Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Post that Almost Did Not Get Written

I have been online a long time, and am active in social media and other arenas. I am supposedly "influential," if you believe any of the measures of this sort of thing.

It is time to use my influence to talk about something REALLY important.  Not home schooling. Not home business. But something real, that for all the talking about it still leaves its victims feeling isolated, judged, and alone.

So alone.

It has been nearly three years since I started this post. When you read it, you will understand why it has taken so long to get it written. It was brutal to write, and it might even be brutal to read. Especially if you are someone who knows and loves me now, or knew me When.

Or if you, or anyone you know, is a survivor of sexual assault.

It has now been 37 years, not 35.  There's something about a number that ends in a 7.  "37 years" (or sometimes "87 years") is a number I have always thrown around to mean "a long, LONG time." The pain has diminished enough that I recently shared some of this story with my adult son for the first time, leaving off the gory details for his sake, not mine.

I no longer consider myself a victim, but a courageous survivor.  Let's crash together through a wall of silence, the stigma of rape.

March 15, 2014 The Post That Almost Did Not Get Written - Second Draft

I started this post over a year ago, in anticipation of the 35th anniversary of The Day. Life intervened, and I never quite got around to writing it then, but picked it up again last month, thinking I would schedule it to post yesterday. Fast forward to yesterday, I was so busy, I never go around to finishing it, much less posting it. On the one hand, that is really good. It means I didn't obsess over it, and kind of forgot it was The Day. So I decided it didn't matter. It isn't that I have never shared it with anyone. I have spoken openly about it for many years,  but it's a tough topic, and maybe it wasn't the right time to write about it.

Then today, I stumbled upon this article: "Getting Raped: The Stigma of Being a Rape Victim."  Hmm.

"Not going to let this one go, are You, Lord..." I muttered.  Doesn't sound like things have changed as much as I had hoped. I guess I had been hopeful that it was no longer the shameful secret it had been back then.  Every day on TV, in church, and just about everywhere else,  I see evidence that attitudes about - what did They call it, "mixing the races?" -  have changed.

But in 1978? In Atlanta, or anywhere else south of the Mason-Dixon line, it was a topic not discussed in polite company.

Or any company.

Can I be blunt here? I, who can pound out a thousand words in just about 20 minutes, just spent half an hour trying to figure out how to euphemistically describe the 1970's attitudes of southern white men towards a white woman who had been assaulted raped by a black man.  Not to mention other southern white women.

HAHAHAHA You can't. We are talking back in the day of the Stars and Bars in the Georgia flag. Neither can you describe in a politically correct manner how that affects the exploited woman: her attitude towards men in general, and black men in particular, her attitude towards happy mixed race couples in the present day, her attitude towards the reactions of snarky white women back then, and the unfairness of it all, or her embarrassment at even noticing race in this age of enlightenment.

Why she couldn't just "get over it."  Why it still stings after 37 years.  Especially when before that happened, she didn't have a racist bone in her body, and her best friend was black.

Like Bridget Kelly in the article, I believe it is WAY past time for it to be OK for women to talk about being raped.  And if being part of making that happen means ripping off the heavy, suffocating, debilitating body armor that has "protected" me for the last 37 years, so be it.

So here - finally - is the post that almost did not get written.


Alias Tony Smith  

"You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives." Genesis 50:20 (NIV84)

I weep today for a 55 57 year old man sitting in a south Georgia maximum security prison. He has been there for 35  37 long years.  He will be there until he dies.  Let's just call him "Tony Smith."

It has been 35 37 years since the day he changed my life forever.

March 14, 1978. A day that will live in infamy.  Armed robbery. Aggravated sodomy. Rape.  Thinking about it is like watching an old episode of Law and Order: SVU that I know I have seen before, but I can't quite remember the plot anymore.

But what that day defines 37 years later is no longer the worst day of my life, but the day that set the best of my life into motion.

I always parked the car at the Central Avenue parking garage above Underground Atlanta. Pretty cool, you could leave the First National Bank tower and scoot under the street to avoid any kind of bad weather and hop right in the elevator of the parking garage. But that day was a beautiful day, warm enough to go without a coat, and I left work a few minutes early because I was meeting my mom at Morrison's Cafeteria for dinner. So I walked on the street, enjoying the breeze, and got to the garage in time to catch the next elevator. There were about 6 people in the elevator, including a couple of  guys who were laughing and joking.

One of them was wearing a red bandanna.  When I pressed the button to the top floor, Mr. Red Bandanna pressed the 4th floor button. Everyone rode in silence and got off at their various floors, finally leaving me alone in the elevator.  I got to the top level, and opened the glass door leading out to the parking lot. Just then, I heard this clatter in the stairwell, and as I stopped and turned, there appeared Mr. Bandanna with a look on his face I will never forget. At first, I just didn't process what was going on, but by the time I did, there was no getting out of that enclosed lobby.  He pushed me against the door and put one hand over my mouth, punching the back of that hand with the other one until I stopped trying to scream.

There was yet another concrete staircase that led up to a helicopter pad, so he took me up there. I could hear people talking and getting off the elevator and going to their cars. But by this time, there was a knife at my throat, my neck and mouth were hurting, and I didn't see any way a five foot, 90 pound girl was going to get away from a six foot plus, 180 pound man.  Not alive, anyway.  It was easier just to do what I was told. The final indignity was that he robbed me of my last twelve dollars and the little change purse that my grandmother had given me. Then I did something crazy that turned out to be the key to positively identifying him.

As he fled down the stairs, I called down to him in the stairwell and I asked him if he would leave me enough money to get out of the garage. All these years later, I can still picture him looking up at me as I calmly turned my clothes right side out and talked to him over the rail.  I explained that if I didn't have enough money to pay for my parking, I would have to tell the attendant why. He thought about it for a few seconds, and then said "How much is it?"  Honestly, I don't remember how much it was, no more than a couple of bucks. He left three dollars on the steps and took off.

