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.
Shaker Heights was once synonymous with power and wealth in Cleveland. That reputation remains, even though Shaker has changed. At the end of the 1960s, residents organized to fight the white flight that was crippling other suburbs. Shaker became a national symbol for successful integration and a haven for liberal-minded professionals.
My husband and I moved there in 1984 because of the diversity; in high school, I had lived in an integrated suburb, and Shaker Heights felt comfortable and safe.
Hough, on the other hand, did not feel safe. Foster's house is just 3 1/2 blocks from the corner where racial tension erupted into riots on July 18, 1966. The infamous six nights of arson and violence left scars that never fully healed.
Even 15 years after the riots, in his book, "Cities Within Cities," Common Pleas Judge Burt Griffin wrote: "Hough ranks near the top in all of Cleveland's disagreeable statistics -- welfare recipients, crime, abandoned buildings, rate of illegitimate births and school dropouts."
This is the image I carried, although the neighborhood has changed in the past few years. Brand-new houses fill long-vacant lots, sharing the block with abandoned houses boarded with plywood.
I was nervous about going there. Was I being stupid all over again?
I asked a friend to go with me. We drove past a deli at the end of Foster's street, where bright-red signs advertised: Auto Supply. Groceries. Hygiene. Beauty Supplies. Ribs, Wings and Polish Boys.
When we got to Foster's house in midafternoon, we sat in the car for almost an hour while I took deep breaths and tried to control my shaking hands. This is the part of the job most reporters hate: Knocking on doors unannounced to ask nosy questions. I really hate it, and this time it was personal.
We watched the house, a three-story colonial built in 1900, when Hough was a fashionable Cleveland neighborhood. Now the baby-blue paint was peeling and the front porch slumped with exhaustion.
A stocky man walked up the driveway and went inside; a minute later, we saw him watching us through a window. It was time to knock on the door or leave.
When I knocked and told Foster I wanted to talk about David Francis, her nephew -- or grandson -- she was puzzled.
"David Francis?" she asked. "Who's that?"
I explained about the parole records.
"Oh, David Francis," she said. "Millie's son." She led me inside, hobbling on creaky knees.
Foster, a short, heavy woman whose sunken cheeks make her look older than her 61 years, raised 10 children in this house, five McIntyres from her first marriage and five Fosters from her second. Grandchildren and friends had lived there, too, over the years.
But never David Francis. He was no relation at all. Foster had no idea where he'd lived in Cleveland.
Foster met Francis' mother, Millie, at a basement after-hours place called Velma's. That was back in the 1970s, when Millie and some of her kids had moved to Cleveland. When she was drinking hard and down on her luck, Millie moved into a room in Foster's house. Velma took Millie's youngest kids, Laura and Neamiah.
Foster called into the dining room: "Do either of you remember David Francis?"
Two men looked up from their lunch.
"David Francis?" one said. "No."
Foster thought for a minute. "I remember now," she said. "It was years ago. They called me from the prison to say he died."
They asked her what to do with his body. "I said, I couldn't tell you. All I know is, his mother is dead, his brothers and sisters are in Boston, but I don't know any numbers. You'll have to do with him what you do. I don't have the money to bury him. I hated it, but there was nothing else I could do."
The two men came into the room: Her oldest son, Charles McIntyre, wearing a cross the size of an Olympic medal, and his brother, Frankie McIntyre, the guy from the driveway.
I recognized Charles' name from David Francis' police records: Back on Oct. 12, 1977, they'd been arrested together for breaking and entering. I thought it was odd that he didn't remember his one-time partner in crime, but I didn't let on that I knew anything.
Foster said that Millie had moved to Cleveland from Boston to get away from her husband. She was scared of him. So she followed her oldest daughter, Charlene, here after Charlene -- pregnant at 16 -- married a guy from Cleveland.
But Millie was an alcoholic and had arthritis, and her health got so bad that in the summer of 1984 she moved back to Boston, where she still had family. Within a couple of months, she died in a house fire there.
"She was in a wheelchair on the second floor," Foster said. "They say her husband set the fire."
Foster thought the youngest daughter, Laura, still lived in Cleveland. But she didn't know how to get in touch with her, or with any of the family in Boston.
"I haven't thought about Millie or her kids in years," she said.
