‘I Googled My Rapist And Was Horrified By What I Found’

Author Winnie M Li shares her powerful story – and reveals how survivors are being let down by a broken system

Author Winnie Li

by Grazia |

Nobody really wants to google the name of their rapist but, this spring, 14 years after my assault, I found myself doing just that.

At 43, I take a certain pride in having overcome the dark chapter in my life marked by the rape. I’m largely recovered from the post-traumatic stress disorder and depression that followed me for years. I have a new career as a novelist, a new relationship (after I’d given up on the idea of ever finding a romantic partner), and a young child (after I despaired of ever becoming a mother). But every year on the anniversary of my rape in Belfast, I post on social media about the significance of that date – and how that significance changes with each passing year.

This year, my tweet unleashed an outpouring of support and solidarity, including stories from other women around the world with their own rape anniversaries. The community of survivors is broad and often welcoming. But someone also replied with a few links offering the latest news about my rapist (a person I prefer not to think about). And as much as I didn’t want to, I found myself typing that dreaded name into Google.

I was horrified to learn that as recently as this January, his name had been linked to other alleged sexual assaults in Belfast, as well as a failure to comply with the terms of his conviction. Some of these articles were brief reports, all in local media outlets, and not all of them linked the individual in question to my rape. The accused in these reports all shared the same name, but were they all the same person? One of the alleged assaults certainly sounded very similar to my own: the threat of a knife, a choke applied to the victim’s throat. A chill ran down my spine as I read these details – and I was suddenly reduced to the anxiety and sense of vulnerability I’d worked so hard to subdue in therapy years ago.

To clarify: my rapist was a stranger, a 15-year-old boy who followed me in a park on a Saturday afternoon in 2008. I knew him for less than an hour, during which time he left me with 39 separate injuries and significant psychological trauma. And as horrible as that sounds, I consider myself lucky that, unlike the majority of rape victims, my perpetrator was not someone I already knew. Because he was not part of my life, and I did not have to deal with any guilt or complicated emotions, any messy social consequences in reporting his crime, and working with police and prosecutors towards his arrest, conviction and sentence of eight years in prison.

My rapist only served half that sentence. He was released in 2012, by which time I’d moved temporarily to the Middle East to pursue a new career. Soon after, I returned to London, to enrol in a creative writing MA and write my first novel, Dark Chapter, inspired by my rape. Occasionally, I worried about being in the same country as him, where he was now free to roam the streets. Would he hunt me down? Seek vengeance on me for ‘ruining his life’ by reporting the rape? But I told myself I had done the right thing in pursuing justice. And I had to live my own life, the way I wanted to live it. I would not let my own path towards recovery be affected any more by him.

Now, 14 years later, I faced an unsettling reminder of my rapist. Frustratingly, there was no way to get clear information about him. I no longer had a direct contact within the Police Service of Northern Ireland and, while I’d signed up for the Prisoner Release Victim Information Scheme, that service only seemed to last for his original sentence and immediately after. Rather than wade through a series of bureaucratic phone calls and explain my strange situation, it just seemed easier to google. As I studied the newer articles, I compiled a list of links in the Irish press, building up a timeline for his whereabouts – and my nausea grew with each Google hit. And then I asked: why am I even doing this? Why should the onus be on me to track my rapist’s actions since 2008? And, more importantly: why hasn’t the criminal justice system been able to prevent him from assaulting other women?

I felt implicated – as if I, too, had failed in my responsibility, as a victim, to warn others.

But I realised I also had a responsibility towards myself: to protect my own mental health, to keep forging ahead with the life I had rebuilt. To remind myself I had done the absolute most that a victim could be asked to do in my circumstances – I’d subjected myself to the horror of the forensic exam, the dread of facing him in court. It had resulted in his conviction and prison sentence. So anything that happened afterwards was the failing of the state – and his own moral fibre.

And yet, if I could prevent just one more woman from going through the pain and destruction I’d experienced, I wanted to help. These are the kinds of moral binds that sexual assault victims find ourselves in. A perpetrator decides to abuse us, and we are tasked with both the internal, private challenge of recovering (often with little support), and the external challenge of seeking justice in a public system that hardly serves our needs as victims. And yet, there is a guilt that survivors often feel for not shouting loud enough about a predator, even though people rarely want to hear (or believe) you.

As much as we want to help, the system is stacked against us. So, for all the victims and survivors out there, I want to remind you: you’re doing the best you can. It’s simply not fair to expect a traumatised individual to be both a victim in recovery and a whistleblower at the same time, without proper support.

As for me, after years of activism and research around this topic, I’ve realised that the best way for me to contribute is through my writing. So in my latest novel, Complicit, I explore these issues of guilt and silence surrounding multiple victims and a fictional predator in the film industry. I also consider if so-called ‘trial by media’ can serve as a substitute for a failed criminal justice system – at least in warning other women and enabling a shared community among victims.

I will likely never know who the other women attacked by my rapist were. But if I could, I’d tell them I’m sorry this wasn’t prevented. I’m sorry the state failed you. I’m sorry there are so many of us. But hopefully, one day, if the system improves, if we keep speaking out, there will be fewer of us.

'Complicit’ is published by Orion on 23 June in hardback and audiobook

Photographer: Jenny Lewis

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us