“At 14 I was raped” – Meet Michelle Thomson, Winner

Michelle Thomson

Those words were spoken at an extraordinary uplifting and emotional women’s conference I attended recently in Edinburgh. You could have heard a pin drop as about 200 women (I think) were stunned and shocked into silence. I looked around the room and knew that statistically a number of the women listening would also have been sexually abused in their lives. The atmosphere was electric.

The speaker was Michelle Thomson and it was not a poor little me speech, or one seeking vengeance. It was a speech of hope and triumph over adversity as you will read shortly (Michelle has sent me her original transcript).

There were so many fabulous female speakers and such a supportive atmosphere in the huge hall that it often felt like just a few of us were sitting having a gab together in the pub or cafe.

That was down to the honesty of the speakers and their willingness to make themselves vulnerable, to share with us the trials and tribulations as well as the successes (and they had also had huge success) of their lives. I honestly did not expect to go to a conference called Inspiring Women in Business and cry. But cry I did, as did probably every other women in the room; the tears kept rolling down my cheeks and my goodness, I was most definitely inspired.

Management Today (& Ruth Davidson)

A few words about the conference. It was hosted by Management Today (who are hosting a Young Women in Business Conference in London next month. If I was young, I’d definitely be there). Unfortunately at the time of writing their website is down, but here is the address – www.managmenttoday.co.uk/iwib-home. They had gathered together an extraordinary group of women to share their stories, including Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservative party. Ruth bounced onto the stage radiating energy and positivity, making jokes about her baby bump and excess fat. Despite not sharing most of her political views, I really warmed to her; she must have been the only Tory in the village in her part of Scotland! That would toughen you up, not to mention being lesbian, too. She has earned some respect, I think.

I asked her what single piece of legislation would she introduce to significantly improve the lives of all women and she replied “Universal Childcare”. I can’t argue with that sentiment. (She should support the Women’s Equality Party.)

Michelle Thomson’s Speech to Inspiring Women in Business, 2018

Back to those deeply shocking opening words. Here is Michelle’s speech in full. Grab a tissue.

When I was 14 I was raped”.

These are still deeply shocking words to hear and to say, even after speaking about it in the House of Commons on December 8th 2016.

But, and it is for me a very big but: whilst being raped has deeply affected me, I refuse to allow it to define me.

My speech was made during one of the most testing times of my life. Only a few short weeks after being elected I was the subject of my first national media story. During the General Election a constituent had maliciously added my SNP email address to a dating website called Ashley Madison. Some months later that database was hacked and the data released to the world. Strangely, it took only a few hours for my name and face – and ironically only my name out of the 32 million users, to appear on the national news and many media outlets. The fact that I strenuously denied it, the fact that I made a report to Police Scotland and the perpetrator identified and interviewed under caution held little subsequent interest.

As that story died, there then appeared a ‘so-called’ expose about property. Six years before being elected I had held a 25% stake in a small firm, and a solicitor we and many others had used had been investigated and then struck off. As a result I became centre stage of a media frenzy where the truth seemed to be of no interest.  I was given advice at the time to remain completely silent – exceptionally poor advice that allowed certain sections of the media carte blanche to write and broadcast what they wanted without any rebuttal. There was even a TV programme about me featuring a house that I had never been in with an owner I had never met! While papers such as ‘The Herald’, ‘The Daily Mail’, ‘The Guardian’, ‘The Daily Record’ and ‘The Sun’ were all forced to change online articles or issue an apology, their retractions were small and tucked away whereas their splash of column inches vilifying me had been front-page news. And, of course, it eventually and much later became a non-story once the Lord Advocate declared that the investigation into the solicitor was to be dropped.

During these 2 years I was nearly completely alone with little emotional or practical support and having had the whip removed by my political party.

They say in times of great stress one takes flight, fights or freezes. Initially I froze in the face of this media onslaught – perhaps repeating how I had reacted when I was raped.

I exhibited clear symptoms of stress; such as cognitive dysfunction where I found it hard to process complex information and had difficulty concentrating. I often had a numb mouth and face, I rarely slept through the night (unless with the assistance of some alcohol) and I rarely laughed.

Despite all this, I made the decision to stick it out. I realised that the only thing I could control was how I chose to respond. I chose to respond with (what I hoped) was quiet dignity. I chose to carry on working as hard as I could despite the continued media interest and I decided (rather than just realised) that I had the resilience to do this without knowing at that point how long it would take.     