In myths and legends, the fire-breathing dragon never has a family.
The dragon always lives alone, and the person who sets out to slay him has to go through a scary forest first.
I went to the Massachusetts Bureau of Vital Statistics.
This was later in the summer of 2007, when I went to Boston to dig through birth, death and marriage certificates that were yellowing with age.
They led me to Charlene Blakney, David Francis' oldest sister, who lived in New Bedford, 45 minutes south of Boston.
I had three phone numbers and three addresses for her, which took me into neighborhoods where all the houses had either security bars or plywood on the windows, where people move out in the middle of the night, leaving behind whatever can't fit in the car. All three places were vacant; at one, the front door hung open on one hinge.
I was with a photographer from The Plain Dealer, and I was hyper-aware that we were going into dangerous neighborhoods, just like Hough, but in a city I didn't know.
This time, though, I didn't feel nervous or sick. I felt detached from my body, observing myself, just like I did back in Eldred Theater. I felt like I was watching a character in a cop thriller, a confident woman who knew what she was doing. I was impersonating the woman I was before the rape.
I found Charlene on the third phone number. Her son answered and sounded suspicious when I told him I was writing about David. He said Charlene would call back if she wanted to talk to me, but he didn't think she would.
Five minutes later, Charlene called, sobbing. "Do you know what happened to my brother?" she asked. "I tried to find him. I knew he was dead, but I've never known what happened to him."
She was still crying when we got to her apartment, a dark warren of rooms at the top of a steep staircase. Moving boxes lined the walls of the dining room, where a fish tank the size of a refrigerator stood, empty.
I gave her some flowers. I'd wanted to do something to acknowledge her grief, but the only place I could find flowers in that neighborhood was a grocery store. The plastic-wrapped bouquet now looked cheap. Paltry. She barely looked at them, and didn't put them in water.
"He was my favorite brother," she said when we sat down. "Everyone thought we was twins, 'cause we looked so much alike."
She did have his eyes. If he had lived into his 50s, outside of prison, David Francis might look like Charlene, now 57: a body gone soft and round at the middle, a face etched by years of drugs and alcohol and trouble, eyes that miss nothing.
I eased into the reason behind my visit by telling her what I had learned: He died of cancer and was buried in a prison cemetery.
She cried some more. And then she told me about her family.
"I used to tell people this family was cursed," she began.
David Anthony Francis was born Dec. 11, 1956, in Boston, the fourth child of Mildred and Clifford Francis, who would have five boys and three girls together.
When they married, on Aug. 8, 1950, in front of a justice of the peace, Clifford Francis was 24 years old. On the marriage license, he recorded his occupation as "truck driver."
Mildred Morrell was 30 and a "stitcher."
She was also six months pregnant.
Their first child, Charlene, arrived that December. Her birth certificate lists her mother's race as "Col." and her father's race as "Red."
Clifford Francis was full-blooded Narragansett Indian, or so he told his children, and he looked it. The youngest child, Laura, remembers his "high-red" skin and long, long hair. Charlene remembers his Indian superstitions: He would not be photographed, for one thing, because he believed it would steal his spirit.
But Clifford Francis was not a truck driver.
"Your daddy's a pimp."
Charlene was in high school when another kid told her that. She wasn't sure what it meant, but she found out fast enough. It meant that the other women who lived in their house -- sometimes two women, sometimes three, with their kids -- worked for her father.
Everyone called him T.C., for Top Cat.
T.C. was a large man. In Charlene's memory, he weighed 500 pounds, at least. He lived large, too. He always drove a Cadillac and he always had plenty of women and plenty of money -- though he never spent it on his children.
Most of the women worked the streets for him. But Mildred didn't, not as a prostitute. Mildred stole for T.C., though, usually with one of the women in the house. They'd steal clothes, jewelry, food and bring the stuff back to him.
T.C. wasn't just big. He was mean, too, especially when he was drinking, which was most of the time. He beat Mildred and made her children watch. He beat the other women. He beat his boys -- Clifford, Joseph, David, Philip and Neamiah.
"Oh God, he'd hang 'em up on hooks and beat them with belts," Charlene said. He kicked them. He broke bones. The oldest brother, Clifford -- they called him Heavy because he was big, too -- walked funny for two years from one of T.C.'s beatings.
