Beyond Rape: A Survivor's Story
David Francis planned to return to Cleveland. After serving time for raping me, he intended to live in a house on East 82nd Street owned by Lula Mae Foster.
That’s what he told prison officials, anyway. In one parole application, he called Foster his aunt. In another, she was his grandmother.
Foster still lives on East 82nd, in the Hough neighborhood, one of Cleveland’s most distressed. In the summer of 2007, I went to see her.
It takes 10 minutes to drive to Hough from Shaker Heights, where I live. But not many people make that trip. It leads across the border of what former presidential candidate John Edwards called the Two Americas: on one side, a leafy, prosperous suburb; on the other, a city that the U.S. Census Bureau designated the poorest big city in America in both 2004 and 2006.
They caught the rapist on July 10, 1984, at 5 p.m. on the Case Western Reserve University campus.
Larry Donovan, a University Circle police investigator, was on undercover surveillance in the quad for just 38 minutes when a man fitting the description I gave police strolled past Eldred Hall.
To Donovan’s amazement, DAVE returned to the scene of the crime the very next day, at the same time, wearing the same clothes — shiny black tank top, dark shirt, dark trousers. They found the gold cross on a chain — the one that had dangled over my face as he raped me — in his pocket, along with a screwdriver, a pack of Kools and a copy of Black Cherry, a porn magazine. His zipper was down.
University Circle police turned him over to the Cleveland police, and that night we got the call: They had arrested a suspect. His name was David Francis. He was 27 years old. Could I come in to view a lineup?
The next morning, I went downtown to police headquarters with my husband, Chris Evans. I had been clinging to him like a frightened child since the minute he walked into the emergency room at University Hospitals, where I had to tell him what had happened. The nurse who called him said only that I had been in an accident.
When I saw his stricken face, I could barely say the words: “I was raped.” They sounded too blunt yet too melodramatic.
The people who loved me most were the ones I could not bear to tell. I knew Chris would never blame me, as some husbands and families do. But I was already blaming myself, and it made it hard to talk to him. The same with my mother: I asked my older sister, Nancy, to call her in Minnesota and tell her.
At police headquarters, the detectives wouldn’t let Chris come into the lineup with me. I felt jumpy. It didn’t make sense: I knew David Francis was in police custody, behind thick one-way glass. Still, when they switched on the lights, fight-or-flight adrenaline flooded my body.
He was looking at the floor, second in the line of seven men. When the lieutenant told him to step forward and turn right and then left, he looked up. His eyes were bored. Insolent. He was trying to intimidate me.
“That’s him,” I said when the time came. “Number two.”
The following day a detective went to see Francis at the county jail. He told the detective he had gone to the Case campus for a jog. He said he couldn’t have raped anyone: He had bone cancer, he claimed, and had not been able to get an erection for six months. He said the doctors gave him six months to a year to live. That’s why he was released on parole from Lucasville prison, where he had been serving time for multiple felonies including aggravated burglary, on July 2, 1984.
One week before he raped me.
In the summer of 2006, I finally gathered my courage to go find DAVE. I thought he was still in prison.
I wasn’t sure how to start, or whether I could bring myself to confront him if I did find him. So I decided to begin the way I would any other story: with documents that would lead me through the case and his criminal history from the beginning.
First, I called the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office. They gave me a file that was thick with police reports, witness statements, rap sheets, subpoenas, lab reports, the assistant prosecutor’s trial notes, appeal briefs and grand jury indictments, all stuffed together in no particular order and bound with a rubber band.
I started sorting the papers into piles, and was halfway through the stack when I came to a page that stopped me.
On a court record, someone had scrawled the word “DECEASED,” underlined three times.
David Francis was dead.
He died of Hodgkin’s disease in prison on Aug. 18, 2000. Sixteen years after he raped me.
I stared at the words. The fire-breathing dragon I set out to slay was already slain. I felt let down and relieved at the same time: I would not get to confront DAVE / I would not have to confront DAVE.
I couldn’t give up my search. I wasn’t sure why I felt compelled to dig into the past this way, but I knew I had to do it. I needed to face my fears, but I also wanted some understanding: What brought him to this? Who was he, and why did our paths collide in violence? What happened to him afterward?
Or was I really trying to find out what happened to me afterward? I had to continue the search. I needed the trial transcript.
At the Old Courthouse on Lakeside Avenue in Cleveland, a grand marble staircase led me down to the basement file rooms for the county clerk of courts.
