Beyond Rape: A Survivor's Story
David Francis ended his time on Earth as he lived it: in prison.
He was laid to rest in a cemetery that overlooks Pickaway Correctional Institution, on a bare hill with a view of the razor wire that curls like a giant Slinky around the prison.
I went there to visit him on Jan. 16, 2008.
The day was clear but cold. The razor wire glinted in the sun and the grass crunched under our feet as Mohammad Yakuba, the prison investigator, led me up the hill.
At the bottom, we went past a muddy construction site where they're building a new prison hospital.
At the top of the hill, under trees that spread their limbs over the dead, we came to the old part of the cemetery. It looked like a set for the graveyard in "Our Town," when Emily rises from her grave to spend one last day among the living.
The headstones here date from the early 1800s, when the institution down the hill was a state mental hospital and the staff lived on the grounds. Entire families rest here -- newborn babies, loving mothers, old men -- under rows of headstones topped with lambs and angels.
An invisible line separates these dead from the graves of prisoners. They lie in an open field on the hill beyond the old cemetery, 1,236 of them, their presence marked only by brick-size stones sunk into the earth above their caskets.
No angels or lambs watch over these dead. No one etched loving words on their stones. Their families did not claim them. They don't even have names: In death, as in their life on the other side of the razor wire, they are identified by numbers
As the seasons change, and the grass grows over their small stones, the dead inmates lose even their numbers and disappear into the field.
David Francis, No. 130, was among those who had disappeared. Yakuba told me the cemetery manager marked the grave for me with a stake tied with yellow and red ribbons. I pushed leaves off some of the stones and found 133, but I couldn't find 130.
Yakuba went to call the manager while I paced off the distance and started pulling at the grass where No. 130 should have been.
The matted carpet of grass fought my efforts. I uncovered a tiny corner of stone, grabbed a stick and kept digging. The stick broke. I dug in the dirt with my hands again, uncovering more stone.
The earth was as cold as it was hard. My fingers turned into frozen claws, my nails brittle and breaking as I dug.
It took awhile, kneeling there in that cold graveyard, for me to realize what I was doing: I was trying to dig up DAVE.
I wanted to laugh at myself, at the irony -- digging up DAVE was, after all, what I set out to do -- but I couldn't laugh.
Yakuba returned with the cemetery manager, who pointed at the stake at the far end of the field, about 50 yards from where I was digging.
I walked over; Yakuba and the cemetery guy hung back and let me go alone.
I looked down at the stone: No. 130.
I stood there, feeling an odd emptiness now that my journey had come to an end. All this time looking for David Francis, and I never thought about what I would say when I found him.
Minutes passed. Yakuba and the cemetery guy were silent, waiting. A wind had come up, like a signal to hurry along. I wanted to get out of here, go instead to warmth and life.
I should say something, I decided, so I looked at "130" and said, "Well, Dave, Charlene and I are the only ones who really thought about you after you died."
Talking to him made me feel weird, like I was talking to myself in public. My hands were dirty, my shoes caked with mud. I had nothing to say. Why did I even come here?
I have visited cemeteries with grieving families. I've listened to them talk to their loved ones at the grave. I've watched them plant flowers, clean mud off headstones and leave mementos. Once I visited a grave with a mother who played music from her car's CD system for her dead son.
I understand the kind of comfort and meaning a grave can offer mourners. It gives them a physical place to make a spiritual connection.
But I don't share those beliefs. I wish I did; I envy people who have that certainty about the mystery of death. And of life, for that matter.
I don't believe the dead can hear you speak. I don't believe that anything meaningful remains in their graves. I believe that our souls, or spirits, or whatever you want to call them, exist somewhere else after death. Where, I could not guess.
But we know the dead live on within the people who remember them.
I have been keeping David Francis alive, all this time.
When Judge Harry Hanna told David Francis, "I shall bury you in the bowels of our worst prison for as long as I can," he meant the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility. Lucasville.
I went to Lucasville in the fall of 2007, the last stop on my tour of the prisons where he had been held. I wanted to see where he had been locked up, for all those years I had locked myself up in my own prison of fear.
In 1984, when David Francis arrived, Lucasville was the state's only maximum-security prison, the kind they call lock-and-feed. It was, and still is, where the other Ohio prisons sent their problem inmates. Today, 94 percent of its inmates are transfers from other prisons.
