Alison thought she might never experience joy again – mutilated, raped and left for dead, the horrific injuries incurred after her attack 15 years ago could well have ruined her life. Her story is well documented and reads like gruesome fiction, so shocking are the details.
As a young woman of 27, she was held up at knifepoint in her car as she returned home. She was then driven to a deserted beach near the South African seaside town of Port Elizabeth. Here, Alison (she prefers not to use her surname) was not only subjected to rape by her two attackers, she was stabbed up to 35 times in the stomach, her throat viciously slit in a frenzied and gruesome assault. She wasn’t meant to live.
Her assailants certainly didn’t think she would. After their senseless attack, they drove off in her car, callously leaving her for dead.
But she chose life. Naked and unspeakably injured, she dragged herself through a bush track, holding in her intestines with the shirt her attackers threw on her as they left. Determined not to die in this terrible way, she found crawling too arduous and unbelievably, managed to stagger to her feet, propping up her severed head with her other hand.
An agonising 80 or so metres later she reached the main road where she knew she stood the most chance of being rescued. Even then the nightmare didn’t end. She heard a car stop and instead of helping, the driver drove off again.
The second car did help – fortuitously, its occupants included a young veterinary student who was able to keep her conscious until the ambulance arrived an agonising two hours later.
Three hours of surgery ensued and a mere two weeks later, against all odds, Alison left hospital – her recovery hailed as a miracle.
She had a nation willing her to survive – there was public outrage, especially when it emerged her attackers had raped two other women just weeks before and had been let out on bail to re-offend.
Alison’s story also captured world-wide attention with the sheer evil nature of the attack. There was no political motivation – the assailants weren’t even particularly disadvantaged.
All this seems far removed from the Alison I meet. Snugly ensconced in a corner of a cosy Brisbane coffee shop, black brew on hand, Alison has already had an hour-long radio interview on this gusty winter’s morning. Prior to that she has flown from New Zealand where she had another speaking engagement.
In spite of jetlag and the eventuation of repeating her story to yet another journalist, she is genuinely gracious and engaging with a ready smile and girl-next-door persona. The only outward sign of her ordeal is a faint scar that runs across her throat – otherwise, she could be any other attractive woman enjoying coffee with a friend.
She acknowledges the mere fact she is alive is a miracle in itself. The fact that she is not wracked by pain is even more so.
“I remember the pain being so intense I thought I would never be without it,” she admits.
Apart from a weakened neck and the odd twinge of pain, she has been left relatively unscathed.
“Everything is functioning – they had to rebuild my stomach wall with muscle from my leg – that’s the only other surgery I’ve needed.”
In fact, so incredible was her physical recovery that it was easy for outsiders to assume life would simply continue as it had before the attack.
“A friend said to me afterwards, ‘now you can live life as though it never happened’.”
But the horror of the incident could not simply be dismissed and she sunk into depression. She had returned to work a mere two months after the attack and struggled with total apathy.
“I didn’t care if I went to work or not – if I got up or not or even if I answered the phone. I was numb.”
Months went by – and the tale might have been a very different one had she not dug deep and questioned why she had fought so hard to survive the attack, yet was now unable to embrace the gift of life.
“I felt guilty that I had lived and so many others hadn’t – I’d ask why me? I told myself that something inside you knew you were worth putting up a fight for. My mom had always told me I was special and had value and uniqueness. It was tested that night.
“Slowly I realised I could choose how I reacted. We are all faced with problems that we wouldn’t choose but what gives us the power is how we choose to respond. It doesn’t mean what happened wasn’t terrible and horrific but I had to ask what I wanted for the rest of my life.”
That attitude was a turning point. And little did she know that the story would not end there. Hounded by journalists soon after her attack, she finally relented and told her story to a reporter from the local newspaper.
“The article appeared and I thought that would be it,” she laughs.
What followed was nothing short of a media frenzy. Then came the speaking invitations.
“It happened by default. I was not a natural speaker – in fact, it was one of my two main fears – the other was a fear of heights.
