Victim’s Voice

Julie Davidson

  • Rape: My Story by Jill Saward and Wendy Green
    Bloomsbury, 153 pp, £13.99, September 1990, ISBN 0 7475 0751 1

This is a hard book to read and a harder book to be hard about. It has been received uneasily, mainly by women columnists and women’s page writers who have found it difficult to reconcile its tabloid appeal (the Mail snapped up the serial rights) with its solemn purpose. Most of these reviewers, while hinting at misgivings, have dutifully taken the therapeutic line: ‘If this book helps women who have been raped to come to terms with the trauma then its publication is justified ... if it changes attitudes ... provides valuable insights into the long-term effects ... indicts the press, the law, the public perception of rape ...’ And so on.

It’s a brutish instinct which seeks to quarrel with any of that. Scepticism is somehow required to stifle itself in the face of Jill Saward’s appalling testimony. Even that imp of mischief which routinely challenges the integrity of the publisher’s blurb is obliged to behave itself. The judgment of the book jacket reads very like the prevailing verdict of the reviews: ‘Here is an immensely inspiring and moving story, and also a valuable one. Rape victims everywhere have at last found a voice.’

A very loud voice, if you can interpret the graphics of the cover in vocal terms. The typeface used for the title defeats my experience of banner headlines. The word ‘rape’ fills the top half of the jacket and is repeated on the back, so that, however the book is displayed – as, for example, in the studied dishevelment of a Waterstone’s book bin – its subject will not be overlooked. It is not the kind of jacket design which encourages reading on trains, tubes or buses.

Bloomsbury clearly expect their book to be read by people other than rape victims, if not necessarily on public transport – which brings up the first of the several small, optional questions (as opposed to the big and well-rehearsed societal ones) which surround the writing and publishing of this book. Who will read Rape? Who, other than those with vested interests, will want to read it? The vested interests, I suspect, fall into two categories, one respectable and the other disreputable. The first includes the above-mentioned rape victims, and I hope it helps them. It also includes people whose work brings them into contact with rape victims: police officers, doctors, therapists, lawyers, judges, and I hope it improves their understanding of the consequences of this crime. I hope this particularly for judges, and most particularly for the Solomon who famously found that the trauma Jill Saward suffered was ‘not so great’, and gave her attackers such light sentences that even our legislators rebelled. The Ealing Vicarage rape judgment was critical to the climate which allowed the law to change and to grant victims the right of appeal against sentences which don’t fit the crime.

Other respectable readers of Rape will include some of those few committed Christians which our secular society is capable of producing. They will want to take heart from Jill Saward’s message of faith (‘Without God I would not be here today’). But these people can’t add up to a very large readership. It’s my pessimistic guess that the book will find its biggest market among the vulgarly curious, the plain prurient and the downright perverted.

As it happens, they won’t have their several appetites satisfied by any great glut of lurid detail. Jill Saward’s ghost writer, Wendy Green, has done this ingenuous or idealistic or immature young woman – she presents herself as all three – the service of finding a flat, uniform and very nearly monotonous style to describe the lunchtime nightmare of 6 March 1986. It’s a style which perfectly suits the banality of evil, and such is its economy that (much to my relief) the violation of Ealing Vicarage occupies only eight pages of the book’s 153. The bald facts arc these ... Jill Saward and her boyfriend Dave, both temporarily unemployed, were watching a bland television soap opera called The Sullivans when her father, the Reverend Michael Saward, Vicar of St Mary’s, Ealing, opened the door to three men wearing balaclavas and brandishing knives. After they had ransacked the house, two of the men raped Jill. Her father and boyfriend were tied up and beaten unconscious.

For all the disappointments that her account of these events will hold for the vulgarly curious etc, the book will still be read by them. Did Jill Saward neglect to make this calculation when she decided to tell her story, or did she choose to ignore it, believing that the greater good would still prevail for the lesser, more respectable number? Many of the 153 pages are dedicated to the commonplace sins of popular journalism, and to their perfectly proper denunciation. But after all her experience of press ambushes and tabloid terrorism, had she no qualms about putting her opus in the hands of the Mail, who promptly offended her by illustrating their extracts with graphics not dissimilar to the penny dreadful artwork used by the News of the World when the story first broke, and condemned by the Press Council?