In the hallway, towers of stacked boxes formed a cardboard canyon of mortgage foreclosures. Divorce actions. Child-custody battles. Competency hearings. Property disputes. Robbery trials. Murder trials. Rape trials. File rooms held more of the same.
I felt hollow. I had entered a repository of grief, a warehouse holding the collective pain, bitterness, fear and sorrow of the people of Cuyahoga County.
The clerk handed me my small piece of the grief: Case Number CR-193108: The State of Ohio v. David Francis.
From an envelope, the evidence tumbled out: the gold cross, Polaroids of my injuries, Francis’ mug shots and two tiny envelopes containing hair samples. Mine, and his.
I opened the transcript and read, on the first page:
Be it remembered, that at the September, 1984 term of said court, to-wit, commencing on Wednesday, the 17th day of October, this cause came on to be heard …
Be it remembered.
I turned the page and read, remembering all I had tried to forget.
Six days after I identified Francis, the county sheriff’s server handed me a subpoena. I had to testify at a parole revocation hearing on July 24 at the Cuyahoga County Corrections Center.
Why? I wondered. He’s already locked up. I had heard that rape victims felt raped a second time by the criminal justice system, but I thought that had ended in the 1970s with training programs for law enforcement and medical professionals. Now I was seeing it. I was a cog in the system, not a person with feelings.
I had to go to the jail, sit across a table from the guy who raped me, and testify against him so they could revoke his parole. That way, if the county released him on bail before the trial, he’d have to go back to a state prison.
I was not allowed to bring my husband or a friend with me. The only person I could bring would be my attorney.
I didn’t have an attorney. My case was being handled by the county prosecutor, who was working for the people of Ohio. When the case went to trial, I would be a mere witness.
I panicked. How could I face my rapist alone?
My husband called the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center. They’d sent a counselor to the emergency room the night
I was raped. Now they came through again: They had a legal intern who could meet me at the jail and go in with me. She would hold my trembling hand.
The hearing took place in a room in the jail’s crowded common area, where dozens of thugs in orange jumpsuits turned to look at me as I walked through. Their stares made me feel naked.
The guards brought Francis in, handcuffed but not shackled. I was trapped with him again. I felt sick with fear.
He took the chair directly opposite me, slouched down, and fixed me with the stony gaze that he would hold for the entire hearing.
I shook as I told the story. Francis made derisive, clicking sounds as I spoke. His stare made me feel like I was lying. It said that he knew the truth: I had cooperated with him.
And the truth was, I had. I had cooperated to save my life.
In August, I testified again, this time to the grand jury. On Aug. 17, they indicted Francis on 18 counts of rape, kidnapping, felonious assault, attempted rape, gross sexual imposition and aggravated robbery, each count with a violence specification.
At his arraignment, he pleaded not guilty. The judge set bail at $150,000.
The rest of the summer moved in slow motion. I went back to work, where the reporters and editors were kind.
Two women confided they had survived rape, too. But mostly my colleagues were embarrassed; everyone knew what had happened, but no one knew quite what to say.
That was fine with me. I didn’t want them to say anything. I felt the way I did when my father died, when I was 22: With every sympathetic word or glance, my throat burned and my eyes flooded with tears I tried to will away.
I did not want to be told I was brave. I didn’t feel brave. I hadn’t fought back. All I had done was endured and survived.
After half a day I went home, went to bed and cried.
My husband and I went to a therapist named Penny, whose office had no furniture, only big pillows on the floor.
We sank into the puffs of down and told her we needed help with getting through the trial.
The first thing Penny told us was that most marriages do not survive this kind of trauma. She gave us a statistic, but I don’t remember it. We barely listened to her warning: We were sure we would be the exception.
Penny told me I had to get angry.
“Punch the pillow,” she said. “Pretend it’s the rapist. Yell at him. Tell him what he did to you.”
I could not do it. It felt silly.
Besides, I did not feel angry. I felt empty. I was a ghost, my body made of vapor. It would not feel anything now;
it had felt too much during the rape.
I welcomed this absence of feeling. It meant I had recovered, I thought. So after three sessions, we quit therapy.
I wanted to be fine. I wanted to be the person I was before the rape: strong, independent, proud. I wanted the rape to disappear, as though it had never happened.
My husband tried to support me; he was consumed with rage. He wanted to kill my attacker. I didn’t understand it — it made me feel like I was his property, not his wife — but all of our male friends did. And now that I have a daughter, I understand it, too.
He stopped talking about the rape. I stopped talking about it. Our silence clanged against the walls of our marriage.
