Winnie Li on surviving rape‘It was like, is this actually happening to me? You end up doing whatever you can to survive.’

As heard on Today with Sean O'Rourke

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“Nobody is born a rapist,” said Winnie Li. “Everybody is innocent when they are born.”

These are remarkable words, from somebody who has herself been the victim of an extremely violent act of rape. And for Winnie Li, understanding what motivated her attacker to become a violent rapist at the young age of 15 became a driving force in life.

Winnie M Li was an American tourist in Belfast, in 2008, when she was brutally attacked and raped.  The case was widely covered in the media, not least because her attacker was only 15 years old. Now, nine years on, Winnie has written a novel called Dark Chapter, which was inspired by that experience. This morning, she spoke to Sean O’Rourke on the Today programme.

“Here was somebody who was incredibly young when he committed this act of violence against me. I was just curious, I wanted to know, or imagine, what was the life of somebody that had led to him committing an act that violent at such a young age?”

Dark Chapter is, in fact, a novel, rather than a personal memoir. Winnie says, at the start of her book, that it is a work of fiction and that any resemblance between characters and real people is purely coincidental. Nevertheless, the subject matter of the book is very reflective of her own traumatic experience.

During a weekend in Belfast, she had gone on a hike on the outskirts of the city. When her attacker originally approached her, supposedly to look for directions, she was very kind, trying to help him out. As he was very young, just 15 years old, she felt in no way threatened. But later on her hike, as she encountered him time and time again, she began to panic. “At that time it was too late. It was in an isolated area.”

And that forms the opening of this novel, where Vivian, the main character, gradually realises the gravity of what might lie ahead for her.

Winnie’s own, real-life ordeal lasted 20 or 30 minutes.

“It was very much like, is this actually happening to me? Your mind goes into survival mode. You end up doing whatever you can to survive. I was being choked, I was being punched, there was a lot of violence involved. The one thing was, I didn’t want to die…. A lot of people freeze up. In my case, I did fight back. At one point, I realised, this is an incredibly violent person. I may actually die if I fight back.”

The day after her rape, she got on a plane to London, to attend a red carpet event for a film she was involved in producing. “I didn’t want to let this assault and this boy prevent me from enjoying this event I was involved in.” But nevertheless, as she said herself, from the time the ordeal was over, she knew her live had changed forever.

But, Sean wondered, write a novel about this and not just a personal factual account?

“There have been a lot of really excellent rape memoirs written by other survivors, which I read in the months and years after my assault. They were incredibly helpful to me. I wanted to write a novel specifically because I wanted to write fiction and because Dark Chapter is told from both points of view. From the point of view Vivian, and from the point of the perpetrator, Johnny. I wanted to investigate his life.”

In her research for the book, Winnie spoke to a number of psychologists that specialise in juvenile sex offenders, and many of them told her that perpetrators of sexual violence may have learned that behaviour somehow, from an early age.  “Often, there is going to be a series of predatory behaviours that they undertake before they get to the point of committing a stranger rape. I was trying to look at how those sorts of attitudes towards women, those violent behaviours, evolve.”

The teenage boy who raped Winnie was named Edward Connors. She identified him from her base in London, when he was arrested by the PSNI. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to 8 years in prison.

Dark Chapter is out now and is published by Legend Press, available online and in bookstores. You can listen to Winnie’s full interview by clicking here.



© The Listener 2017

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