'Rape happens to the family too and it nearly broke mine'

Read an extract from 'Under the Camelthorn Tree' by Kate Nicholls

02 August 2019 - 11:52 By jonathan ball publishers
'Under the Camelthorn Tree' is a frank and moving account of a woman and her family trying to heal and make amends.
'Under the Camelthorn Tree' is a frank and moving account of a woman and her family trying to heal and make amends.
Image: Jonathan Ball Publishers

Kate Nicholls left England to raise her five children in Botswana: an experience that would change each of their lives.

Living on a shoestring in a lion conservation camp, Kate homeschools her family while they also learn first-hand about the individual lives of wild lions.

Their deep attachment to these magnificent animals is palpable. The setting is exotic, but it is also precarious.

When the author is subjected to a brutal attack by three men, it threatens to destroy her and her family: post-traumatic stress turns a good mother into a woman who is fragmented and out of control.

In this powerfully written, raw and often warmly funny memoir, we witness the devastation of living with a mother whose resilience is almost broken, and how familial structures shift as the children mature and roles change.

Under the Camelthorn Tree addresses head-on the many issues surrounding motherhood, education, independence and the natural world; and highlights the long-lasting effect of gender violence on secondary victims.

Above all, it is an inspiring account of family love, and a powerful beacon of hope for life after trauma.

The South Bank Centre, London, 2013

The South Bank Centre’s main foyer thrummed to the rhythms of language, an occasional word or phrase cresting a wave before sinking back into unintelligible murmur. Drinking a cup of rather nasty black coffee I watched people flowing like harvester ants on a mission: chaotically organized, jostling and dispersing. In twenty minutes some them would be listening to my story, yet I was surprisingly relaxed and disengaged from fear. I had committed to giving the talk for a reason, so there was no point in allowing anxiety in.

Walking upstairs my head was clear: my thoughts were gathered: my heart was steady: only my legs were unsure. Fear of falling was a natural part of my life, it didn’t bother me.

Jude sat on the dais with me and the other speakers. She introduced us one by one. Each of us had a different story, and a perspective we chose to share because we cared. The audience was hushed, respectful: a little awkward. I felt sorry for them. It must have been hard, leaning forward, wanting to understand something that most people shied away from. My talk was last:

‘Hello. Thank you for listening today, I know it can’t be easy. I will do my best to be direct. I’m not going to go into details – the mechanics of rape are what they are. I was raped at knifepoint on the side of the road by three men in Botswana. I was lucky because I was well cared for by the police and the hospital. I was given kindness and immediate medical assistance. Not to seem over-dramatic, but this was life-saving. In Botswana statistically one in three people are infected with HIV/Aids – not great odds for me. I was lucky to be in Botswana where antiretroviral treatment is freely available and routinely offered to women who have been raped. I’m not telling that part of my story for the first time. A week after it happened I wrote an article for the local paper: in a small African town it was front-page news. I spoke out because I wanted to break the taboo of silence and to encourage other women to come forward. It’s a universal crime, and universally it is shrouded in shame and fear. That has to stop. It seems that whether women live in developing or developed countries they are still facing the same battles.

The author in Botswana.
The author in Botswana.
Image: Supplied

‘Yesterday, in this room, I listened to Martin Hewitt, the Assistant Commissioner of the Met Police, talk with compassion and frustration about the challenges women meet here in the UK when they report a rape. Indeed, the challenges are so great that many choose not to report. I was horrified to learn that in 2013 things are no better than when I left England in 1994. The ratio of reports to successful prosecutions made my blood boil. But I was also heartened because Commissioner Hewitt cares. He’s an active listener and that’s what we need. Stories need to be heard and action taken. I have empirical evidence that active listening works.

‘Ironically, it was HIV/Aids that brought the needs of women suffering domestic violence or rape into sharp focus. Botswana took its responsibilities seriously and though I’m not pretending things were perfect – far from it – people in government were listening and trying to do their best. In the mid-1990s, I worked for an NGO called Women Against Rape. I won’t drone on and give you all the background but it was the women and children who implemented the change by telling their stories in clinics, at schools, sitting under trees, or in broken-down huts. With support from W.A.R. we saw women struggling to overcome shame, fear of reprisal, embarrassment, guilt, anger, revulsion and the myriad of confused emotions that are stirred up by this universal crime. They spoke up. We heard them, we took action, but more importantly the government took action.

‘We asked for a meeting with Botswana’s Commissioner of Police to advocate for women and children. He listened to us, questioned us, asked for our recommendations, and pondered. Then with no prevarication he agreed to our requests. There and then he gave us permission to implement a countrywide programme of workshops for local police, aimed at improving and unifying procedures when rape was reported. We needed to ensure women got prompt access to AZT. I saw this in action. I reported my rapes to one of the policemen I had trained.

‘I don’t want to sound like Pollyanna. I’m not looking at this through rose-tinted spectacles. Not for one second am I “glad” it happened to me. There is still much to be done in Botswana, and clearly this is also true here in the UK. But I am telling you that I have seen for myself how things can be improved by sharing stories and by active listening.

‘The chapter in my story I want to tell you today is not easy: it’s not even my story to tell. I’m here today to speak out for victims of rape we rarely hear about.

