Saturday 21 April 2018

Mary Manning tells her remarkable story of survival: 'My stepfather had the power and I was the one who had to hang my head down'

Mary Manning's stepfather began raping her when she was 10, and fathered her first five children. No one ever listened to or believed her as a little girl. She says while she has never got justice, she has finally made people listen and more importantly, believe

Mary Manning pictured for Living. Picture; GERRY MOONEY. 8/7/15
Mary Manning pictured for Living. Picture; GERRY MOONEY. 8/7/15

Sarah Caden

When Mary Manning was 10, her paternal grandfather, known to her as Auld Paul, took to the streets of their native Ardee with a hand-written placard. "MY GRANDCHILDREN ARE BEING ABUSED", it read. Auld Paul had been a respectable figure in the town at one stage, but since his son's death and his daughter-in-law's remarriage, he had hit the bottle and wasn't taken seriously as he ranted and raged around the town, shouting about how his late son's children were being mistreated.

For his one-man-protest efforts, Auld Paul was arrested and bound to the peace. Mary Manning, now in her mid-50s, believes that it was her mother who involved the guards. "This wouldn't have been McDarby's style," she says of her stepfather in her memoir, Nobody Will Believe You. McDarby's style was very different, as she knows better than anyone.

Auld Paul was right, McDarby was abusing Mary. And, the title of Mary's book is spot-on, too, because nobody believed. Not when her stepfather began raping her at the age of 10. Not when, at 17, she had her first of five children by him. Not when she lived the life of a battered, trapped young mother who was clearly, silently, screaming for help.

Auld Paul was the only person who ever tried to help Mary Manning and her younger brother Rikki. And he never got to speak to his grandchildren again, after the day with the placard. He worked as a lollipop man in the town, but Mary remembers walking past him silently, scared even to look at him for fear of how she'd be punished at home. In one of the saddest passages in her book, she recalls visiting her then mute grandfather before his death. He squeezed her hand and stared into her eyes. He knew and she knew he couldn't do anything to save her and it was a long time before anyone ever tried to help Mary Manning again.

"Because of the nature of the abuse," says Mary, who was sexually and physically abused by her stepfather for more than 20 years, "I judged myself very harshly for not being able to stop him. But one of the important pieces that came up for me in my therapeutic journey was, 'Mary, if those adults couldn't stop him, how could a little girl? But I was locked into that. You get your body back from an abuser first, but getting your mind back, that's harder, that's slower.

"And there are layers," Mary, who is now a psychotherapist, explains to me in the lounge of a Dublin hotel. "The shame piece, and all the different aspects. It takes years to break down the layers, there are so many of them. The first is to break down the secrecy. Then you make a statement, which I did eventually. And then you wait. And I didn't even get a phone call. I got a phone call from my abuser to tell me that nothing was going ahead. There are layers, but society and the judgments; that's the hardest. That society doesn't want to know."

The early years of Mary's childhood were charmed, by her own account. Her father was a successf ul businessman, her mother was glamorous and full of life. She and Rikki didn't know it, but they were lucky kids. Then, their father was diagnosed with cancer and died quickly from it. That was bad enough, but soon after their mother brought home her new husband, Sean McDarby, with whom she had been having an affair when Mary's father was alive.

Neither Mary nor Rikki knew anything about McDarby's existence until he arrived into their home as their stepfather, but he set about determining the dynamic immediately. He methodically set about humiliating and belittling Rikki, but McDarby was very different with Mary, and was grooming her from the get-go. He spoiled her, made her uncomfortable with over-the-top flattery and made a pet of her. She knew, in her gut, it was wrong. But she didn't know why and how until he raped her. She was 10. She didn't even know what exactly he was doing and he told her, firmly, calmly, that no one would believe her, while Mary's mother assumed an attitude of ignorance.

I ask Mary if she believes that her mother knew about the abuse, which immediately amounted to rape multiple times a week. "I think she used drink to block everything out," Mary says. "She heard stories, she knew from the family dynamic. She knew.

"I was very angry with her for a long time," Mary adds. "I was more angry with her than I was with him, because she was my mother. You only have one mother.

I spent a lot of years being angry with her."

Mary laughs nervously, when I say that this was justified anger. "I used to feel very bad about being angry with her," Mary says, her eyes full of tears.

Mary herself was a mother not long after doing her Leaving Cert, when she gave birth to her first child with McDarby, a boy called Rory. Her mother berated her for getting pregnant and no one asked about the father.