“I was asked by the Rotary Club in PE to speak and was still depressed at that stage but recounting the attack was beneficial in a way and made me well.”
The offers to speak grew – she left her job and about that time had a call from a Johannesburg agent who said ‘what you are talking about could become a business’. “She said I needed to do something about it now as in a year it would all be over. That was 14 years ago,” she smiles.
She remains in demand as a motivational speaker at home and around the world, speaking to a broad range of audiences – from corporate to charity events. She has even spoken to survivors of Ground Zero in New York. Wherever she goes, her story of hope and triumph against all odds touches people to the core.
Her largest audience has been a crowd of 8000 in Washington DC where she received a standing ovation.
“In South Africa, I get one before I even go on stage because people know me so well,” she says.
The natural demeanour is not just one projected to the media or large audiences – she is simply being herself – someone who ‘loves walking on the beach, doing different crafts, reading, spending time with my boys and meeting new people’.
“I hold onto the fact that I am simply Alison … I’m happy admitting I’m an ordinary person that had something extraordinary happen to them.”
While telling her story has become second nature, Alison still sometimes forgets, how gruesome the details of her account are and some people in her audience have actually fainted when she relays the horrors of the attack.
“I have to step down sometimes and have a drink of water and let them compose themselves,” she says.
Yet in spite of retelling her story countless times, she remains passionate, never forgetting the enormity of what she’s come through.
“I met someone who asked me more detailed questions than those normally asked – and I found myself crying – I was surprised I still had the emotions about it and hadn’t distanced myself so much – I’m glad I can still feel that.”
By sharing her story, she shares how one can live “as a victim or can take control” of one’s life, whatever the obstacles.
She is inundated with correspondence and has inspired many with her courageous tale of survival.
“One of the letters was from a Swedish girl who was being abused by her dad and was forced to live with him as his wife. After reading my story, she had the courage to leave and even took him to court.
“I believe the thing they leave with is: if she can do it, so can I. If some good can come out of it, the good far outweighs the evil of that night.”
But Alison acknowledges there are still battles. Another big one was her recent divorce.
The nation followed each painful step of her recovery and it was a joyful occasion when she met her husband and married in 1997 – the wedding was even covered by a national magazine.
More miracles were to come. There was always a concern that because her uterus had been nicked by the violent stabbing (one of the assailants later admitted he’d concentrated his frenzied attack on her reproductive organs), she would never have children, but that dream too was realised and she has two young sons.
Unfortunately, the fairytale ending was not quite as it seemed and several years into the marriage, Alison had to make the courageous decision to leave.
“Sadly, I divorced a year ago – there was a feeling of responsibility to everyone who so wanted it to work. For a long time I could pretend that it wasn’t that bad but I realised I did have another choice. What struck me was that I wasn’t valuing myself anymore.
“I would love to fall in love again!” she enthuses.
It’s this persistence and optimism that has brought her thus far. And while she acknowledges no-one can know how they’ll react in a similar situation, she does believe she is inherently resilient “and stubborn!”
“You always hope as a parent that what you instil in your children will benefit in their lives and my mom was always saying things like: ‘When you need to make a choice I’m not always going to be there to help’. She is so proud of me and every anniversary of the attack sends me a card saying ‘thank you for fighting’.”
She also attributes her mother’s strength to her recovery.
“She was a single parent and always had a stiff upper lip – I don’t remember her ever not handling things. After the attack a friend said she was stoic and didn’t show her emotions but I know if she had, I would have fallen apart. I’m so grateful for her being so selfless.”
It would have been easy to harbour hatred towards the perpetrators – both ultimately found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.
“I have forgiven them but do think that they deserve to be in jail for life – I think they would do it again if they were released.
“I still believe in the good in people. And I still feel sorry for them – that two people could be so lost and have such hatred rather than good within them. But good over-powered evil.”
Alison’s book, I Have Life, is published by Penguin Books South Africa.