‘I am not afraid to speak’ | Rosemarie Aquilina

Skyrocketing to international fame after sentencing serial rapist Larry Nassar to 175 years in jail in a case that became a lightning-rod for the ‘#MeToo’ era, American-Maltese Judge Rosemarie Aquilina speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about the implications of that landmark case, her Maltese roots and her ongoing forays into crime fiction writing, ahead of her appearance as the special guest for this year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival

Judge Rosemarie Aquilina
Judge Rosemarie Aquilina

In the wake of the Larry Nassar ruling, you made it a point to stress that the story should never be about you as a judge, but about the victims, and yet the media kept gravitating towards you. How did you feel about this, and what do you think it says about our contemporary culture and the current media landscape?

The story of each survivor remains theirs and with them. My story is different and spans well beyond this case. Mine is about a broken justice and medical system that must be fixed. It includes teaching children body parts, using correct terminology from the time they learn to speak, and about their rights with an understanding about informed consent. They have the right to know the reason anyone, even their doctor, wants to touch them and the right always to say no. I not only address predatory behaviour and grooming issues, I address sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, vulnerable victims, bullying, and sex trafficking. Further, I talk about issues that include creating safe spaces for victims to speak, using language that doesn’t blame, shame or shut down victims, power, empowerment, motivation, equality, and equity.

These are issues that arise every day in my courtroom and I gained experience from my law practice, the military, and from areas where I also teach as a professor of law. I have had many cases the media have covered. The media gravitates toward me because I am not afraid to speak. I am not afraid to stand up for what is right or to say what others only dare to think. For change to occur we must take risks. I will continue to speak on behalf of the most vulnerable. Without voice there is no change; with voice there is change.
How does your fiction writing figure into your life, and what motivates you to keep writing? Would you say your ‘day job’ puts you in a particularly privileged position as a writer of crime fiction?

I have wanted to be an author since I was three years old. I write because I enjoy it and it gives me a mental vacation. Writing is my “destresser.” Being an attorney, judge, military judge, law professor, and mother all have added to a colourful collection of characters and situations that land in my books as fiction. I hear a lot of expert testimony and testimony from law enforcement as well as defendants, and victims to add realism into any mystery/thriller I write, which is a lot of fun for me. Being a judge does give me a creative advantage; there are often outstanding people and stories that inspire me. In addition, truth is often stranger than fiction and there is always information I would like to use, but I do not think readers would believe it!

How would you describe your books to someone who’s never heard of them before, and where would you recommend they start?

Triple Cross Killer, the first in a thriller series, and Feel No Evil, a stand-alone thriller/mystery book, are currently released. They are in regular print, large print, ebook, and Audible. Triple Cross Killer is based on a question my eldest son asked me: “Mom, what happens to letters to Santa if they get into the wrong hands?” My answer: “Great book.” And I wrote the story. It is not like most mysteries, because you know who did it. It is much like the cases I hear on the bench – we have an alleged defendant, but we don’t know the story, which is always intriguing to listen to as it unfolds. Through the story you learn that a vigilante, no matter how well meaning, makes mistakes and is not above the law. The story also depicts how your own strength can save you.

Feel No Evil is about telling the wrong person your secret and the trauma one goes through after being raped. It may have triggers for some. I wrote it many years ago and often I’m asked for a sequel. I haven’t decided on a sequel, but the characters are compelling.

I will be releasing the first in a cosy mystery series, All Rise, in the coming months, and a non-fiction Audible book is scheduled to be released next year.
Now that you’ll soon be en route to Malta, could you tell us a little bit about what your relationship with your father’s native country was like, in the past? Did you ever visit Malta when you were younger, and/or do you remember your father speaking about it in any significant way?

Malta has always been home to my grandparents and father. My father has always spoken favourably about Malta and wanted my siblings and I to become Maltese citizens and return to Malta for advanced education. My siblings and I each have Maltese passports. I have visited Malta several times. My first visit was when I was in my first year of high school with my grandfather before he passed away, and my father and brother. We had the privilege of visiting Qrendi Church during the Feast of St Mary and saw the red velvet draperies that my grandparents had made, that hang like wallpaper in the church. My grandfather was a tailor in Malta and made the draperies for several churches.

I subsequently visited a few times with my father and my eldest children. Most of our extended family is in Malta, and we communicate with them through the internet. I have extended my stay to have the opportunity to visit with my family, whom I have not seen for several years. My siblings and I all wear the Maltese Cross, have Maltese lace in our homes, cook Maltese, and uphold Maltese traditions. You will always find cheese and meat-filled pastizzi in our freezer and hot out of the oven when guests arrive. My favourite Maltese food besides pastizzi is minestra. Because Maltese and German (my mother is German) were spoken in our home and English was the common language, I only learned to speak English.

My grandparents taught me some Maltese words and I understand more than I am able to speak. In our home, watercolour paintings hang with various views of Malta, purchased from an artist in Valletta. In addition, Maltese glass from Gozo, lace tablecloths and doilies bearing the Maltese Cross, an antique map of Malta, and the Coat of Arms of Malta with the Aquilina Family Crest are proudly displayed in almost every room. My father’s heart remains in Malta and he raised us to embody and respect our homeland. His favourite saying that has been ingrained in my siblings and me is: “God is Good; God is Great; God is Maltese.”

Are you looking forward to participating in the Malta Book Festival, and what kind of atmosphere and feel do you expect it to have?

I am very much looking forward to visiting Malta. I feel proud and honoured to have been invited and welcomed by so many even before my arrival. I’ve received many invitations to speak and visit with officials in the government, judiciary, education, in addition to agencies that serve the abused and those without a voice. All of this humbles me.

Judge Rosemarie Aquilina will be interviewed by Herman Grech on November 7 at 8pm. Earlier that day, she will also participate in a seminar on family court practices in Malta and the US, at 11am. Both events form part of the National Book Festival and will be held at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, Valletta. The festival, which is organised by the National Book Council, will be taking place from November 6 to 10. For more information and a full programme, log on to: https://ktieb.org.mt/national-book-festival/