Content Warning – Contains discussion of child sexual abuse
Editorial Note – I am a subscriber to the Second Captains Patreon, so I suppose I am technically involved in funding the production under review.
‘We all have an instinct, you know, to survive, and I was very aware that I felt I was in danger… we stopped [the car] and he got, he got started talking, and then he got very cross. And I remember him grabbing me in the car. And it was just that, that physical, y’know, moment… I remember thinking he was he was gonna kill me, and then I remember when he grabbed me, just knowing, “he’s not gonna kill me, I’m gonna kill him…” Oh, I lost it, and I got very violent. And he opened the door and let me out, and he drove off. And that was it.’
That is Tric Kearney explaining how she broke a cycle of abuse that had lasted for years. From her mid-teens to her years in college, Tric had been routinely raped, abused and stalked by the most famous swimming coach in 1980’s Ireland, George Gibney. Her moment of cathartic violence is related in an amazingly calm manner, as is all of her story. Tric can explain her feelings with the precision and calmness of the accomplished writer that she has become in her later life. You can, however, still her an edge of relief in her voice as she retells her escape.
Tric’s story is only one of many remarkable moments in the on-going BBC sounds documentary series Where is George Gibney? The series is made by the team at the Dublin based media outlet Second Captains. The presenter, Mark Horgan, and his producer, Kieron Cassidy, have been on a two year search across two continents to try and answer the eponymous question posed in their title. Where is George Gibney tells the story of Gibney’s fame as an Irish swimming coach, his abuse of many young swimmers, his disgrace and downfall, his escape and, finally, of how Horgan and Cassidy eventually tracked him down to a town in the USA.
The podcast series essentially has three stories running in parallel. The first is of Gibney’s past in Ireland and America; How did a famous serial abuser of children escape Irish justice? And how has he remained hidden from public view in the years that followed? The second story is of Horgan and his teams’ attempts to unravel the threads of the first plot, and of them meeting the survivors of Gibney’s violence. The final plot is a corollary to the second and concerns the lives of the survivors in the years after Gibney’s escape from Ireland.
It is this last plot that is most remarkable, and which best highlights the podcast’s excellent structure and style. As each survivor enters the narrative of Gibney’s abuse in the 80s, the episodes cut to a short section of Horgan meeting up with the adult survivors in the late 2010s. Horgan’s sparing narration fills in some details, but the story of how each individual has coped in the decades after their abuse is largely told in their own words.
These snippets of everyday conversations provide devastating details. Swimming coach Chalkie White mentions in passing that he never eats lunch and wonders how his lack of apetite is related to the times of day when he would train with, and then be abused by, Gibney. Tric Kearney goes on a walk with Horgan to the beautiful Cork coastline and shares her stoic philosophy on life. She reflects on how she has had so much time ‘after Gibney’, and of how her abuse was only a, ‘seven-year period’ of her life. In a heart-breaking moment, Tric then qualifies her profound insight with an apologetic, ‘That’s me, my philosophy’, that can just be heard over the sea breeze in the background.
The ability of the show’s producers to insert these wonderful human moments is a display of their mastery of the radio documentary form. Audio documentaries often fall into one of two groups stylistically; the first is the conversational style of WYNC studios, The Daily, or Today in Focus; where one is given the impression of overhearing an editorial meeting between the faux-naïve host and an in-the-know journalist. The second is the more traditional style of the BBC, with it’s strict demarcations between narration and plot, presenter and subject.
Where is George Gibney elides these two styles and does so for the better; it has all the formal assurance and focus of the BBC combined with the relatability of the conversational format. As an example, each episode opens with a short piece of narration that contextualises a moment from Horgan and Cassidy’s in-person hunt for Gibney in 2019. Listeners get to overhear the two men’s unfiltered selves; swearing in dramatic moments and then idly chatting about the case to try and diffuse the tension. It is a much more sincere version of the exposition heavy conversations one hears in The Daily, while also providing context as effectively as any episode of The Documentary on the BBC World Service.
Only two episodes have released so far, but already the two major themes of the story seem to be emerging. The first is of obsession. There is the obsessive chase of Gibney made by the team behind the podcast, cursing under their breath as they tail his car to an American supermarket. There is also the terrifying obsessiveness of Gibney himself. This is brought to life by the survivor’s testimony, as they relate their daily abuse by their swimming coach. It becomes clear that Gibney’s entire life must have revolved not around the sport he was famous for, but rather around identifying, isolating and then abusing victims. The obsessional nature of his crimes brings to mind Azir Nafisi’s description of Humbert Humbert, that the narrator of Lolita’s crime was not only rape, ‘but the confiscation of one individual’s life by another.’
It is the efforts of the survivors to reclaim their own lives that most stays in mind after the end of each episode, and it is also the second theme of the series. Episode One recounts Chalkie’s decades-long process of adjustment and slow opening up. Episode Two has Ber telling her story in her own home, with her husband next to her. Tric Kearney walks beside the sea while providing a story straight out of a horror movie. The achievement of the producers is in removing themselves from these narratives when necessary, an elegant step-aside to allow their subjects to tell their own stories.
The strength of the show’s the first two episodes and the quality of its production make me confident that listeners will not be disappointed by the remaining six episodes. The more serious question is whether the show can help stimulate a long-delayed movement towards justice for Gibney’s victims. The individuals heard on the documentary display quite bottomless resilience and strength. They deserve justice, or at least as much of it as one can get after forty years.
The scale of the impact of child sexual abuse is captured in a devastating moment in episode two. Ber has spent her adult life as part of a loving marriage and family. Her career has been spent in the education of differently abled children. By anyone’s measure she has lived her life well and morally. The pain of her abuse has never fully disappeared, however, and she wonders aloud at what life might have been, if she had never met George Gibney;
‘I often wonder what was I going to be. I’m like this up to age nine… the day he touched me, did he squeeze and kill whatever I was going to be?’
Where is George Gibney? Is available on BBC sounds and the usual variety of podcast platforms. New episodes come out every Thursday. Tric Kearney’s blog can be found here – https://mythoughtsonapage.