"We get everybody else's maladjusted," then-warden Ed Voorhies told me. "They don't come here for singing poorly in the choir."
David Francis entered Lucasville on Nov. 30, 1984, and stayed for almost a decade, living in the tense conditions that led to the 11-day riot in 1993, which left one guard and nine inmates dead.
As we walked around the prison, passing lines of inmates walking single file along the wall, the prison spokesman, Larry Greene, told me: "Understand we're in a prison. It's deceptive. It's calm and orderly, but it's no way to live."
About half of the 1,460 inmates are locked in their cells 23 out of 24 hours a day, getting out only to exercise in wire cages and to shower. The rest go to jobs within the prison and are permitted a few privileges, such as group recreation time and meals in the dining hall. The average length of stay is about seven years.
Francis was among the 87 who were evacuated to the now-closed prison in Lima on the fourth day of the Lucasville rioting. Lima Warden Harry Russell said at the time that the group included the most psychologically disturbed of Lucasville's inmates.
On April 1, 1994, Francis was sent to the prison in Warren, and four years later, on May 14, 1998, he landed at his last prison, Lebanon. During transfers, he stayed briefly at Mansfield.
When I visited the Lebanon prison, I sat down with three inmates to talk about prison life. One of them, James Holman, told me he'd been in Lucasville at the same time as Francis.
"Back then," he said, "rape was looked upon as the worst of the worst. On kids especially, but even on grown women. His time was probably quite rough for that type of crime. I'm sure he was preyed upon, just as he preyed upon you."
That was supposed to make me feel better, but it didn't. When I visited Mansfield, I said something to that effect to Stuart Hudson, the warden.
"Don't feel sympathetic toward him," Hudson said. "Lots of people have hard lives, but they don't rape and murder other people. The guys in here deserve to be here."
Francis ended his prison life at the Corrections Medical Center in Columbus, which is part day-clinic, part hospital and part hospice but still a prison. It has a warden, guards working alongside the doctors and nurses, and locked cells for maximum-security patients.
Earline Shore, an assistant to the warden, showed me around.
The long-term care unit holds inmates with AIDS, Alzheimer's disease and cancer, men who have had strokes and amputations, men who poisoned themselves by making their own drugs and alcohol in prison.
David Francis would have landed here, in one of the two rooms set aside for terminally ill inmates. As we passed the rooms, an elderly inmate flashed us a toothless smile from his bed. He was drinking a Coke.
"This is nice," he said. "For a prison cell, you can't beat it."
After the rape, I couldn't go back to Eldred Theater to review its productions, and no one at the paper expected me to. That fall, I left the theater beat and became the arts and entertainment editor.
Everyone called this a promotion, but we all knew what it really was: I was like a cop who had been shot on duty. I was gun-shy. I needed a desk job.
It took me about two days to realize that this was a huge mistake. The tedium of editing was surpassed only by the writers' reaction to it: I might as well have been harvesting one of their major organs on my desk, with a letter opener and a stapler.
I ended many days hiding in the restroom, crying.
When I returned from my second maternity leave, I begged for a writing job. They made me the film critic.
I finally stopped crying. I did not stop being afraid.
Now I was back to going into dark theaters alone.
I went to many daytime screenings where I was the only critic who showed up. After sitting through several movies with my attention focused on the exit doors instead of the screen, I started asking the theater managers to lock the doors. They were puzzled, but they did it.
Not long after I returned from David Francis' grave, I realized I had to go back to Eldred Theater.
I immediately had a case of the dreads. Of course. Eldred. El Dread, The Dread. How odd I hadn't seen that in 23 years.
I went back in late January, on one of those Cleveland days that come in a dozen shades of gray, turning the world into a living daguerreotype. Students walked through the quad hunched over with their backpacks, heads down against the sleet. I walked with them, hunched over with my dread.
The theater was almost dark when I went in, lit only by the ghost light on the stage. The single bulb on top of its pole glowed like an eerie beacon, leaving the edges and corners in deep gloom. I felt a charge in the air.
Some say ghost lights started way back in Shakespeare's time, when theater companies left candles on the stage to ward off the ghosts of performances past. Some say they light the theater for the friendly ghosts who live there.
All I know is that for me, this place was haunted.
I walked down the aisle to the stage. Two photographers from the paper hung back in the shadows.
When I climbed the three steps up, the ghost light cast a huge, hulking shadow of me on the back wall.
