Katie Piper left home twice. The first time, she was an outgoing, ambitious 19-year-old from a small Hampshire village who struck out for London with dreams of making it as a model and TV presenter. The second, seven years later, she was taking her first faltering steps back into the world after the acid attack that destroyed her face, and almost took her life.
In the two years following the 2008 attack, Piper’s parents, Diane and David, had nursed their daughter back to health with huge reserves of strength and tenderness. ‘It was as though we had seen her through from babyhood to adulthood again,’ Diane wrote in her diary, describing how, while one of them massaged Katie’s skin, the other would go into the next room to cry (‘We never cry in front of her’).
Piper had never looked at her mother’s diaries from that time until, a year ago, Diane was invited to read from them on the Mother’s Day edition of Loose Women. ‘When I heard that small extract, it made me realise there was so much I didn’t know about the emotions and the feelings my mum had gone through,’ the 34-year-old tells Weekend.
‘Afterwards, I read lots of the diaries and it gave me an idea to put together a survival guide to being a mother, and being a daughter, in the modern world, with the pressures that brings, and also what you do if your child does go through a trauma, an illness, a disease or a disability.’
The resulting book, From Mother to Daughter: The Things I’d Tell My Child combines Piper’s own dispatches from both sides of the parenting frontline (her daughter Belle was born four years ago, and baby Penelope just before Christmas) with extracts from Diane’s diaries and expert advice from professionals in the field.
‘I guess it’s sort of a gritty, edgy, modern parenting book, if you like,’ she explains. ‘But also it’s a bit of an autobiography as well, because there is so much personal and private stuff from me and my mum in there.’
What was it like, reading her mum’s thoughts from the days, weeks and months following the attack?
‘It was quite difficult,’ she says. ‘Writing this book hasn’t necessarily been enjoyable in parts. It gave me an appreciation [of what her parents had been through] and it gave me a little sense of sadness. But then the whole concept behind the book was about deciding your own ending, taking the power back, taking the control back and turning something terrible into something positive. So for my mum I think it’s probably quite a nice closure.’
Piper agrees with Diane’s baby-to-adult analogy. ‘I think anyone who’s unexpectedly had a disease or a disability would identify with that regression, where you’re physically not able, but also mentally quite vulnerable,’ she says. ‘So that’s when the mother-daughter relationship is so important – you realise a mother never ever stops being a mother.’
There were times when, in her grief, Piper lashed out at her mum and dad, because they were the only ones there. ‘I guess that's what unconditional love is, isn’t it?’ she muses. ‘When you can really be yourself with somebody, and they won’t reject you.’
It was on 31 March, 2008 that Diane, a teacher, received a phone call informing her that Katie, then working as a promotional model and occasional TV presenter, had been the victim of ‘a chemical attack’. They later learned that Daniel Lynch, who their daughter had dated for two weeks, had raped and beaten her in a hotel, then paid another man, Stefan Sylvestre, to throw sulphuric acid into her face as she left her Golders Green flat. (Both attackers later received life sentences.)
Piper ran into a nearby café, where she had to wait for an hour, screaming as the acid ate into her face, neck, arm, ear, eye, throat and oesophagus, until it was declared safe for an ambulance crew to attend to her.
When Diane and David reached the hospital, they did not recognise the girl in the bed as their daughter. In her diary, Diane recalls spending that first night lying on a mattress on the floor of the burns unit. ‘My mind was racing,’ she wrote. ‘Katie’s life was over; how could she exist without a face? It had been destroyed. She had no future. We had no future.’
Unable to speak, Piper communicated by writing messages on a clipboard. ‘Help me,’ said one. ‘I can’t breathe. Where am I? Am I dead? Am I blind? I’m sorry. I love you. Please don’t cry.’ Another time, she simply wrote : ‘Kill me.’
All the skin on her face had to be removed to avoid infection; for 10 days, she wore a patchwork of donated skin – ‘all different colours,’ wrote Diane, ‘stapled together’ – until a dermal substitute could be applied as the foundation for skin grafts from all over her body.
When, a few weeks later, she saw herself in a mirror for the first time, Piper gave what her mother remembers as ‘the most horrific scream imaginable. To this day, I can still hear that noise.