He didn't beat the three girls -- Charlene, Linda and Laura. But T.C. was cruel to them in other ways.
"He told us we were worthless, we were stupid, that we weren't nothing but a bed sheet for men," Charlene said.
Charlene, being the oldest, tried to take care of the younger kids. While T.C. was drinking and fighting, she took them upstairs, tried to make sure they were fed. She remembers once all of them were together in a bedroom, plotting how to kill T.C.
Charlene dreamed of poisoning him.
Once, David actually locked T.C. in a room and set it on fire. T.C. jumped out the window.
The five boys started getting in trouble very young, stealing cars mostly, and flopped back and forth between juvenile detention and jail.
David had just turned 12 when he got the first entry on his rap sheet. It was 1968, and he was arrested for assault and robbery.
His juvenile rap sheet goes on from there, 53 entries that record an adolescence of constant arrests for theft, breaking and entering, carrying concealed weapons, doing drugs and escaping from detention.
The girls, too, got into trouble with the law, Charlene said. Drugs and prostitution. Authorities took her kids away for a while.
She always thought the whole family would end up dying from drugs or alcohol. Three of them were already gone: Heavy was murdered in a drug deal gone bad; Linda and David died of cancer.
Of all of them, Charlene thought, David was the biggest mystery.
He was a real loner. He had a problem with rage, too. "He would get so mad, until he wanted to kill somebody. But the thing is, the madder he got, the calmer he would get. He'd start talking real soft and low, calm, and then you knew to get the hell out of the way because he was going to have one of his fits."
That's what they called them. Fits.
David Francis' younger brother, Philip, remembers getting sent to a juvenile home with David when he was 10 and David was 12.
I found Philip in prison at the Bridgewater Correctional Complex in Massachusetts, where he was serving time for rape, for molesting Charlene's son. Anthony was 12 at the time; Philip was 39.
Charlene turned him in, but it was too late to save Anthony. He is now in prison in New Hampshire, on a sexual assault conviction.
I wrote to Philip in prison, asking for an interview. He sent back the form-letter permission, which he had signed with the uncertain block lettering of a kindergartner.
I was queasy as I approached Bridgewater, a big complex of prisons south of Boston. Philip was in the Massachusetts Treatment Center, a prison for sexual offenders, and I knew that talking to him in this prison was the closest I would come to confronting David Francis.
It was more like interviewing a child. Philip, now 51, carried the weight of the childhood beatings in his frail, slouched body. He shuffled into the interview room, sat down, and looked at the table. He wouldn't look at me. When he spoke, I could see that he had only three or four teeth, and he seemed mentally slow, probably from one too many blows to the head.
When I asked about David, Philip smiled and barked out a short laugh, his eyes still focused on the table. David was his big brother and maybe his best friend, he said. David was nice to him: He gave Philip his first drink and cigarette when he was 5. First vodka, then beer. They got drunk, very drunk.
They never stopped drinking after that. Their father always had alcohol in the house; it was there for the sneaking. Philip remembered that David and their big brother, Heavy, had to force him to go home from school every day. He hated home. He was so afraid of the beatings, the hooks, the bullwhip his father used when he had been drinking.
To this day, alone in his cell, Philip still tries to figure out: "What did us kids do to deserve such a tragic life? You know?"
The first time I talked to Charlene, I didn't have the courage to mention the rape.
But I knew I had to tell her why I'd come looking for her, so I asked her to go to brunch. I returned the next day. She was dressed in white pants and a canary-yellow top, with lots of jewelry and makeup and shiny gold shoes, an outfit she said she'd last worn to Heavy's funeral in 1994.
She didn't want to go to brunch. She'd been up all night with nightmares about David, so we sat again, the flowers I brought the day before in a vase between us.
As we talked, she kept coming back to one question. Why would a newspaper be writing a story about David? Had he murdered somebody?
The time had come to tell her. Straight out would be best, like diving into a cold pool.
"I was his victim," I said.
"What do you mean, his victim?"
"He went to prison that last time for rape," I said. "He raped me."
I told her the story the way I'd told my daughter. Gently.
Now she was crying again, saying this was not the brother she knew, that he had plenty of girlfriends and didn't need to rape anybody, that he always protected his sisters. She knew he was capable of murder, sure. He had that thing, that uncontrollable rage. If I had come to her and said, "I'm doing a story because David killed two or three people," that would have made more sense.
