In her bid to ensure that her attacker couldn’t do the same to another woman, Sarah started campaigning publicly for changes to Ireland’s criminal justice system for other sexual-violence survivors. This culminated in her meeting with Justice Minister Helen McEntee and the Director of Public Prosecutions in March 2021 to discuss legal reforms, and their work continues to this day.
In an effort to face the reality of the attack, and as an aid to her recovery, she started writing a book, titled Ash + Salt, which revisits the memories of her assault, its aftermath, and the trial.
She explains the book’s title: “An event as traumatic as rape or sexual assault is like a volcano, blowing a hole through your life and reducing everything in it to ashes. And yet, volcanic ash is one of the most fertile types of soil, due to the many minerals and plant nutrients it contains.
While ash marks the place of devastation, it can also be an opportunity to replant, rebuild, and regrow life that will flourish more beautifully than the one that burnt down before it.
“Salt, however, is toxic. It corrodes almost all materials and weakens even the strongest of metals. After sacking and burning the mighty city of Carthage to the ground, legend has it that the Romans sowed salt over the ashes to ensure nothing could ever grow from there again.
“I use salt in my book as a metaphor for the toxic elements that hinder healing – toxic friends, toxic environments, and toxic thoughts. The aim of my book is to offer the tools necessary to clear the salt from the ash, and chart the pathway to recovery.”
Following her assault, Sarah kept diaries in order to help keep her mind clear and deal with the trauma. “I have three full diaries – back to back. Some pages are black with text, because I kept contemporaneous notes throughout the whole process. I did that for several reasons. I was really struggling to keep track of everything that was happening, and I was experiencing the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Due to those effects, I found that my memory was failing me at times, so I wanted to make sure I was detailing and tracking everything. Throughout the criminal-justice process, I was spotting certain mistakes that were being made by the gardaí and the prosecution, and I wanted to make sure that, come the trial, I would be as ready as possible.
“So, when it came to writing the book, my diaries were my first port of call. I was astounded by how many of my diarised memories had been ‘deleted’ from my mind – most likely as a survival mechanism. It certainly wasn’t easy to revisit those, but the purpose of the book was to help others going through the same experience.
“I figured that all of the information I had gathered along the way – links I had saved and tips I had received from therapists and lawyers – would be incredibly useful, not only for future survivors, but also for people who have no idea what survivors go through and who wish to better understand it.
“I also wanted my experience to guide those trying to achieve the reforms that are so badly needed – and to help to ensure that survivors would be treated better.”
Past and present
How does ‘past’ Sarah, as revealed in her diaries, differ from ‘present’ Sarah?
“Certainly, at the beginning, the ‘earlier’ Sarah was almost a shell of a person. In fact, in the beginning of my first diary, I just didn’t have the strength to write full notes, only bullet points. There’s no personality in them whatsoever, no emotion. They’re written by somebody in a completely disassociated state, so it’s difficult to look back at them and see that everything had shut down in me.”
How did she cope?
“I did different things – learning a lot by trial and error. The hardest part was the anger – and realising that you are constantly angry. It took me a long time to realise that. People were pointing out how impatient I was about small things – printers not working or trains being late – and I would just go into a fury.
“The same was true when I read in the news about how survivors were being treated by our courts system, and the lack of empathy there. It was a mix of therapy, yoga and exercise that eventually got me through my anger.
“I remember when I wrote my victim impact statement for the trial, and I had to list out every single impact the crime had had on my life. My parents read it and were dumbfounded. While they knew about everything that had happened, they didn’t actually realise how much of an impact it had had on me, day to day. I think that’s the case with a lot of survivors.
“In Ireland, nearly half of survivors don’t tell a single person. They will tell nobody in their entire lives because of the stigma and the shame that attaches to sexual assault. A person can repress things to protect themselves, but actually that’s not protecting themselves – that’s keeping the poison inside.”
The importance of evidence
Did her training as a lawyer help her in any way?
“It was definitely a start. It certainly helped in terms of understanding the importance of evidence immediately after the assault. I insisted on being taken to hospital – even though I was being advised not to – because I understood the importance of the medical evidence to be collected. If I hadn’t gone, we would have lost key evidence that swung the verdict the right way.
“There are very clear checklists at the end of every chapter of my book about everything that everybody needs to know in order to give themselves the best possible chance, come the trial – if there is one.
“The whole point of my book is to help people, so I didn’t see the point of just writing about my story because, to be honest, that’s just a little voyeuristic. I wanted to help people understand and put into practice the learnings I was sharing.
“Before I started writing the book, I was actually working with Minister for Justice Helen McEntee on a checklist for survivors and what they needed to know at each stage of their criminal-justice procedure journey. That checklist grew to become Ash + Salt.
