by Aidan Maloney
“Frail rape victim Lavinia Kerwick’s weight has plummeted to a life- threatening 2½ stone, The courageous Kilkenny woman – who made legal history in going public about her rape ordeal – goes into hospital today to halt her deadly slimming disease.
“This is the lowest I’ve ever been,” Lavinia (24) said last night “I realise unless I do something I could be dead in a few weeks.”
“Lavinia described how she visited her doctor last Thursday – and shocked even herself with her all-time-low weight” ¹
The Star reported in an exclusive interview on July 28th.
Lavinia has become a complex symbol of woman in contemporary Ireland. She has come to represent a woman fighting an uncaring criminal justice system, a victim of rape, a victim of anorexia, a victim with access to the media when she is willing to talk about her suffering and crises. Lavinia Kerwick’s anorexia began after she was raped and her condition now seems to fluctuate with events connected to it.
“Lavinia’s health picked up following the publication of her book “Little Girl” earlier this year.”²
Subsequently she received poison pen letters and her condition worsened. It deteriorated again on the anniversary of her court case on July 15th. Despite her extremely low weight she lost a half stone in a week and a half. A similar pattern is reported in “Little Girl”³. When the book was written there was some dispute with a publisher and its publication was delayed. Lavinia was in hospital at the time and the author comments;
“I knew another disappointment could push her over the edge.”(4)
The second pattern in Lavinia’s young life seems to be that she is forever caught in double binds. She is both attracted to and repelled by attention, and by life itself. To become famous as a result of a crime where part of the injury is the public awareness that such a crime has been perpetrated against you is a double bind.
“The worst thing for me at that point was walking down the street and knowing that something as private and as shocking as rape was public knowledge.”5
To desperately need to have some control and influence over life and yet the only instrument of influence seems to be how close one is to death is a dilemma where one is trapped in a constant struggle between life and death.
Lavinia achieved national attention when she and her sister phoned the Gerry Ryan show to speak about how upset she was that the young man who was convicted of raping her had his sentence adjourned for one year. The judge said that “he was giving him a chance as a human being” but he warned him that if he transgressed in any way, even by simple drunkenness or disorderly behaviour, he would sentence him to ten years in prison.
He ordered William Conry to stay away from Lavinia, to report regularly to the probation service and to abide by the directions of the psychiatrist who had interviewed him.
The Judge said that he wanted to make it perfectly clear that no blame whatever should be attributed to Lavinia. She left the court holding her head high, he said.
Apart from making a statement to Garda Agnes Reddy, Lavinia did not get the opportunity to describe to the court what happened.
Sergeant Tuohy said that while the accused had met the girl previously, they had not previously had sexual intercourse. On New Year’s Eve they had gone for a walk by the old ruin near the river and he had placed his jacket on the ground for a court.
He had gone on to have sexual intercourse with the girl, despite her protestations and screams, and afterwards had tried to dissuade her from making a complaint. They had also discussed what would happen if she became pregnant.
Lavinia’s own statement was that she “was cold and she lay down together with William on his jacket. They were talking away at this stage. About three quarters of an hour later William started getting rough.”
Lavinia’s expectation about what would happen in court was different to what happened.
“Even in the middle of her darkest hour when she was recovering from her attempt at suicide she kept imagining how she would feel as she prepared to head for Dublin and her day at court. And now that day had arrived, Lavinia felt a flicker of hope. After today she would feel safe, at peace, because William Conry would get what he deserved. He would be locked up for years and she would be able to live again. She’d feel safe walking the streets of Kilkenny again.
“So, as she showered and got dressed in her black leggings and cream top, she felt a sense of purpose in her life again. After today she would feel clean again. She wouldn’t feel like a prostitute, a whore. The Judge would tell her that none of what happened to her was her fault. He’d say that William Conry was to blame and she’d feel whole again. ”(6)
“She just could not believe that this adjourned sentence applied to Conry.”
She and her mother and sisters had a family conference and the following morning at 8 o’clock she came to a decision. She would ring the Gerry Ryan morning radio show and let the whole country know how she felt.
