Holly Loach describes her experience as a victim in a sexual assault trial. TW: account of a sexual offence trial.
I walk to the screen. The physical barrier that will protect me. To be masked, invisible, you are presumably protected. It will be my bodyguard for what lies beyond. I am contained in a box, concealed from judging eyes. The shielded presence exists to enable an ease of giving evidence. I insist I stand here to simply serve my voice as a citizen, a witness. To the public gallery, the colour of my hair is unknown, to the dock, my dress is unknown. I haven’t got a body, I will be just words.
I am alien here, yet I am a centre piece. I certainly don’t feel human. My head floats above oblivious limbs: a vessel for my voice. I stiffen as I arrive in the box. What my body has become doesn’t matter, I have a job to do. I am here to serve my voice.
A landscape of formless figures fills the room. The judge is a looming shadow in my periphery. The suited lean around the shield to speak to me. Each word drops into silence, hanging still before being swallowed by dozens of eyes and ears. I try to temper myself but my mouth is taut. Guttural sounds crawl out the back of my throat. A wave of embarrassment hits me at my ineptness, just, simply, speak. But the voice I came to serve doesn’t sound like mine. The shield corners my vision. I’m beginning to think that it doesn’t conceal me, but rather forces my attention forwards. Speak to the people in front of you, the wigged men say.
It is long, tedious. The air is stagnant. Time doesn’t move but deepens. Pauses wax into white noise, existing occasionally for dramatic effect. The slow tempo disenchants televised reconstructions, however the wigged characters in their robed attire and gesticulations finesse a thespian grace. I feel like a coffee stain in this mahogany panelled, polished chamber.
Liquid disorientation engulfs me as questions expand and splinter. A steady pulse hums. There is a circling before inching towards a nebulous, fragile core, eyes watch me carefully.
Is she compos mentis? I lose trust in the questions as they feel like accusations. My senses numb to dilute the dissection, my body has self-anaesthetised under surgery. The path continues to narrow, take the bait.
I thought I was the centre piece, but I feel like a pawn within an adversarial battle. Through the fog, a limelight glows, two men fight to win. I thought it was about my voice but instead it is about the questions: the trivial, the technical, the semi-rhetorical, the harrowing. They ask them with the answers already planted. Right? Isn’t that correct? My answers flounder in a clouded grey of uncertainty. Traumatic blockage renders inconsistencies. To my shame, my voice reveals my messy mind. A stuttering, a stammering, I don’t remember. Won’t they believe the suited, decorous man who seems to have everything in order rather than the confused young woman with fragmented memory?
One word against the other suddenly reminds me of my voice’s utter powerlessness. What happens when one word overpowered the other before? The other’s word didn’t work last time. What happens when you’ve lost the power and value of your voice, because it didn’t work when you did use it?
You will fall into the hands of the defence.
What happens when you want to pretend it never happened?
You will fall into the hands of the defence.
Saying no didn’t work then, so why would what I say matter now?
I am suddenly self-conscious of court etiquette. Is my stance appropriate? What tone should I have? Being too emotional might make me look fickle, but anger looks defensive. Being apathetic, I look dishonest. Look human! I can only be the self I have publicly mastered: calm, contained, collected. I will not show the internal pain. Be brave.
I insist I have one responsibility: my voice, the truth. But eyes are watching and I worry I will ruin my credibility.
The show must go on. The boundary is being permeated through, questions, eyes and judgement burn through it. I blindly obey to the screen dragging me forward. I thought I was safe but I can’t ignore the proximity of the docked threat. The screen isn’t my shield at all. I thought I was concealed, so why do I feel stripped bare? Please just let me assert my boundary! The room is slowly filling with water, only a crack left at the top to breathe. Speak.
The screen wasn’t going to save me, I realised. I have nothing but myself. You might not have space now, but you will. The hammered end is abrupt.
It is hardly the end. The hardest is yet to come. Protocol gave structure, instructions to follow, the diary told me the next date. It was one step at a time. But now I am lost. I need someone to tell me what to do, where to go, I need someone to hold my hand in this labyrinth. It is after, when they leave you, it slips through your fingers, goes from the present to the past to the present, that you suddenly start to feel all of it. Oh shit, everyone is moving on. I need to connect the dots. Wait for me! But the hammer has been slammed: thank you, case closed, next witness please. How can it be finished? I cling on desperately, but I am left alone, bewildered, agonising. I have forgotten how to exist without the box. Doesn’t court achieve closure? No, no it doesn’t. It is the beginning of a silent grieving process of smothering dreams and parallel realities.
When I express grievance, mother says, yes, it should be upsetting. But it is strangely easier to speak to disinterested people you don’t know, than to the people you are closest. Why it happened turns into an intense, indeed utterly deprecating and critical evaluation of yourself. An intermingling of reckless first year night out antics with its adolescent naivety and carefree vulnerability, with a dark, albeit gaslit, victimisation. It is the collateral damage. When it ripples into your relationships, when you want to keep people ignorant, when it is easier to dismiss than it is to engage and explain. It is making a joke to shrug it off. It is a paradox between dismantled trust and hopeless co-dependency. It is the loss of a sense of boundary. It is skipping a song that triggers, an avoidance of places. It tiptoes unseen, subconscious, carried internally. Yet you will see it with a smile, a composure, an expert act of constant convincing, pretending. It is theft of a dehumanising kind.
I learn anger is a positive emotion. It is a defiant re-assertion of self. A projection outwards, a release from the violent force inward. And the importance of gratefulness, also. To those who validated my experiences firsthand, I am endlessly grateful for. The recitation of truth, the twelve yeses: yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes. It is realising not to book-end things. Letting go doesn’t conclude, it is acceptance and integration. I work to retain my softness. Vulnerability doesn’t make you weak, fragility breeds strength, are mantras I repeat as I brush my teeth. I see how picking up the pieces forms a mosaic of reflection.
There is a general tone in our society that teaches us to shy away from what is too deep, too intense. We need to remind ourselves just how detrimental this masculinised dialogue is. We are human, we demand to feel, it is a lot, and it deserves to be spoken about. We tend to build our own screens within ourself; we think they will protect us. We need boundaries but our feelings must be recognised. Too often victims are told to exist as an inspiring story. Present a polished existence, a beacon of light, the happy ending. But victims want solidarity. It might look ugly, but we need the truth. And the truth is in the pain. I would much rather read, oh my god I feel crazy too, I haven’t told anyone how I feel, how did you manage to live with that hurt for so long? than a dreamy, meditative reverie. Our pain is paramount. Resist the urge to look away. We need to listen to what the pain is telling us.
Artwork by Laura Stewart-Liberty.