Beyond Rape: A Survivor's Story
I was running late. Again.
I was speeding down Euclid Avenue, headed east out of downtown for a 5 p.m. interview at Case Western Reserve University. It was 5:10.
Rush hour had begun, the daily exodus of workers leaving the city for the suburbs, hurrying through the “bad” areas. You could almost hear the steady beat of car locks clicking at East 55th Street, the percussive soundtrack to Cleveland’s racial divide.
I slalomed from the left lane to the right lane and back, scolding myself in my usual manner.
“Why do you always do this?” I muttered. “Why, why, why?”
This was in 1984, when I was the theater critic for The Plain Dealer. It was July 9, high summer, still hot and sunny in the evening, and I wanted to get to Case, do the interview, and then go swimming before the pool closed. I had myself on a tight schedule, and I was already behind.
I’d lived in Cleveland only 10 months. I still didn’t know all the shortcuts, but I did know that University Circle was crazy at this hour. I should have left more time.
I was going to Case to write a story about the Actors’ Company, a summer theater group at Eldred Theater. The group was producing “Crossing Niagara,” by Alonso Alegria, a Peruvian playwright. I was going to interview him and watch a bit of the rehearsal.
When I got to the parking lot on Adelbert Road, it was 5:20. I ran to Eldred, stumbling in the heels I was not used to wearing. The doors were open. Maybe they were still rehearsing and hadn’t even noticed I was late. I ran up the stairs to the small lobby area on the second floor and looked into the theater.
“Dammit,” I said, under my breath. “They’re gone.”
I didn’t notice the guy standing on the other side of the lobby until he said, “They said to wait a few minutes. They’ll be back.”
He was leaning against the wall, smoking.
He was a wiry guy, not much bigger than me, with an afro and big plastic glasses the size of bread plates, the style of the times.
I fidgeted and smiled. A few minutes passed. He took another cigarette from a pack of Kools and lit it.
After another couple of minutes, I gave up, and was turning to go back down the stairs when he said, “I’m working on the lights. Do you want to see what I’ve been doing?”
“OK, I guess so,” I said.
I’d never seen the guy before. A yellow light flashed briefly in my head: Caution.
I ignored it, the way I’d just ignored every yellow light on Euclid Avenue.
I walked into the theater, down the right aisle, and climbed the steps to the stage.
He was right behind me. He pointed up toward the lights, with a vague wave of his hand, and said something that made no sense. Animal alarm flashed through my body, followed by a flood of adrenaline that said: This is not right. In fact, this is bad. Really bad. Get out of here. Now.
“I think I’ll wait outside,” I said.
Too late. He grabbed me from behind, pinning my arms to my sides.
I know this story will not be easy to read.
It isn’t easy to tell, either. It scares me to tell it, and it scares me even more to think of the reaction to it.
It is about rape. It is about race and class. And it is about our community — our line-in-the-sand combativeness over these issues, and our stubborn and fearful reluctance to talk about them.
I needed to tell my story, and I think our community needs to see, and talk about, the huge barriers between the haves and the have-nots.
Much of what I encountered in reporting and telling this story ended up playing into the worst racial stereotypes.
That is what I found, and I cannot change the facts. But I also found real people behind those stereotypes, people who suffered and survived much worse than I did and needed to tell their own stories.
My fear of how people will react wakes me at 3 in the morning, like a Parris Island drill sergeant, screaming: Are you insane? Why are you taking this risk?
I’ve struggled with this story for more than 20 years. It scares me so much that I stopped telling it when I no longer had to. I told it to the police, the emergency room nurses and doctor, the detectives, the assistant prosecutor, the judge and the jury. I told it to my husband and my sisters and my mother. And then, of course, I told it to psychiatrists and psychologists, so many over the years I lost count.
I told it over and over again, making it shorter, blunter, until it began to feel like I had made it up.
And then I stopped.
When I decided to tell it publicly, I decided I would have to tell the raw, uncomfortable and sometimes painful truth. All of it, including things that I never spoke of before, the feelings that make me look bad. If I held back, then telling wouldn’t help anyone. Including me.
I took the volunteer training at the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center last year, where I learned that I am not alone in the way I reacted to my rape.
