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Virtual Book Club: Madeleine Black introduces her survivor’s memoir Unbroken

Today I’m delighted to welcome Madeleine Black to Virtual Book Club, the interview series in which authors have the opportunity to pitch their books to your book club.

At the age of thirteen Madeleine Black faced more physical and emotional trauma than most ordinary people do in a lifetime.

Violently gang raped and abused, Madeleine became haunted by these horrendous events and for years was unable to overcome the psychological demons which filled her with extreme anxiety and self-loathing. During this terrible period of her life, Madeleine was time and again made the victim, as people continued to take advantage of her fragility in the worst possible way.

But Madeleine refused to let this terrible abuse define her life, instead she made a decision to move forward and make her life her own again through committing to the most tremendous act of courage; forgiveness.

By choosing to forgive those who committed wrongs against her, Madeleine began to slowly, piece by piece, rebuild her life. Unbroken is a story of gut-wrenching adversity, overcome through sheer strength and determination.

For many years after that night, my memories of what happened after he held the blade to my throat and threatened my life were fragmented… difficult to piece together. It was too extreme, too violent for me to understand.

Q: Madeleine, please can you tell us how you arrived at the decision to share your story.

The trigger for me was listening to Marian Partington speak at a Forgiveness Project event in Glasgow one cold November evening in 2014 (most of their events are held in London). Her sister had been murdered by Rose and Fred West. When she told her story I saw and felt the impact she had on the room and we all came away a little bit changed for having heard her speak. I bought her book that night If You Sit Very Still and in it she simply wrote, “Now you must speak”.

I started to think that maybe I could share my story. The idea for the book came to me after sharing it on The Forgiveness Project’s website in September 2014. After that, I started to see my words and chapter titles at night when I was trying to get to sleep, flying around my mind. I would sit down at my Mac the next day and all the words I had seen would flow out of my fingers onto my keypad. I had never understood what people meant when they say that their book wrote itself, but it really felt as if I had automatic fingers.

Going public with my story opened so many doors for me and I was invited to do radio and TV interviews, speak at conferences, schools etc. And the more I spoke, the more I saw what sharing my story did, not just for me, but for others too. Marina Cantacuzino, who is the founder of The Forgiveness Project, calls us story healers rather than story tellers. I have started to feel that healing when I share my story.

Q: How did it feel when you started to write about what was an incredibly traumatic experience?

I started to write purely for myself. To be honest I just wanted to stop all the words flying around my head at night! But once I started it became a kind of therapy and it soon became a way to tell my story in its entirety. I had no idea how to write a book, but I just sat down every day writing for about eight weeks until I had told my whole story. 

It was only later that I realised I wanted to share my story, as people assume that you could never get past an event in your life like mine and think that I would be suffering and traumatised for life. So I wanted to show them what is possible.

Q: If you were trying to describe your memoir to someone, what would you say?

I would say that my memoir tells my story of being gang raped at aged thirteen by two American teenagers in the late 1970’s. It follows my journey of survival, healing, forgiveness, transformation and hope.

And I have written it as I want to try and end the shame, stigma and silence that surround sexual violence and, I hope, the culture one day too.

Madeline Black headshot by NJ

“Unbroken is one of the most inspiring, thought-provoking books I have read. This is a book that we all should read.”

“Madeleine’s story crept into every fibre of my being from page one, and her narrative reached me in a way many writers have never managed.”

“A haunting account of silence and self-loathing, and ultimately self-love and freedom.” 

Q: Your title, Unbroken, makes a very powerful statement. At what point in writing the book did you come up with it?

I always had the title of Forty Four Bows for my memoir, because the room I was put in had a border made up of pink and grey bows at the top of the walls. I counted them over and over again to distract myself from what was going on, until it got too much for me and I floated out of my body to the top of the cupboard watching what was taking place.

I have always loved the number forty-four, which I see everywhere, manifesting itself in many ways in my life. It’s a very reassuring number to me, if that makes sense?

My publishers changed the title close to publication as they said nobody would understand what the book was about and would stop readers from picking it up. I was so annoyed to start with as I loved original my title and, once people understood why I had chosen it, they agreed with me.

However, the publisher’s decision was final and they changed it. Unbroken has grown on me. I realised that they sell books and I had to trust them and I often receive messages and reviews from readers saying they chose it because of the strong title.

I have been sneaky though and found a way to include forty-fours bows. There is a bow at the start of every chapter (there are forty-four of course), so by the end of the book the reader will have also counted forty-four bows.

Q: It must have been incredibly difficult for you to return to that room. 

This is where the writing for myself came in. I nearly didn’t include the rape scene in such detail when I submitted the manuscript to publishers. I originally worked with my friend/editor Joe and he had read about 12 pages, which I had written a while back, describing not only that night in full detail but everything that was done to me. He asked me if I was going to include that and I said no way! I was still ashamed and was concerned about people judging me. I thought they if they knew all that was done to me, they would also see me in the light that I did and thought their opinion of me would change.

But Joe explained that reading it helped him as a man to really understand what can take place when a woman is raped. He had always thought a woman was just overpowered and never considered the violence that could take place too. He was very insistent I should include all the details.

