On Jan. 31, 1999, Robert Drake lounged on the porch of his newly purchased apartment in Sligo, Ireland, sipping a hot port and preparing to turn in for the night.
Ten years later, such moments of leisure are rare for Drake, as he’s still grappling with the physical, mental and emotional scars of the violent attack that occurred that night, which left him confined to a wheelchair and suffering from a traumatic brain injury.
On that January night, two men, whom Drake recognized from a neighborhood bar he’d visited earlier in the night, approached Drake and, after he invited them inside, proceeded to beat him almost to death. The pair alleged that they attacked Drake because he made a pass at them; although Drake doesn’t remember anything about the incident, those close to him have denied that he would have made such advances.
Drake’s then-partner found him the following day, and he spent several months in a coma on life support in an Ireland hospital.
Friends, family and the local LGBT and ally communities rallied to raise enough money to transport Drake back to Philadelphia, where he spent months in hospitals and rehab centers: He said he has no recollection of the ordeal before the time he spent in Moss Rehab, where he finally started to become aware of his surroundings.
The brain injury impaired his memory and motor skills, and it took months, and even years in some cases, to re-learn everyday tasks.
“It happened slowly in stages, like everything really,” he said. “All of this — speech, self-toileting, even eating — is taught in rehab by occupational therapists, who work to re-familiarize you with the ‘tools for daily living.’”
Drake, who used to be a baritone singer before the assault and who minored in performance-voice in college, still suffers from a “moderate speech dysarthria,” or slurred speech, which he said he probably will always have to deal with.
“When they kept me alive via a breathing tube, it bruised my larynx,” he said. “But, the breathing-control awareness is something I learned and I drew on heavily in re-teaching myself how to speak.”
Drake, 46, worked for years as an editor and a literary agent, representing gay writers, and penned such works as 1998’s “The Gay Canon: Great Books Every Gay Man Should Read” and the 1995 fiction novel “The Man: A Hero for our Time,” which tells the story of a gay man who goes on the hunt for a violent antigay attacker.
In 1997, Drake won a Lambda Literary Award for co-editing a selection from the series “His: Brilliant New Fiction by Gay Writers,” which was accompanied by “Hers: Brilliant New Fiction by Lesbian Writers.”
Drake said he’s anxious to continue his writing career but that he now struggles with typing on a keyboard and has to use the “hunt-and-peck” typing method, in which he uses one or two fingers to select one key at a time.
“My main problem is and has been typing,” he said. “I forgot how to type. I still have ideas, but executing them has become so laborious.”
Drake said that while those, like him, who are struggling to recover from a traumatic brain injury depend upon the assistance of others, they also need to remain committed to reestablishing their independence.
“TBI recovery is kind of like parenting: You need a close eye for a while, then the only way to see how well you’ve done is for caregivers to stand back and let the TBI-endurer see how far they can progress,” he said. “It’s easier for people to take care of you, for them to fit you into what a TBI person is or should be and does.”
He added: “People can get addicted to caregiving and, in my recovery, I frequently have to judge between asserting my independence and pissing people off. I am recovering from a violent, intimate physical and mental assault, but I resolutely feel that the greatest way I can honor the investment of love, capital and time — or all three — in my recovery is by regaining my independence. Coddling me is pointless for all. Any parent knows you learn by making mistakes, then correcting them. But, in order to do that, you have to be allowed to make the mistakes in the first place. Recovery from a hate crime is, ideally, ongoing, as are the needs for assistance if you decide to pursue them.”
Drake noted that while the local LGBT community was supportive of him following the attack, he said he’s seen that support dwindle in the past few years.
He said he thinks some people have given up on his recovery, although he has not.
“The trouble was and is recovery is a long, drawn-out, slow process. People have short attention spans. Volunteers burn out quickly, and replacing them is not easy. The benefit is I’ve been able to recover at my own pace. Ten years out and I’m still trying to walk.”
Drake said he’s still not willing to accept that he’ll be confined to the wheelchair for the rest of his life.
He currently works on walking several times a week and, although he admitted that he does get discouraged and give up occasionally, he always gives it another shot; he’s just in need of volunteers and trainers to assist him in his efforts.
“Since day one, my main trouble has been balance. And it’s the kind of thing whose coming back is never certain. As I understand it, all you can do is practice; either it will come back or it won’t.”
Drake said he believes re-immersing himself in the local community would serve as an added motivator, but that his social inclinations have also been hampered by the attack.
“I firmly believe that to re-learn a habit like walking, you need practice, practice, practice and socialization. Do you know how hard it is to make friends when you have slightly slurred speech from scarring on your voice box, when they had to shove a trache down your throat just to keep you alive? When you were outgoing, but now you’re pathetically shy because you don’t trust yourself to tell good from bad people and situations?”
Drake’s attackers, Glen Mahon and Ian Monaghan, now 31 and 30, respectively, were found guilty in October 1999 of intentionally or recklessly causing serious harm and sentenced to eight years in prison.
At the time of Drake’s attack, Ireland did not have hate-crimes legislation on the books.
In September 2004, however, a law went into effect that allows judges to impose stricter sentencing for crimes motivated by a victim’s race, religion, sexual orientation and mental or physical disability.
Drake said he was unsure if and when Mahon and Monaghan were released from prison, but that he’s tried not to be too preoccupied with his anger toward them.
“I decided early on [that] I could either focus on getting even or getting better,” he said. “To paraphrase Robert Frost in ‘The Road Not Taken,’ ‘I chose the latter, and that has made all the difference.’ I’ve been too focused on recovery to be angry … much.”
Drake said that over the past 10 years, he’s researched the resources available to victims of antigay hate crimes and, while he’s found a plethora of agencies that seeks to stem the tide of such crimes, very few actually provide support to those who’ve already been victimized. Building on his own experiences, Drake plans to institute a new organization, Hate Crimes R Us, which will provide assistance to individuals who’ve found themselves victims of antigay bias.
Drake will talk to local community members about his plans at a luncheon tomorrow at 2 p.m. at Knock, 225 S. 12th St., to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the attack. For more information on the event, contact [email protected]
“We’re taxpayers and citizens too. A bias crime is a bias crime. Hatred, unlike homosexuality, is learned. You choose to hate; you don’t choose to be gay. At least I didn’t.”
Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].
If anyone is interested in assisting Drake in his recovery, contact PGN editor Sarah Blazucki at (215) 625-8501 ext. 206 or [email protected].