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.
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