Gutsy Goddess—Winnie M. Li

Author, activist, and amazing woman of courage, Winnie M. Li, tells her story of emerging from a violent assault, to live her dreams, and dedicating her life to changing public perceptions.

Life can change in an instant, through no fault of our own….

In April 2008, at the age of 29, I was violently assaulted and raped in a Belfast park by a 15-year-old stranger, at the tail end of a business trip.  Until that afternoon, I’d been a hardworking film producer in London, who’d been to the Oscars and the Cannes Film Festival, and had a busy, active social life and a promising career. I also loved the outdoors and the thrill of solo travel.

That life was torn apart within minutes on that April afternoon.  A teenage boy approached me in that Belfast park and asked for directions.  It was only when I reached a remote area of the park, that I noticed he was still following me. At that moment, the panic set in. I ran, I shouted for help, but there was no one around. The boy suddenly turned violent, and each time I fought back, his violence increased.  In the 30-minute assault, I sustained 39 separate injuries.  After he left the scene, I phoned for help.  I was still alive, but I was now a rape victim — to the rest of the world, another nameless statistic in the crime log; but to those who knew me, a fragile, deadened shell of the previous dynamic person I’d been.

When I returned to London the next day, it was impossible to fit back into the life I’d had before.  The red-carpet premiere of a film I’d produced took place that night, and I used heavy-duty concealer to cover up my bruises from the assault. The trauma left me with severe PTSD, anxiety and depression, and I was no longer able to work at my demanding job. So the rape effectively ended my film-producing career. I withdrew from the world, especially as the next year of my life was dominated by the legal process. I was unable to socialize and I felt like I no longer fit in anywhere. I hardly left my apartment.

Even after my perpetrator was convicted, it took years to rebuild my life. I was unemployed for over two years, my finances suffered, and this added to my depression. In the end, I had to leave the country to find work again. I still could not believe how drastically my life had changed in the course of an afternoon, all because of what one stranger decided to do to me. And it would be years before I could hike on my own again.

In the years since my own rape, I’ve dedicated my professional life to advocating for change in how our society handles sexual assault. Can I use my own media skills as a writer and communicator to improve the public understanding of a crime which is so prevalent, but often so unspoken? Since the age of 6, I’d always wanted to write a book, and in 2017, my novel Dark Chapter was published. Based partially on my experience, it tells the story of a rape from the perspectives of both victim and perpetrator. It recently won The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize and will be translated into eight languages. I’ve spoken at more than 40 events around it, and have appeared on the BBC, The Times, The Guardian, The Mail on Sunday, RTE. But what means the most to me is when other survivors tell me how much the book validated their own experiences, and told a truth that many non-survivors don’t see.

In 2015, I co-founded the Clear Lines Festival, the UK’s first-ever festival dedicated to addressing sexual assault through the arts and discussion. It drew together 500 people, has since had a 2nd edition. I look forward to bringing the Clear Lines Festival to new locations, so others can take part in a creative, productive platform for sharing their stories about rape and sexual assault: a community of healing and understanding. 

I’m also pursuing a PhD at the London School of Economics, exploring how rape survivors are using social media to share their experiences and build a sense of community. As you can see from the #MeToo phenomenon, there are many of us, who want our stories to highlight the injustice of these kinds of crimes.

Oh, and I’ve started hiking again. In 2011, I hiked the West Highland Way in Scotland on my own. And I realized I would never truly be able to recover from rape if I couldn’t travel solo again. So that was a previous part of my life I made sure to reclaim.

For better or worse, that rape is part of my identity now. It’s not one I ever chose, but it brings with it a certain community and a capacity for understanding. And I intend to use that capacity to its fullest.

I dream of a day when survivors can speak more openly about our experiences without feeling shame, without being judged. I also dream of a day when our public institutions can serve the needs of victims and can properly assign guilt and accountability upon those who deserve it. I’m willing to believe that day is coming. And I think we can all play a part in making it happen.

As for me, I have a lot of other stories to tell, so I’m starting work on my next novel. I look forward to bringing the Clear Lines Festival to new locations, so others can take part in a creative, productive platform for sharing their stories about rape and sexual assault. And of course, there’s loads of new places I’d like to visit and new trails to hike!

Life can change in an instant, through no fault of our own…but if we can share our stories bravely, openly, we can start to change the public understanding of rape — and in the process, heal ourselves.

We would love to have you join the conversation. Do you have thoughts you would like to share, or questions to ask Winnie? What are your dreams and your insights? Please comment below.

For more information on Winnie M. Li please click here.

