“We are not defined by what knocks us down – We are defined by how we get back up.”
Unbroken, Madeline Black’s memoir is a must read, not for its subject matter but because of the message of hope within it for every victim of abuse. Published in April 2017 by John Blake Unbroken: One Woman’s Journey to Rebuild a Life Shattered by Violence. A True Story of Survival and Hope is a story of immense heartache; something no one should have to face. Yet there are many young girls around the world that go through the same traumatic experience that Madeleine went through. Madeleine was violently gang-raped at the age of thirteen, and three more times before she reached eighteen. She has lived through hell, coming out stronger for the experience. Married with a wonderful family, Madeleine has written about her experience, saying forgiveness has been what healed her. Her message for every victim of abuse; what matters is not what happens to us, but how we deal with it and move forward.
SR: Most victims of abuse rarely talk about it, preferring to leave it in the past. What made you want to write about such a traumatic experience?
MB: It was really through the powers of social media that I came across The Forgiveness Project’s Facebook page and was involved in an online conversation with some other people and the founder of the organization sent me a message asking me about my story and told me she would like to include it on her page. She told me that I didn’t need to have a photo and that I could be anonymous, but I didn’t want to hide anymore and be influenced by my shame, so I allowed her to share my story with both my name and photo. That was on September 22nd 2014
SR: It must have taken so much courage to re-visit the past. Were there times you felt it would be difficult to write about it? How did you deal with it?
MB: My editor had read something I had written a few months earlier when I described in full detail what had happened to me that night when I was 13 and he said to me “you are going to include all the details, aren’t you?” and at the time I said no way. I didn’t want anyone to know all the details as I was still ashamed and felt that if they knew it would change their opinion of me as if what had happened to me was a reflection of me in some way. But he told me to reconsider as he felt it educated him and as a man he thought that when a woman had been raped he just felt she had been overpowered and never really thought about what could take place, until he read my account of my rape. So I decided to keep all the details, which was very hard to write about knowing the public would read it as it was so exposing. It did bring up a lot of difficult memories which would leave me shaking and cold, but the more I wrote it became easier and easier and in the end I was just looking for grammatical errors.
SR: You have lived through hell, yet you’ve come out stronger. What made you decide to forgive your abusers? At what point did you decide that you wanted to change from being a victim to become a strong person? And did you ever fear being victimized again?
MB: I never intended to forgive the two men who raped me; I wanted someone to kidnap them, beat them up, tie them up and rape & torture them for hours on end just like they had done to me so they could get an understanding of the impact it had on my life. But when my eldest daughter was turning 13, I started to get a lot of flashbacks, nightmares & body memories and I decided to go back to therapy and deal with it in order to make it all go away. I quickly discovered that I couldn’t make it go away and I had to face it to deal with it. It was near to the end of my 3 years of therapy, that me therapist suggested to me that maybe they weren’t born rapists. At first I was completely outraged at what he was saying to me, but he planted a seed in my mind and that seed started to grow. I found myself wanting to understand where did it go so wrong for these 2 young men. They weren’t much older than me, maybe about 17 or 18, and I wondered what had they seen, heard or experienced themselves that conditioned them to behave like that to another human being. And the more I thought about it I couldn’t help but take them into my heart and feel compassion towards them. I was so full of hate, bitterness and revenge for them for years and this new understanding of forgiveness allowed me to let go of all of that. After all they would have had no idea if I was angry at them and I came to see that the only person I hurt by holding onto all of that anger was me. So I chose to let it go and life is much more peaceful now. I have never feared being victimized again.
SR: Since first coming out in public in 2014 with your story you have spoken up against violence and abuse and have become a voice for the voiceless. Do you feel you have made an impact on the lives of others?
MB: Absolutely. I completely underestimated what the impact of sharing my story would be and within just a few minutes I received messages of support and then friends, family & strangers started to share their own stories with me too of their rapes/sexual assaults. Marina Cantacuzino, who is the founder of The Forgiveness Project, often refers to us as “Story Healers” rather than “Story Tellers” and I have felt this on so many occasions. I was very lucky to have been interviewed by Sir Trevor McDonald for BBC Radio 4, which was amazing but after the interview had been aired I was emailed by a woman who told me that her mother had been listening and ended 64 years of silence when she told her daughter that she had been raped too. I wondered if this woman hadn’t heard me if she would have taken her shameful secret to her grave but I also wondered how many other woman and men are silenced by their shame?
SR: What do you tell other victims of abuse?
MB: I tell them that we are not what was done to us, that we are so much more than our bodies and the real essence of who we are can never be touched. It’s never too late to get support however long ago it was and I would encourage people to find their voice. I understand that not everybody can speak publicly like I now do, but it’s so important to give our stories oxygen by sharing them with someone. I think that there is nothing more powerful and healing than to be heard, really listened to and to be believed. So I would encourage people to find someone they trust and tell their story in its entirety.
SR: Sexual violence is deeply entrenched in almost every society around the world. There is a cultural and social stigma attached to victims. How did you overcome this, and was it hard?
MB: This is exactly why I speak and write about sexual violence now to help end the shame, stigma and silence that surround it. For me it was the sharing of my story that helped me to stand in my shame and all the stories I fed myself that people would be disgusted, wouldn’t want to know me anymore, would look at me differently etc. were dissolved and didn’t come true. Standing in my shame and confronting it has helped. The way in for me was the way out and it took me a long time to find my voice but I wont be silenced anymore!
SR: You share your story with children. What do you tell children?
MB: I shared my story with about 120 girls in an all girls catholic school in Ireland and was invited to speak in their religion class about forgiveness, but the day before a teacher thought that maybe I shouldn’t tell them all the details of what had happened to me. I wondered if I don’t tell them I was raped how could I discuss what I had to forgive? After some discussion, they decided it would be ok to tell them the whole story and they were absolutely fine. The teachers left the room about 10 minutes before the end, so they could ask me questions and they asked so many with no hesitation. These girls were about 15/16 and I knew that statistically out of the 120 of them present that a number of them would already know about rape, abuse or sexual assault. So when I share my story, I don’t hold back as I don’t think it helps them by protecting them from the truth of what can take place. The feedback I got from the girls afterwards was great, I was sent so many message from them thanking me and telling me how it had helped them in some way. I really enjoy speaking with young people and would like to do more of it as I think we have a lot to change with regards to healthy relationships, respect and consent.
“I saw that whatever had been done to me, the essence of me was still there and that it could never be touched by anything done to me.”