‘I was right to dread what the press might make of the story,’ she writes, when the full details of the assault – the violent rupturing of her hymen, the knifepoint fellatio, the sodomy, the retching and vomiting – emerge in court. ‘Most of them share our sense of Outrage, but they have printed the things I was hoping no one need know. It’s hard to think the nation is aching to hear all the gory details, or to see my face on the television news. I don’t know which is worse. Becoming public property again ...’ She goes on to say: ‘It is good to know that other people are as concerned as we are, but I do wish they would let the subject drop now. It seems as if it will reverberate forever.’ These were her feelings during the ghastly year which followed her rape and the arrest and sentencing of the rapists. Three years later, why has she chosen to re-submit herself to the kind of raw exposure which was like ‘a second violation’? This is the most persistent of the small, optional questions which her book raises, and I found myself returning to it in no frivolous or disapproving spirit, but genuinely intrigued. The Police, who get lots of brownie points from the Sawards for their handling of the case, told Jill that she could ‘bury it dead or bury it alive’. What she seems to have done is disinter the corpse.

Why? Part of the answer clearly lies in the experience itself, which was so huge it isn’t going to go away for a very long time. For a start, talking about it is encouraged by the professionals and by Jill herself, whose advice to any woman agonised by the psychological wounding of rape is ‘simply TALK, TALK, TALK. There has to be someone, somewhere, who will listen, or who can point you in the right direction for help.’ However, talking about yourself can become addictive, and, apart from that, other influences, it strikes me, are also at work.

Jill Saward’s story is not unique to post-war Western culture, but there seems to be something new in the way she tells it. It isn’t only celebrities or their putative peers who appear now on television chat shows, which broadcasting executives now prefer to call ‘talk shows’. The ascendant programmes of the genre are those which encourage ‘ordinary folk’ to externalise or bust. In this country, youth culture heroes and retired MPs regularly invite members of the public to describe their orgasms or to identify the reasons why a child has committed suicide. In America, psychotherapy sessions and family counselling take place on television. We all encounter electronically these days.

Celebrities are self-protective. Unless they are George Best, they know not to give too much away. ‘Ordinary folk’ are innocents in the business of self-exposure, which is why they’re much in demand. They flutter to the studio lights like moths to the flame. Jill Saward is one such moth, and she senses it in herself. She even confesses to the sensation of ‘feeling left out’ when media attention temporarily switches from her to the two men who were injured, and whose hideous experience (equally hideous? I don’t know) is described almost exclusively in terms of its relationship to Jill’s feelings: ‘I’ve spoken to Dave and he’s not faring too well either. In fact, he’s been quite unsettled. Rape does affect men, far more than people are prepared to admit or understand.’ It must also he unsettling to be tied up, beaten into semi-coma, put on the critical list and left with a perforated ear-drum and chronic deafness.

Ever since Freud pulled his finger out of the dyke of Victorian repression, we’ve been obliged to believe that people keep quiet about certain things through guilt, shame, false embarrassment or oppressive feelings of one kind or the other. Popular culture, at any rate, gives no credence to the notion that certain emotions are too delicate and certain thoughts too complex to be tossed randomly into the public domain, where they are almost certainly going to be tainted by misunderstanding and misinterpretation. (I’m probably doing my own share of both right at this moment.) The very concept of privacy is suspect these days, for all that our legislators attempt to enshrine it in statute, and partly because of that. It smacks of élitism, and the dismal word ‘decent’ is always hovering in the background, as in ‘decent sense of privacy’. In the past, that has meant keeping a stiff upper lip, whatever the emotional cost, and the Sawards seem to have been good at it. In the hours following the vicarage invasion, ‘no one howls or throws a wobbly. We’re a restrained family. Stiff upper lip and all that.’ And later: ‘The doctors seem to think a lot of my problems stem from my difficulties with relationships. They suggest we should learn to communicate more as a family ... I’ve certainly never seen Mum cry, even when Grandma died, although she looked as if she could have been crying when she came to the hospital after the attack.’