The weeks went by, August into September. Allen Levenberg, the assistant county prosecutor, called me with updates every now and then. I wanted it to be over and asked why it was taking so long. This case was progressing quickly, he said.
During pretrial meetings, he told me I was an ideal victim, because as a reporter I noticed details. He didn’t add that I was white, educated and had a career, but I understood that he meant that, too.
Levenberg was a compact man with a brusque, humorless manner that always made me feel like he was judging me. He was one of the best lawyers in the prosecutor’s office, handling major crimes, but I heard he was not popular with his colleagues.
Once, he asked my husband to leave the room, then looked at me sternly and asked, “Why the HELL did you go into that theater?” I went home sobbing.
Levenberg told me they had evidence: On the stage, the police found a tiny piece of paper scrawled with phone numbers. They called them all, searching for a connection to Francis. On one, his mother’s boyfriend answered.
As the trial date got nearer, I worked myself into frenzies of worry. What if the jury noticed the inconsistencies in my descriptions? In one, I said Francis had very dark skin; in another, just dark skin. And if I had been face-to-face with him for almost an hour, why didn’t I remember if he had wispy facial hair, or sideburns?
I passed the days crying and the nights in terror. In my nightmares, Francis was leaning over my bed, his hand covering my face and his hot breath whispering in my ear:
I’ll miss you. I’ll see you again.
The next time I saw him was in October, in Courtroom 17C of the Cuyahoga County Justice Center, Judge Harry A. Hanna presiding.
The trial took a week. I spent most of the time alone, in the hallway, because as a witness I was not allowed to hear other testimony. I understood this, but I felt isolated and lonely. My stomach hurt so much I couldn’t eat, which made me lightheaded. I sat on the hard chair, wanting only to lie down in a fetal curl.
I took the stand the second day and continued the next morning. Francis sneered at me from the defendant’s table, right in my line of sight. His hair was now in tight braids. He wore a shirt and tie.
On the stand, I felt like an actor in one of my recurring dreams: under a spotlight, with no idea what my lines were or even what the play was. I could not stop trembling.
Levenberg took me through the rape minute-by-minute, asking questions like, “Were you wearing your glasses at the time?” And, “At this time, were you up against the wall, on your back, facing the wall, or what?”
The questions seemed absurdly detailed, but my answers mattered. The two public defenders, stuck with a defendant who had tattooed his own name on his arm, were trying to build a case of mistaken identity. They had failed with their first attempt, a motion to get the lineup thrown out on the grounds that David Francis was the only one in it with a DAVE tattoo.
They never grilled me about my sexual history, the way defense attorneys do in movies and TV but almost never do in real life. Ohio has a Rape Shield Law that completely prohibits that kind of inquiry.
They never tried to argue that the rape was consensual. Their cross-examination made me anxious, but I did not see them as the enemy. I knew they had to defend their client to the best of their ability.
They also offered two alibi witnesses. All alone out in the hallway, I had lots of time to brood about this. What if the alibi held up? What then?
My husband and my mother watched the trial but came out at regular intervals to report on the proceedings.
At one point, my forever-dieting mother brought news she thought might cheer me up: “The ER doctor described you as thin!” she said.
“Thin, but not very smart,” I said.
Another time, my husband came out to report on the first alibi witness, Lucie Renee Elkins, a 21-year-old single mother whose testimony hinged on the purchase of a TV Guide. She said she was sure Francis was with her in her apartment on East 79th Street that day, because she sent him out to buy her the new TV Guide and a beer.
“You don’t remember what day of the week that was, by the way?” Levenberg asked.
“It had to be a weekend because he was going to get me a TV Guide,” Elkins said. “Which was Friday, right. Friday, that is when they come out.”
“Right,” Levenberg said. “And you needed a new TV Guide, right?”
“I get them every Friday,” she said.
Levenberg hid his triumphant grin until he was outside the courtroom. The day Francis raped me, July 9, 1984, was a Monday.
One of the public defenders asked for a conference out of the jury’s hearing.
“I can’t vouch for the credibility of these people at all,” he told the judge. “I am only putting them on because my client has instructed me to do so.”
The defense did not call the second alibi witness. Because he had a lengthy felony record, Francis did not testify either.
The jury took only an hour to return a verdict of guilty on all 18 counts.
The next day, Oct. 26, Judge Hanna sentenced Francis.