“I wrote the book to take the stigma out of being a sexual-assault survivor because, when I was going through it, there was no role model for this. There was nobody I could think of that I could look up to and be guided by how they were managing their journey, and maybe adapt my behaviour to theirs.
We often think of rape as almost a ‘death sentence’, which can be due to the social stigma around it. I’m trying to show people that it isn’t.”
Surely she’s not saying that there’s a silver lining to what she experienced?
“I have very much reached the point in my life now where I’ve embraced what’s happened to me, my journey, and the person I am now. If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t change it.
“That’s not to take away from the horror of it, and how painful it was, and I wouldn’t want to experience it again – but I would still take that over not having gone through it at all, because of the person it has made me today.”
Why decide to tell the world? Surely it would have been easier to stay below the radar?
“I was very reluctant to give up my anonymity. I’m a private person, and I don’t enjoy being in the spotlight. But I was thinking of other survivors going through this and how, when I was going through it, I would have loved to have had this book or the checklists it offers – firstly, to know that I’m not alone and that what I’m going through emotionally is normal and, secondly, to know what to do.
“After the verdict, there were several articles in Irish newspapers that, while they didn’t name me, went into such intrusive detail on the facts of the case that anybody who knew about the break-in would know that this was me.
“You don’t often hear of a homeless person breaking into a woman’s room in the middle of the night and climbing on her bed and attempting to strangle her. Those articles were just shock value, focusing only on the worst things, including the guy’s nationality, which I didn’t want to be talked about because I knew that it would trigger a highly racist conversation on social-media platforms, instead of focusing on the issues with our courts system.”
Taking the reins
“After those articles, I decided to take back the reins. I reached out to The Irish Times to tell my story. I wanted to practice what I was preaching about how we shouldn’t be ashamed; we shouldn’t be made to suffer in silence.
“The World Health Organisation estimates that one in three women worldwide will be sexually or physically assaulted in their lifetime. I really wanted to start encouraging an open conversation, and to show people that there’s nothing to be afraid of speaking about here. We can have this conversation, and we don’t need to shy away from it.”
In her book, she goes into significant detail about the importance of being able to give evidence behind a screen in court: “Giving evidence about having been sexually assaulted is the most daunting and humiliating thing to have to do.
“To have to take the stand and go into so much anatomical detail of what was done to you, in a room full of 30 strangers, while the person who did this to you is sitting within touching distance of you, is something I could not have done if it weren’t for the separation screen. I was terrified of seeing his face and becoming completely overwhelmed, of not being able to speak or being able to get through it. I mean, you’re on the stand for hours.”
What other reforms would she like to see?
“The main one that I’m fighting for is stopping this practice around seizing the counselling records of the victim, which is barbaric. It is the most inhumane practice I’ve ever seen, and it’s happening with the sole purpose of disproving what the victim is saying.
“You have to take the stand knowing that your attacker and the defence and prosecution teams have all read your deepest, darkest thoughts, voiced in a place that should be one of safety, of privacy, to a licensed therapist.”
Getting things right
Did the criminal-justice system get anything right?
“In my case, the gardaí were excellent. They went above and beyond. They clearly cared about the case. I was horrified to find out that some of them had no training whatsoever, but they still handled the whole thing very well.
“I also think that the judge handled the case very well. He was careful to be balanced, which was infuriating to me at times because it was such a clear-cut case, but I could see afterwards the value of that, because it meant that there was no appeal.”
Does she ever see glimpses of the ‘old’ Sarah?
“I think in terms of the core, the old Sarah is still there. But I’ve grown hugely and, no, I think I am a very different person today. I’m much calmer – a lot more confident.
“I’m doing things that used to terrify me, like speaking publicly. I still find it daunting but, you know, people are so supportive about what I do, so that’s very encouraging – and it does seem to be helping people.
“One of the things that keeps me going also is that many people, the ‘non-survivors’, who normally would not want to deal with this, are speaking up, or showing an interest, or listening and taking on board what’s being said, and starting to have a dialogue around this. I find that so encouraging.
“It’s the only reason why I’m continuing to do it, because it’s something that doesn’t come to me naturally at all. But I think it’s doing a lot of good. So as long as it does, I’ll keep doing it.”
Sarah Grace is a solicitor and certified yoga teacher. Of French and Irish nationality, she was raised in Japan and France and graduated from University College London and Université Paris II Panthéon-Assas with an LLB degree in law and French law. After moving to Ireland in 2016, she qualified as a solicitor in 2018, and now works as international corporate counsel for Stripe.
Frank McNamara is a solicitor in Beauchamps LLP and a member of the Law Society’s Younger Members Committee.
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