I try to tell Stephanie Hickey how impressed I am with her book, Running From The Shadows, a beautifully-written account of the darkest parts of her life, and how learning to run saved her from them, but she cuts me off.
"I should be able to say 'thank you,'" she says, "but I can't. I can't take a compliment. It makes me uncomfortable. I feel I don't deserve to be where I am today. I'm an ordinary girl, from an ordinary country family, who reared three kids on their own. Why would anyone want to talk to me? Why would anyone ask me to go on the radio and talk?"
She doesn't understand that although she may lead an ordinary life, she is far from an ordinary person.
One of the many terrible things the sexual abuse of children does is to take away their sense of agency and power - take their proper sense of themselves and replace it with shame and the desire to hide.
Stephanie has fought her way through all of that in order to speak out - to name the man who abused her, and one of her sisters, along with other young girls, and in doing so, she has given up her own privacy, to stand as his accuser in the full glare of public knowledge.
She won, in that the man - Bartholomew Prendergast - pleaded guilty to sexual abuse and rape, in 2018 and was sentenced to 10 years. But she lost too. Prendergast was her brother-in-law, a popular and prominent member of the small community in west Waterford where Stephanie grew up, close with all her family, until she and her sister Deirdre revealed what he had done. And so she has lost. Because sadly, families don't always survive such heartbreak intact, and communities don't always take the side of victims.
It was the certainty of that, along with a natural desire to bury bad memories, that kept her silent for so long.
"I thought my story was my story, to take with me till I died. That's what I believed. I never thought I would get it to a court door, and I never thought I would take him behind bars. Because I knew it would break my family, and I didn't want that. I'm not strong. I just wanted it to go away. To get through my day - get up in the morning and have a happy day. Go for a run, whatever it might take to feel better and love myself. It has cost me, and I'm still paying the price and I don't think that will ever end."
Stephanie was nine when Prendergast first came into her life. He was, she says in the book, "a huge character… a local celebrity… playing in a well-known pub band… the life and soul of the party." She was 11 when she was flower girl at his wedding to her sister, and 12 when he sexually assaulted her first.
Until then, hers had been a happy country childhood. The youngest of a large family, born in 1971, she grew up in the village of Touraneena. Her early years were filled with blackberry picking, hide-and-seek, Irish dancing and music. Her father, Tommy, was a much-respected singer, accordion player and set dancer; her mother, Kathleen, a formidable woman who expressed love through baking.
We've all heard the word 'grooming' in the context of sexual predators, and we think we know what it means. The trouble is, so often it looks like kindness. It can even feel like that at first to the victims. When Prendergast began talking to Stephanie about music, buying her clothes, tapes of Dionne Warwick, that's what it felt like: "Coming from a big family, getting all this one-on-one attention is wonderful," she writes.
When the abuse began, she had no words to describe it, even to herself. "I was 12 years old. I had never had a boyfriend, never been kissed." She had thought Prendergast was like a brother. "We were brought up so Catholic, so religious," she tells me. "It was school, Mass every Sunday. Sex was never talked about, periods weren't talked about. I didn't know how to speak about this and say 'this has happened'. That person was looked up to so much, I knew in my head that no one was going to believe me."
The abuse continued for about four years. Through it, Stephanie believed, as so many victims do, that she was somehow responsible. In the way that children can, she compartmentalised her life.
"Kids have the ability to hide it and I was able to do that," she says. "I had a 30-year school reunion last August, and the girls gave me this massive bunch of flowers and they all cried with me. They went 'oh my God, we sat beside you for all those years and you never told us. You came in happy. You smiled and laughed and went on school tours, we had a ball. And through it all, you were going through this.' They were shocked. Sometimes I'd cry in my own home in my bed at night but mostly, it was hid - I buried it so deep."
When Stephanie was 16, something, she says, "snapped", and she made a plan to free herself. The plan, as she recounts it in the book, has a tragic, childish logic. Instead of telling an adult what was happening, she decided to get stroppy, get busy, and get a boyfriend. She worked out that if she could be less compliant, if she could fill her time - she took up Irish dancing again more seriously - and if she could get a boyfriend to protect her, she might be safe.
The plan worked, to an extent. The abuse stopped. But the damage was done, and continued to reverberate throughout Stephanie's life.
"I was looking for an escape. I was always running to the next thing to save me. I couldn't wait to get married, I couldn't wait to move out of home. Every fellow I met I thought, 'can you marry me tomorrow?' It was the only escape I could see. Someone to whip me off my feet and take me away. I thought then I'd be safe."
There were moments during those years that she came close to telling - at one stage, she did tell a girl she knew; the girl confided that she too was being abused by Prendergast, and later told her own mother. Prendergast was confronted by the girl's parents, and sent to a local priest, who in turn sent him to a psychiatrist, and after a few weeks he was back, apparently 'cured'. But the abuse of Stephanie continued because still no adult knew of it. Then she told her first boyfriend, who made sure to accompany her any time she had to meet Prendergast, and then later she told the man she married. Finally, she told her sister Deirdre's boyfriend - which is when she discovered that Deirdre too had been a victim.
By the time she was 21, Stephanie was married, with a baby, and living in Donegal. She had three more children - one baby girl was born at 27 weeks and died within hours - "that broke me so much," she says - before the marriage ended. Those, she says, were the hardest years.