I had to develop coping strategies. I forced myself to get up early even when I had barely slept. I took each day as it came. I realised that the stubborn streak within me (not always a blessing in certain circumstances) could be very useful after all. The Business Select Committee I was on was a reminder that we were there to help other people such as when we forced Sir Philip Green to change his stance on the treatment of BHS pensioners. I gave thanks for the many blessings I had in my life – although it was tough, I was always aware how much harder an average day is for many people in the world. I found out who my real friends were and who was there for me that I could trust.

And so, my decision to speak about something so deeply personal as my rape, in such a public space was me at my lowest ebb where all I had to give was what I stood for. My back was against the wall.

I wrote the speech in my office the night before. I didn’t research statistics or other writings. I told nobody bar my family and only one of my most trusted colleagues.

And that is another thing I learned. People can feel honesty, they can see it and they can hear it. After my speech I received literally thousands of cards, letters, emails and other social media messages with some stories that were tragic. It was shocking to learn that around 1 in 5 women experience some kind of sexual violence. Look around you – the odds are that 20% of the women here today, women you can see standing nearby may have a similar story.     

It seems strange to say, but the overall experience has been challenging but ultimately cathartic. It made me, perhaps for the first time in my life, truly seek to define what I stand for. But none of these things, from real events like my rape, to false media accusations or political briefing against me defines me.

There will have been traumatic events in everyone’s life in this hall.  You will have your own scars. But, although at times it can be very difficult, don’t allow the negative, traumatic events to define YOU. You are all much, much better than the worst that has happened to you.

There is one thing we all have in common.  That one thing is a future.

As I look to my future, what truly defines me? What do I want to be the pillars upon which I create my future?

In no particular order let me explain just three of my pillars.  There is music.  To the end of my days music will be my trusted soul-mate. For me there can be no greater majesty than a Shostakovich Symphony where the composer speaks of the anguish of Soviet Russia. There can be no greater magic than the intricacy and pattern-weaving of a Bach fugue.    

There are people of importance.  My family, my small group of friends and my community that is Scotland.  They are however not some passive pillar.  We are all social beings.  It is how we interact and how we support one another that is crucial.  I am reminded of the social anthropologist Malinowski who wrote eloquently on the principle of reciprocity.  We build strong relationships by the way in which we support and engage with one another.  And we must remember the breadth of human emotions that help us bond together – laughter always helps and we human beings often find ways to laugh at ourselves.   

And there is business:  How we do more than make a living, and by contributing to building our wider society? My latest business was deliberately named – Momentous Change Ltd. We seek to support and drive momentous change. For example, I have recently been appointed to the advisory board of the African Entrepreneurial Network in Kenya.  Part of the role will involve mentoring young women, for many years a passion of mine. I am looking forward to supporting the bravest of the brave, the female social entrepreneurs of Kenya. I have also been appointed to Chair a strategic board based in Westminster that aims to shape positive change in banking for SMEs.   

So keeping focused on the future, and keeping in mind what actually defines me is how I have coped.  I refer to this as resilience – and I choose to ignore the one journalist who recently referred to me as brazen. I am not sure if it were for daring to continue to exist, for daring to dream or for daring to focus on my own future. Brazen.  Perhaps a word used by this man to describe women willing to be unafraid.  Willing to make the most of their lives. Willing to wake up every day and make a difference; to their own lives, and to the lives of others.

I feel a strange kind of affinity with the words Hugh McDiarmid wrote in 1943 lamenting, hopefully wrongly, the passing of a particular type of woman.  He said,

I must say here that the race of true Scotswomen, iron women, hardy, indomitable, humorous, gay shrewd women with an amazing sense of values, seems to be facing extinction too in today’s Scotland.” I do hope not. I aspire to being a Scottish woman of that ilk.

Keep going. Get up every day. Have faith that all will be well. Give thanks for what you have in your life and don’t waste time bemoaning your own struggles – there will always be someone worse off than you. Choose to be happy. Learn from adversity with humility. Recall the words of Marianne Williamson,

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us…there is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Let me close, not by giving you any further advice, but by laying down a challenge. If you don’t already do so, I’d like to suggest you too become a mentor of a young woman starting out in her career. For it is by helping others to grow, that you too will grow.  At the end of my speech about rape I stated “I am not a victim, I am a survivor”. I now realise I am more than that. I am a winner. You are all winners. Believe that, live that – and keep on going.

No words.

Well, that is not exactly true, I do have a few left to tell you that I still have a couple of places on my RenewYou day next month in Bristol. Come and experience the collective power of women supporting each other. Plus, I also want to tell you that we have some great interviews coming up, including Michelle, the sainted Mary Beard (I always beatify her for some reason), an update on our first interview of 2013, and BBC food journalist Sheila Dillon, she of the wonderful voice!

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Posted on May 23rd, 2018 by

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