When I was given the task of writing a post on this particular week, I knew I couldn’t write about Durham and sexual violence without writing about Eleanor de Freitas, an ex-Durham student who ended her life last year aged 23. But I was lost at the thought of finding a way to do her story justice without sensationalising it – dehumanising her.
Eleanor made a complaint of rape to the Metropolitan police in early 2014, telling the specialist Sapphire team that her ex-partner Alexander Economou had drugged and raped her just prior to Christmas. Her father later told the press that the day after the alleged rape, she had been due to drive to Northamptonshire to visit the family for the holidays, but had taken a wrong turning on the A1 and without noticing, driven until her fuel tank ran out. He suggests that she must have been in an altered or traumatised state for this to happen – I’m sure that there are many other survivors who, like me, remember similar incidents in the aftermath. Like many other women in Durham and beyond, Eleanor’s case wasn’t passed to the Crown Prosecution Service, as the police decided that they hadn’t gathered enough evidence. Research by Marianne Hester on attrition in the North East in recent years has shown around 3/4 of rape cases being ‘lost’ at the police stage. Eleanor’s father says she ‘understood’ the decision – one small word to describe the powerlessness of any complainant in the face of the machine that is the criminal justice system.
I was a student at Durham, and have been through the often bizarre and always frightening process that is making a complaint of rape – and I know many other students who could tell you similar stories. Where Eleanor’s story differs is that after the police decided to drop her case, the alleged perpetrator, Alexander Economou, requested that the police bring a case against her for ‘making a false allegation’ (this offence has been referred to in the press but doesn’t exist – the relevant charge is wasting police time, or perverting the course of justice). The police declined to do so. He then sought the help of a firm of solicitors to bring a private prosecution himself, spending hundreds of thousands of pounds in the process. The decision of the CPS to take over the prosecution and therefore summon Eleanor to appear in court has been the subject of considerable controversy. A few days before the trial was scheduled to occur, Eleanor took her own life, citing fear of giving evidence as a key factor in the note she left – an attribution of causality which has been confirmed by the coroner.
Questions have been left raw and unanswered, not least for Eleanor’s family and friends, about why the CPS would take on a prosecution where the police who originally investigated the case had declined to support it – and about the ethics surrounding buying access to justice more generally. Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, stood by the actions of the CPS in her statement on the matter, and the coroner declined to instruct the CPS to accept potential liability in respect of Eleanor’s suicide. However, INQUEST, an independent charity supporting Eleanor’s family, has stated that it is considering applying for judicial review in relation to this decision.
Survivors who engage with the police in relation to sexual violence often find ourselves crashing up against a system that is simultaneously all-knowing, all-powerful and largely faceless in relation to us. We have little idea who has access to our evidence and information, no control over what happens next and often very little sustained contact from the officers involved. When the press become aware of a case, this dynamic is replicated – the complainant becoming yet another statistic, or crushed into a two-dimensional stereotype in an article which reduces her to her experiences of violation.
Not having known Eleanor, I struggle not to replicate this in what I write about her here. To write this article I scoured Google search at length to try and find out something about her that was unrelated to mental health or sexual violence. In the end, I found one article which referred to her having been the middle of sitting a diploma in financial planning when she received the summons to appear at Southwark Crown Court. Everything else was Eleanor as a victim, as a false accuser, or as a sufferer of bipolar disorder.
What I do know is that the work being done to investigate the circumstances of her death is absolutely essential. Eleanor faced not only the prospect of giving evidence, but the terror of public shame and being accused of being a ‘false accuser’. In It Happens Here we know that this issue is brought up time and time again when we talk about rape – and usually it isn’t the reality of unfounded accusations which it references – it’s an archetype, always about women, which uses sexist stereotypes to demean us and to undermine survivors. It suggests jealously, hysteria and preciousness – and for those of us who have lived through rape it raises the specter of complicity – the idea that perhaps, as the men who raped us may well have told us, we ‘enjoyed it’ after all. Perhaps we changed our minds. Perhaps we just can’t take a bit of ‘rough sex’, as men who rape tend to prefer to refer to it as. Even though Eleanor was never convicted of a crime, many will struggle to speak up for the conviction that the circumstances surrounding her death should be thoroughly investigated. While many men go on to enjoy fame and publicity following being accused of rape, an accusation of fabrication is often enough to silence multiple women’s voices.
We’d like to offer our full support to those campaigning to have a fuller explanation of the events leading up to Eleanor’s death, and a broader debate surrounding the rights of women and men who make complaints of rape. In our small context at this university, we wonder whether institutionally we have an understanding of quite how devastating the process of reporting rape can be – whether appropriate support is in place for students who go through this process, and whether staff and students have a full understanding of its effects and of the details of the criminal justice process. As a campaign we don’t advocate for (or against) students reporting – but we do know that the traumatic, lengthy and frightening processes involved mean that students who do exercise this right need our full support – not just a few checked boxes. Until this is the case, we will be here speaking out for, and as, students who have experienced sexual violence.