McDarby's name did not go on Rory's birth cert. Mary can't remember if her mother bothered to ask her who was the father when she became pregnant for a second time. Mary miscarried that baby at home and when she became pregnant for a third time, McDarby took her away from Ardee and set her up in a house in the middle-class north Dublin suburb of Castleknock.

Her second baby was a daughter, Ashley, and four months after she was born, Mary was pregnant with her daughter Iseult. She barely saw a doctor in any of these pregnancies, as the priority wasn't her well-being or that of the children, but instead keeping McDarby's role in this young woman's life a secret. "I was dropped off to give birth at different hospitals, got very little antenatal care at all so nobody would ask any questions," Mary says.

McDarby did not live with Mary and the children and, from that, you can easily wonder why, if he wasn't watching all the time, she couldn't escape or try to get help.

One reason was that he could turn up at any time, and he did, beating and raping her to remind her who was boss. He broke her mind and spirit to the point that she believed she was to blame, she was at fault and she didn't deserve any better.

The children were not oblivious, obviously, but Mary protected them as best she could. "In certain aspects I was traumatised, but not all of me," she clarifies. "I kept it away from them as much as possible. I suffered from depression over the years, but it wasn't like I was going around all the time in trauma. Because you have to get on and you grow up with defence mechanisms. And life has to go on. They have to go to school and have pocket money and have friends and have lives."

Mary was skilled at compartmentalising and surviving the ongoing abuse and agony, but the pregnancy and birth of her fourth child, Andrew, nearly broke her. She tried to leave McDarby after he was born, but got beaten for her efforts. When McDarby took the family to Sligo for a holiday a year later, however, Mary looked out across the Atlantic and made a big decision.

The part of the book in which Mary Manning describes how she secretly saved money, bought a ticket to Boston, and left Ireland and her life and her children behind was one of the most difficult bits to write, she tells me.

I tell Mary that in the lead-up to her flight to Boston, I thought that she was saving for airplane tickets for her and for the kids, but that wasn't the case. She went alone and left the kids, and, probably, she will always feel bad about that.

"It's the only piece in the book that got me emotional, writing it," Mary says. "About the kids. I know now that I was like a wounded animal. I was not in my right mind then, and I know that today."

Boston was not the American dream for Mary. Crushed by guilt and her inability to tell anyone the truth about why she was there or what she had left behind, she slipped into a swamp of drink and drugs. She was a regular in A&E, when she blacked out and had to be pumped out, where one doctor warned her that she was killing herself. She soon had nowhere to live, and soon after that, no will to live.

After several months in the States, she phoned home, to be told by her brother that three of the children had been taken in to care. Their father had not taken responsibility in Mary's absence, and Rory was with Mary's mother. Eventually, Mary contacted social workers in Louth and, in the belief that she wasn't ever coming back, wrote letters saying that her daughters could be fostered and that Andrew could be adopted. She never saw Andrew again.

Ultimately, however, Mary came back to Ireland. The guilt was too much, and the self-destructive spiral into which that and the legacy of the abuse had sent her was going only one way.

At Dublin airport, rather than being met by a social worker McDarby welcomed her home with a beating and then raped her. She was his again. But the children were not.

When Mary approached social workers to reclaim her children, they explained that she had abandoned them and would have to prove she was a fit mother in order to get them back. She told them that McDarby was her stepfather, that he had been abusing her since the age of 10, and they told her this was "unbelievable". Mary could have felt more trapped than ever before, but what she wasn't able to do for herself up to now, which was to free herself from McDarby, she was able to do for her kids.

"I came back from America for my children," Mary says. "I may not have known the driving force behind that but that's what it was. But it took me a long time to accept that it wasn't me who put them in care. I didn't do that, but in my head, it was all my fault.

"I had to answer to everything, but he," Mary says, referring to McDarby, whom she only ever calls "he" or "my stepfather", "was oblivious to it all. He had the power. I was the one who had to hang my head down."

In her book, Mary writes about her flight to America and her return with great calmness. There is no distress in how she explains it, there is no effort to justify it, nor is the writing coloured by guilt. She just paints, plainly, how and who she was then. "After I wrote it," she says, "I rang all the kids and said sorry. I'd made my amends already, but this was a different energy. I was sorry for what we'd all been through."