She really resented the fact that while William Conry had a number of witnesses to vouch for his character in court, she had none. It didn’t make any sense to her that when (Garda) Agnes Reddy and (Sergeant) John Tuohy pointed out to her that this is how the system worked – she was merely a witness to a criminal case. She felt she had been judged and found guilty.
The development of anorexia nervosa and its relationship to Lavinia’s experience is treated as a disorder brought on by the rape experience. While its onset is chronologically related to the rape it is also a symbol of Lavinia’s argument with society.
Anorexia nervosa occurs predominantly in females but is increasingly found in young boys as well. Anorexics are remarkable for their eating habits - their refusal to eat food.
Anorexics think up all sort of ways to mislead the worried people around them about their eating habits. It is for the most part extremely difficult to judge what anorexics are really eating or not eating. When anorexics eat they prefer food with little nutritional value and low calories – lemons, green apples, sour green salads. In addition they generally use laxatives in order to eliminate as quickly as possible what they eat.
Anorexics also have a strong need for physical exercise. They go for long walks or other forms of exercise to work off the fat that they never put on in the first place. This can often be quite an achievement given their weakened physical condition.
Anorexics can also display exaggerated altruism. They will in fact cook for others while starving themselves. They also have a desire for solitude and tend to be reclusive. Very often female anorexics have no menstrual periods or at least problems and disturbances.
Anorexics do not classify themselves as ill at all. They reject all help and pursue the ideal of leaving all corporeal considerations behind to rid themselves of their bodies
“Summing up the symptomatology, then, what we have here is an exaggeration of the ascetic ideal. Underlying it all is the old conflict between spirit and matter….. The job of food is to build up the body and so nourish the world of forms. When anorexics say ‘no’ to food, what they are really saying ‘no’ to is physicality and all the demands of the body. The real ideal of anorexics goes far beyond the sphere of mere food: their aim is purity and spiritualisation. Their desire is to free themselves from the weight of the body entirely. They are concerned to escape all sexuality and instinct. Their goal is chastity and sexlessness.”(7)
“When I stopped having periods I was happy in a way because it meant I didn’t have a women’s body any more and no man would want to touch me in that way again.” (8)
“Lavinia told her mother; “… that she was going to die and that she wanted her body to be burned to ashes. That was the only way that Lavinia felt she would feel clean.”(9)
While anorexia is a personal problem it can have a social and political significance. The hunger strike is a form of political protest that is adopted in situations where the victim is unable to exercise any other influence on a perceived uncaring and unjust oppressor except the threat of the victim’s self destruction.
Lavinia’s case has a political dimension from two points of view. Lavinia perceives her recovery to be connected to imprisoning the man who admitted raping her. Even the way she dresses is designed to symbolise her condition;
“Getting her into smart young clothes was the most difficult aspect of the make-over I did with her. because she perpetually wore black. She wore it since she was raped, she said because she was in mourning for her lost virginity”¹º
Secondly her case is now a cause celebre attracting public attention, a crusade for harsher sentences tor rape, and the treatment of victims by courts, medical authorities and the attitude of society towards rape victims. She is a rape crisis victim and equally a victim of rape crisis. Those who help her also take from her.
“…she had become a celebrity because she had gone public on the top radio programme, becoming the first woman to put a face on rape. And in that year while she waited for her rapist to be put in jail as she hoped , she was hounded by the media.”
“Everything she did became a national story. All this was getting to her; putting even more strain on her.” ¹¹
“She has become an national figure because of it (the rape) and for many rape victims here who don’t hare the courage to speak out, almost their patron saint.”
Following the court case, the Chairwoman of the Council for the Status of Women said that the sentence would prevent other women from reporting rape cases. She called for a review of the sentences that are handed down in rape trials.
It is a contemporary myth that “all publicity is good publicity” – it may be good for publicity but it isn’t always good for the person.
Lavinia’s space has been invaded many times. The rape is obvious. Less obvious was the process subsequent to it. Lavinia did not initially want to report it or be examined. However for the best of intentions and reasons once her mother reported that something had happened her daughter, Lavinia was committed to a process of personal, police, medical and legal examination.
“Mary Kerwick was so upset she didn’t know what she was doing. She repeated over and over again that Lavinia would have to go to hospital. Lavinia kept refusing.
