphemistic term ‘that thing that happened when I was seven’).

Anyway, my therapist’s brow furrowed. “You were in your own bed, in your own house, and somehow you were in the wrong place at the wrong time?” No wonder I find it hard to sleep, she concluded.

And of course, there are the moments where I’m told to ‘snap out of it’ as an adult. No need to bang on about it, as you might offer. Trust me Stephen, society does a rather stellar job of prompting me to snap out of it already without your needling input. Some months ago, I decided to investigate the possibility of reporting the rape. It’s not that it never occurred to me not to down the years, but society doesn’t make it easy on victims who report rape, as I’m sure you’re acutely aware. In fact, the numbers who report historic rape cases are perilously low; around 25 per cent go through with the process after making an initial inquiry about how to report one. And because the perpetrator has a constitutional right to a good name right up to conviction, I’ve been informed by experts that victims of historic abuse run a high risk of being retraumatised. The process is not victim-friendly, I’ve been warned repeatedly, by those whose job it is to facilitate victims of rape and abuse. Have you any idea what it’s like to come up against a system like that?

I don’t tend to wear the experience as a millstone around my neck. Not a lot of people know this about me, and members of my immediate family are none the wiser. Still, it’s an ever-faithful companion, whether I want it to be or not.

But Stephen, you would be surprised at how many people have experienced rape or sexual abuse at the hands of an opportunistic predator, like I did. Just the once. They don’t the perpetrator to ‘win’. Their way of dealing with it is to live fully in the present, and not, as they might say, wallow in self-pity or anger. But like grief, these are feelings that abuse victims can’t outrun. They need to be negotiated with. If you deny their existence, they will, for better or worse, get you in the end.

We all have triggers about something. It may not be depression or abuse, but it’s rare to reach adulthood without some manner of emotional baggage. Maybe it’s wrong of us to demand that society caters to our ‘triggers’. Maybe it’s my responsibility to deal with comments like yours on my own. But I’ve been treating my own experience like a bad day at the races for long enough. Abuse victims should just ‘grow up’, you say. But the thing is, growing up is problematic. But, in creating distance between now and then, it also becomes our salvation.