By Winnie M Li
After film producer Winnie M Li was raped by a teenager in a Belfast park, she suffered severe anxiety and depression and was unable to work for two years. Here she explains why sharing her story with other survivors was key to her recovery.
Aged 29, I thought I was figuring out adulthood. I was living in London (having grown up in New Jersey in the US), and I was enjoying a busy social life and an exciting career as a film producer. I’d already been to the Oscars, where a short film I helped produce was nominated, and I’d worked with stars including Daniel Craig and Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey. It seemed all I had to do was keep producing films, living my life and everything else would eventually happen: career success, a relationship, a family.
But one Saturday afternoon in April 2008, those hopes vanished in an instant. I was on the tail end of a business trip to Belfast and I planned to go for an 11-mile hike in the Belfast Hills. The following day I was due to attend the London red-carpet premiere of Flashbacks of a Fool, a film I’d produced, so I wanted to clear my head. Solo hiking had always been one of my great joys, a way to renew my sense of wonder for the world.
It was a beautiful afternoon and only 20 minutes into my walk I spotted a teenage boy who seemed out of place in the park. Unlike other passers-by, he wasn’t out with a dog or talking a stroll. He was standing around with no particular purpose. He was on his own. And he approached me.
Up close, he seemed young, in his early teens. He claimed he was lost and asked for directions. I did my best to help, but he wouldn’t go away. He kept tagging alongside me on my hike, trying to chat, and though I felt uncomfortable, I didn’t want to be rude. He was so young, I told myself he couldn’t be dangerous.
When I reached a very remote part of the walk, I thought I had lost him. I can still remember climbing a slope, thinking I was finally on my own, free to enjoy the view of the countryside. But a moment later, I glimpsed him in the trees behind me – instinctively, I knew I was in trouble. But by then, there was no one else around.
The boy confronted me – suddenly violent and threatening – demanding sex. It was as if he’d flipped a switch. I did all the things you’re supposed to do: I shouted for help, I fought back. It only seemed to render him more violent.
He punched me in the head, he choked me until I couldn’t breathe. I realised my best chance of not being killed or seriously injured was to let him have what he wanted. It wasn’t much of a choice. But I took it to survive.
In the end, that boy inflicted 39 separate injuries on me during a 30-minute assault – mainly cuts and bruises. The deepest wounds were psychological.
After he left, I knew I needed medical attention but there was no one around to help. So I phoned my friend who was in Belfast for our business trip and she called the police. As I sat by the side of a road waiting for them to arrive, I realised: this is my life now; I’m a rape victim.
I went through six hours of police questioning, forensic and medical examinations. The next day, there were more police procedures and through it all I was grateful to have two friends by my side. They made sure I got on a flight back to London. Hours later, I put on the evening gown a designer had lent me and I walked down the red carpet at the Leicester Square premiere of our film. But I wasn’t the same person as before. The old Winnie would have worked the room, relishing the party, but now I was numb, an empty shell, playing a charade of my earlier self.
The rape effectively ended my film-producing career. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression set in immediately. I developed agoraphobia and panic attacks. I rarely wanted to leave my apartment; I cleared my social calendar. In sleep, I kept revisiting the trail where I’d been attacked. During the day, all I could do was cry. I was ashamed of what I’d been reduced to: from the active, dynamic me to this timid ghost.
But I was still curious. Only two days after my assault, I sat at my laptop and read news articles about my rape. I even listened to radio chat shows talking about ‘this horrific attack on a tourist’. One woman said her heart went out to ‘the wee girl’ who had been raped, because her life was now ruined. Even though she spoke from a place of sympathy, I felt insulted, written-off. I thought: ‘You don’t even know me. Who are you to pronounce my future?’
My perpetrator was arrested three days later. He was a 15-year-old boy. He pleaded not guilty and I would have to testify in court against him. I identified him in a video ID parade and a date for the trial was set for 8 March, 11 months after my assault. I could see months of my new joyless, fearful existence stretching onwards.
That year, many of my friends were becoming engaged or married. Single and racked with anxiety about the trial, I did my best to attend parties and weddings. I felt the sharp pain of watching my friends celebrate while my own life was falling apart. I sank lower into helplessness and couldn’t imagine ever rising out of it.
I couldn’t bring myself to tell my parents what had happened because I knew the pain it would cause them. It seemed as if I cried for months, feeling utterly alone. I contemplated suicide to end the unbearable dread of testifying in court. I knew the truth of what had happened to me, but to have that truth tested, judged in public and discredited would be soul-destroying. I started claiming Incapacity Benefit and began taking antidepressants. After six months on an NHS waiting list, I qualified for cognitive behavioural therapy.
