Janelle O'Connor. Picture: David Caird
Janelle O'Connor. Picture: David Caird

Silence broken: Rape survivor shares her story

The year was 1993. Janelle O'Connor had recently finished Year 10 and was working part-time at a bakery, in Burnie on the North-West Coast.

"I was looking forward to going into Year 11 and spending my summer with friends," she tells the Mercury.

But, on Christmas Eve, her life would change forever.

"I was out with some friends, I got into a car with a group of men, two of them that I knew," she says.

"We were all meant to be going to a party, but when we got to the house and the driver didn't stop, my stomach just flipped."

Minutes later, the vehicle came to a halt in a secluded farming area. The man riding shotgun then yelled out: "We should all jump her."

His name was Geoffrey Michael Haywood, then aged 29. Six years earlier he had killed a woman, a lengthy investigation by the Mercury has discovered.

He was charged with manslaughter and had been in and out of jail ever since.

"During it all, it was like I was outside my body, hovering above looking down and seeing this done to me.

"I had been sexually abused as a child and had learnt how to detach. That same survival instinct kicked in.

"When it was finally over, Haywood sat across my chest, and put a knife to my throat and said 'I should kill you, you s. t and dump you in the woods. You're going to dig your own f. king grave you bitch. Because you will never tell anyone about this'."

Janelle was forced back into the ute but, minutes later, as the ute sped along a wet road, it crashed and rolled.

"If they hadn't have crashed the car I wouldn't be here with you now."

 

 

On Christmas Day, with the support of a friend, Janelle reported to police.

By Boxing Day, the story had made the news, and gossip had got around the small town of 13,000.

"The first initial question, I guess, was 'Why did you get in the car? Why did you do this, and what were you wearing?' which, back in the '90s, were probably very common questions. In fact they still are today," says Janelle.

"I was told I deserved it, I asked for it, I was a slut, I got what was coming, that I made the story up for attention.

"When the trial was on, I would get prank phone calls in the middle of the night and I was told their friends wanted to kill me."

 

 

Janelle O'Connor’s school picture. Picture: SUPPLIED
Janelle O'Connor’s school picture. Picture: SUPPLIED

Justine Brooks, the CEO of Laurel House sexual assault service in Tasmania's North, says: "The majority of survivors are generally too fearful to report, having already been through a dreadful ordeal, without the worry of not being believed, being blamed or slut-shamed. Reporting sexual assault in a small community is complicated further by additional obstacles such as concern for lack of confidentiality" says Ms Brooks.

Indeed, in the 1990s, there were few protections for sexual assault survivors, and courts remained open to the public who could watch.

"At 16, it was embarrassing because I had to go into details of what was done to me, and people from Burnie would just walk in and watch.

"It was brutal. It was like being raped all over again.

"I then spent all day on my 18th birthday on the witness stand being questioned by three criminal lawyers

"But I didn't want those men to get away with what they did to me, or do it to anyone else. I never got justice for what happened to me as a small child, so when I was raped at 16, I had to have justice, as I wanted so badly to be believed, and that was another driving force in going back to court."

 

Sexual assault survivor Janelle O’Connor. Picture: David Caird
Sexual assault survivor Janelle O’Connor. Picture: David Caird

In total, Janelle would give evidence in court five times across three separate trials.

"At one point during it all, I became suicidal. I was abusing alcohol and drugs by then. I wasn't sleeping and I wasn't eating," she says.

Janelle attempted suicide, but survived, and gave evidence one more time.

Finally, Haywood and a second man were both found guilty of rape. Charges against a third man were dropped.

Janelle says that she now wants to speak out under her real name, to help challenge victim-blaming attitudes and sexual assault stigma in the community.

"Don't be ashamed of your story. Never ever feel ashamed if you've been sexually abused, molested as a child, or beaten. Speak up. Find someone to talk to because you can get through it.

"It's hard, but with the right support, you can live on and have a good life.

"Twenty-seven years later here I am. Those men don't hurt me anymore. I took that power back from them. I took my own power back."

If you or someone you know has been impacted by sexual assault or family violence call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732.

Originally published as Silence broken: Rape survivor shares her story



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