Jill’s Mum remains a shadowy and remote figure throughout the story, but the author’s renewed martyrdom to the media loosens, perhaps inadvertently, restraints on some of her other relationships. It isn’t the ‘indecent’ revelations which trouble one most about the book, saddening and shocking though they are: it’s the additional information and its subtext. A large collection of cuddly toys, woolly animals features prominently in the life of this young woman, although she is now gradually shedding them. Family hugs seem in short supply. She finds it hard to talk to her father, who finds it easy to talk to the press. With a quality which must either he excoriating self-honesty or intellectual clumsiness, she sends a coded message which has nothing to do with violent rape and everything to do with a woman whose emotional development has been retarded by her parents’ self-absorption and who, ironically, has been left to find her most effective support system in the family of Christian fellowship.

For all its stout celebration of the healing power of God (‘However unlikely it might once have seemed,’ Jill concludes, ‘this rape has most definitely been a love story’), it leaves you feeling bleak and worried for the Sawards and most especially wondering what the Reverend Michael Saward is looking for (proof of existence? immortality? the things that God is meant to provide?) in files of newspaper cuttings and personal video libraries. You begin to think that the obsessive relationship with the media of which his daughter is in danger isn’t just cultural but genetic. Michael Saward’s grandfather has a place in criminal history. He was captain of the SS Montrose, the ship on which Dr Crippen hoped to escape to Canada and elude the charge of murdering his wife. ‘Great-grandad,’ writes Jill, ‘had been following the case in the English papers and suspected that one of the passengers could be Crippen. He invited him to dine at his table to check further, and then alerted the police in the first radio message from sea to shore to be used in the detection of a crime.’ She is clearly delighted with the celebrity of this nautical Nemesis, who went on making headlines. He was also the captain of the Empress of Ireland, which lost over eight hundred passengers (the worst loss of life of any peacetime shipwreck) when it was rammed by a Norwegian ship in fog. The anecdotes almost suggest – Jill records that her maternal grandparents ‘were pretty distinguished, too’ – that a capacity for attracting publicity had become a family tradition. Her father’s media appetite was further honed when he was radio and television officer for the Church Information Office, and his newspaper cuttings library, in which he has filed every reference to himself which has appeared in print, was opened long before the invasion of Ealing Vicarage.

The instinct didn’t desert him on his sick bed. Three days after the assault, recovering from a fractured skull, he receives Jill in hospital with some instructions: ‘He seems to think the press and TV are much more balanced than I do. He is quite impressed with how gentle and caring some of the reporting has been. He wants all the newspaper cuttings for our records, and we are to keep everything we get on video.’ Soon he is on television, giving the buoyant interview which produces more headlines: ‘The forgiving vicar’ ... ‘Attacked vicar feels no hatred.’ More headlines follow, After the rapists are lightly sentenced, to a clamour of disapproval, Jill observes: ‘I should think the newspaper coverage will run into several scrapbooks. Reports of the rape, photofits, the arrest of the men, the trial, sentencing, people’s reactions.’ She seems to have come to accept that ‘scrapbooks’ – those sunny, sentimental archives which other families might fill with snapshots and finger paintings and birth notices and wedding invitations – mean something quite different to the Sawards. But if these dark volumes are not to be saved for fireside reading with grandchildren, what are they for?

When the vicarage is burgled again six months after the rape, one of Jill’s colleagues tells her that ‘I “invite trouble”.’ Along with our sympathy for the hurtfulness of this remark comes a twinge of superstitious recognition. Anyone who subscribes to the doctrine of victimology (for every murderer there is a murderer, as Martin Amis puts it) gives some quarter to the powers of darkness. But no one reading this book can fail to overlook its most distressing irony: the Sawards finally got themselves more publicity than any family could ever possibly want – or deserve.