Lavinia Kerwick: 'My life in my 20s and 30s was absolutely destroyed, taken away'
The 1991 rape survivor on the long-term effects of the attack and why it is time to speak out
Lavinia Kerwick: 'He committed a heinous crime next to murder. There’s no forgiveness for that.' Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
“My name is Lavinia.” More than 25 years after finding herself invisible and voiceless as a teenage rape victim in the legal system, Lavinia Kerwick still likes to reclaim her name at the start of a conversation.
It’s what she did when she momentously became the first rape survivor in this country to go public, within 24 hours of seeing the man who admitted what he had done to her walk out of court free.
Now, after losing nearly two decades to coping with the fall-out from his brutally intimate assault, she has found new strength to speak out again, to help others.
“My whole life in my 20s and 30s was absolutely destroyed, taken away. I would hate any girl or woman to be sitting here 20 years later and saying my life is only starting now, you know.”
Arriving into the offices of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre for the interview this week, Lavinia is full of laughter about the characters who struck up conversation with her on the train from Kilkenny. Her hazel eyes sparkle with warmth and humour. Her face, framed by auburn, shoulder-length hair, is no longer gaunt and etched with suffering, as captured in the media during the worst years of her anorexia, which started straight after the rape.
However, despite her vitality, she’s not going to pretend there is a happy ending to her story. Yes, she is the mother of a teenage son, “the light of my life” and a “miracle child”, considering she had been told after the rape that her injuries meant she would never be able to have children.
But she is here to talk about the legacy of her experience, which very nearly killed her, and trauma and self-blaming that continues to this day.
“It’s coming into Christmas and New Year and people drink and there’s a real grey area with consent, so I thought maybe that if they knew the actual damage that a rape does.” It was on the way home from a 1991 New Year’s Eve party that she was assaulted, on a patch of ground near the river Nore.
Going public to talk about it, seven months after the attack, was a spur-of-the moment decision with far-reaching consequences.
Phoning Gerry Ryan
Having been “absolutely inconsolable” after her former boyfriend and rapist was allowed to walk out of the Central Criminal Court in July 1992, essentially without punishment for the ordeal he had subjected her to, Lavinia was driven to make her voice heard in the only way she saw possible. She rang the Gerry Ryan Show on RTÉ 2FM.
The previous day, sentencing had been adjourned for a year, and she was back home in Co Kilkenny when she heard Ryan read out a newspaper headline on a report of the case. She recalls he then said something along the lines of, “Well, if it was me, he wouldn’t have walked out of that court”.
“And I just thought, ‘Oh God, now, this could be the man’, because there was nowhere to go. You couldn’t appeal it. And at 19 I knew coming out that something had gone wrong in that court. I absolutely knew that something had gone very wrong.”
Although sentencing was put back for a year, the signs were that, provided her attacker stayed out of trouble, he would get a suspended sentence – as indeed he did 12 months later: nine years and not a day of it to be served in prison.
Lavinia sums up in her own words the message the court gave her rapist: “We’ll bring you back in a year to see how you’re getting on.” Nobody seemed to care about her – until she took the matter into her own hands.
Going live on air with Ryan soon after the 10 o’clock news, she recalls Ryan asking what name she wanted to go by. “Lavinia,” she replied before laying bare not only the reality of the crime but also the failings of the justice system in dealing with it.
Her anguish about the court decision: “I just couldn’t believe it – he might as well have raped me again yesterday,” echoed through homes around the country.
Lavinia says she has never listened back to that interview but that every detail was there.
“That was probably what I would have said if I was able to give my victim-impact statement. But isn’t that terrible that I had to say it on the airwaves? My opportunity of a normal life in that moment in time was gone.”
By the 11 o’clock news she was the lead story.
‘Huge personal cost’
It was an extraordinarily courageous step by Lavinia, one she doesn’t regret taking for the good that came out of it but, at the same time, there was “a huge personal cost”. She is also keen to praise the bravery of the late broadcaster in allowing her to talk. “He could have been fired.”
The reaction to the interview led to the then minister for justice, Pádraig Flynn, starting the process to change legislation: to allow victim-impact statements to be made in court and to give the Director of Public Prosecutions the power to appeal leniency of a sentence.
Yet it was only during filming for the recent two-part TV documentary series, No Country for Women, shown on RTÉ in June, that Lavinia for the first time really heard herself being thanked for what she had done.
That public acknowledgment, Lavinia explains, from the chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, Noeline Blackwell, gave her strength to re-emerge as a campaigning voice.
It was why she spoke at last month’s launch of the centre’s 2017 annual report, where she called on Garda Commissioner Drew Harris to show the same bravery as she had all those years ago. “We are now at a crossroads, and victims are crying out for change,” she told him, stressing how they need to be able to trust the justice system and know that reporting the crime is the right thing to do.
In 2017, 2,945 sexual offences were reported in the Republic, including 655 rapes, according to the Central Statistics Office. That same year the national 24-hour helpline run by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre had 12,855 contacts, an increase of almost 500 on the previous year.
Revealing her identity on radio took courage, but less appreciated, perhaps, is the determination it took to make sure that the case went to court in the first place.
Lavinia came under “horrific pressure” to withdraw the complaint; within a small-knit community she was repeatedly being told that she was “ruining his life”.
“We were in court five times, and every time the pressure, pressure, pressure.” A memory that she says she must have suppressed, as she hasn’t spoken about it, was a grim visit to a unit in Waterford for medical attention several weeks after the rape and just a week before the accused’s first court appearance.
