Serial Survivors: Women’s Narratives of Surviving Rape
The Federation Press, $49.99,
It could easily be a Jimmy McGovern script. A “good husband and father of three children”, with a secret lover on the side, stalks and sexually violates at least 27 other women in one city. His usual modus operandi begins with a home invasion. He then binds, threatens, assaults and rapes (or attempts to rape) his victim (he has an impotency problem). He often leaves the woman wrapped in her duvet. It takes nine years before he is finally arrested.
In this case, it isn’t a smart but flawed forensic psychologist or hard-boiled detective who catches him. The parent of one of the victims records the registration number of his car and calls the police.
The story has all the elements of extreme crime drama: the double life of the violent sociopathic serial sexual predator. It just happens to be a true story. The man was convicted in Auckland in 1998, sentenced to preventive detention for 22 years minimum non-parole. He apologised only to the six women who were victims of his crimes where the DNA evidence was irrefutable. He is the kind of criminal that John Key probably has in mind for the “life means life” policy.
The story attracted huge media attention. You might remember his name: Malcolm Rewa. It might be better if we all forgot it, in case he derives any satisfaction from the infamy. Jan Jordan, the author of Serial Survivors, uses his name hardly at all. He is referred to as MR and four pages in an appendix are given to his history and his gross offending. Her focus is on the victims; how they survived. She interviewed 15 of the women and tells their stories. They wanted to share their experiences to turn their trauma into something positive for others, and Jordan wanted information on how women were affected by the attack, how they experienced police processes and what helped them survive.
Jordan is a senior academic in the Criminology Department at Victoria University with an extensive and internationally recognised record of research on sexual crime, sex work and gender issues in crime and policing. She has gone to some effort to uphold principles and conventions of qualitative research and to present personal and emotional material in a structured and readable way – reporting, shaping and analysing the accounts to create a coherent and compelling narrative. The book is organised into six chapters covering a brief description of the women, how they survived the attack, the police processes, the trial, their networks of support and the outcomes.
There are some common themes and some interesting and more surprising individual differences in the findings. One of the themes is that whether the victims were subjected to actual rape or attempted rape, they were equally likely to be psychologically injured because of the hostile motives and meanings ascribed to the rapist’s act. Another theme is that all the women actively devised strategies to resist his control either physically or psychologically and thus became “victims in survivor mode” right from the beginning.
Despite their efforts to maintain themselves, the trauma effects for most were serious and ongoing and could be triggered years afterwards by reminders of the attacks, suggesting that time does not necessarily heal the emotional damage, at least not for everyone. One of the myths about trauma is that time heals, so “why don’t they just move on!” It didn’t help that for some of the women, the trial occurred years after the attack, and they had not only to wait for another reminder and to see the rapist in person, they had to prepare to retell the story and be cross-examined.
The women were helped, by those police and medical practitioners who had the skill and expertise to take them seriously, to attend to the necessary procedures with sensitivity and respect and to keep them informed; but this was not the experience of everyone. One of the key conclusions of the research was the importance of positive support for victims from police and a commitment to helping them prepare for trial so that they will be more likely to cooperate and appear in court.
There was a greater variety of responses to what kind of emotional support was helpful. Some were glad to be part of a group support network and others were not interested. Some appreciated counselling help and some were disappointed by clumsy treatment. Many had to deal with complicated responses from their families and partners. Some chose one of them to be a support person in court, while others preferred to have a more distant or professional back-up or to go alone.
There is another important message to be taken from this book. For anyone who has to respond to someone who has suffered a sexual attack, or any kind of trauma for that matter, it is risky to assume how this particular person might feel or what they might need. It is much wiser to ask.
Finally, the sentencing judge got it just right when he said:
My comments are taken from the victim impact reports which are expressed with dignified understatement. I wish to record my admiration for the dignity and courage with which each of these women gave her evidence before this Court in the harrowing course of this trial … . These are the wounds you have inflicted on these sisters in the legions of the brave and now you are going to pay for it.
The women did find some comfort in that.
Rhonda Pritchard is a member of the New Zealand Parole Board.