I shivered when the judge spoke:
“Those of us who believe in God and try to live by God’s law are also taught to try to see the Lord in all of his creatures,” Hanna said. “In this position, that is getting increasingly harder. Today with you, Mr. Francis, it is nearly impossible. It is an evil and vile thing you did. Fortunately for her, and unfortunately for you, you picked on a woman who had the courage to fight back and stand up to you and prosecute you, so that at least she has spared the July 10th victim that you were looking for, and all of the other victims that you may have looked for, because there will be none. She prosecuted you, the jury convicted you, and for my part, sir, I shall bury you in the bowels of our worst prison for as long as I can.”
He then sentenced Francis to 30 to 75 years. “I hope I am giving you a life sentence,” Hanna said. “Because that is what you deserve. And if I am not here in 20 years when you go before the board, these words will be … They will be part of your file. That is all.”
Judge Hanna’s words made me feel good about myself for the first time since the rape.
How did David Francis respond? I could not bring myself to look at him. But tucked into the prosecutor’s voluminous file, I found a report from the sheriff’s deputies guarding him.
“He stood and looked in the direction of the victim and said, ‘Yeah. Go ahead and celebrate. Pass out cigars,’ ” the report read.
The deputies told him to sit, but “some moments later, the defendant, David Francis, again turned around to face the victim and stated, ‘I’m gonna f— you up.’ ”
I can’t discuss the trial, or the rape, or my long-term response to it without going into the issue of race. I’d rather not. As we are seeing this year, in Barack Obama’s history-making campaign for president, race remains an almost impossibly tangled subject for Americans. We’re afraid to discuss it, for fear that we might unknowingly blunder, say the wrong thing, and reveal ourselves as racists.
But I am white, and the rapist was black. Those two facts create cultural dynamite.
In “Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape,” Susan Brownmiller devoted an entire chapter to race and rape.
The first line of that chapter says it all: “No single event ticks off America’s political schizophrenia with greater certainty than the case of a black man accused of raping a white woman.”
It’s an incendiary combination, steeped in the most shameful chapters of American history — beginning with slavery, when white masters routinely and legally raped their female slaves, and extending into the Jim Crow era.
One of the many toxic legacies of this horror was the rage that Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver wrote about in his 1968 memoir, “Soul on Ice,” in which he acknowledged raping several white women.
“Rape was an insurrectionary act,” he wrote. “It delighted me that I was defying and trampling upon the white man’s law, upon his system of values, and that I was defiling his women and this point, I believe, was the most satisfying to me because I was very resentful over the historical fact of how the white man had used the black woman. I felt I was getting revenge.”
The Jim Crow era added another historical shame to the mix. Brownmiller cites the infamous cases of the Scottsboro Boys and Emmett Till, who had been put to death for coming too close to white women.
She admits to her own knee-jerk reaction to a case she covered as a reporter: Three black defendants were accused of raping a white woman, and because of the sordid history of lynching innocent black men for rape, she automatically assumed that the victim was lying. She was not.
As a child of the ’60s, I shared Brownmiller’s knee-jerk suburban-white liberalism. I grew up in an integrated suburb, Evanston, Ill. In junior high school, I read and loved “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and I sang along to Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child.” My first boyfriend was black. We marched in the streets of Evanston for nondiscriminatory open-housing laws.
I struggled with my reaction to my rape for a long, long time. I feel deep shame to say this, but this story is not worth writing if I don’t tell the truth, however uncomfortable and harsh: The rape made me fear black men I did not know, especially young black men.
I hated this fear. I tried to reason my way out of it, and I spent a lot of my time in therapy trying to overcome it.
Finally, a psychologist asked me the obvious, common-sense question: “But do you also fear and avoid strange white men?”
My answer was yes, of course. The difference was that fearing white men did not make me feel bad about myself. It did not make me feel like a closet racist. It did not bring me shame.
Along with my feelings of detachment, isolation, fear and numbness, I wrestled with guilt. As odd as it might sound, I felt guilty that I had grown up with advantages in life that my attacker probably had not had. The trial escalated that feeling. David Francis and his witnesses were not educated, were poor, and actually lived in Cleveland, not one of the suburbs.
Poverty was the real issue here, not race. One morning during the trial, Levenberg reported that all the alibi witnesses were on welfare and were breaking rules by living with boyfriends. He could discredit them in his cross-examination, he said, and get the welfare office after them, too.
I did not want to win that way.
David Francis came from a world I did not know. When he raped me, the Two Americas — the Two Clevelands — collided. One was white, suburban, well-off. The other was black, urban and desperately poor. Were crime and violence the only way these two worlds can meet?
My quest to find David Francis would take me into the other America to find out.