Saturday 24 February 2018

Victim of gay-bashing filled with forgiveness

Where I Am, a documentary, is the story of the assault on a gifted US author, writes Joy Orpen

Novelist Robert Drake's life is stranger than fiction. His is a tale filled with love and high expectation; but it's also one of brutality, pain, and disastrous consequences.

It's the story of a handsome, gifted writer who, following theatre studies in Virginia, moved to Los Angeles where he formally "came out".

"There weren't a lot of openly gay people in west Virginia back then. So when I left home on the plane, I was straight – and when I landed in LA, I was gay!"

Robert then became a literary agent. Speaking in Dublin recently he says the process of nurturing literary talents in others led him to writing The Gay Canon: Great Books Every Gay Man Should Read and The Man: A Hero for Our Time, Book One.

Then in the late 1990s Robert, who was by then living in Philadelphia, decided to move to Ireland because, "I had such great respect for the literary tradition here – I even liked the weather!"

This young American was well received by many important literary greats including Colm Toibin and members of the Irish Writers' Centre. "I was hanging out with lots of literary types and that made me feel really good."

Then he fell in love with Kieran Slevin and moved to Sligo town to be with Kieran who was working as a doctor in the local hospital.

However, on the night of January 31, 1999, Robert was savagely assaulted.

Over a decade later his assailants have already been released from jail, while Robert remains trapped inside a body that is still deeply affected by the injuries sustained during the assault which he describes as a "gay bashing".

Now he struggles laboriously to formulate his words. He is confined to a wheelchair because his balance is gone and he needs assistance with just about every area of his life.

His recollections of that night remain "fuzzy".

It would appear that 20 year-old Ian Monaghan and 21 -year-old Glen Mahon encountered Robert while he was standing outside his house smoking a cigar. They allegedly asked him for a cigarette; but as he had none, he invited them in. Some drinking ensued but after that the details become sketchy, until Kieran arrives back some 15 hours later when he finds his lover at death's door.

"Things were upside down. I could hear an awful groaning noise coming from the kitchen. There was blood everywhere – even on the ceiling. I had an eerie sensation of an abattoir after everyone has gone home – pure disaster. They left him for dead. I absolutely did think he was going to die."

"What was done to him was really criminal and absolutely disastrous," says Toibin in Where I Am, a documentary about the American's devastating experience. "It was savage, cruel and inexplicable."

Robert had clung to consciousness for hours just so he could tell Kieran he loved him. Then he sank into unconsciousness before being rushed to hospital. "His skull was fractured. He was in a coma, on a ventilator unable to move," recalls Kieran with deep sadness.

Robert would only gain a sense of who and where he was months later when he was already back in the US.

An RTE report covering the trial of Monaghan and Mahon in January 2000, says the judge found the events of that night "truly shocking". The accused (who got 10 years mitigated to eight years) claimed Robert had made a pass at one of them and that they had merely "thumped" him, and not more than three times.

"I have no memory of that night," says Robert. "They say I made a pass at one of them. But I don't think so. I was happy ... with Kieran."

Whatever the case, Robert was on life support for weeks, and required intensive nursing at Beaumont Hospital, Dublin before being flown back to the US.

Then followed more months of hospitalisation in Philadelphia, followed by an intense rehabilitation programme.

A decade later his memory is still poor. During this interview in Dublin he struggles to put events in order. His larynx was damaged by the tracheotomy used to help him breathe, so now he has a speech impediment. He can't walk and he can only type with one finger.

Yet, in spite of everything, his razor sharp wit remains intact, he is insightful, incredibly funny, articulate and knowledgeable and is immensely likable and upbeat.

He says the support he got in Philadelphia from the local gay and lesbian community and from his church – Robert is a committed Quaker – was stunning.

"They were behind me before I even came home. They gave Kieran a place to stay until I came out of hospital and then they found us an apartment."

Kieran nursed Robert day and night for a considerable period of time, but then they parted.

"We actually stopped being lovers at the time of the attack," says Robert, "but now we are best friends."

Currently he is writing an account of what happened to him and no, he isn't bitter and he doesn't hate Monaghan or Mahon who served their sentences for the attack.

"I was able to move on pretty quickly because I have so much support," he says candidly. "Forgiveness was one of the first things I dealt with. You have to decide whether you're going to let go of anger or not. I don't wish them bad at all."

And does he despise this country given what happened to him?

"I don't blame Ireland. Gay bashing happens all over the place including the US. The guards (in Sligo) were really great. I have nothing but good to say about them. They took care of everything."

Last year local film producer/director Pamela Drynan recorded Robert's heart wrenching journey to Sligo when he hoped to jog his memory, and to make sense of his oh so altered life. He also hoped to meet the men who had assaulted him; to find out what the last decade had been like for them. "I would have asked only one thing. 'Why didn't you just leave?'" (instead of assaulting him).

But even though they showed remorse at his trial, they declined to meet him on this visit.

As to those crucial missing memories; they have not yet surfaced.

We then see Robert prepare for his return trip to the States to resume his efforts to make the best of his difficult, painful but immensely interesting and courageous journey.

Where I Am, part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, will be shown at The Lighthouse cinema Dublin on February 16.

Tel (01) 687-7974

Irish Independent

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