BYANNA BURNSID, 27 MAR 2017
Rape. Torture. Threats. Followed by jeering and mockery and the mental torture of having to serve with her attackers. All bottled up for years, for fear of reprisals.
If Mary Jane Wells had invented Danna Davis’s story of sexual violence and bullying in the US Army, no one would have believed her.
Mary Jane barely believed Danna when she first got a glimpse of what she had lived through. Then she discovered that rape and bullying are rife in the military, in the UK as well as the US. It even has an official name: MST, military sexual trauma.
Mary Jane said: “Before I’d studied her case, I thought what happened to Danna was extraordinarily different.
“Then I learned that it was a terrible awful thing but it happens all the time.
“They were trying to obliterate her – and she survived.”
Danna Davis is not her real name and Mary Jane is an unlikely campaigner for the survivors of MST.
She is an actor and writer who studied at Glasgow University and what was then called the RSAMD.
After working in Scottish theatre at the start of her career, Mary Jane followed her friend Henry Ian Cusick (Desmond in Lost) to the States, and ended up in Hollywood, starring in films, including Crazy Bitches.
She first heard about Danna in 2012, on the set of lesbian love story Perfect Ending.
Another member of the cast had a script about a soldier. “I read it and thought, this is a true story. It had that ring of authenticity. I was introduced to the real person and we became friends.”
That film didn’t happen but Danna got under Mary Jane’s skin.
She told the former soldier: “I’m not famous enough or important enough to get this movie made for you but I’ve done a lot of theatre in Scotland. Let’s see if there’s something we can do with that to get your story out.”
Five years later Mary Jane has returned to Scotland to turn it into a play, Heroine.
Danna joined the army, aged 17, because she needed a bed for the night. Her parents had thrown her out for being gay.
Mary Jane explained: “She needed to survive and when she puts her mind to something, she does it. She has backbone if nothing else.
“Danna moved up the ranks pretty fast. I don’t know if that was part of what happened to her. Being gay was certainly part of it.
“This was a torture situation, it was extremely graphic, extremely violent. We’ve had to tone it down for the audience. As I heard the details over years, as little bits came out, I was so horrified.
“I couldn’t believe that somebody had survived this intact and received no justice at all.
“People in the army today still face that level of violence if they come forward and talk about it.”
As she researched her show based on Danna’s experiences, Mary Jane uncovered terrible statistics.
There are 19,000 cases of sexual assault in the US military every year. That’s one every 25 minutes.
Only one in five attacks are reported. Of the ones that are reported, only one per cent get to trial. They are then tried in a military court.
Of the 19,000 service personnel who are attacked every year, 8500 are women and 11,500 are men.
“The common misconception is that MST is about sex,” Mary Jane said. “It’s not. It’s about power and control and bullying.”
The US Army is in denial about the extent and seriousness of the issue. During her research, Mary Jane discovered many more horrendous cases of how victims are treated.
She said: “One woman was told to take an aspirin and go to bed,” she explained.“Another was told to work with her supposed rapist so they could work out their ‘differences’.
“It’s a terribly damaging attitude and a complete misunderstanding of the criminality of sexual assault.
“It’s very trivialised. Anybody who comes forward it just a silly girl who has tried to sleep with the commander and he’s said no.”
Danna was in her early 20s when she was attacked by four men she knew. Like so many of the targets of MST, she told no one.
Then, on a tour of duty which Mary Jane has set in Iraq, one of Danna’s rapists was in the same squad.
“She had to go on an extremely dangerous mission with the man who had raped her and threatened her life.
“It was a bloodbath and she was in this situation where there’s no man left behind. They were together having to make decisions in an incredibly highly charged combat situation.
“Another time she was on her own in a tunnel with him. She told me she pulled out a knife out and sharpened her fingernails.
“The other three would come past in a jeep and jeer and shout at her, ‘Do you want to party again?’
“She couldn’t cry about it ever. Any admittance of vulnerability is key to that kind of bullying culture. They would have done it every week.”
Instead Danna had to suck it up – to the detriment of her own mental health.
Mary Jane explained: “She had to buy into a male-fronted culture of chest puffing just to get them off her back. She could not experience her own feelings for a long time.
“That takes the most incredible character and nerve. In fact it needs the most incredible leadership skills. That’s one of the biggest tragedies.
“It’s the army’s loss, they’re losing all these incredible soldiers who have survived a lot.”
It has taken Mary Jane years, and much of her own cash to develop Danna’s story into a play. Even though her name and all her details have been changed, and the performances are on the other side of the Atlantic, telling her story has not been easy.
“We needed to go very slowly. It’s the first time Danna Davis has ever talked about this. I’m an actor, not a psychiatrist. I needed to make sure she had the right support.”
Mary Jane’s support has come from the Kings and Festival Theatres in Edinburgh, who are putting on the show.
It’s a shoestring endeavour – she is putting up £4000 to pay her technical staff. Rehearsals are currently taking place in her dad’s garden shed.
Despite the gruelling subject, Mary hopes that Heroine works as a gripping drama. She said: “The role of art is not to hit the audience over the head, or preach. My only job is to tell Danna’s story and let you experience that in all of its colours.
“But the person outside the play is absolutely outraged this ever happens.”
Heroine is at The Studio, 22 Potterrow, Edinburgh, March 31 and April 1, 7pm.