For more information on Winnie’s novel Dark Chapter in the US please click here. or in the UK click here.

Winnie’s book tour kicks off in the US starting January 2018; for more information click here.

For more information on the Clear Lines Festival please click here.

To read about other Gutsy Goddesses please click here.

38 Comments

  1. Incredible story and courage. Bravo for taking the lead forvyou and others!

    • admin_laughingatthesky December 28, 2017 at 7:10 am

      Heidi2—As a sister who stands in courage I’m grateful for your comment. Thanks for stopping by this post. I was actually thinking of you when I read Winnie’s line, “Life can change in an instant…” and I loves how she ended that line, “and in the process heal ourselves.” It is true that when someone chooses to tell their story, and “take the lead,” they help themselves and others.

  2. A truly inspiring story of incredible strength and courage in transforming such a horrific act into hope and effective advocacy. Kudos to you! And so glad you are out hiking again!

    • admin_laughingatthesky December 28, 2017 at 9:44 am

      Dennis, thanks so much for your thoughtful comment and for highlighting the “hope” in her story. She is an inspiration and breath of hope to many.

  3. Yours is an inspiring story of courage, determination and inner strength, Winnie. Kudos to you for fighting back and making a difference for rape survivors! More power to you and thank you, for bravely sharing your story.

  4. admin_laughingatthesky December 28, 2017 at 6:40 pm

    Thanks so much Shilpa. As you often say, “If we were having coffee…” I would add…perhaps we would find inspiration from the courageous and generous people we have met this year, and be grateful for the stories they have shared with us. At this end of year time, I appreciate the difference you make, and thank you for your comments. Winnie is making a powerful difference for so many, and I am glad that you are inspired by her story.

  5. Thank you for sharing this inspiring story! You are a great role model for our girls. Good luck in your future endeavors.

    • admin_laughingatthesky December 29, 2017 at 7:32 am

      Joan, thanks for your comment. It makes me think of the saying, “It takes a village…” how we all strive to do the best for our children and expose them to amazing role models. I would love to bring the girls, whom you and I love, to see her when she does her US tour. (The boys too!). When I think of the transformation of my own “second daughter” as she has matured to an amazing, compassionate woman—it fills me with joy. Heartfelt thanks for stopping by.

  6. I was so moved by your inspiring story, Winnie! Not everyone can pick up the pieces of their life and move on with such conviction and pride. God be with you always!

    • admin_laughingatthesky December 29, 2017 at 7:35 am

      Deepti, what a lovely and thoughtful comment. So glad her story “moved” you. Thank you for stopping by. I love how she is not only moving on with her own life but is also making a difference in the world.

  7. It never fails to amaze me when people go through such horrific experiences and come out the other side, sharing it for the good of many other people. So inspiring, thank you 🙂

    • admin_laughingatthesky December 30, 2017 at 3:02 pm

      I am thrilled that you found inspiration. Winnie is an amazing role model for all of us, rising above this violence with a powerful voice. Thank you so much for your comment.

  8. Thank you for helping us all lift up our heads and say even to ourselves I was treated terribly but I am still a person who needs to have compassion on myself and realise the shame and blame belongs to the perpetrators. It is so good to talk openly because this crime thrIves in the effect of shutting us down and feeling we are no good. Thank you for speaking out we all need to know through express of the real truth we are set free to let go and rebuild our lives together xxx

    • admin_laughingatthesky December 30, 2017 at 2:59 pm

      Anne—what an inspiring and heartfelt comment. Thank you so much for sharing. It is so true that this type of violence understandably, shuts people down. I wholeheartedly agree, the shame and blame does belong to the perpetrators, and that we do need to wrap ourselves in compassion. To have the courage to rebuild, speak out, and help others is powerful. We are not all ready yet I do appreciate Winnie’s line, “…if we can share our stories bravely, openly, we can start to change the public understanding of rape — and in the process, heal ourselves.” Anne, I hope you will continue to share your insight with our community.

  9. What courage you have. Way to take an awful event and turn it into something meaningful. Kudos to you.

    • admin_laughingatthesky January 7, 2018 at 2:44 pm

      Lisa, Thanks so much for your comment and for visiting this site. I read a post by a sister blogger today that talked of “practicing radical empathy.” Comments like yours and this idea of standing up for one another gives me hope and strength. I hope you will continue to share with our community.

  10. When victims share their stories, they stop being victims and gain a much better name: champion. Winnie, you are not only a survivor but your story will bring hope to so many who may feel as if they’ll always be seen (and see themselves) as victims. Thank you for sharing.

