ACHIEV­ING HEALING AND EM­POW­ER­MENT

In The Meet­ing, Ailbhe Grif­fith recre­ates her me­di­ated en­counter with the man who sex­u­ally as­saulted her, as she sought restora­tive jus­tice. The re­sult is one of the year’s most pow­er­ful films.

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In the sum­mer of 2005, Ailbhe Grif­fith was 21. Hav­ing grad­u­ated from col­lege, and wait­ing to be­gin her Masters in Law, she was work­ing and sav­ing to travel to Amer­ica – the typ­i­cal stu­dent ex­pe­ri­ence. But one sum­mer night, her life would change. While she was walk­ing home, a man grabbed Grif­fith by the throat, dragged her be­hind some bushes. and spent the next 50 min­utes stran­gling, bit­ing and sex­u­ally as­sault­ing her.

Sur­viv­ing such a hor­rific at­tack is dif­fi­cult, but Ailbhe Grif­fith be­came de­ter­mined to trans­form her ex­pe­ri­ence into some­thing that might ben­e­fit so­ci­ety as a whole, and ad­vo­cate for vic­tims of sex­ual as­sault. In Alan Gilse­nan’s film The Meet­ing, Grif­fith plays her­self, in a recre­ation of a meet­ing she had with her at­tacker nine years af­ter the event.

The me­di­ated con­ver­sa­tion Grif­fith had with her at­tacker was an ex­am­ple of restora­tive jus­tice, which aims to ne­go­ti­ate be­tween vic­tims and of­fend­ers for a form of emo­tional or ac­tive res­o­lu­tion. While Grif­fith’s at­tacker had pled guilty and been im­pris­oned, she didn’t feel that the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem helped her to heal.

“It’s not ful­fill­ing its en­tire role,” Grif­fith opines. “It opened the door to­wards healing, but it didn’t pro­vide any healing it­self. There was still the pain, still the suf­fer­ing, and I needed to find an ad­di­tional way to find clo­sure. I don’t think that, long-term, you help vic­tims by shel­ter­ing them and group­ing them all to­gether as if there’s one ex­pe­ri­ence, or speak­ing on their be­half. I think you help peo­ple to heal and to not be­come vic­tims by em­pow­er­ing them and giv­ing them a plat­form to use their voice. And that’s what restora­tive jus­tice means to me. I don’t think restora­tive jus­tice and the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem are enough on their own, they need to ex­ist to­gether – both are nec­es­sary.”

Grif­fith strug­gled with de­pres­sion and eat­ing disor­ders in the wake of her as­sault, and found her­self un­able to trust the world around her in a way that she once had. As the years went on, she re­alised that she wanted to meet with her at­tacker as a way to help her process and ex­or­cise some of her painful feel­ings.

“It was about em­pow­er­ment,” she ex­plains of her de­ci­sion to meet her at­tacker. “It was also about for­give­ness and the re­duc­tion of fear. Af­ter years of suf­fer­ing, I came to the con­clu­sion that the only per­son who was ac­tu­ally suf­fer­ing in my anger and sad­ness was me, be­cause he wasn’t aware of it. Even if he was, he wouldn’t care. So I needed to find a way not to feel that pain any­more.

I had gone down ev­ery other av­enue, but re­alised that I needed to meet him. It was to for­give him and move on, and also to see that he was just a man, when he had been a mon­ster in my eyes for so long.”

Af­ter meet­ing her at­tacker, Grif­fith was in­spired to adopt an ad­vo­cacy role, and she has trav­elled to restora­tive jus­tice con­fer­ences to share her ex­pe­ri­ence.

When she met di­rec­tor Alan Gilse­nan, they de­cided to make The Meet­ing to il­lus­trate the dif­fi­cult, fas­ci­nat­ing, and – in Grif­fith’s view – re­ward­ing process.

“I don’t think restora­tive jus­tice and the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem are enough on their own, they need to ex­ist to­gether – both are nec­es­sary.”

“I felt the film would be an amaz­ing way to con­vey the power of restora­tive jus­tice,” Grif­fith says. “I’ve been able to ar­tic­u­late to the peo­ple around me the power of the process, and the rea­sons and the ben­e­fits of it – but the film is the most il­lus­tra­tive, pow­er­ful way to con­vey that to a wide au­di­ence.”

Grif­fith plays her­self in the film, while Terry O’Neill plays her at­tacker, and the di­a­logue is all based on the real con­ver­sa­tion they had. The dy­namic is truly fas­ci­nat­ing to watch on­screen, as Grif­fith is com­posed, ar­tic­u­late and un­fath­omably grace­ful, while her at­tacker is im­ma­ture and self-cen­tred, go­ing on me­an­der­ing speeches about him­self be­fore of­fer­ing some brief flashes of in­sight into his mo­ti­va­tion for the as­sault and his thoughts about it now. His in­abil­ity to ar­tic­u­late him­self or re­spond to Grif­fith with the same thought­ful­ness she of­fers is si­mul­ta­ne­ously frus­trat­ing and em­pa­thetic – there are ob­vi­ous dif­fer­ences of ed­u­ca­tion and in­tel­li­gence and self-aware­ness here, which adds a layer of com­plex­ity to the dy­namic.

As Grif­fith ex­plained the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the as­sault on her life, did she feel she was heard by him?

“As strange as it might sound, all I wanted was for him to be in the room, and for his ears to hear what I was say­ing,” she says. “I knew he might not be fully able to process it. But as the con­ver­sa­tion went on, it be­came ap­par­ent that he was lis­ten­ing and try­ing to un­der­stand as best he could. And some­times he tried to iden­tify with me, which was in­cred­i­ble. To the ex­tent that I felt that he was able to, I felt that he lis­tened.”

The re­lease of the film, and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing me­dia in­ter­est, means that Grif­fith’s col­leagues, ex­tended fam­ily and ac­quain­tances now know about what hap­pened. Given the stigma and shame that un­for­tu­nately still sur­round vic­tims of sex­ual vi­o­lence, that might have been an in­tim­i­dat­ing thought. But Grif­fith views it dif­fer­ently.

“I see this story as a story of healing and about restora­tive jus­tice,” she says. “I don’t see it as be­ing about dis­clos­ing an in­ci­dent of sex­ual vi­o­lence – though it is that as well.

I see that as the con­text in which I am talk­ing about healing from crime. And maybe that’s be­cause I never felt shame about be­ing sex­u­ally as­saulted. And I couldn’t ever un­der­stand why peo­ple do – I re­spect that they do, but it wasn’t my ex­pe­ri­ence. So I never had prob­lems dis­clos­ing that. But for me, the film is about restora­tive jus­tice and about how vic­tims of all crime could pos­si­bly find healing and re­cov­ery. I think it’s worth it.”

“As strange as it might sound, all I wanted was for him to be in the room, and for his ears to hear what I was say­ing.”

Terry O’Neill in The Meet­ing

Di­rec­tor Alan Gilse­nan with Ailbhe Grif­fith

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