MP Michelle Thomson On How She Overcame Childhood Rape

Michelle Thomson moved her colleagues in the House of Commons to tears
in December when she stood up in the chamber during a debate on
violence against women and revealed she had been raped at 14. The
Speaker, John Bercow, who was visibly upset following her emotional
speech, said she had “left an indelible impression upon us all”.

Michelle,
51, is the independent MP for Edinburgh West. She is married to Peter, a
music teacher, and has two children: Max, 22, and Lizzie, 20.
Originally from Bearsden, near Glasgow, she worked in financial services
before being elected as an MP in 2015.

My childhood stopped the day I was raped. I was 14, at a youth event, and my attacker offered to walk me home. I knew him, so didn’t think anything of it. Everyone walked home in those days. It wasn’t even dark. I’m from a polite, middle-class background, and my childhood was very protected – but probably no more protected than any other child living in a small town near Glasgow at that time. I was wearing jeans, a sweatshirt and no make-up. I wasn’t very mature for my age and fairly shy.

My attacker took me a slightly different way home than usual, but I wasn’t worried since there were many ways to my house. He then took me into a wooded area, and I blithely followed. The path became less defined and bumpy and I thought, “This is a bit odd”. Looking back now, that was a clear warning signal. But I overrode any alarm bells because I was thinking, “It will be fine; I know this guy.” I also didn’t know what the word rape was. I’d never had a conversation with my mother. I’d never read about it.

The act itself was mercifully quick. I felt surprise, then fear, then horror that this was happening and I couldn’t escape. Three quick reactions. I also remember quite literally freezing up – I now know that this was a subconscious protection mechanism. It’s hard to know if the attack was premeditated or merely opportunistic. But certainly I wasn’t aware he had any particular interest in me over and above any other girl.

He got up and walked away without saying a word. I got up, brushed the leaves from my back, and started walking home, stumbling as I went. I barely remember the journey back, but I do recall thinking that I needed to calm myself down. I was shivering from the shock.

Back home, I went straight to bed. I don’t think at that point I’d properly processed what had happened. I thought about telling my parents, but then thought they would tell me off; that I was a silly little girl putting myself at risk. I don’t blame them – they, too, were products of their time. I actually wished I was pregnant as it would force the issue out into the open. How pitiful that that was my teenage level of emotional response. But it wasn’t a rational response; it was a cry for help.

I can’t give any other details as this is now a police investigation and I don’t even know if my attacker is dead or alive but, overnight, my personality changed. I’d been a happy, idealistic child. I went from being quite bright at school to staying at home and reading books because I wanted to be on my own. My mum must have known something was up, but how could she know the truth? Rape doesn’t just affect the woman, it affects the whole family.

I blamed myself for years, carrying a sense of shame and self-revulsion. I kept my rape secret until I was 17, when I told my boyfriend. He was very supportive, but only as supportive as he could be at that point in his life. I was hypersexual for a while, too, as a reaction to trying to make sense of what had happened; of what was my first sexual experience. From what I have subsequently learnt, it’s a common reaction. It’s trying to reframe an early recollection into what it should be – the highest form of love between two consenting adults.

I met Peter, my husband, in my early twenties – his best friend was giving me singing lessons. I told him about the rape before we married, as I wanted him to understand there was a swaddled kernel of extreme emotion inside me; an edginess that sometimes might come out in other ways. At that point, I still couldn’t say the word “rape” without breaking down. In fact, all I was able to blurt out to Peter was, “You need to understand this about me – I was raped.” We never discussed any details.
 
I was 42 when I finally could say the word “rape” without crying. I’m interested in personal development and went to a coach who specialised in neuro-linguistic programming. I told her about the rape as I felt it was an important factor in my life. I didn’t have therapy as such, but she used a technique that allowed me to get rid of all my suppressed negative emotion.


I literally cried the tears of the River Clyde. Amazingly, that one session enabled me to move on. It was clearly the right time for me. I’ve still got a bit of anger in me, though, and that will never go away.

When I told my husband I was thinking of making the speech, his initial reaction was, “Then everyone will know.” In other words, everyone will know that his wife had been raped. I thought, “Yes, you’re right, and it is for that reason I have to do it.” Being worried about people’s reactions just reinforces the taboo.

My speech was the first time I’d forced myself to remember as much as I possibly could. Even though I’ve carried the event throughout my life, I’ve never thought about the repercussions and my emotional response. I wrote the speech in Westminster and I called my husband at home in Edinburgh to read it to him – it was the first time he’d heard the full details of what had happened to me.
 
I couldn’t sleep the night before the debate, and was feeling anxious when I went into the chamber that morning. When I stood up and started speaking, it was as though no one else was there. I felt I was genuinely unburdening myself. I finished, sat down, and that was the first time I was aware of all the other MPs, many of whom were crying.

Following the speech, I’ve had hundreds of letters and emails. The ones that really touched me were women who have also been raped and have never told anyone before. Many were around my age and from similar backgrounds.

The first my father knew about what had happened to me was after my speech. I didn’t tell him or other people beforehand because I wanted the option to back out if I felt I couldn’t go through with it. He’s 83, and phoned me up afterwards saying he had no idea. I said, “Well, that was the times then, Dad.” That was his way of dealing with it, and I wouldn’t want him burdened with any guilt.

My mother sadly died 12 years ago. She’d had breast cancer and had had five years of palliative care, so I’d had a long time to give serious consideration to telling her. The child within me wanted to tell her because, well, she was my mum. But my response as an adult was not to tell her because how could I burden her with that guilt and allow her to blame herself?

But I am so glad I spoke out. The sheer volume of correspondence makes me realise how endemic rape is – and how angry it makes me feel. I now want to spend a large part of my remaining time as an MP bringing attention to the issue. My job is about giving a voice to people who have no voice.

For much of my life, I have frozen and taken the stuff that’s been thrown at me – routine sexism, horrible online comments calling me a slut, that kind of thing. My speech was a signal that I’m not doing that any more. So in many ways, the speech was my final stage in coming to terms with what had happened. It wasn’t just to give voice to other people, it gave me my voice. I’m not a victim – I’m a survivor.

Do you need help?

If you have experienced rape or sexual violence, Rape Crisis and Rape Crisis Scotland can provide support and information. Freephone: 0808 8029999; rapecrisis.org.uk or 0808 801 0302; rapecrisisscotland.org.uk. Other charities include Women’s Aid womensaid.org.uk and Victim Support victimsupport.org.uk.

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