Like most rape survivors, I blamed myself. I chastised myself for being late, for being stupid: Anyone else would have seen the guy in the lobby and left right away.
Like most rape victims, I was ashamed, too. My shame was not about the sexual nature of the crime. It was about how I saw myself. I was ashamed of trusting this stranger, when I’m supposed to be a skeptical and observant reporter, and of not fighting back. I was ashamed of being a victim when I wanted to see myself as a strong, independent woman.
And like many rape victims, I kept it all inside and tried to live my life as though it had not happened, only to have it resurface years later. At the Rape Crisis Center, director Megan O’Bryan told me that they get more calls from survivors years or decades later than they do from more recent survivors.
The shame and self-blame lead most of us to keep our rape secret. Our culture conspires with us in this. We Americans have such an awkward, complicated response to sex. We’re obsessed with it, ashamed of it, thrilled by it and deeply frightened by it. So we see the words “sexual assault” and we think “SEXUAL assault.” We don’t want to talk about it.
The fear I felt, all these years, was not primarily fear of another assault, although I do carry that fear, too, more for my daughter than for myself. It was a fear of exposure and shame.
I’m tired of being afraid.
So here is an uncomfortable truth: I ignored my instinct not to trust a stranger, because the stranger was young and black, and I did not want to look like a racist white woman who automatically does not trust young black men.
If he had been white? I’m not sure — but I think I would have left.
Instead, I stayed. I walked into that theater, down the right-side aisle, and into a life constricted by fear and hiding.
I wanted to scream. I tried to scream. But my throat closed around the sound. It came out strangled, a hoarse,
“Be quiet,” he said.
I felt metal on my neck. He had a knife.
“Please don’t do this,” I said. “Do you want money? Do you want my purse? Take anything you want, but please don’t hurt me.”
“Now, just be quiet,” he whispered, as if calming a child.
He pushed me behind the scrim, a thin screen at the very back of the stage, then against the concrete wall, his hand to my mouth. He showed me the knife. It wasn’t a knife; it was half of a pair of long, pointed utility scissors, a makeshift dagger.
“Now, I can kill you,” he said. “But I won’t kill you if you do what I say.”
He took his hand from my mouth and started unbuttoning my blouse.
“Please don’t do this,” I whispered. “Please.”
He kept unbuttoning.
I was shaking, hard, but no tears came. I was too terrified to cry.
I thought of something that might stop him. “I’m having my period,” I said.
He tore at the last button on my blouse, and as he removed it I saw drops of blood dotting the front.
Wait. My mind took a few seconds to catch up.
I put my hand to my neck, where the dagger had been. It felt sticky.
I looked at my hand. A bright red smear.
Yes: My blood.
I looked down and saw more blood on my skirt. In that instant, everything came into sharp focus, as if someone had adjusted the lens on my fuzzy view of the world.
Now, I thought. Now is when it happens to me.
I was 30 years old, and this was the day I would die.
When I look back at my 30-year-old self, I feel as tender and protective as I do looking at my two college-age children today.
I was a proud one. Oh, was I proud — of my independence, of my feminism, of my profession in newspapers and my new job at a top-20 daily.
I loved the newspaper life. I felt born to it. My father and my grandfather were both newspapermen — back when most of the people in newsrooms were, in fact, men — and I was carrying on the family tradition, first as the film critic at an afternoon paper in Minneapolis and now as the theater critic at The Plain Dealer.
But behind my pride was a bottomless well of insecurity, into which I fell on a regular basis. Waiting in the well to greet me was my own personal critic, who wanted answers, and wanted them NOW: What did I really know about theater? Who was I to criticize anything, let alone the honest efforts of creative people?
I didn’t know then what I know now, which is: Lots of women have a critic inside our heads, questioning our competence and our right to be who we are. Therapists call it Impostor Syndrome. Inside, we feel like big fat frauds, and we’re always on guard, waiting for someone to figure it out.
Maybe the critic was the natural byproduct for adolescent girls who came of age at the same time feminism did, in the late ’60s and early ’70s. We had grown up in the world where most mothers stayed home and made a career out of taking care of us. By the time we were adults, though, the feminist movement had given us new, and great, expectations for our lives. We took it as a given that we could and would choose another career, outside the home and alongside men.