“I was very, very badly injured, you know, internally and everything, and I’d say it was about a month later I developed an infection.” It needed treatment and “you’re wide awake while this is going on … your heart is breaking and you’re thinking, God I thought the rape was horrific but the lifelong injuries ... ”
However, she also remembers it as a turning point in her resolve to see the case through, as she had suffered so much already.
‘This walking skeleton’
“I think it’s important this time of the year to kind of throw the reality of being raped out there, that it doesn’t stop at being raped. It’s all the bad bits that go with it. There’s a whole catalogue of events that work around it. But the thing is that you never asked for that.
“I said ‘no’, you know,” she continues with an intent gaze, “and I was a virgin at the time so I will never forget the bleeding.”
The eating disorder Lavinia developed brought her close to death. She spent the best part of her 20s in hospital, mostly in St Vincent’s in Dublin. “Then, when I was at home, I was in Luke’s being tube-fed and I was only brought out in the night for a bath, you know, because people didn’t like to look at this skeleton, this walking skeleton.”
She believes her anorexia was a way of imprisoning herself. “You’re on a bed, for weeks on end, so that was, I suppose, a punishment, and then there was a lot of media attention. Yeah, so it was tough. How the hell did I survive all that?”
She often wonders why she punished herself in that way and she’s not sure, even now, if she has fully forgiven herself. For what? “When every door has been closed at you, you think it must be your fault. You’ll always self-blame. You’ll always think, well, if only.”
‘I survived it, barely’
It’s why she is strongly advocating not only legal representation for rape victims in court but also, no matter what the outcome, a structured after-care service to help in their recovery. “We are trying to put our lives back together again.”
Has she reached the stage of being reasonably content with herself? “I can get up in the morning; I survived it, barely. Maybe I would be content, yeah,” she muses. “I’ve never been asked that before.
“People don’t ask me an awful lot of personal things. They only want to know about, what you did and, you know, how did it feel and nobody wants to kind of know who you are.”
At age 44, she can say: “I think I’m a good person. I think I’ve regained some of my personality. But I’ve never learnt to trust.”
Direct eye contact is very important to her, as is evident while we talk, and she reckons she always knows somebody by their eyes. “I’m a very good judge of character now.”
While she never got the hearing she deserved from the legal system of the time, did she ever in later years consider seeking some form of restorative justice, such as mediation?
“No. Why would you do that to yourself again? We had gone to the highest court in the land; he walked out a free man for all intents and purposes.” She believes, despite his guilty plea, “it didn’t flaw his character in any way, shape or form”.
The rapist went back to work on a building site up the road from her house. He went on to marry and have three children before his sudden death at the age of 42 in March 2017, not long before her interview for No Country for Women was filmed. She was an “emotional wreck” and considered pulling out of the programme.
“I just thought, well, if he’s dead, would I be sullying his memory? But as she makes clear later, her view is that, “he committed a heinous crime next to murder. There’s no forgiveness for that.”
She knows it’s different for others and some may find sitting down with the perpetrator and forgiveness are the only ways to move on. Yet, she wonders, “if they apologise, is that going to help? It will never take it away that they have raped you.”
But she knows the power of the victim-impact statements that she helped to have introduced. “That’s the turning point for a lot of women, that’s what I heard. That’s the point where they can look directly in somebody’s eye.” Also, “by saying it in court you’re educating a system”.
Parents, she says, must take responsibility for teaching young people about consent. Since 2017, there is now a very clear definition in criminal law here. However, she points out, it’s not much good sitting in a legal document if it’s not covered in homes and schools.
“What is the blockage in Irish people’s minds, that if they talk about this, they’re kind of giving ammunition for someone to go out and rape somebody? You’re not. You’re just defining what is ‘yes’ and what is ‘no’ and what is consent.”
The difficulty people might face in having that conversation is nothing to what she went through to bring about reform. For her it felt like a very lonely “club of one for a long, long, time, to keep pushing and pushing and pushing. As much as I had support, it was me that had to kind of go and find a resolution to the problem.” Despite some improvements, she thinks rape victims still travel a solitary road.
“Women are going into that court and they’re completely on their own. It’s just so sad to see that there are no more changes. It’s like it’s been forgotten about, so maybe that’s the reason why I’ve come back out. Only for the #MeToo movement, would anything have changed at all?
“Would it still be like the Harry Potter courthouse down there, you know, like Hogwarts, that you can go inside it but you have to stick to our rules and our laws and the whole lot. I just think that people are very brave to go in there, knowing what could happen.”
‘The poster girl’
As 2018 rolls to a close, the last night of the year is always tough for her. Yet “it’s a long, long time ago, and I would hate to be giving anyone any power on New Year’s Eve over me – dead or alive”.
But there is one ritual she must do. “I’d always have a bath because you can never get rid of that feeling.” Often she will listen to music and sometimes have a cry.
“But more and more I just think, you know, what you did was wrong, but I’m not going to let you now interfere. Because, it has taken me this long to get here – am I not entitled to be a little bit happy, to find happiness?
“I am not going to get married or anything like that, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a normal life? For someone to do something nice for you and just say, you know, you’re not on your own, you can trust.”
She is aware that being back in the public eye may perpetuate her image solely as a survivor of rape. “A lot of people said you’re the poster girl for it, you know, and that’s not a nice thing to be told.”
However, Noeline Blackwell of Dublin Rape Crisis Centre believes more and more people are seeing this petite but unbreakable figure as a campaigner, as a woman’s rights advocate, with a character shaped – but not defined – by her life experiences; as a person who is speaking out and inspiring others to be themselves and have a voice.
Her name is Lavinia.