"I know what rape is," she finally said. "I was raped myself. But I asked for it, because I was on drugs and I was prostituting. It was just me, being stupid."
She said she never reported it to the police because, hey, what the hell, you're prostituting, what do you think you're supposed to get? Besides, the first time, the rapist was a white guy, and she knew the cops would never go after a white guy for raping a black prostitute. And the second time, she was trying to get crack.
"I asked for it," she said.
It was like a script from the hot-line training I'd done at the Rape Crisis Center.
"No, Charlene," I said. "You didn't ask for it. It was not your fault."
She shook her head, tears rolling down her face. "If I hadn't of been so stupid," she said.
"You know, that's what I was saying to myself for 20 years," I said.
She wiped her tears.
"Yeah, but it's different," she said. "I mean, you had a good job, and my brother had no right to do that to you."
I knew what she was saying: that I was not a drug addict or prostitute, and she was, so she deserved what happened and I did not.
But I also heard what went unspoken: I was white, I had money, I had an education, I had parents who did not hit me.
I had all the things Charlene had not had in her life. She was used to being a victim. It was her world. It was not my world.
"Charlene," I said. "Those guys had no right to do what they did to you, either."
She wiped at her tears again.
"It's terrifying," she said. "Especially when you think they're going to kill you."
I used to think that the only thing I ever won out of pure luck was the Beatles' "Second Album." This was in 1964, just before the Beatles came to Miami, Fla. The radio station WFUN had a call-in contest, which I won by dialing all but the last digit of the phone number, and waiting.
I was 10 years old, the middle of three sisters, in a middle-class American family. My father worked as a reporter for the Miami Herald; my mother worked part-time nights as a nurse. We moved north when my father became a magazine editor, first in Chicago and then in New York. My mother kept working; in Chicago, she went back to college and became a nurse practitioner.
I thought we were an ordinary family, with our share of both fortune and trouble. My parents did not inherit wealth or status, but they gave their own children an extraordinary legacy: We never had a doubt that we were loved, or that we deserved a place in the world.
What did Clifford and Mildred Francis pass on to their children?
"Them kids didn't have any choice but to turn out the way they did," Charlene told me. "We never had anybody that was really nice to us, you know, like most kids get hugs and kisses, we got punched and slapped and kicked around and told we were worthless."
Did they have a choice? Of course they did: Plenty of people grow up poor, even in abusive homes, without becoming criminals.
But for David Francis and his brothers and sisters, crime was the family business, just like journalism was my family's business. Their father taught them to hate themselves and to be violent with the people closest to them.
I know that when I went across the border into the other America, searching for an understanding of David Francis, that I went as a visitor. I have not lived there. I realize that what I saw and heard often played into stereotypes of race and class that I have worked my lifetime to see beyond.
We have this notion in America that our founders managed to do away with the Old World system of inherited class. We tell ourselves that with hard work and gumption, anyone can pull himself up out of poverty and misery. Those who don't? Well, they just don't have what it takes.
But we cannot choose what our parents bequeath to us. With one encounter, David Francis lodged himself into my life, changing the way I lived in the world. I never thought of him with anger or hatred. I thought of him with fear. I wonder: What of that fear and distrust have I passed on to my own children?
I still have that Beatles' album, stamped "WFUN: Fun! Fun! Fun!" I used to joke that I couldn't part with it: It was my first and last jackpot.
I had to live awhile to see that it was not, of course, my first jackpot. I hit that one on the day I was born, in 20th-century America, to parents who cherished me. With my first breath, I was automatically among the most privileged human beings in history.
Even broken families exert a powerful pull. David Francis followed his mother to Cleveland sometime in 1977. I couldn't find any evidence that he ever had held a job, but his adult rap sheet starts with a Sept. 10, 1977, arrest for possession of criminal tools. The rap sheet goes on for three more entries: breaking and entering, receiving stolen property, and grand theft, most of them in connection with stealing cars.
But no violent assaults.
That seemed odd. What propelled him to such a big leap, from stealing cars to rape?
I didn't know about his many aliases -- Kevin Brown, Tony Wayne, Anthony Francis, David Lynn, Robert Brown, Daniel Allen.
Turns out, I was not his first victim.