Warning: this story refers to sexual assault and may be upsetting.
In March 1992 Rhonda McHardy’s life changed forever.
A normal evening of socialising with friends ended in horror when serial rapist Malcolm Rewa attacked her in central Auckland.
As McHardy got into her car, Rewa thumped her in the head repeatedly with a heavy object, forced her into the vehicle, drove her to “the middle of nowhere” and sexually assaulted her.
Afterwards he abandoned her and McHardy - terrified, injured and brutalised - drove herself back to safety.
She went to police that day but it would be more than four years before they found the man responsible.
When McHardy learned the name of her attacker, she also learned there were many other women who had survived his horrendous violence.
Rewa was eventually convicted of attacking 45 women and the assault and murder of Susan Burdett in her South Auckland home.
And 32 years after McHardy survived her ordeal at the hands of the vile predator, she is self-publishing a powerful book about her experience, recovery and survival. She spoke to senior journalist Anna Leask.
The cover of McHardy's memoir features a sunflower which has special meaning to her. Photo / Supplied
McHardy was 25 when she was attacked by Malcolm Rewa but it wasn’t until she was 40, holidaying in stunning Santorini, Greece that the inspiration for her book came.
“There couldn’t have been a more perfect place to reflect on how far I’d come in the last 15 years,” she writes in Power and Grace.
“Life had dealt me one of the worst cards imaginable. I stumbled many times on the road back to myself, which was longer than I thought it would be. But I never gave up.
“How I would love to be able to go back in time and say to my younger self, ‘today you are a survivor but one day you will be so much more than that. Don’t ever stop believing in yourself, how you deserve to be treated, what you can achieve’.
“Now here I was feeling like I was on top of the world. I thought to myself ‘I need to write a book one day’.
“When I closed my eyes I could picture it in my hands and imagined being interviewed as if it had already been written. Then I let the image go … and forgot about it for the next 10 years.”
McHardy’s book is not about Rewa, his trials or the terrible, wrongful conviction of Teina Pora for the worst of the serial rapist’s offending.
It is not about telling people how to survive, to cope, to get through their own sexual trauma.
It is about her journey, what she learned along the way and how she moved from the darkness of the attack to the light of the life she lives now.
McHardy is healed - she’ll never forget that terrible chapter in her life but she’s not allowed it to define her.
Power and Grace is her explanation of that journey.
“There are so many stories within the story,” she said.
“It took me a while to find my voice - but I did ... it was really rewarding.
Rhonda McHardy photographed soon after the attack. She tried to reclaim her life as much as she could in the aftermath.
In her book, she speaks about the attack with powerful honesty.
During the attack, Rewa did not speak and McHardy played dead - and without any dialogue, she wondered how she could convey to readers how awful the experience was.
“How do I bring people in so they know what it was like? I only had my thoughts at the time, so I had to work out a way to pull people into my head ... to give people an understanding of what was going on then.
“Nothing really encapsulates the terror you feel but I did my best.”
McHardy canvasses the aftermath of the attack from the hours that followed to the days and weeks - the impact on relationships with partners, parents, friends.
How she desperately wanted to move forward, to keep working as a model, to travel, to live her life.
How she wanted to be normal but was trapped in the shadows of what had happened to her.
She speaks about the day she first heard the name Malcolm Rewa, the trauma of seeing him in court, of reliving her attack while giving evidence to the Crown.
And then she speaks about the healing, the letting go, the forgiveness and the “light at the end of the tunnel”.
“When I started getting into it, I decided I was going to have to be incredibly vulnerable and that took an enormous amount of courage,” she said.
“Ultimately, I would love my story to show people that no matter how devastated they are by sexual violence, the future can be bright.
“As long as you believe that, you can find the courage to get through the present.
“It can be very, very hard to imagine how good things can be down the track - if you’d told me how good my life would be 15 years later I would not have believed it, I could not see it.
“That’s really important, seeing that light at the end of the tunnel.”
McHardy has read many books about victims and survivors and when she started writing she had one goal - to make people want to keep reading.
“Because of the subject matter, as soon as it gets too heavy, people stop reading,” she said.
“I wanted people to want to keep reading, to want to know what happens next.”
Susan Burdett was murdered by Malcolm Rewa.
McHardy decided to self-publish her manuscript so she could tell her story her way.
“If one person says to me ‘I didn’t give up’ then it is all worth it,” she said.