I walked toward the back corner where David Francis had dragged me. My shadow followed me, a giant bodyguard hovering over each step.
Painted scenery flats leaned against the wall in stacks, crowding the corner. It looked ... ordinary.
I tried to see it that way -- the way the hundreds of students and actors and stagehands had seen it over the years.
But to me this was sinister and sacred ground. Here was the place where, for an hour removed from time, I was sure my life would end. Here was the place where I lost part of myself.
I looked up into the fly space, almost expecting to see myself up there among the lights, watching.
I felt disoriented, but my body was alert, trembling from anxiety so powerful it made my knees lock. The ghost light and the looming shadows made me feel like I was in a German expressionist film from the 1920s -- "Nosferatu," or "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." Nightmares on celluloid. I sat on the edge of the stage for a while, trying to escape the heaviness I was feeling. I thought about my brave children, who always lighten my heart.
I used to wonder if, in trying to hide my depression and fear from them, I had instead passed it all on, like a genetic disease. But even though they know they will have to answer questions about this story, and about their sometimes messed-up mom, they encouraged me to write it.
I thought about my husband, who had gone through the horror with me, and had gone through the silence, too. I did not know, until I did the training at the Rape Crisis Center, that rape is a family trauma, that husbands and other close family members suffer, too. In the end, we separated, for this and many other reasons that are not part of this story.
Sitting there in the dusky theater, I realized why I had not felt anything when I stood at David Francis' grave.
That cemetery was where the prison buried him. But here, in this theater, was where I needed to bury him.
I went out on this story to find David Francis. I thought if I found out who he was, I could discover the reason that our paths crossed. And if I could understand that, I could protect my children.
Now I could see that what I really wanted to find was not David Francis, but the source of my fear. I wanted to confront that fear and kill it.
What happened was not what I expected.
I found David Francis. I learned that he had a horrifying childhood, that he learned violence at his father's knee, and that he took that violence and horror and damage with him when he went out into the world at the age of 12.
I did not deserve what happened to me. But David Francis did not deserve what happened to him, either.
When I first started my search, my husband said, "He was a monster. Why do you want to know anything more?"
I wanted to know, and we as a country need to know: What created that monster?
"Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal," reported the Kerner Commission, a national panel that convened after the urban riots of the '60s. Forty years later, these two societies are still divided. So far apart that a journey into the Houghs of America takes you into a country where the legacy of slavery and racism still poisons lives.
We put up such high barriers at the borders -- barriers of fear, distrust, misunderstanding, hatred. But what I found when I went into that other country was not hate, but kindness. I was welcomed into homes, and in them I found what I was really looking for all along.
I found Charlene, who stopped doing drugs and drinking, got her family back, and in time forgave and buried the father who hurt her. Charlene, who reacted to her rapes with the same shame and self-blame I did.
I found Laura, who took me to the church that had saved her, and pushed me to the altar when the time came for saving me. Laura, who told me she loves me.
I found Father Tom Gallagher, who marched from Selma to Montgomery with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and would not let being held at gunpoint, tied up and locked in a closet stop him from doing what he was put on this Earth to do.
I needed to hear their stories. They needed to tell them.
"We did our part, we kept it inside so long," Laura said to me. "It's something that needed to be told."
Human beings have been telling each other stories since we lived in caves and had no written language. We tell stories to remember, to pass on our history, to worship, to teach, to exert power, to mourn, to celebrate, to entertain.
We tell stories to connect with each other. We tell our own stories -- sometimes just to ourselves -- to make sense of the world and our experience in it.
As a reader and a writer, I believe in the power of stories to bring us together and heal. I have asked so many other people to open themselves up and let me tell their stories, all the while withholding my own. I owed this to them.
As I worked on it, though, I kept saying, "I'm having a hard time with this. I can't write it." Not long ago, my therapist said, "Maybe you're saying, 'I can't right it.' "
And maybe that is the point, in the end: We all have burdens we must carry through life: grief and disappointments that we cannot change. But we can make them lighter if we do not bear them silently and alone.
I cannot protect my children. I know this. It is the terrible truth of being a parent: The day comes when we have to send our very hearts out into the world, unprotected.
But now I know that my children protected me, all those years. They tethered me to all that is hopeful. They made me brave. They held me to this life until I was ready to come back to myself.
Sitting there in Eldred Theater, I looked back up into the fly space. It's OK, I thought. You can come back.
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