Updated: Mar 2
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This week on my “Healing Herself” series, I’m honored to host author, speaker, and psychotherapist Madeleine Black, my second guest from the UK, who survived a gang rape at the tender age of 13. She also has a viral TED talk; hosts "Unbroken: The Podcast with Madeleine Black”; and wrote a book about her experience. Since I too was sexually assaulted at the age of 13, we had a tender, intimate conversation about how these shared experiences changed our lives.
Madeleine was born to two survivors. Her dad survived the Holocaust, also seeing his whole family murdered, and her mum had her neck broken in a childhood surgery and woke up bedridden. Madeleine remembers her mum being cared for with neck and back injuries for much of her childhood. She saw her parents model survival through their life. Although she didn't appreciate it at the time, now she sees how both her parents handled their own trauma by just living their lives and carrying on.
“We are already so much stronger than we think we are. We all have that capability within to heal.”
When Madeline was 13, a “really cool” friend asked her over for the evening because her mom was away from home. They both lied to their parents about where they were staying.
They were able to buy a bottle of vodka and took it along to the local café in north London. Since she had never drunk alcohol before, it didn’t take her long to get drunk. Soon she began throwing up, and two young men offered to take them home in a taxi.
“It became very obvious very quickly that they weren't there to let me sleep off the alcohol…they were there for something else, and the two of them proceeded to rape and torture me over the next four to five hours.”
Madeleine’s body went into shock and she had an out-of-body experience during the rape and torture. Because she was so close to being killed, she left her body and was watching the attack from the top of the wardrobe instead of experiencing it.
As a therapist, she knows that this often happens when the trauma is too overwhelming. She believes that if she had stayed in her body, she wouldn’t have survived. The trauma would have been too much.
I shared with Madeleine that I too was sexually assaulted at age 13, and we agreed that it is cathartic and therapeutic to share our experiences with others, to destigmatize being survivors.
“Our stories are not uncommon and yet still we struggle to speak out about it. Still not many people will talk openly because of the shame that is so wrapped up in the event…but you know it took me years and years to realize that the shame never belonged to me. It always belonged to them.”
When Madeleine woke up the next morning and remembered what happened, she was terrified to tell anyone. They just cleaned up the flat and decided not to speak about it. On some subconscious level, she had bought into the rape myths and already thought it was her fault.
Soon after the experience, Madeleine was suicidal and sent to a psychiatric ward, where she spent three to four months. She used drugs and alcohol and sex to dull the pain and developed anorexia. But at no point did anyone ask her why she was behaving in these ways.
Because she couldn’t speak about the experience, all she could do was rebel, hoping that someone would notice something was wrong. After she snuck in after a late night, her mom was waiting for her in the hallway, angry and shaking her, telling her that anything could happen and she was jeopardizing her life.
“And inside my head I'm thinking, well, actually the worst has already happened…but I still couldn't actually find my voice to tell her. I wrote it on a little note which I left on my pillow before I went to school the following morning. And then when I came back from school, both of my parents were waiting and they asked me if it was true and I told them it was.”
Her parents had different responses to the news. Her dad sought out the other girl, who denied it had happened. He insisted on going to the police, which was terrifying for Madeleine because her attackers had threatened her if she told anyone.
Her mom, however, was totally quiet.
“I didn't understand her silence for years and it sadly it took till even after my father had passed. She disclosed to me that as an eight-year-old she had been raped by a neighbor…She was able to find her voice and she told her brother who then told my grandparents...this man was charged and they discovered he was also abusing his daughters. But while he was in prison, my mum's family moved and they never spoke about it again.”
While Madeleine was speaking her truth, her mum was silenced by her own trauma. She had never told her husband of nearly 40 years.
At age 16, though, all Madeleine could see was her friend had betrayed her and her mum didn’t believe it happened. Because she was smoking a lot of dope, her parents suggested she go away for a while and leave behind her circle of friends. So she went to Israel.
While living there she met Steven, a wonderful blonde Scotsman, the first man she felt safe with. They’ve been together now for 37 years.
At first she told him she couldn’t become a mother, because she was terrified that giving birth would be like being raped again. Then she realized that if she didn’t become a mum, her attackers would have won.
“I'm handing all my power and control over to these two men and they have no idea that they're still manipulating my life. So I came up with a plan I called my best revenge. I was not only determined to become a mum, but I was going to live my life as best as I possibly could.”
Her husband knew some of the details of her attack, but she didn’t talk openly about the experience until her eldest daughter was 13 years old, the same age when she was assaulted. She couldn’t tell Steven face to face though; she had to tell him with the lights off, and he held her hand under the covers, still so deep was her shame and trauma.
Madeleine became a therapist because of her dad’s experience surviving Auschwitz. She also worked in women’s organizations helping survivors of domestic abuse and rape. Only when she was training as a rape crisis hotline worker did she understand that she was living with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.