We were suspended in midair, between one culture and another. That led to anxiety about our place in the world. I wouldn’t trade being in that time and that place for anything, though. The freedom was exhilarating. And sisterhood really was powerful, corny as it sounds now.
Flush with righteous feminism, I rejected common-sense safety measures as sexist constraints designed by men to keep women down. I thought I should be able to do anything men did. So in college, I walked alone at night through the University of Minnesota campus all the time. Off campus, I hitchhiked everywhere, and I did the same one summer in Europe.
My friends and I read “Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape” and agreed with the author, Susan Brownmiller, that rape was “nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”
Inspired by the book, I did an audio documentary about rape for a radio journalism class. I don’t remember much about it, but I clearly remember the opening, because the professor played it in class and made fun of it.
It went: “Rape.” (long pause) “Think about it.” (long pause)
For my friends and me, rape was a political issue, not a personal one. It was a debate topic, a rallying cry. The actual crime would never happen to us.
I was young. And like almost every young person who ever existed, I was stupid about my safety. I drank too much, sometimes, and used drugs, sometimes. I thought bad things happened to other people, not me.
How odd that when the bad thing did happen to me, my reckless days were behind me. I was doing my job. I no longer did drugs, I did not drink too much anymore, and I wasn’t hitchhiking. I was in Cleveland, Ohio, on solid ground.
Standing on the stage, I felt his hands on me. I felt the blade next to my neck, then next to my chest. I felt the scrape of the concrete wall on my bare back.
But that was my body. The rest of me had slipped away, and was up in the rafters, suspended — out of place, out of time.
From up above, I watched my body with a strange detachment. I didn’t feel fear, or panic, or any of the other emotions I would expect. I knew I was watching myself, but at the same time I felt like I was watching someone else. Someone in a play.
For her, I felt — I guess the word is concern. And pity.
Down on the stage, the guy had pulled down my skirt and pantyhose and underwear. They puddled at my ankles. Then he started taking off his own clothes. He still had the scissors at my neck, so he was fumbling at his pants, trying to get them unzipped with one hand.
When they finally were down, he pushed me against the wall and tried to have sex with me, standing there. When that didn’t work, he turned me around, my face to the wall.
That didn’t work, either, so he pushed me down to my hands and knees. That worked. After a couple of minutes, he turned me over and pushed into me again. He moved fast, with a mechanical detachment. As he did, a gold cross hanging from his neck dangled in my face.
He saw my wedding ring.
“Are you married?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Have you ever had a black man before?”
“I bet you’ve always wanted to,” he said.
His breath carried the smell of cigarettes and alcohol.
I knew what he wanted me to answer.
“Yes,” I said.
He stood and pulled me up by my hair, so I was kneeling. “I got to get off,” he said.
He pushed his body into my face.
Up above, I watched.
I took my story and buried it inside myself, as deep as I could. I didn’t tell my friends, I didn’t tell my two children when they were old enough to hear it, I didn’t talk about it anymore with my husband or sisters or mother.
I told them, and myself, that I was fine. Fine! Just fine. Can we please not talk about it anymore?
But here’s the thing I have discovered: I might have buried this story, but it was not dead. It was still alive, and it grew in that deep place I put it, like a vine from some mutant seed, all twisted and ugly. And as it grew, it strangled a lot of other stuff in me that should have been growing. It killed my trust, my confidence. It almost killed my sense of who I was.
The vine poked its way to the surface two years ago. It is not a coincidence that it came up on another college campus. It probably could have been any campus, but it was at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., the place Sigmund Freud chose to give his only lectures on his first and only visit to America, in 1909.
I was with my daughter, Zoe, the two of us huddled under an umbrella in a cold October rain. Zoe was a senior in high school, and we were doing the obligatory college tour: Five days of following backward-walking student guides from dorms to dining halls to libraries.
We were headed toward yet another library when the guide stopped at a small telephone box, which hung on a pole by a blue light.
“We have these all over campus,” he said. “They’re safety stations. If you’re walking alone at night and you think someone is following you, or you might be in danger, you get to one of these blue lights, call, and help will be there within five minutes.”