"There were times in Donegal," she says, "when I walked Rossnowlagh beach - one of the most beautiful places I know - when I used to think 'would it be easier if I entered that water and just kept going? Would all these feelings that I feel right now - I'm lonely; my marriage is gone, I've got three kids and no job; I've got to pretend to be strong for them, I can't cry, I can't be weak... What if I just walked out there?' You know when you hit that place where you're so low? I had a loneliness, an emptiness. What brought me back was my children, and my mam and dad. I thought, 'I can't do this to my children. I want to see them grow up.'"
But on those walks across the beach, she also made a commitment to the future. "I used to look across the bay, and I said 'I'm going to get this done', in my head. I wasn't saying what I was getting done, but I knew in my head. I'd say 'I will do it, I will do it…' My sister Deirdre was ready [to go to the police] for years," she says. "It took me longer."
She moved back home to Waterford with her children - her older sister by then was separated from Prendergast - and after a few years met Angelo, her partner and father of her youngest child. "When I met him first, we took a year of just meeting for coffee. I think he knew there was something…"
By the time she was 42, now with four children, Stephanie had "many days" where she didn't want to get out of bed. She would wake and force herself up and through the day. She was smoking too much, scared, in pain, full of anger at the world in general, with frequent nightmares. She was taking medication for anxiety, for insomnia, and was "scared that the poison would eat me up".
Her sister Deirdre suggested she join a running group, and "reluctantly" Stephanie agreed to go along to one session of a local Couch to 5K. The first evening she walked and ran three miles, and said she was never going back. But she did, again and again. Within six weeks she did a 6K race, running through the shame she felt at her body, the self-loathing and certainty that it would let her down in some way, all legacies of the abuse. Running, she says, "saved my life". Through it, she began to learn that she was good at something - a natural - and that happiness was after all something she was entitled to. She finally found her way to a profound decision: it was time to speak out.
There were many strands to that decision. Her father was gravely ill and Stephanie, who suspected that he had intuited something of what had happened, wanted him to know she had fought back. At the same time, it had become more difficult to squash down the awful feelings and she began to worry about what she might do to herself. Her children were older, her partner was prepared to support her, Deirdre was ready - had long been ready - to stand with her. And the running had given her some measure of self-belief.
"I was 15 or 16 hours over two nights in the Garda station," she says of making her statement. "And it was buried so deep that it was only then it started coming back to me. I had locked it away for so long. When I had to describe what he had done, I couldn't get the words out. The level of detail I had to give, I felt dirty trying to say it."
The kindness and professional care she was met with were, she says, wonderful. And yet there was more than just the trauma of the revelations. When Stephanie began her statement, she said she wished to report sexual abuse. Then she came to the first time Prendergast forced her to have intercourse with him, and the garda had to stop her to explain that what she was reporting was not abuse, it was rape. "I felt stupid, like I had no brains. I really didn't know I had been raped. That still hurts me. It was the word. It was such a bad, horrible word, that no girl or boy should endure. That destroyed me."
The police began their investigations, building up layers of evidence against Prendergast, and finally, he was arrested. When it came time to go to court, Stephanie and Deirdre decided to waive their right to be anonymous. A third woman, also a victim of Prendergast, chose not to. "It was a gut feeling," says Stephanie, of that decision. "I felt, something good has to come from something bad. If I speak out, maybe others will feel they can speak out. Going public was the only way I could do that. Deirdre felt the same."
Her family was a huge consideration for Stephanie, and shame was another. And yet "when I walked out the court doors, and sat on the train going home, I said 'you know what, everybody knows now. And I don't care. If they look at me and think 'there's that girl who was raped, that's the one who was on television', I don't care. I don't have to hide any more. And that feels good, even though I don't feel good about myself.'"
And yes, there were some for whom she was 'that girl'. But there were, and are, many more for whom Stephanie has been a beacon of hope. "It's the older women who stop me on the street, coming up and hugging me and saying 'you're a voice for women in Ireland. You don't know what went on in our years…' These are women in their 80s. That's what makes me strong. They mean even more to me than the younger women."
And yet Stephanie is far from 'over it.' "I've had a lot of people coming to me and saying 'well done, it's all over now. Move on with your life.' But this is part of me. You learn to live with it, but it'll always be part of you. I get panic attacks, I get a lot of anxiety. It can hit me like that, for no reason. I could be out shopping, and if I thought I saw someone I didn't want to see, it hits me. I'll leave the shopping trolley there, and I'll go out and walk for a few minutes and take my breather and I'll think 'it's okay, you haven't done anything wrong,' and try to guide myself back into a calm place again."
Has she had any therapy? "Never. Just myself. I'll go for a run, or go for a walk. I'm so used to hiding - I'm able to put on my face and I'm able to deal with it. Maybe in here I'm ate away sometimes and I feel sick, or I feel stressed, but I find a way through it. I find something nice in that day. I love to take pictures of the sky. I love to go to the beach. I love nature. So when I feel all those things, I go and walk on the beach and I say 'you're here. You've beautiful kids, be thankful' and that helps me.
"Every little thing I do, I tell myself, 'you did it, you achieved that'. I try to talk to myself like that each day - to encourage myself. I'm inclined to go over the bad stuff again and again, and that will eat me up inside. So if something negative is there, I try to get rid of it. I write a positive thing in my journal, and I have a memory bag, I keep little things - stones, shells - from happy moments. I keep them and when I'm having a bad day, I go to the bag and I pick something out and I have a happy memory."
Running From the Shadows by Stephanie Hickey is out now, published by Hachette Books Ireland
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