It was a very interesting process for me as I saw that I wasn’t as healed as I liked to think I was and there was still a lot of shame hanging around. So as hard as it was, I decided to include all the details, not just to help me stand better in my shame, to dilute it, but for all the other men and women out there who have been raped too.

When it came to the editing process with my publishers, there was more discussion about that chapter. My new editor, James, felt it would be too much for people and we should leave some of it out. But by then I was insisting it should be kept in! He did some research with some of the women in the office who had mixed opinions. Then he asked a freelance editor to have a look. Jane listened to some of my radio and TV interviews before she read it and then decided it was very important to keep it in, especially in view of how open I am in my interviews.

I know it’s a hard chapter to read, but I thought if I don’t include all of the details then I’m still silencing myself and trying to sanitise it all. What would be the point of finally finding my voice after years of keeping quiet?

That chapter now comes with a warning so the reader can decide if they want to continue or not.

Q: How did writing about your experience change the way you felt about it?

I couldn’t remember the details of my rape for many years; it would take until my eldest daughter, Anna, turned thirteen (the same age that I was when I was raped) to trigger my lost and forgotten memories. From that night on everything was very hazy. The only thing that was clear to me was that nothing would be the same again.

I fell into a dark space, one of self-loathing and disgust. I believed I was contaminated and didn’t see the point of living anymore. One of the last things that one of the rapists did was to hold his knife against my throat and threatened me not to tell or he would kill me. I believed him. I didn’t tell.

For a long time I wished they had killed me as I didn’t want to live any more in the darkness, so I took an overdose in an attempt to end my life. I spent several months in a children’s psychiatric ward, where they treated me for my depression and anorexia.

When I came to write my book, someone suggested I applied for my hospital notes. I wanted to see if they had any idea at all to what was going on for me. To me, looking back, it must have been obvious as I went from a normal teenager to one that wouldn’t speak or eat overnight.

I applied and about 200 pages arrived in the post. It was an interesting read. Two-thirds of them were for two other visits both just for a few days (getting my tonsils out & a kidney infection).

Only about seventy pages referred to my eight weeks in the ward and I saw they were clueless to the trauma I had experienced. They just put it down to being a struggling teenager.

What was so upsetting for me to read about was that nobody ever asked the right questions.

Q: In which ways was writing the book transformative for you?

It has been so transformative for me to write my story and to have it published. I was with my Mum at WH Smith in Glasgow airport when I saw my book on a table at the very front of the store amongst new non-fiction titles. I still find it very surreal!

My shame and guilt silenced me for years, and keeping my secret hidden just reinforced those feelings. It feels good to stop hiding and worry about people finding out. I’ve got to a place where I’m no longer ashamed to say that I was raped. I realise that I’m not my body or the things that were done to me. We are all so much more than our events.

People tell that I’m brave for sharing my story in the honest way that I do, but I don’t want to be considered brave. I’d like it to be considered normal for a society to talk about the difficult and challenging things that take place on this planet.

I have discovered that my voice is now my power and I intend to use it. I’m often invited to speak. I was very fortunate to have been interviewed by Sir Trevor McDonald last October for BBC Radio 4 about Redemption, which was amazing. However, what was more amazing for me was what took place after the interview had been aired.

A friend got in contact to tell me that her mother had been listening to me on the radio that morning and that she went on to tell her how much she identified with what I was saying. My friend asked her if she had been raped too, to which she replied yes.

She was 81 and ended 64 years of silence. It made me wonder how many women and men have kept things secret due to their shame and guilt that they will never share with someone.

My friend told me that it has now opened up a space between them that wasn’t there before. She really feels that if her mother hadn’t heard the interview she would have taken her secret to her grave.

So I want to continue writing and speaking to help all those out there who cannot find their voices yet. Every time I speak I think of that one woman.

Madeleine Black interviewed by Sir Trevor McDonald

Q: What would you say is the main message in Unbroken? 

I wanted to show people that after the lengthy process of working the trauma, I saw that we all have a choice. A lot of people struggle with my choice of forgiveness but it was my key to freedom allowing me to let go of all the hate, anger and revenge that I had held onto for years, which brought me peace.

I came up with a plan that I call my “best revenge” and that would be to live a life as good as possible. I just refused to be defined by what had happened to me. Ultimately I believe that it’s not what happens to us that is important, but what we do with what happens, and if we choose to we can get past anything that happens to us in life. In some ways, my experience has made me so grateful to have this life and I am determined to live it to the fullest.

You don’t have to have experienced sexual violence to read my book. I think it will help people struggling with many issues in their life and ultimately I would like them to feel hope.

It’s not a self-help book as I can’t offer a step-by-step guide as everyone will have to find his or her own, but I do know we are so much stronger than we think we are.

I have a quote in my book from the late and great poet Dr Maya Angelou, which just sums up how I feel perfectly

“I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.”

Want to find out more about Madeleine and her writing?

Madeleine is a member of the Forgiveness Project, more information here:


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One comment

  1. I often wonder when we hear about people with mental health problems, or who have actually commited suicide and their family can’t understand why; they could have had some terrible trauma happen to them which nobody ever knew about. Not everyone has the strength to forgive or reclaim their life, but hopefully others are helped when they read or listen to someone who has been through the same suffering.

    Comment by Janet Gogerty on August 3, 2017 at 10:56 pm