‘Then,’ the diaries continue, ‘something changed. ‘Katie was thinking about ending her life and she was crying, when she felt a warm rush come over her and she heard a voice saying, “Don’t worry, everything is going to be alright”. She thought it was an angel visiting her, and it gave her the courage to fight back.’
A decade on, Piper still isn’t ruling out divine intervention. ‘I’m a Christian, I believe in God,’ she says. ‘That’s how I live my life. I used to go to church, quite regularly, but now with two kids, a mortgage and everything else, I haven’t got as much time. But I still use the power of prayer.’
Though her recovery has been long and slow (for a while, she had to wear a plastic mask for 23 hours a day) Piper has rebuilt her life – and surgeons her looks – more successfully than, at one time, she could ever have dreamed possible. An in-demand television presenter (fronting the likes of Channel 4’s Bodyshockers), writer and public speaker, she also dedicates her time to helping other victims of burns and facial disfigurement through her charity, The Katie Piper Foundation. ‘I became proud of my face as an act of defiance,’ she writes in From Mother to Daughter. ‘I decided I would refuse to hide away and be embarrassed.’
‘My passion and my belief is that an altered appearance, a disfigurement, doesn’t make you any less of a person, and shouldn’t result in destroying your life,’ she tells Weekend. ‘I’ve been able to use my profile and public platform to put that message out.’
That said, she baulks at being called ‘brave’ and ‘inspirational’. ‘It’s a bit of an unrealistic pedestal,’ she says. ‘While it’s flattering, it’s a disservice to pretend to people that everything’s fine all the time. I’m a normal person, I get depressed [since the attack, she has suffered with anxiety and PTSD], I get frustrated. I’m not always in a good mood and I’m not always nice. I think that’s really normal, and it’s important to put the full picture out there.
‘You can’t say, “be positive all the time, and if you’re not coping you’re failing”, because mental health is something that will always be there. It’s not about getting a cure and moving on.’
Piper has transformed her life in other fundamental ways, too: marrying husband Richard Sutton, a carpenter, and starting a family – something doctors had warned her might not be possible following hundreds of operations and anti-rejection drugs.
‘To be honest, when I thought my fertility was affected, which was a few years ago now, I was just happy to be alive, and to have got through all the other treatment for my injuries,’ she says. ‘I was quite accepting.’
Does she think her experiences have shaped her approach to motherhood? ‘It’s so hard to know, isn’t it?’ she considers. ‘You would think you couldn’t go through something so life-changing and it not. But similarly, I try to stay conscious that any anxieties or past experiences that I’ve had, I don’t push onto my children, and prevent them from doing things through my own fears. Anxiety is quite contagious.
‘If I could teach my girls one thing, it would be to have a loud voice, for the right reasons. Historically we’ve encouraged girls to be quiet, to be cute, to be pretty, and I think a loud voice – an educated, informed loud voice – is more important now than ever.’
As a mother of girls, and a victim of male violence, she’s encouraged by the #MeToo campaign, and the wider dialogue around women’s rights. ‘Everyone’s got a voice now, and people are connecting, through social media, which is resulting in lots more voices being heard.
‘I guess I just hope it’s used in the right way, and not by people who are demeaning those who have genuinely suffered. We can’t go on witch-hunts, it has to be used in the right way, otherwise it discredits everything. We don’t want to turn it around so that it becomes an awful time to be a man – I’ve got a brother, a dad and a husband. We don’t want men being frightened.’
Lately, Piper been worried about her mum, who has been living with cancer for four years (though surgery and chemotherapy have been successful and ‘at the moment, on paper, she’s cancer-free’). Otherwise, life a decade on from that life-changing moment is good.
‘I’m feeling positive, I’m feeling content and happy’, she says. ‘I’m about to go on my first live theatre tour, so I’m really excited about doing that. I think 2018 is going to be a great year.
‘I’m a massive believer in not worrying about the future, and not regretting the past,’ she adds. ‘I like to live in the present tense.’
From Mother to Daughter: The Things I'd Tell My Child is published in hardback by Quercus, £14.99. Katie’s first live show, What’s In My Head, tours from 13 March – see katiepiperandyou.co.uk
Published in Waitrose Weekend, March 1, 2018
(c) Waitrose Weekend