    • Champion I love that. Yes it is through speaking out and sharing that we see ourselves in the true light of being champions. Victim of an assault then we go in to become survivors of an assault then through open discussion and sharing and placing the blame and shame where it belongs we become champions because we have overcome and regain what they tried to take our own power goodness and sanity we are truly the champions they are cruel losers.

      • admin_laughingatthesky December 31, 2017 at 2:07 pm

        I love it too, and also the way you wrote it Anne, “we see ourselves in the true light of being champions.” As the world moves forward, welcoming a new year, may their lights, our lights, shine brightly.

  11. Through such intense pain comes great strength. A truly inspiring story, you are a brave young woman Winnie. 🙂

    • admin_laughingatthesky January 7, 2018 at 2:50 pm

      Lorelle, Thanks so much for visiting this community and sharing your thoughts. Yours is a powerful message, the idea that through intense pain comes great strength. I’ve always loved the Rumi quote, “The wound is where the light enters.” Your phrase works so well with that idea, one to hold on to.

  12. Sanchali Chakraborty January 7, 2018 at 11:09 am

    I have no words to state my disgust for such persons and you lady ,thank you for not losing hope and courage for such morons.You are truly an inspiration for womanhood.I wish you all the best for a beautiful life ahead.💖

    • admin_laughingatthesky January 7, 2018 at 2:59 pm

      Sanchali, Welcome to our community and thanks for sharing your message. I’m glad you found inspiration as did I. I do hope you might consider reading her book, or more about her, because what I found very interesting was that it weaves two stories, one of the survivor and one of the attacker. As a sister survivor it opened my eyes to new insight, especially when I read her response. Either way, may your wish for a beautiful life come right back to you. With peace, Heidi

  13. You are so brave and inspiring x sharing this as much as possible x

    • admin_laughingatthesky January 7, 2018 at 3:19 pm

      Welcome to our community Fancy! I’m grateful for your comment. I have a saying, “you never know who you might inspire or where it might lead.” So, thanks so much for the share; perhaps it will bring strength and insight to others.

  14. Your skill as a writer, and as a human being, is evident here. Climbing into the head of a perpetrator of such a terrible crime must have been an incredible challenge as you wrote your novel. I’m so glad you’re telling your story and speaking out in support of others. Thanks, Winnie. I’m happy to have learned more about how courage and perseverance changes a hellish experience into a productive and meaningful purpose.

    • admin_laughingatthesky January 7, 2018 at 3:15 pm

      Well said, Angela—heartfelt thanks, and welcome to our community. I was reading your thoughts on “practicing radical empathy,” and just mentioned it to Lisa above, at the same moment your post came through. By trying to step into another’s perspective it seems like we can work to make our world a bit smaller, and give compassion and forgiveness the opportunity to expand. Winnie and Madeline (another Gutsy Goddess) have been opening my eyes and heart around the idea of forgiveness. Perhaps an initial step to forgiveness could be true empathy.

  15. I’m blown away by this article. Thank you so much for writing it. As others have said before me, you’re bravery to speak openly of your attack is so inspiring. All the best to you.

    • admin_laughingatthesky January 7, 2018 at 8:30 pm

      Hayley, Welcome to our community! I am so touched that you stopped by and look forward to reading more form you here and on your blog. Heidi

  16. Heartfelt thanks for your courage.

  17. I’m blown away by your courage. Courage to share, speak out and act. As women, we need to share our stories and raise awareness to help others do the same and hopefully bring about change in society.

    • Welcome back Tammy! I just had lunch with Winnie and also Madeleine Black yesterday, and heard them speak about this same idea—by sharing stories we help others and work to change society. Winnie’s last question to the audience was, “What positive steps can we take to bring about change.” Thanks for being part of this important conversation.

  18. What a powerful inspiring story and example of how to take back one’s power! Winnie I applaud you for your strength and courage!

    • Denise. Your ears must have been burning. Winnie and I were just having lunch before her talk at the feminist library. We talked of a Gutsy Goddess hike; I mentioned your work taking survivors on hikes. She may be on a book tour in New England. You two must meet!

  19. Keep on hiking, Winnie. We are all cheering you on! Thank you for sharing your experience because I know that it isn’t easy to do.

    • Thank Simonne! I just had lunch with Winnie, and also Gutsy Goddess Madeleine Black, and we talked about a Gutsy Goddess hike. You should come! We could always use an artist with your talent and colorful way of viewing the world. 🙂

  20. Winnie–What a wonderful, inspirational story! Thank you for sharing it.

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