Tomorrow, on International Women’s Day (Thursday 8 March), Madeleine Black will be honoured by a Scottish women’s magazine as the winner of an “Amazing Woman” award. No on, watching her at the ceremony will guess the years of mental torment that she suffered.
For Black was raped at the age of 13, by two teenagers she had met that night. She was assaulted many times, punched, tortured and threatened at knife-point that, if she told anyone, she would be tracked down and killed.
Black believed her attackers, and told neither the police nor her family. “I felt worthless, totally degraded, and empty. I thought it was all my fault and, most of all, I felt so dirty and contaminated. I would spend ages in the bath for many years afterwards scrubbing my skin with cleaning products.”
Following that May night, the Hendon schoolgirl became very promiscuous, and started drinking and taking drugs. She also stopped eating as that was the only thing she felt she could control.
“It became so painful to be alive that, one night, I took as many of my mum’s pills as I could find and ended up in a children’s psychiatric ward where I spent the next eight weeks. During that time, no one ever asked if anything had happened to me, even though I was clearly traumatised.”
Eventually, she told her parents about the night. They phoned the mother of the friend she was with that evening but, bizarrely, her friend denied it had ever happened. Black left school at 16, and the following year went to Israel.
She worked at Kibbutz Hasolelim in the north, feeling “safe and protected,” for the first time in many years. From there, she moved to Ashkelon, where she met and fell in love with a 20-year-old Glaswegian called Steven.
“I believe meeting him saved my life, as I was on a path of self-destruction. He loved me and made me feel worthwhile again. When we talked about starting a family, I always told him I couldn’t or didn’t want children. In my head, I thought that giving birth would be like being raped again.”
Then, a few years later, after they were married, Steven asked her if she would reconsider her decision not to have a child. “I was with someone I loved and felt safe and secure with him. And I didn’t want them to take that power away,” she recalls. “I thought if I never have children then they are going to win. Then I decided to come up with a plan to have kids and to live my life as best as I could. I call this my best revenge.”
Today, Black, 52, lives in Glasgow still married to Steven. They are members of the city’s Reform community and have three daughters, Anna 24, Mimi 21 and Leila 16. While bringing up her children, Black worked for many years at Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis, before training to become a psychotherapist.
It took her 35 years, following years of therapy, to share the story publicly of what happened to her. She was determined not to let the rapists win. She found the strength to lead a “good” and “happy” life. A big part of this resolution she attributes to her father Leo’s resilience as a Holocaust survivor from former Czechoslovakia.
In 1939, German soldiers had forced him and his family from their home in Vulchovce and relocated them to a ghetto in Warsaw, where they lived for 15 months. Her grandfather managed to bribe some guards and they returned back to their house but, in 1944, German soldiers came again and took them away for good.
Her grandfather hid 21-year-old Leo in a kitchen cupboard, where he remained silent until he emerged and found himself all alone. He lived in the house on his own for a few months before being sent to a Hungarian Labour Camp.
One day, after hearing an air-raid siren, he decided he had enough. He ripped off his yellow star and ran, hiding during the day and running at night. After the War he discovered that his parents and most of his siblings had been murdered in Auschwitz.
Her father, who passed away in 1998, didn’t talk about his wartime experiences.
“I used to think if my dad could get through all of that, surely I could survive one night. It wasn’t what he said to us but how he lived his life. He showed us life was for living.”
Black also learnt about the “power of narrative”. “If we know something very bad happened to someone we know and love, and that he or she survived it, often we tell ourselves, that we, too, can survive and bounce back when bad things happen to us.”
But it wasn’t easy. When her eldest daughter Anna was nearly 13, she suffered many flashbacks. “I had nightmares for about three years that would wake me up and I could feel the presence of the young men in the room and at times could feel their weight on my body.”
Around this time, she was doing a psychotherapy course, and felt it was time to talk about what had happened. “I realised I had to come to terms with the rape and accept it for what it was. After all, I had survived it and it wasn’t happening any more.”
One of the greatest sources of support came from The Forgiveness Project, an organisation which believes that healing comes from sharing stories.
“Marina, the founder of Forgiveness, asked me if I would like to put my story up on the website anonymously. I thought ‘I am tired of hiding, I am tired of being ashamed, I am not ashamed any more’. I realised that the shame was never mine in the first place. It always belongs to perpetrators.”
Black decided if she was going to tell her story, she did not want to be anonymous.
“My fingers went into automatic mode, and all the words came out. It was ready to come out.”
Having gone public she decided to write a book about her journey. She had wanted to call it Forty-four Bows, which is what she counted on the wallpaper border, in the bedroom in which she was repeatedly raped. She sees the number in her life a lot, and ironically, she says it makes her feel that “everything is okay”. The publisher chose the title Unbroken, and the book came out last year. “Used, beaten but never broken. My story of survival and hope,” states Black. She may not have got her preferred title, but the book has 44 chapters, with a bow at the beginning of each one.
“It was clear to me my fears kept me back from enjoying life. By worrying what had happened in my distant past I was worrying about the present. Fear is an old entity. It comes to aid people when their lives are in danger. It gets the adrenalin pumping. But it’s impossible for fear to remain in the body. What remain are the memories, not the fear itself.”
She was determined to, once and for all, stop carrying fear around. She wanted her girls to be confident and independent and it was up to her to set that example.
Since going public, her life has taken an interesting turn. She is invited around the country not only to share her story, but to inspire other victims. She has just returned from a conference by The Blast Project, for boys who have experienced childhood sexual exploitation, where she spoke about trauma, healing and hope.
When I read Black’s powerful memoir in just two sittings, I knew I had to meet her. We met in central London one evening, just before she was, with another rape victim, about to give a talk at the Feminist Library.
She was essentially a stranger to me, the only thing we had in common was that we both had lived in Hendon. I asked about her Jewish identity. She told me she had gone to Kerem primary school and wasn’t too observant, apart from celebrating batmitzvahs and High Holy Days. I looked up at her slowly, and asked her maiden name. “Geddy”, she replied.
My eyes widened. I remembered her from Kerem — a few years above me. The next day, her story really hit me. I thought about the 11-year-old I’d known, how her life had brutally changed only two years later, and how, 40 years on, we were meeting under these strange circumstances. Suddenly her ordeal became so devastatingly real.
Most of her life she hated her attackers, and wished them a slow, painful death. However, in recent years, while working with her therapist, something happened that she had not anticipated. She chose to forgive her torturers.
“I used to think that they were evil, but I started to understand that they didn’t come into this world that way,” she explains. “I can honestly say that I have no fear, hate or revenge in my heart towards them any more. I know that, whatever they did to me, they can never touch the real essence of me and who I am.
“I have come to realise that for them to live with the guilt of what they did must be so much harder than for me to live with the harm they inflicted on me.”
Unbroken by Madeleine Black is published by John Blake.