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I felt sick with nerves but meeting my rapist has helped me to heal

It was a moment she dreaded but one woman tells Kate Hilpern why she'd a face-to-face encounter with her attacker

Published 29/09/2015

Moving on: restorative justice is increasingly offered to those who, like Emma have been raped
Moving on: restorative justice is increasingly offered to those who, like Emma have been raped

Two weeks after their son Harry's first birthday, Emma's former partner, Steve, phoned to say he wanted to talk. "I wasn't keen, because he'd been so controlling both during and after our relationship, but I was on my way to the shops and agreed to listen in the car if he gave me a lift," she says. It was then that he locked all the doors, drove to a local beauty spot and raped Emma in the back of the car.

Afterwards, Steve drove off, pulled in somewhere else and raped her again.

"This time, I managed to get out of the car and ran towards the road, but Steve caught me and pulled me back before raping me a third time," says Emma, who was 24. The police were brilliant, recalls Emma, now 32, and although Steve claimed Emma had consented to the sex, he wound up serving four-and-a-half years in prison.

But it was only after that when her real healing began, an outcome that Emma attributes to restorative justice (RJ), a system in which victims take an active role in encouraging offenders to take responsibility for their actions - usually by meeting them face to face.

"I hadn't seen Steve since the attack, so the thought of meeting him was daunting. Even in court, I didn't look at him. So my victim liaison officer, Karen, suggested exchanging letters. But in the end, I decided I needed to tell Steve face-to-face that he had no power over me and I wanted him to realise the impact of his actions from hearing it from me first-hand," she says.

Having ascertained that Steve was in the right frame of mind and that seeing him wouldn't put Emma at risk, Karen put the wheels in motion for a lengthy preparation process. Crucially, Karen talked to Emma about where the meeting would take place (local probation office) and exactly what would happen on the day, right down to who would arrive first ("Steve, because it felt more powerful to have him waiting for me"), who would talk first ("Me"), who would be there (Karen and a co-facilitator) and what both Emma and Steve each planned to say.

"When Steve admitted that he was nervous about seeing me, it made me feel stronger," says Emma.

On the day itself, Emma felt sick with nerves. "I was worried about showing too much emotion and I also thought I might want to hit him. Luckily, neither happened. I sat down and looked at him, and my first thought was that I couldn't believe I'd been so worried. That word - 'rape' - had made him a lot scarier to me than he ever should have been."

Emma explained to Steve that it wasn't just the rape itself that wounded her. "It took a whole year for the case to reach court, a time when Steve was out on bail, still seeing Harry, and his behaviour got worse. At one point, he set fire to my neighbour's car, using the wrapping paper from Harry's Christmas present to light it, and I had to put up with his friends shouting 'liar' or 'slag' at me." The trial itself, adds Emma, meant reliving the rape, and then there was a long wait for sentencing. "That was when I went really downhill and ended up taking an overdose. My family were as supportive as they could be, but they felt I should be moving on."

At their meeting, Steve was shocked. "I had no idea. What you've described sounds a million times worse than I thought it was for you," he told her.

"He said sorry, too, but I didn't need to hear that," says Emma. "It wasn't about needing answers from him either. What I needed was to get things off my chest. I'd heard from Karen that Steve already felt a degree of remorse, but it was only by me telling him exactly what happened to me during and after the rape that it really started to hit home.

"By the time I walked out, I felt as if I could knock out Mike Tyson - I could have taken on anything and anyone and in the days and weeks afterwards. It was as if a massive weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I'd been carrying it so long I didn't even notice any more, so when it disappeared, it was amazing. I felt completely empowered."

Although RJ has been used for more minor crimes since the Eighties (some estimate longer), its use in rape cases has increased in recent years, according to Jon Collins, CEO of the Restorative Justice Council.

"Like Emma, many victims tell us it can have a huge impact in helping them put the crime behind them and get on with their lives," he explains.

That said, victims tend to want different things out of it. "For some, there will be questions such as 'Why did you do it?' while others, like Emma, want to explain the impact the crime had on them," he says.

Offenders often choose to use the meeting to apologise, he adds. "For some victims, this is important, while others won't be interested, and it's certainly not a prerequisite to have forgiven the perpetrator to take part in RJ. Some victims also decide they want an agreement from the perpetrator to stay away from their town, for instance, or to undergo anger management treatment," he says. Inevitably, however, there are risks. While facilitators do their best to ensure that people understand RJ may not be for them (and indeed, that they can pull out at any time), Katie Russell, spokesperson for Rape Crisis England & Wales has concerns that people may feel tacit pressure to believe that RJ is part of the process of healing. "It's critical that we don't inadvertently create a hierarchy of survival, with those who would find the idea of RJ horrifying feeling devalued or any less 'brave' than others," she says.

Clare McGlynn, professor of law at Durham University, adds that where rape is part of domestic abuse, there are risks of the RJ conference itself becoming abusive. "The abuser may, for example, use some signals or looks that others won't pick up on, but the person who has been in the abusive relationship will immediately understand," she explains.

A further danger is that some RJ facilitators may lose sight of the need for the offender to change. "For that to happen, you have to work very hard with the offender to understand the RJ conference, including debriefing afterwards - something that happens very well under Project Restore in New Zealand, for instance, but that doesn't always happen here, where the focus is more on the victim," she explains.

Nadia Wager, reader in psychology at the University of Bedfordshire and advisory member to the Community of Restorative Researchers, says: "I know from my own research that within the cycle of domestic violence, perpetrators often use an apology as a way of reasserting power in the relationship. But one way round that is to involve the wider family, so that the offender gives an apology in a public context.

"This means these family members will also see that the perpetrator is wholly responsible, as there is a temptation to blame the victim when they have had a relationship with the perpetrator," she says.

Without RJ, Emma feels sure she would still be struggling.

"I still have some bad days when I feel angry, but RJ, and the preparation work it involved, helped me leave a lot of negative feelings behind and close that chapter of my life."

  • Some names have been changed

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