“It’s just to see you are alright,” Mary said.
Lavinia kept saying she was alright, “Just leave me alone”, she said to her mother”¹²
Everyone wanted to help her.
“These months following the rape was a time of utter confusion for her because she was involved with so many medical people. She was going to a clinical psychologist, she was attending the Rape Crisis Centre and she was going to a psychiatrist.”
“It was as if they were all taking little pieces of me and I was drained.” ¹³
Where was the time to heal? There are times reading the account one wished that everyone would back off and listen to what she wanted.
The author, Micheline McCormack, is a successful journalist and ‘Little Girl” represents “a change in direction in her writing” according to the blurb. Her style owes a lot to journalism. Each chapter is written like an article rather than part of a larger work. A literary technique, like implied precognition, that is appropriate to fiction or non-factual genres can be very misleading in a work that depends heavily on factual accuracy for credibility.
“Lavinia just couldn’t figure out why she was feeling so apprehensive. It was New Year’s Eve and she was looking forward to the disco that night . Still she could not banish the feeling of doom that hung over her: It started When she broke her new tape…When it slipped out of her hand and smashed she turned to her mother and said. “That’s a bad omen.”(14)
Is she trying to imply Lavinia knew she was going to be raped?
Micheline is also a major figure in the book. The preface is a statement of Micheline’s impression of Lavinia at their first meeting. The last chapter is an acknowledgment of the difficulties Micheline had in getting the book published.
“One of the most wonderful things about becoming a publisher overnight to get this book launched was the realisation that I had found so many terrific business men friends who fulled out all the stops to help me with this project.”(15)
And she names every one of them, along with the women who helped, over three and half pages – fifty – four in total.
She is not shy of self promotion but one wonders if she should be in charge of her own publicity when she promotes herself on the book jacket;
“Her caustic, direct approach to all kinds of issues in her column for more than two decades got her the nickname, ‘Mitch the Bitch’.”
“Little Girl” sympathises with Lavinia’s life but fails to ask the questions that might lead to understanding. It attempts to create a stereotypical young woman who has terrible things happen to her. It fails to communicate the determination and anger that make her extraordinary and the role she has created out of these events. When confronted with the paradox, extreme frailty and incredible determination, the author opts for “frailty”.
But there is a side to Lavinia that is not appreciated. Padraig Flynn, Minister for Justice, invited Lavinia to meet him in the Department in his ministerial office after she wrote to him asking for a meeting.
“The last thing I wanted was for Lavinia Kerwick to feel intimidated by me in any way. As I looked at the frail little girl, I felt that even going anywhere near her would feel like an assault, even a gesture, a touch at the wrong time, at this delicate moment could be an invasion. He gestured for Lavinia to come across to the window of his office which looked out over the calming view of St. Stephen’s Green. Still ever conscious of his height, he stood eight feet away from her as he commented on the view. “This is my garden,” he joked and added that it was a nice perk of “ruling” the Department of justice. Lavinia turned to him and said. “Minister, for the past few weeks I have ruled Ireland.” (16)
Like many helpers the author is seduced by the wish to become significant in her subject’s life;
“My hope is that this book will be the turning point in the re-birth of the Lavinia Kerwick I have come to know.”
And she tempts fate:
“This book has a happy ending after all”(17)
Only Lavinia can determine the ending.
(1) McGeehan Terry, “I COULD BE DEAD IN A FEW WEEKS”, The Star, July 28th, p.4.
(2) ibid. p.4.
(3) McCormack Micheline, Little Girl – The Lavinia Kerwick Story, McCormack Books, 1997.
(4) ibid. p.102. (5) ibid, p 28. (6) ibid. p.50.
(7) Dethlefsen Thorwald, & Rudiger Dahlke, The Healing Power of Illness, Element Books Limited, Shaftesbury. 1992 p.142.
(8) McCormack Micheline, Little Girl – The Lavinia Kerwick Story, McCormack Books, 1997, 42
(9) ibid., p.46. (10) ibid., 10. (11) ibid., p42. (12) ibid., p.6. (13) ibid., p38. (14) ibid., p2. (15) ibid., p102. (16) ibid., p70; (17) ibid., p100