“Five minutes?” I whispered to Zoe. “Who are they kidding? Five minutes is way too late. In five minutes, you could be dead.”
She rolled her eyes, the universal teenage response to fretful parents.
I looked at her. My beautiful, strong, confident daughter. She was a part of me, and I was a part of her. She had me in her blood, her cells. I would die for her, I would kill for her, and now I could see only one thing: She was prey.
She was going to a college campus, somewhere, where help is always five minutes away and she is prey.
I had to save her. I had to tell her.
The rapist was having trouble. He kept turning me over, standing me up, pushing me to my knees. None of it seemed to satisfy him.
He kept kissing me, asking me if I liked what he was doing.
Why was he doing this? He was treating me like a girlfriend, like he thought we would be together after this.
And then it hit me. This was a prison rape.
He stopped once, when we heard a noise from downstairs: Bang, like a door closing. Would I be rescued?
He put his hand over my mouth and grabbed the dagger: “Be quiet. Be quiet.” I nodded and he took his hand away.
The noise was followed only by silence. No one was coming. He pushed me to the floor again.
How long did it last? I had no idea: My sense of time slipped out of my grasp. The theater felt like a sealed tomb, something out of an Edgar Allan Poe story, soundproof and windowless.
I tried to feign cooperation. “I think people are coming,” I said. “They might come and catch us. We should get out of here.”
He got up and started pulling on his pants. I got my skirt.
“Get your purse,” he said. I got it and gave him all my money. He wanted the coins, too.
He put the dagger-scissors up to my back and pushed the point in just enough so I could feel it.
“OK,” he said. “We’re going to go outside now. I told you I wouldn’t kill you, but if you do anything stupid when we get out, I will kill you.”
He led me out a back door and down a staircase, holding my arm, with the point of the scissors pressing into my back.
Then we were outside. I registered the change in one-word thoughts: Bright. Sun. Air.
In the sun, I could see the tattoo on his right arm: “DAVE,” carved into his skin with crude capital letters. It looked like it had been done with a ballpoint pen. Or scissors.
I could still feel the scissors point in my back. Now I knew his face and his name. Or his prison boyfriend’s name.
“Where’s your car?” he asked.
I knew too much for him to ever let me go. I had to save myself.
“It’s right next to the attendant’s booth,” I said. “We can’t go there. We don’t want to get caught.”
He turned me, so I was facing him. He licked his finger and rubbed at the blood on my neck. He smoothed my hair.
“Now, don’t you go to the cops,” he said. “If you go to the cops, I’ll have to go to prison.”
“I won’t. I promise.”
“If I have to go to prison, I’ll miss you,” he said, almost cooing.
Then he kissed me on the lips and walked away.
How do you tell your own children a story like this? I could have kept it from them and never told. But I felt I owed them an explanation.
This is why I hovered over you. This is why my internal alarm clanged constantly, why I treated every tumble and scrape as an ER-level emergency, and every sleepover party as a potential kidnapping situation.
I wanted you to embrace the world and live boldly, but my actions taught you to fear the world and not trust anyone.
I hope this will explain my thousand-yard stare, the one you hated because it meant I was not paying attention. I hope it explains all those times I vanished into myself.
Did you notice? Can you forgive me?
It took me months after our college trip to work up the courage to tell Zoe. She cried. She said now she understood why I was so overprotective as a mother, why I smothered her, and why my husband guarded her every move.
Then I told my son, Dan, who got angry. He did not say much, but in time he came home with a tattoo on his chest: “MOM,” inside a heart.
Both of them wanted to know more: Who was this guy? Why did he do it? What was his story?
I didn’t know.
I had seen DAVE five times: When he raped me. When I identified him two days later in a lineup. When I sat across a table from him in the county jail three weeks later, to testify in a parole revocation hearing that would keep him in jail. At the trial. And at the sentencing.
I knew he had gone to prison. Beyond that, I didn’t know much more than his name. Yet, if I made a list of the most influential people in my life, DAVE would be near the top. He had controlled so much of how I lived my life.
I had told my children. Now it was time to answer all their questions — and mine.
I had to reclaim the parts of me I lost to him.
It was time for me to go find DAVE.