“Brave” is a word that’s bandied about so cheaply and so casually, it’s been worn smooth through overuse, like a pebble on a wave-washed beach.
Critics will describe some A-list Hollywood star as “brave” because they skip the make-up chair, blacken their teeth and gain weight to play an undesirable character. When you reach that point, it’s no longer a word; it’s become a noise.
So, when it comes to using a word like “brave” in the proper sense, using it to say what it’s supposed to say, it often feels inadequate. But what can you do but try?
Sexual abuse survivor Sophia Murphy, the subject of the first in a new run of the award-winning documentary series Finné (Witness) on TG4 last night, is an astonishingly brave woman. The depth of her courage knocks you flat on your back. It leaves you in awe of her.
Last year, her father, John Murphy, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for raping, sexually assaulting and indecently assaulting her.
It didn’t happen a few times; it happened pretty much every day of her life, from the time she was a toddler of one-and-a-half through to her mid-teens.
It destroyed her childhood and her young womanhood. It sent her on a spiral into drink and drugs, and battles with eating disorders.
It might have extinguished her completely had she not found strength from within and from others: her siblings, her beloved grandparents (who knew nothing of what was going on) and her own daughter, Sarah, born in 2003.
Sophia waived her right to anonymity after the trial in order to help other sexual abuse victims (including, she only learned in 2013, her two younger sisters), to let them know they can speak out, they can be heard, they can have justice.
The trial made headlines, nationally and internationally, because the abuse was so horrific, so unrelenting and unspeakably cruel. All the newspaper stories in the world, however, can never carry the power or convey the pain of Sophia’s own words, her own memories, delivered straight to camera for much of the programme.
She recalled being three and sitting at the back of a bus with her father in Galway. “He slid my underwear to one side and started fondling me,” she said.
They were some boys standing near the bus. “All I was thinking was, ‘They’re going to see him.’ That’s my first memory. I was an adult even before I was a child.”
She remembered that at their home in Galway’s rough, rundown Rahoon flats, a mat depicting the Last Supper hung on one of the walls. “Judas betrayed Jesus and that tapestry, to me, means betrayal,” she said.
Within those same walls, the ultimate betrayal — the betrayal of the trust and love an innocent little girl gives freely to a parent, to a father — was being re-enacted every day.
Physical abuse went hand in hand with sexual abuse. One day, her father dug out an old paddling pool and filled it with water. But there were dead flies in it.
When Sophia, scared, jumped out, he whipped her savagely across the back and legs with curtain wire. Then, he comforted her. Then he sexually abused her again.
A cherished childhood memory is the day after her Communion, when she danced around her bedroom in her lovely white dress, feeling, as every little girl does, “like a princess”. Her father abused her that day too. He put his head under her dress.
The programme was a catalogue of shocking horrors, and of shocking institutional failure. Sophia learned, in adulthood, from her HSE file that social workers had received three separate reports at intervals over the years that she was being abused, yet did nothing.
It’s also an extraordinary exploration of the complex relationship between abuser and victim, the constant tug of war between love, hate, anger, fear and misplaced guilt.
This was a deeply distressing film, but one that absolutely demands to be watched. Sophia Murphy’s bravery deserves nothing less.
Finné/Witness (TG4) is available on the TG4 player.
In July 2018, Sophia Murphy’s father John Murphy was sentenced to 18 years in prison for the relentless sexual abuse of Sophia from the age of three until she was 15. He also abused Sophia's two younger sisters.