We shared the ways we experienced PTSD, from not trusting strange men to not wanting to walk at night or take a taxi. Madeleine experienced fear all the time.
“Everything I had to analyze to see if there was any danger and I just saw it everywhere. It’s kind of ironic because the worst thing had already happened to me.”
Madeleine and I both are lucky we found incredible, supportive men at young ages, and we both went on to have three wonderful children (hers girls, and mine boys).
“I really think that Steven was an angel sent to save me, because I think if I hadn't met him, what would have happened?”
Madeleine decided to go public with her story about six years ago when she was invited to share it through an organization in London called The Forgiveness Project. The founder told her she didn’t need to share her photo or her name, but she was tired of being ashamed for a crime that was committed against her body. She was tired of carrying the shame, backed up by rape myths and victim blaming.
“I'm not saying it was easy. I was still terrified because a lot of my friends didn't know it was a near-fatal experience….but the more I settled into it, the more I saw what sharing our stories does for other people. I just thought absolutely it was the right decision to give it oxygen, to share my message out there.”
Madeleine published her memoir, Unbroken, about three months before the #metoo movement started up again. That gave her exposure to many famous people on social media who were active in the movement, like Rose McGowan, Rosanna Arquette, and Mira Sorvino.
“It shows me that our voices are being heard and our voices are rising and women will not accept what my mom went through….every day at work she said her boss would pinch her bum or squeeze her waist and that was normal, normal behavior. And if you complained you'd be kicked out of your job. I hope my three girls never know about any sexual harassment, let alone sexual assault.”
I shared how traumatic I found that period of time, especially hearing people shame or disbelieve the women, men, and children who had survived sexual harassment or assault.
“But that just shows me where the work is. What if your house was broken into? Nobody would say, ‘well, what do you expect? You've got a lot of furniture inside your house…’ So why is it with this crime that we always blame the victim or we protect the perpetrator? It actually just motivates me to carry on speaking out when I hear these kind of messages of victim blaming.”
We shared stories of the difficult conversations we’ve had to have with our children, sharing our stories and educating them about consent. I wrote a blog post about my experience, and I shared it with my older sons as an introduction to a conversation. In Madeleine’s case, she gave her book manuscript to her girls. Her youngest daughter, Leila, who was 13 at the time, read all of it.
“And I don't hold back. I do put all the details in because I didn't want to dilute what had happened to me to make it easier for people to digest. We should be concerned, you know, it is disturbing what takes place out there every day on our planet to a woman, a man, or a child. So I was amazed that she had read it all, but they're very supportive and totally behind what I do.”
Madeleine even gets messages from her daughters’ friends asking for support or advice about sexual assault.
After writing her book, Madeleine was invited to share her story at TEDx Glasgow in 2019. I asked her what that experience was like, sharing about this traumatic experience before thousands of people.
“It was one of the most terrifying, but the most liberating moments of my life.”
To calm herself down, she thought she’d focus on her family. She looked at her husband and saw he had massive tears popping out of his eyes. But then she realized,
“This is not about me. This is about who's listening. That really settled any nerves inside of me because I really believe in the power that comes when we share our stories. And you know, I have evidence that every time I speak, it impacts somebody's life and that motivates me.”
Madeleine is crystal clear that it has taken years of therapy to work through her trauma. It’s been a huge process.
“You can actually come out so much stronger…I've found I'm really resilient. I've got all this strength inside that was tested and that I never knew about. And if that's inside of me, can you imagine, anyone who is listening right now, that it is inside of you as well? You can do what I have done. I'm not a superwoman, I don't have superpower. We can absolutely heal after any trauma and have a great life.”
Madeleine has found a way to forgive her attackers. She never intended to. She calls herself an “accidental forgiver.” She chose an American male therapist to challenge herself, and he helped her wonder what happened to these two young men that caused them to be so violent toward someone else. She views her forgiveness of them as an act of self-love. She doesn’t tell people they have to forgive in order to heal, though.
“There are many many paths to healing, but I saw for me this was my path and forgiveness really allowed me to let go of all the hate and anger and revenge that I felt toward them…it set me free and it was nothing to do with them.”
Madeleine began sharing her story all over the world, and then COVID hit. So she started “Unbroken The Podcast with Madeleine Black” to help heal, motivate, and inspire others and to bring hope.
Resilience expert Emma Bell interviewed Madeleine and 49 others for her audio book called 9 Secrets to Thriving, as part of the Global Resilience Project. Between this project and The Forgiveness Project, Emma realized how many incredible, resilient people she knew. She began her podcast for similar reasons to why I started mine…to inspire and bring hope.
“I wanted to show the strength in the human spirit and that despite what happens to us, we can turn it around. It's about healing through storytelling, to show people that none of us are broken beyond repair.”
I asked Madeleine what she would tell her 21-year-old self.
“For years I lived with the guilt that I had done something wrong, that I had invited it in, that it was something to do with my behavior. But I know it was never to do with me…all rapes are caused by rapists.”