I did tell the attendant immediately, and he called the police. They did come and take photos of  me, though as a Golden Gloves boxer, he knew how to hit me in a way really hurt, but that did not leave outside marks. I even had to pull my lip aside so they could photograph my bloody gums. I did spend a great deal of time at Grady Hospital, and was interviewed by two detectives from the sex crimes unit.  It was around 7:30, maybe 8 pm by the time I pulled up at home.  I gave Daddy as kiss and apologized for being late, then told Mama I would like to talk to her in the back bedroom.

Over the next twelve hours, we cried and smoked a thousand cigarettes and drank gallons of coffee, and about a fifth of scotch.  We never did tell Daddy. He died a few years later and never knew. In fact, we never told anyone.  And while that seemed like the best thing to do at the time, it ignited a spark of resentment that built against my mother that grew imperceptibly for the next 15 years.  I didn't even know I felt this way, but I was angry that she was more concerned about my dad than about me.

Of course, that wasn't true. I'm pretty sure she was afraid that Daddy would either have a stroke, or go out and buy a gun and save the Georgia taxpayers the bundle of money they have spent keeping "Tony Smith" incarcerated for nearly half a century. He hated guns, but he would have made an exception for someone who hurt his little girl. And he wouldn't have missed. He had several sharpshooter medals from his time in the Army.

But that isn't how it felt to me. It felt like she thought I had something to hide. Over the last 20 years since her death, I have come to realize that she was probably raped, too, and just never said anything. When I told her, she said, "I've been so afraid this would happen." I didn't make the connection at the time, but I know her mother was raped, and her grandmother and great-grandmother before her.  The only Chickasaw phrase besides "Pass the bread, Granny"  that passed down through our family to my generation means "White man no good." Ride that one back into Chickasaw history, and you have a very long line of exploited women.

Well, I told my boss that I would be taking off a few days from work.  And I told my boyfriend. That went really well. His main concern was that I would be afraid to have sex, so he was anxious for me to get right back in the saddle. Seriously?


Amazingly, we had a call from Atlanta PD the next day saying they had a suspect in custody. He had been caught in the act of trying to rape someone else, and they wanted me to come down for a lineup.  Oddly enough, he wasn't as big or scary as I remembered, and he had removed his bandanna, so his hair was unfamiliar.  But deep inside, I knew he was the one.  My heart pounded so hard I thought it would break through my chest.  I didn't have that reaction to any of the other people in the lineup, even ones who looked a little more like the man I thought I remembered.

Number Three.  There are only two things I have been more sure of in my life.

Afterward, they asked me to identify an item they had recovered from his home. It was the change purse my grandmother had given me.  Later on, at the trial, ADA Gordon Miller would call it "The Smoking Gun."

They got him! And only 24 hours later. I was so lucky. One of the women in our case had her face rearranged by being bludgeoned with a rock. Another one was attacked in the laundry room of her apartment complex after he broke down the door like Jack Nicholson in "The Shining." The saddest victim of all was"Tony Smith's" incredibly beautiful and intelligent young wife, kind of a cross between Whitney Houston and Halle Berry.  She stayed in the courtroom throughout the trial, trying to hold it together, finally fleeing when they read the several dozen counts of crimes that netted him 213 years in prison.

87 nightmares later, I didn't feel all that lucky. Can you say "PTSD"?

If a successful outcome like that did not ease my trauma, try to imagine how it still feels for women whose attackers were not caught.

Or who knew their attackers, and have to see them walking free because they were not charged.

Or the ones who were abused and victimized by loved ones.

Or the ones whose story is complicated by clubs, or drugs, or alcohol, or something else that makes them seem less like a victim than the little girl who was just going to her car after work to meet her mom for dinner.

See, rape traps you in time. Even without any kind of cloud hanging over me that this was "my fault," I remained stuck there as surely as if I were in the movie "Groundhog Day." This incident was the catalyst that sent me packing to New York, where I tried to escape the pain. I lived there for almost 7 years, and successfully pushed it all deep down into the dark abyss with other "dark secrets." I was moderately successful on Wall Street, but like most others there, I worked hard and played harder. I smoked too many cigarettes, drank too much Jack Daniels, and acted out in other dangerous ways, unable to truly move on. Unable to "get over it."  Unable to trust any men. Unable to believe that I was better than "damaged goods."  I swore I would never again let anyone get close enough to me to hurt me.

Then I met The Man Who Is Not Like All The Others.  The One who said,
"Like a lily among thorns is my darling among the maidens" Song of Solomon 2:2 NASB 
"When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” John 8:10-12 NKJV
The One Who "heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds."

And I met another man God brought into my life to "make the Invisible visible," and to love me unconditionally - more than I could ever understand, for the last 30 years. Just like Christ loved the church.

Get religion? That's my definitive answer about how to "get over it"? Every situation is different, and every woman has other people in her life whose reactions will influence how she experiences the attack, then and for years to come. I can't tell you that leaving town and starting over, or self-medicating, or getting married will make any difference at all. I can tell you with confidence that God can accomplish in a moment what a legion of counselors cannot do in a lifetime.  Deciding to follow Jesus was the the first of the only two things I was more sure of in my life than picking Number 3 out of a lineup. Marrying my husband was the second.

But the REAL beginning of healing was when I broke through to the feeling that it was OK to talk about being raped. What I hope I have done here is encourage you to talk about it, too.  Don't spend the best years of your life locked in suffocating, debilitating body armor like I did.  Let's break down the wall of silence once and for all, and stop the stigma of rape.

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