I hadn’t heard about this tragic case until listening to this morning’s Radio 4 Today programme.
My mounting anger and fear turned to tears as I listened to Eleanor’s father being interviewed.
For once, even the Daily Mail and Guardian are in accord about the bare bones of the case. Eleanor was a very bright student at Durham University who had had a ‘breakdown’ and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She had received treatment, and it is unclear from the media reports whether she had taken time out of university or had left. In January 2013 Eleanor made a complaint to the police stating that she had been drugged and raped. Apparently she was later advised that the CPS felt there would not be a realistic chance of successful prosecution because Eleanor had not been to the police immediately, and therefore there was no forensic evidence.
According to Eleanor’s father she seemed to accept this and wanted to move on with her life. However the alleged rapist decided to bring a private prosecution against her, which the CPS then agreed to take over, allegedly because the man had spent over £200,000 pursuing the case. This was despite the fact that:
Lawyers for the CPS were told by the detective who investigated the rape allegation that there was no evidence that she had lied, they would not be investigating her for perverting the course of justice and the crime had been recorded as rape. Guardian
Eleanor took her own life three days before the court case began, leaving notes saying that she was terrified about appearing in court. Tellingly, and poignantly, her father said that she was very good at maintaining a mask and hiding her feelings, so that she had appeared quite normal in the days prior to her suicide. He added that he believed that she was fearful of being sectioned under the Mental Health Act if she had revealed her feelings to her family or her mental health team.
The director of the CPS has promised to personally investigate the case:
In a statement, Saunders said she was concerned about the case and was investigating it personally. “I have asked the team which dealt with this case for a full explanation which addresses all of the De Freitas family’s concerns. I appreciate the family’s unease which is why I am looking at this personally in order to satisfy myself of the detail surrounding all the stages of the case.”
She added that she would welcome the opportunity then to meet her family and said the circumstances regarding the case were “rare, extremely difficult and always complex and sensitive. This case was one of the most difficult I have seen”. Guardian
There are so many worrying features about this case that it is difficult to know where to begin.
Perhaps beginning at the end makes sense. Ms Saunders describes this as “rare, extremely difficult and always complex and sensitive. This case was one of the most difficult I have seen”. I find this very worrying. Which bit does she think is rare? A woman being told that there is insufficient evidence to proceed with a rape prosecution? An attractive young woman being doubted when she reports rape? A young woman being asked why she didn’t attend the police station as soon as the rape had occurred? A woman with a mental health diagnosis not being taken as seriously as one without? A woman with a mental health diagnosis automatically being see as an unreliable witness? A woman with a mental health diagnosis being seen as an easy target for intimidation by her alleged rapist, as his word would obviously be viewed as more reliable than hers?
None of the above strike me as unusually difficult or complex.
Perhaps it was the fact that Eleanor took her own life that is difficult. I am sure that it is – for her grieving family, for her in the moments before she died, for her friends, and for the wider community of women with diagnoses of bipolar disorder, who may be feeling more vulnerable after hearing about this case. It might be difficult for all the authorities involved as they now have to do some soul searching.
I wonder whether it was difficult that Eleanor didn’t behave abnormally. This of course is a catch 22 situation. If someone with bipolar disorder appears to be behaving ‘normally’ (whatever that is) then it is assumed that they are well. The sufferer is pleased that she has achieved her aim of disguising her illness and thus minimising the risk of unwanted attention from healthcare professionals. However this just widens the gulf between the interior and exterior worlds of the sufferer, making it more and more difficult to maintain a grasp on what is real and what is not. Thus as external appearances deceive and reassure those about her, the noise of the interior world becomes louder and louder. Fears become increasingly distorted and there is no-one who can be trusted to discuss them with.
Eleanor’s father expressed his concern that she might have been terrified about being sectioned under the Mental Health Act (something that she had previously experienced). This rang very true to me; I know several highly intelligent women who have clearly expressed their views that they would rather take their own life than be sectioned, especially if they had already experienced this. What does this say about the appalling conditions in which we imprison people whose only crime is to be ill?
Is it possible that, if Eleanor’s previous experience of being sectioned had been one of positive care and nurturing, then she would be alive today? I believe that the mental health inpatient system bears at least as much responsibility for Eleanor’s death as the CPS and police.
The stigmatising effect of a mental health diagnosis has no place in the 21st century. There can be no ‘parity of esteem’ between mental and physical health whilst society, especially its institutions, treat people with mental illness as inferior (and usually as thick). A young woman with diabetes or juvenile arthritis or asthma would not be subject to the same ‘labels’ as one with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. All women, and especially those with chronic illness, should be treated as vulnerable by the police to whom they report assault, especially sexual assault. It is common knowledge that many women would far rather deal with the effects of rape themselves than so through the ordeal of facing the police.
The idea that a prosecution cannot be pursued because the victim delayed reporting the rape and therefore there was no forensic evidence (presumably semen) is surely ridiculous. Firstly it assumes that a woman who has just been raped is in a physical and emotional condition to both get herself to a police station and then deal with the police. Secondly it assumes that a rapist would not wear a condom (eliminating the possibility of finding intravaginal semen). Men wear condoms to protect themselves as well as their partner, and assuming that semen must be found in order to substantiate a rape claim buys into the myth that women are raped by violent strangers, rather than the more common scenario of being raped by someone known to them, or by their regular partner. The recent historic sexual abuse prosecutions have shown conclusively that a verdict of rape can be arrived at several decades after the event.
However it appears that Eleanor tried to accept the CPS decision not to prosecute, and made efforts to move on with her life. Her alleged rapist was not so willing, and took out a private prosecution against her. More than one blog supporting him tacitly implies that any woman who is seen shopping with her boyfriend cannot possibly have been/ about to be raped by him. With all due respect to men in general, this can be summed up by the phrase ‘men believe that no really means yes’.
The recent furore about footballer Ched Evans plays into the arguments surrounding this case. He, recently released from prison after serving half of a fiver year sentence for rape, is still protesting his innocence and seeking a review on grounds of miscarriage of justice. He has not denied that he had sex with the victim, but maintains that he did not rape her. As he continues to deny raping her he still has not apologised to her. His future in football has prompted a huge petition arguing that he should not play again, and numerous online comments targeting feminists, anti-rape groups, and basically women in general who dare to go out, wear short skirts, and drink too much.
Further inquiry will hopefully make it a little more clear why the CPS decided to support the alleged rapist’s pursuit of Eleanor, but I have an uneasy sense of a backlash against the tiny tide that seemed to be turning in favour of women complaining of rape.
Certainly we are still a very long way from a society in which a woman can complain that she has been raped by a friend because ‘no’ meant ‘no’, and expect to be taken seriously and treated sympathetically. And if the woman has the misfortune to have a mental illness, then the day when she will be taken seriously and treated sympathetically may be light years away.
RIP Eleanor de Freitas.