Two close friends accompanied me to Belfast for the trial. On the first morning, when I sat in the courtroom as a nervous wreck, my perpetrator suddenly switched his plea to guilty. That was it: there would be no trial. I was free from having to testify. I had justice, yet it felt strangely anticlimactic. My rapist was sentenced to eight years in prison. In the end, he only served four.
His conviction helped lift my nightmares and panic attacks, but the key to my recovery was having friends who cared and believed in me. From the outset, I had decided one thing: I was going to be honest with close friends about what had happened. So, first in a group email, and then gradually in one-to-one conversations, I told each of my friends about the rape.
And as I opened up to them, I started to hear their stories of when they were raped, or their sister, or cousin or aunt. Only then did I realise how many women I knew had been affected by sexual assault. That statistic – one in six women will be the victim of an assault – was real. The crime is so prevalent yet we hardly ever talk about it openly. But if victims start to break the silence and tell our stories, perhaps we can educate the public about the reality of sexual assault – and realise that we are not alone.
Meanwhile, I started to rebuild my life. Even though my PTSD improved, I was unable to find work. The economic downturn of 2008 didn’t help, and in job interviews I found it difficult to explain why I hadn’t been working. I was unemployed for more than two years; my finances suffered and this added to my depression. Eventually, I moved to Qatar for a job at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival.
There, on a new continent, I was able to earn money again and piece my career back together. Gradually, I started to feel as though I might still have a future in film. I later relocated to Singapore for another job. My career was flourishing, I was exploring new countries – yet I felt empty.
I realised I couldn’t walk away from the issue. Something in me had changed. I had always loved writing and now I had a book I needed to write: a novel inspired by what had happened to me that spring afternoon in Belfast.
In the autumn of 2013, I quit my job in Singapore, moved back to London, enrolled on an MA in creative writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, and started writing. Since then, I’ve dedicated my professional life to advocating for change in how our society handles sexual assault.
I dream of a day when survivors can speak more openly about their experiences and not be judged. Unlike my case, nine out of ten survivors are assaulted by someone they know. My case fitted the classic ‘stranger rape’ scenario: I was sober, nobody disbelieved me. But many other women I encountered had been drunk during their assault and felt blamed as a result – when, in reality, it is always (and only) the perpetrators who are guilty of causing the crime.
Weirdly, I consider myself lucky because only six per cent of reported rapes result in a conviction. Yet it is estimated that just 15 per cent of rapes are ever reported. Think of how many perpetrators remain free to assault again.
And if my own experience was so horrific, what must it be like for the victims who aren’t believed, who have to see their perpetrators regularly at work, at school, or in their own family?
There are so many survivors among us, and yet society understands so little about the impact rape has on lives. I know women who will never be mothers because their assault affected their ability to date and find a partner while they were in their 30s and 40s. How many more of us are out there with dark chapters which continue to haunt and impact the lives we lead?
These questions inspired my activism and, in 2015, I co-founded The Clear Lines Festival, the UK’s first platform dedicated to addressing sexual assault and consent through the arts and discussion. It drew together 500 people and the second festival will take place this autumn. I’m also pursuing a PhD at the London School of Economics, exploring how rape survivors use social media to share their experiences and build a sense of community. More and more of us want to tell our stories, and often we find each other online.
My novel Dark Chapter will be published next month. Inspired by my experience and those of other women, it tells the story of a rape from the perspectives of both victim and perpetrator. I’m hoping it will provide readers with a realistic understanding of what survivors have to go through, while also connecting with victims who may feel isolated. I felt it was important to consider the rapist, too, because his actions were the cause of all my trauma – and if we want to prevent future assaults occurring, we need to understand the roots of a perpetrator’s behaviour.
While my friends start families and buy homes, I’m still single and wary of men (though hopeful). But having found a community of survivors through the arts and activism, I don’t feel quite as alone. I finally told my parents about the assault, after I’d been able to reclaim my career. They didn’t doubt or undermine me. Having survived a traumatic rape and its aftermath, I appreciate the pleasures in life we take for granted – being able to work in a job you like and earn money. Being able to walk through a park on a sunny afternoon, free of fear. Life can change in an instant,through no fault of our own.
But if we can share our stories bravely, openly, we can start to change the public understanding of rape – and in the process, heal ourselves.
clearlines.org.uk. Winnie’s novel, Dark Chapter, will be published by Legend Press on 1 June, price £14.99. To order a copy for £11.24 (a 25 per cent discount) until 4 June, visit you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15