‘Rape doesn’t just happen to one person. It happens to the family too and it nearly broke mine. I learned about the secondary victims of rape because my children were. Secondary victims need to be acknowledged and given advocacy. Living with someone who has Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is bewildering, challenging, dangerous and harmful.

‘I’m not ashamed that I was raped but I am desolate that while I was healing I hurt my children. It’s no fun standing here sharing this part of my story, but if we peel back the layers of secrecy that shroud sexual violence we’ll reach a deeper understanding, and thus be able to provide appropriate support for silent secondary victims.

‘Healing is a messy, Sisyphean process – it’s not like it is in the movies. I’m not going to tell you how I healed because everyone does that differently, in her own way, in her own time. Healing is about taking back control and I would never dream of imposing or advising any system, pedagogy, therapy or magic pathway to a woman – or a man – who has been raped. Everyone needs to find their own route back and not be judged by how long it takes them. But I was ill – for a long time – without knowing it. I carried on with my life, picked up the pieces, did all the things I used to do; but with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder – and drinking like a fish. Not a good combo. It’s true I was living in the African bush under extreme conditions, but the heart of my story is not unusual. Families who welcome back army veterans understand all too well the pain of living with a loved one who has PTSD.

‘A while ago I saw an episode of Homeland, I think many of you will have seen it. But for those who haven’t here it is in a nutshell: a war veteran returns home, radicalized and suffering from PTSD. He’s welcomed back into the bosom of his family and he wrecks it. His wife gives a speech at some posh meeting and says simply: “The vets get the help, but who is there for the family?” I remember fist-punching the air when I heard that. It’s the family who deal with the midnight terrors, the rages, the erratic behaviour and the violence: all the while loving the person who is brutalizing them. I knew it was true because my children had to deal with that: my wildness, my drinking, my cruelty, my violence.

‘The poison of the rapes contaminated me and spilled out into my kids. And there was no one there for them. They just had each other to cling to. They were eight, fourteen, fifteen, seventeen and twenty-three when it happened. All at different stages of their lives, all needy in different ways, all loving and deeply concerned, all emotionally intelligent, kind humans who lost the mother they trusted for years. The person who had been their rock crumbled and they tried to put me together again. Simply put – it took longer than they could bear.’

I heard a man breathe in sharply, he was sitting in the third row, and I can picture him now. He looked at me and his eyes told me he understood. He was kind, and brave enough to look at a raw reality. He gave me the courage I needed to carry on:

‘My kids loved the person who was hurting them and that is harmful at a profound level. My job is to heal them but not to do so in silence. Or in shame. AA and NA have programmes for families and partners. We need to provide similar support for the families of the victims of sexual crime. Rape takes minutes but it takes years to heal. How many? There is no definitive answer.

‘We can be quite brutally prescriptive with each other’s pain. We designate timescales for recovery from divorce: three years. We prescribe five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Boom! – sorted. But healing cannot be fitted to a curve: it’s not a neatly balanced equation. It’s chaotic, muddled, ugly, visionary, enriching, disempowering, bleak, and painful. Healing is neither linear nor progressive. It happens in quantum time frames, each isolated from the others. And that is what makes it so hard to live with someone who is healing. My loving kids celebrated tiny steps, felt relieved when we had good days, were comforted by moments when I seemed to be the mother they knew and understood, and then something would trigger me and everything would go tits up again.

‘For me the hardest part has been getting better. When empathy returns you can see the harm you have done. That’s why I’m here. Not to talk about the harm that was done to me. But to talk about its knock-on effects. The ripples in the stream.

‘I love my children as deeply as it’s possible to love. Indeed, I loved them before I met them. If anyone had told me I could be disconnected from my children I would have laughed in their face: nothing on earth could do that. But three strangers ripped me from my family in less than twenty minutes.

‘Rape is a violation: for me it did not touch my sexuality: that may seem odd to some of you but I am being honest and telling you my story. For me the violation was the loss of empathy. I lost my root. And I couldn’t feel. That made me dangerous to my children. I broke their hearts. And it is a testament to how massive their hearts are that I am here today and able to tell you we are on the mend. I am safe again and strong.

‘Being raped did not make me a better person – let me be clear on that. Being raped did nothing but harm; but recovering has enriched my humanity.

‘The secondary victims of rape are everywhere: in refugee centres, in forests in the Congo; in war-torn countries, and somewhere on your road; in your classrooms, in your office, maybe sitting next to you on the bus. They need our help. When a rape is reported we must put systems in place to support the families, partners and carers. They are the ones who pick up the pieces and currently they are doing it in isolation. AA and NA give support to families so the model is there: we just need to acknowledge the problem and take action.

‘I want to end with something one of my children said to me: “Mum, I wish it hadn’t happened to you. I wish it hadn’t happened to us. But getting through it made me who I am today: and I like who I am.”

‘I like who he is too.’

The room was silent. I felt no animosity, no judgement. Yet, despite assurances from all three speakers that we were happy to take questions, at the last moment Jude had made an executive decision: for our protection. No questions, no filming, our messages would go no further than that room.

Stripped of my voice, I had told my story into a void.

I had reached more people sitting under trees in Botswana. I was a pointless Woman of the World.

The audience shuffled out, and standing limply on the dais I watched them politely jostling in the doorway, checking their programmes for the next venue. Jude Kelly thanked me and the other participants and bustled off to attend to other matters. My legs began to shake. I hadn’t expected to respond so viscerally: to feel so empty.