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'Why I'm afraid of the past catching up on me'

Lyn Madden shocked Ireland 20 years ago with the story of how she helped send her pimp and lover to jail for murder. Still in hiding, she talks to Sarah Caden

Superficially, it seems Lyn Madden is telling you everything, revealing the horror of her son's heroin addiction, her pattern of picking bad men, her efforts to make a new life. But then she'll pause, just before accidentally calling her son by his real name, perhaps, or mentioning where she lives. These are the things Lyn cannot reveal, for fear the past will catch up with her.

"You can go for hours without thinking about it, but then something small will remind you," says Lyn. "And you don't want to get past it. I'd feel terrible if I ever got over it, as if that meant it mattered less. Three people died and how could that not matter? It's 25 years but that doesn't lessen it and it's still as stark."

By telephone from her undisclosed location, somewhere in Britain, Lyn is conducting interviews to promote her book, Lyn's Escape, a follow-up to Lyn: A Story of Prostitution, which she wrote with Irish author and feminist activist June Levine in the late Eighties. A long time has passed, but people still ask Levine what became of the woman who told all about working as a prostitute on Dublin's Grand Canal and who was forced into a lifetime of hiding when she testified in a murder trial against her pimp and lover, John Cullen.

Lyn's original story was shocking - not only for how it unfolded Cullen's crime: the 1983 burning to death of Dolores Lynch, her mother and aunt - but also for the underbelly of society it exposed. And Lyn continues to pay the price despite the leaps of recovery she records in her new book, written alone.

Now in her sixties, Lyn Madden was born into poverty in Dublin, before moving to England, where her mother abandoned her in a convent. As a teenager, Lyn drifted into petty crime and prison. She began a relationship with the father of her three children - the first of the " baddies" - when she was barely into her 20s.

She spent 14 long and violent years with him, and back in Dublin, she began working as a prostitute and, eventually, another man, John Cullen, became her pimp and lover, though the latter term suggests more tenderness than the relationship ever boasted. Instead, it was about the fear Cullen struck into Lyn, evident in the gang rape he organised, the beatings he administered, the way he forced her to witness the murder of Dolores Lynch. "I always knew at some level I wasn't doing something right and I never kidded myself about that," says Lyn now. While she was with Cullen, Lyn had marched with the Women Against Violence Against Women, highlighting the abuses done to prostitutes in Dublin. She and Dolores Lynch - who also worked for Cullen, but provoked him by helping other girls get off the game - also co-operated with a study of Dublin prostitution that rocked Roman Catholic Ireland.

By tiny steps, Lyn was working her way out of this destructive way of life when John Cullen decided to involve her in his fatal revenge on Dolores Lynch. Dolores had testified against Cullen in a case that saw another prostitute raped and battered. He had served three years in prison, during which time Lyn found herself under the wing of feminist activist Margaret Gaj, and Dolores had gone into hiding.

On January 16, 1983, John Cullen forced Lyn Madden to come with him to 15 Hammond Street, near Dublin's Grand Canal, where he set a fire that could only prove fatal for the three women in the house, Dolores Lynch, her mother and aunt. It was a warning, not to Dolores but to Lyn. This, Cullen showed her, would be what happened if she betrayed him. Lyn heard her friend's screams. She hears them still. But the result of Cullen's demonstration was not to cow her; instead, Lyn chose to testify against him and put him away.

"I was on police protection when I wrote the first book," says Lyn. " I had to do something with my time and that was it. Margaret Gaj and Frank Crummey and his wife Evelyn were trying to get me away from the father of my children for good and they said a book might get me the money to get away. Margaret introduced me to June Levine and she knew what to do with my thousands of words."

When the first book was published, Lyn had already moved to England and the first of her secret locations. "I was getting on with things," she says, "and I had no idea of its impact at the time. It's only recently I realise what a big deal it was."

Lyn had gone through some process of recovery in Dublin, thanks in part to therapy with June Levine's husband, Dr Ivor Browne, but old habits died hard. Her relationship with her three children, a daughter, Fiona and two sons, Chris and Joey (not their real names) was severely damaged and she remained in the habit of being attracted to bad men. She reflects on them now with some weariness. The one who, as they split up, commented that he had thought she'd be more sexually adventurous, given her past. The one whose sexual abuse as a child gave rise to fits of unpredictable temper. Then, she met Martin, a genuinely good guy who helped Lyn break habits of a lifetime.

"Martin was so sweet and he treated me with such respect," Lyn says. "It's not that he forgave me, it's that he didn't see the wrong in me. He took me for who I am and it showed me a different way. Do what you always do and you'll get what you always got."

Martin helped Lyn "break the habit of bad men", for which she's eternally grateful, though the relationship did not survive. Instead, in recent years, Lyn's relationship with her youngest child, Joey, has become central to her life. While she regrets an enduring rift with Fiona -" I can't blame her for her hatred and I understand it" - and has a shaky relationship with Chris, who's had his ups and downs, and been in prison, Joey remains Lyn's baby, the one she hopes she can save from himself. Long-term, Joey has been a heroin addict and though he is now in his early 40s, Lyn regards him still as the child whose life was scarred by her actions.

"Enough is never enough for him. I have this awful guilt over Joey and I can't turn my back on him," says Lyn, explaining that while she wrote, at the end of Lyn's Escape, that Joey was about to emerge from prison clean of heroin, he did not.

So, Lyn has, in some ways, made Joey the focus of this second act of her life. She may not be able to save him, but she can make it easier for him. There is a new relationship in her life, too. "He's American, is all I'll say," says Lyn. "And he's a good man and very anti me writing again and digging up the past."

Several years ago, June Levine began encouraging Lyn to write another book. People wanted to know what became of her, Levine told Lyn and, she suggested, Lyn might find it helpful. " June said I'd find it cathartic," Lyn says, "but I didn't think so. And at first, it was just work, an encumbrance, but then I got into it and I was working 18 hours a day."

Writing again, Lyn concedes, proved cathartic but not healing. She does not seek healing for herself, does not dare to. She wants a decent life, knows there is no point punishing herself into an unhappy existence, but she knows the past is always present. "I never look at it from the perspective of how far I've come," says Lyn. "I don't take in the bigger picture. And I don't know if there is an overview, I'm just grateful to keep going. I try not to think about John Cullen, but he's always there and he still makes me frightened to sleep. I don't feel lucky, I feel glad to be alive when I never expected to be."


From Belfast Telegraph