For years, Maureen Kearney has struggled to talk about the vicious attack and sexual assault she suffered in her home by an unknown assailant, because, she says, “When you think you’re going to die, the words aren’t there.”
In fact, for a long time, she could barely remember it, or much of her life before it happened. Her body was protecting her, preventing trauma that felt too great to process.
“Everything before December 17, 2012 was empty,” she says. “I got stuck on that date.”
Eleven years later, not only was she able to tell about it, but her story was told in a book in France. And now it’s been made into a movie, The Sitting Duck, a taut thriller that will be released in the UK in June.
The role of Kerney is played by Isabelle Huppert, one of the most popular actresses in France. Watching the re-creation of Attack on film wasn’t easy — the first time around, Kearney had to walk out of the show — but she’s glad she’s there.
For years, Maureen Kearney struggled to speak out about the vicious assault and sexual assault she suffered in her home by an unknown assailant
“This was the hardest part of my life but it’s in the past. If he can help one woman, he deserves it,” says Kearney, now 67.
It’s an incredible story of trauma and survival, but also of corporate corruption, government lies, and the horrifying consequences of being a whistleblower.
Indeed, the plot of The Sitting Duck would have been considered far-fetched had it not been true – few would believe that Kearney’s plight could have occurred in a modern Western democracy.
Although it took place in Paris, Kearney is Irish. She was born and raised in Mayo, but she was always attracted to French culture. In the 1970s, she won a scholarship to study at the university in Aix-en-Provence, and then met and married a Frenchman named Gilles Hugo.
They settled in Paris, where Hugo was CEO of an audio production company, raising two children while Kearney also taught English to the staff of the nuclear engineering company Areva.
When she notices her students are suffering under the company’s layoff plan, she begins to advocate for them, eventually rising to become a staunch and outspoken unionist in the French nuclear industry.
In this position, Kearney learned in 2011 of a top-secret contract involving Areva, the French state-owned utility Electricité de France (EDF) and the China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGNPC). If true, that would mean significant job losses at Areva as well as the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology from France to China.
“I had vast networking powers—journalists, politicians—so I started chatting, trying to figure out what was going on,” Kearney says.
My attacker said, “This is your second warning. There will be no third.”
First, the presidents and government ministers assured her the deal was off, but months later someone sent her a copy of the contract with a photo of her signed.
She says: “I asked for an extraordinary meeting with the CEO of Areva, and in that meeting I was very frank, and I now realize that. He said there was no contract. I told him he was a liar and I had proof.”
Kearney realized there could be professional consequences; She may be under pressure at work. “It was a tough time but you certainly never thought you were in physical danger.” Around this time, I started getting anonymous phone calls – in one, a message was left to “mind your own business”, which I played with several people.
Her adult children were also noticing strange occurrences. My daughter said that when she drove up to see us, another car followed. We told her not to be silly. It doesn’t seem real or possible. The night before I was attacked, there was a car parked outside my son’s house for hours. When he came out to see who it was, he sped off very quickly.
Her story has been made into The Sitting Duck, a thriller that will be released in the UK in June. Pictured: Isabelle Huppert as Kearney in The Sitting Duck
On December 17, 2012, a typical busy Monday morning, Kearney’s life crossed into the realms of a horror movie. Hugo had left for work and Kearney was brushing her teeth in the downstairs bathroom.
“My mind was elsewhere, and I wasn’t sober,” she says. ‘Why would I be?’ Suddenly, a dark hood was pulled over her head and she felt what appeared to be a gun in her back.
“I don’t remember my thoughts at all,” she says, “but I remember my heart.” The beating was so fast I thought it was going to pop out of my chest. I could hear blood in my ears. It was the strangest feeling.
Kearney was led into the living room and tied to a chair. Her attacker told her: This is your second warning. There will be no third. Using a knife, he carves an A across her stomach — perhaps for Areva or avertissement, the French word for “warning.”
Kearney had no idea what he was doing. “I didn’t feel anything after that,” she says. I was convinced my intestines were in my lap. I went somewhere else, I don’t know where, but I wasn’t there.
When her housekeeper arrived, six hours later, she found Kearney still tied to a chair with the knife inserted into her vagina first. Kearney fainted – at first the housekeeper thought she was dead.