“I just focus on that one person, that one reader ... I wrote this to connect with others who have been through it - and also parents struggling with what their son or daughter is going through.
“When this happens to you, no one can be inside your head, it’s hard enough to get through every day without explaining it to people ... I hope my book helps.”
McHardy’s book is available on Kindle.
An extract from Power and Grace
Nerves don’t get to me very often. As a performer, I love feeling the exhilaration before stepping out in front of an audience. But today was different.
I was about to give the performance of my life, testifying against the man who had brutally attacked, abducted, and raped me six years earlier.
The man accused of violent, sex-based crimes against 27 victims, including the murder of a woman attacked two weeks after me - the man who could have killed me too.
Entering the narrow corridor at the back of the courtroom, concealed from view, was like getting ready to go on stage. Almost.
Suddenly my skin went hot and for a moment I forgot to breathe.
As the room became visible, my eyes searched for the Crown Prosecutors, avoiding his direction. Taking a seat on the witness stand, I knew he was sitting to my right, just outside my peripheral vision.
Steeling my gaze ahead toward the judge’s bench, my mind whispered “safe” but my heart beat “vulnerable.”
Nothing could have fully prepared me to recount my ordeal a few feet from my attacker.
Part of me felt pity for the twelve strangers tasked with digesting every last detail, but as I caught the slight waver in my delivery, it was also a moment of immense self-compassion.
Despite the time that had passed, being transported back to that night made me feel like a victim again. Except this time, I wasn’t powerless. This time I had a voice.
When my part in the fight for justice was over, I finally dared to glance to my right, to say to my nemesis, I won.
But when I looked across all I saw was the top of his head hanging in shame.
It was he who couldn’t look into my eyes.
Malcolm Rewa. Photo / Michael Craig
<i>A detective introduced herself as part of the Operation Harvey task force, which had commenced in 1995 to investigate several rapes from 1988-1992.
“We arrested Malcolm Rewa last month and through DNA evidence we have identified him as your assailant.”
I was too shocked to have any kind of emotional response. How many other women are there? I braced myself.
“There are currently 27 victims in the case including Susan Burdett. Rewa is also being charged with her murder.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up recalling what ran through my head the night I was attacked.
What date was that? I asked.
23rd March, 1992.
Rhonda McHardy has spent many years healing from the attack and wants her book to empower and inform others.
Two weeks later. Two. Weeks.
Over time, thoughts of whether my attacker would ever be caught had been left well behind.
Essentially I was 48 moving on with my life. But one phone call catapulted me straight back to that fateful night as if it were yesterday.
Everything I’d felt then had turned out to be true. He had done it before, would do it again, was capable of murder.
Of course, it was great news he’d been caught but this was heavily tempered by the gravity and breadth of his crimes.
Rewa as he looked in the days of his serial offending.
Operation Atlas had started late 1995 to investigate a spate of attacks in central Auckland City suburbs that year. It wasn’t until close to Rewa’s capture that the police realised that they were looking for the same offender as Operation Harvey.
So now I had a name. Malcolm Rewa. But this was before Google so I couldn’t exactly find out his life story in a few minutes, and there was unlikely to be any publicly available information to find for a while.
In hindsight, this was probably a good thing. Rewa had been a faceless, nameless perpetrator for so long I think I preferred him that way. At least I’d never been haunted by his face in my nightmares.
I didn’t want to know Rewa’s story yet. Maybe I never would. He’d already had enough power over me and was putting us all through a court case.
Rewa’s capture posed a frustrating dilemma. In four years, I had made decent progress moving forward with my life. Now the past had leapfrogged into my future.
While I wouldn’t have to confront it in court for another two years, I couldn’t escape the reality that the event had to be lived through. Again.
For now, I could store it in a small cupboard in my mind, but as the trial loomed it would require more room.
There is no ‘moving on’ when the past has not let go of you. This was the price of justice.
*Power and Grace is available as an e-book and can be purchased on Kindle Books this week.
Anna Leask is a Christchurch-based reporter who covers national crime and justice. She joined the Herald in 2008 and has worked as a journalist for 18 years. She writes, hosts and produces the award-winning podcast A Moment In Crime, released monthly on nzherald.co.nz
Where to get help:
If it's an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
If you've ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone, contact Safe to Talk confidentially, any time 24/7:
• Call 0800 044 334
• Text 4334
• Email [email protected]
• For more info or to web chat visit safetotalk.nz
Alternatively contact your local police station - click here for a list.
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