Stronger – A play that makes us re-evaluate the meaning of justice

Stronger is written by Geoff Power and directed by Paul Meade. The play was showcased as part of Dublin Theatre Festival at the Smock Alley Theatre. Based on real-life events, it tells the story of a teacher (Jan) who was sexually abused by her student (Damon). It depicts the impact of the violence on her life and on her relationship with her husband, as well as her journey through the criminal justice system. Mary Murray and Scott Graham, playing Jan and Damon, respectively, delivered stunning performances, with Jan’s empathy and Damon’s charm drawing you in and keeping you engrossed in the play.

Set primarily in Jan’s living room, with some scenes set at a police station, prison, court room and restorative conferencing room, this play brings to light the challenges and the shortcomings of the existing retributive justice system, from the point of view of a victim of sexual violence. It challenges the assumptions underpinning criminal justice, and provides restorative justice as part of the solution. It acknowledges that restorative justice does not fix the problem, nor is it a replacement for criminal justice; in fact, they must coexist in such cases. As a professional advocate for victims of violence myself, the premise of the play immediately caught my attention. My own casework has given me reason to pause and to question our response to crime. I often wonder who we centre when we try to “prevent crime”.

What makes the play particularly powerful is that it makes us look at the protagonist beyond the identity of a victim. Jan’s desire to be called by her name and to be seen as more than a victim shows how one incident cannot define a person. She also struggles to pull back the focus of the system away from the abuser, and towards her and her wishes.

In real life, in the retributive justice system, this is easier said than done. This is because in most common law jurisdictions, any act of crime is deemed as a crime against society. The “state” has monopoly on filing criminal cases. In other words, when a person commits a crime, and the victim of the crime reports the offence, the state takes over. Unlike a civil dispute between two people, in criminal cases, it is a dispute between the offender and the state. The process is hijacked by experts – lawyers, judges, police, and so on – while the victim plays the role of a witness. The victim’s role is indeed very limited. The case revolves around the offender. The narrative is very formulaic. Some of the key questions the court asks are: a) what is the definition of crime at the time of that offence? b) does the act of the accused meet the salient features in the legal definition of the crime? c) what is the punishment in law for the crime? d) are there any mitigating circumstances that the court should bear in mind? The wishes and desires of the victim become peripheral, even in the best of circumstances. At this point, the person who initiated the trial literally has no say in what happens.

The play also forces us to look beyond binaries and tick boxes. In most sexual abuse cases, the abuser is often known to the victim. They often share a relationship more than victim-offender. As in this play, the victim (Jan) is a teacher of the abuser (Damon), and genuinely cares for her student. In such circumstances, often, victims do not want harsher sentencing. They want to know why they were subjected to the violence. They want an apology, and a promise that the offender will not abuse anyone. Does the criminal justice system have the space to navigate the subtleties of this relationship? In a system which focuses heavily on retribution and relies on binary narratives – black and white, truth and lie, victim and offender, guilty and innocent – there is very little room for such nuance.

The play also manages to place one incident of violence in the larger context of the life of the characters, without oversimplifying them as an excuse for committing the offence. It gives us a glimpse of Damon’s life and his familial context. This is important because to understand and stop any gender-based violence, we must see the larger picture. Violence does not exist in isolation.

Restorative justice is a broad subject, and to cover it in two hours is not easy. But the play was a good first step for a conversation on this complicated subject. I do see value in providing restorative justice as an alternative for victims, especially in cases such as familial abuse where there is a pre-existing relationship of love and care as well. But I do have some concerns. In this case, the victim was a teacher and in a position of power over the offender. What if it is the other way around and the offender comes from a place of power, which often is the case? I understand that conferences do not happen overnight. There is a lot of preparation. Both parties are prepared separately by a team of trained professionals. A well thought out pre-conference plan may address my concerns. Moreover, restorative justice may not work in all cases. Both parties need to be willing to participate in it, fully and honestly. But in this case, the process is not controlled by “experts”, but centres around the victim. Therein lies the key difference of approach between the two systems: retributive justice focuses on punishing the act, but restorative justice focuses on healing from the incident of crime in the context of participants’ lives. It brings in accountability for everybody. It allows the victim to control the narrative. That is why I see value in more conversation around the subject. That is why I see value in this play.

This review was first published in Restorative Justice: Strategies for Change Ireland.

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