From this day on, and for years to come, Kearney’s life ceased to make sense—it was, she says, “like an attack on reason.” Very early on, she feels that the police did not believe her, and within weeks Kearney and Hugo are called to the station and separated when they arrive.
“The police then told me I had made the whole thing up,” she says. Kearney has been told – falsely – that her husband, friends and colleagues believe she is lying too. After more than ten hours of questioning, the police left the room and a man in civilian clothes entered.
Now Kearney has been threatened again. He told me that if I didn’t say I made it up the steam iron would flatten my family and we would never go back. Exhausted, an exhausted Kearney signed a statement saying she had imagined the attack.
I couldn’t eat. I could not sleep. Any sound I didn’t know would bother me
She was then allowed home and given a week to make a more detailed and convincing confession. When she couldn’t provide one, she was charged with falsely reporting a crime—the French equivalent of wasting police time.
The case took four years to reach court, and Kernehm spent a desperate search for safety. I lived in awe and terror the whole time. I was not protected. I did not believe. I knew that if anything were to happen again, there was nowhere to go for help.
She did not return to work. When her husband had to leave home, friends took turns staying with her – she wasn’t alone for two years.
I couldn’t eat. I was so bad that the doctor gave me a liquid supplement for anorexics. I couldn’t sleep for more than an hour. I’ll be awake, listening. Any sound I didn’t recognize would startle me. I couldn’t stay in that house.
In the fall of 2013, she and Hugo – who had never suspected her – moved from Paris, 400 kilometers to a small town south of the Loire River. Kearney couldn’t get any chairs for the dining room in her new home, practically no chairs to be attached to.
She wasn’t able to go to the hairdresser, because it was too terrifying to sit with someone behind her. “I was in survival mode, living minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day.”
The case was heard by a judge at the Versailles Criminal Court in May 2017. Still in ‘survival mode’, Kearney collapsed on the platform, barely able to speak.
In a 2010 photo that proves a deal is done, the CEOs of Areva and China General Nuclear Energy sit together, as Chinese President Hu Jintao and French President Nicolas Sarkozy look on.
Police claimed there was no DNA at the scene – no fingerprints, no witnesses. Kearney was found guilty, given a five-month suspended prison sentence and a fine of €5,000 (then about £4,200).
What made it last? “I clung to the fact that I knew I was being attacked and couldn’t accept the fact that I wasn’t believed,” she says.
Finding a military psychiatrist who specializes in PTSD was a huge step forward. He believed Kearney’s account, who offered to testify in court on her behalf and helped her understand that her paralysis was a normal response to the trauma. For the first time, in my sessions with him, I was able to talk about the attack. She said: He brought me back.
With the support of her recruiting union, Kearney appealed her conviction and had plenty of evidence to support her case. Her lawyer discovered that the DNA taken from the scene never returned from the lab – it was lost.
Neighbors reported a white van outside the house and it was never investigated. What’s even cooler is that a similar attack was reported six years ago by the wife of another informant in the French energy industry.
She was raped and a coffin was carved into her stomach. The investigation was carried out by the same prosecutor’s office, and the file disappeared. He never made it to trial.
Kearney’s appeal was successful. Her acquittal was the beginning of her recovery — but there are no simple “happy endings” here, just many unanswered questions. Her attacker was never identified and Kearney chose not to pursue him. I was told that the investigation would take years, and it would be the same police, the same court district that you accused me of making up. There was no way to go back to that.
The nuclear deal with China went ahead – the French and Chinese built reactors together, 5,000 jobs were lost at Areva, and today the company no longer exists. Kearney is still not sure what she was discovering that could lead to her attack. She can only assume she stumbled towards more than she realized.
Slowly, she built a new life in rural France. For eight years, she taught at a local nursery school. “Being with the kids was very helpful, as you have to stay in the moment,” she says. She is also a volunteer at a women’s shelter.
I’m returning something. I got a lot of support from my friends and family. For years I was never alone and didn’t realize how lucky I was. In the shelter, we see women who are really isolated, have no support. We help them find a safe place.
Her house has dining chairs now—they’re translucent and light enough to move around, even if you’re tied to one.
Kearney is still struggling with the hairdresser. “I haven’t been in almost a year but I keep saying I’ll make an appointment.”
Still happy. “It takes a long time, a lot of pain and suffering, a lot of therapy and there are no magic pills,” she says. “But I want women to know that you can get through.”
- The Sitting Duck is set to be released in cinemas on June 30