It was hard to revisit that period in writing, and Mary found it difficult to go back and recall herself as a little girl, too. "Even though I've done a lot of work on myself, it was hard going back," she explains. "It wasn't reliving, but it was going to the next layer of the little girl and what she went through. Because, over the years, there was always so much else to do: the kids, the living. But writing this, I had to go back and meet her and that was tough, because I'd forgotten her. It was, 'Oh my God, I turned my back on her too. In a different way, but I did. I didn't beat myself up for it, but it was important to process that and what it churned up."

Something was different in Mary when she came back from America. She found her fight, perhaps. In a small way, to start, and then it grew. She contacted the Rape Crisis Centre and began to have counselling. She got pregnant again by McDarby and had another daughter, Megan. She got her daughters back from care and she began to stake out a life for them, somewhat strengthened by the fact that her secret was increasingly out in the open.

When Mary's counsellor invited her to a dinner party, she met Karl. Mary didn't think much of him at first and imagined him arrogant, but they slowly struck up a friendship and then a romantic relationship and have now been together for 23 years.

They are married and have three children together, a son Dillon and twins, Amber and Nathaniel. It is with great pride that Mary speaks of how Karl has stayed the course with her. And it is with some surprise that one reads in the book how McDarby remained, until he died, a presence in Mary's life and the lives of her husband and the children.

The hold McDarby had on Mary Manning loosened once she met Karl and started a new life and that is the only way you can understand how they helped to nurse him and attended his funeral. Certainly, Karl sounds like an exceptional person, though Mary won't portray him as a saint. Their marriage sounds far more solid than that.

"I have tested him over the years, on many levels," Mary says with a laugh, "I wouldn't like to live with me. And he's only a human being, he can't always be patient and tolerant, and sometimes, but not so much any more, he'd say, 'Mary, you make it very difficult to love you.'

She talks about how she finds it difficult, still, to be physically demonstrative. She can only hold hands for a brief moment without pulling away, she finds it difficult if anyone touches her face; she doesn't find intimacy very easy.

"But it's incredible to me that there are human beings like Karl. He is the most amazing human being with all the children, with the girls, with Rory. I used to watch, just in case. The lift of an eyebrow and I'd be suspicious. And that's important, to see the parental influence that someone could be. My children have a role model. There has been a lot of healing in all the relationships."

In her time of healing, Mary trained and began working as a psychotherapist. "I hear people with every part of me," she says, adding that people "find" her, despite her lack of advertising or looking for work. During that healing time, too, McDarby paid damages to Mary for the years of abuse, which allowed them to buy their own home, one not owned by him.

Also, Mary took a civil case against all the institutions that she claimed had let her down, which was thrown out, much to her dismay and to the disgust, in particular, of Karl and her second daughter, Iseult.

"I was approached to do the book by O'Brien Press," Mary says, "and it took me three years to think about it. I decided to do it because I didn't get justice and I did it for Iseult. There is a very powerful connection between us and she carried so much for me and I needed to take that back off her. Because it's mine; it's not hers.

"The person in front of you today is a very different person than I was even 10 years ago," says Mary. "What happened to me doesn't have the same weight or power anymore and that's because of the work I've done on myself over the years. It doesn't have the same lead weight. It's more of a light weight.

"And I look different, too," she adds. "For years I felt so inadequate, so, for example, I have had a facelift, because I felt so much older than my years. I always looked older. I dressed so much older. I was so much older. If it's possible to feel 200, I felt it. And I looked it and I looked in the mirror and saw it. So I did something about it."

That was a clear message to yourself that a chapter was over, I say. "It was," answers Mary, and she giggles like a girl.

She giggles like a carefree girl, but Mary Manning is about to become a grandmother for the second time, but to her first granddaughter. Iseult is pregnant and the baby will be called Bronte Phoenix, Mary tells me.

"Phoenix, the bird that rises from the ashes," she says, "and they want to call her that in honour of me."

It's only the second time Mary Manning has seemed on the verge of tears in the whole time we've been together, but these are happy tears."I was in bits when they told me," she says. "It's beautiful. It's very sacred. I love it."

Mary Manning often wonders what if. What if someone had listened to Auld Paul? What if one care worker had asked why? What if she had been able to get away from McDarby sooner? But biggest what if, she says, is always what if her father had lived? Life might have been very different, of course.

"I believe he sent me Karl, though," says Mary Manning, and for that, in the middle of all the regretful whys and what ifs, she is thankful.

'Nobody Will Believe You', by Mary Manning, is published by The O'Brien Press

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