How the Healing Came
The day after you almost die, you don’t expect the sun to rise the same way.
But it does. I thought that the sunrise on November 21, 1987, would look different. But the day after I was raped, beaten, and left for dead was just as California warm and sunny as the day before. It’s a confusing reality when you’ve been a victim of another’s violence.
I hate that word, victim. I hate it more than rape or assault. At least in those ugly words, you get fight. But victim sounds like you’re already dead, crushed, defeated.
Yet that’s what I was, the victim. The innocent. I stared at the term in front of my name on the police report. I heard it linked to my name on the weekend news. Surreal.
HOW IT HAPPENED
I was 24 in 1987. A single girl on a big adventure. I had graduated a few months before from seminary—quite an accomplishment for a woman in the 1980’s. So there I was that fall with a hard-won theological degree tucked under my arm on my way to change the world. My first chance was with a group of great high school students in California. I was hardly six years older than any of them, and smaller than all of them. They called me Teacher and I loved it.
Teachers have quite a full life—which I guess makes up for quite a small salary. Pooling resources together, I lived with three other teachers in an apartment on the edge of a state university campus. We didn’t know it, but our home was gang territory.
On the weekend before Thanksgiving, a roommate and I had friends over for a potluck-movie night (our two other roommates had gone home for the holiday). After our popcorn and chick-flick, we said goodnight around midnight. My roommate’s bedroom was to the left of the living room, mine to the right.
Shortly after 3 a.m., three men broke into our second-floor apartment, tore through the living room and headed right. I awoke to a silhouette in my doorway. The bright hall light then extinguished and three men stormed my room.
Their intent was clear in those terrifying minutes.
It’s odd what you think of when in crisis. My mind raced across the country to my mom and dad in New York. My clock: 3:38; theirs would be 6:38. Mom and dad are eating breakfast. Everything seemed outside of time.
My attackers called me by another’s name. One blow, then another. And my vision tunneled as my blood poured out on the bedroom floor, smattering across the student essays in my school bag. Across my black pumps and the purse, I had just got on sale.
My roommate found me covered like a corpse on the floor when she woke from the cold air streaming through the open front door. Bloody prints led her to my door.
She got us immediate help and saved me . . . with only a few moments of life left in me.
The details revealed later that the gang had thought they were attacking the sister of a rival gang member. Earlier that month in a nearby neighborhood, they had raped and murdered a woman who had resisted their attack.
What followed was a blur of decisions. Sirens. ER. Rape Kits. Humiliation. The day-after pill, aids testing. Did I need counseling? Will I prosecute?
A restless night followed a day of panic. When sleeping pills wore off pre-dawn, I stared into the darkness, my heart racing with a new kind of trauma. And therein those hours in-between, when the clock again read 3:38, I knew I had to make a decision.
How would I now live? As a victim or a survivor? How does a survivor live?
“You’re going to be OK,” my friend had whispered to me in the stark white hospital.
“Yes, I survived today,” I remember saying, “. . . But will survive tomorrow?”
I knew a seismic quake had shaken my world. Physically, I would heal. But what about my spirit? What about my confidence? What about my faith in God? What would be my perspective on life in 10, 15, or 25 years? Would I really survive this?
HOW THE HEALING CAME
That was 25 years ago this week. And I have survived. (I smile as I write that.)
In essence, we write our own stories. We don’t determine what happens to us, but we do choose who we become in them. So with a view from 25 years, I ask myself today “how did the healing come?” and I am convinced once again of the gifts I’ve been given.
Healing came with compassion.
When my grandmother heard the news, she dismissed it with, “Oh—she’s strong. She’ll be fine.” Surprisingly, real comfort came instead from my sister’s mother-in-law who was visiting them for Thanksgiving. When I emerged on the scene that week all torn and tattered, Mammie was the only one who seemed to know what to do.
Mammie sat with me on the porch swing every day in that important transition into my new life, life after the assault. She didn’t dismiss my pain or ignore it, even respectfully. Instead, she held my head firmly against her chest at times and we rocked. Thump-thump, thump-thump. Thump-thump.
No one mentioned the rape on Thanksgiving; truth was, no one knew what to say. I was partly grateful for the normalcy but mostly numb. When it was my turn at our table, I shared that I was thankful for my life. And I was. So why couldn’t I swallow a bite of Thanksgiving? I sat there strangled in my new reality and passed the green bean casserole and dinner rolls; you’re welcome.
But somehow Mammie knew. She hardly said a word as we swung back and forth that night, once Thanksgiving had been put away. She hummed something low and was interceding something bold. And it finally drew out my heart.
The numbness turned sharp as I embraced just how deep this wrong had sliced into me. And I finally wept until the pain bubbled to the surface like someone shook a soda and popped it open. Spilling over and over and over.
And the healing began.
HEALING CAME FROM CHOICE
Crimes of sexual violence are either a bond or a wedge between generations. My mom and dad loved me deeply. Perhaps because they loved me deeply, they couldn’t talk about the assault and pleaded with me to stay quiet about it.
But I knew I had done nothing wrong. Being chained to that silence would shackle me to shame I didn’t deserve. That secret, this crime against me on that one day, would become a prison of false guilt for the rest of my life.
My life. My decision, my consequences. I received their advice as well-meaning. Then I laid it down and walked my own road.
HEALING CAME WITH MERCY
Everyone heals their own way. Not every rape victim feels the same way. Fact is, you don’t fully understand another person’s pain, even if “the same thing happened to me.”
A short year after I was attacked, I was asked to sit on a panel hosted by a Crisis Clinic. A counselor and the police officer and me (“victim”) was to address the topic, “What to do in case of an attack.” Sitting on the platform that day, I questioned my own sanity. Why did I agree to this?
It was the terror in the women’s eyes that unnerved me. From my platform perspective, all I saw was fear. When it was my turn to talk, I looked for words to comfort them. Don’t let fear take over your life…I wanted them to hear the truth from a survivor. Yes, do all you can to be safe, but if the worst happens, it does not have to destroy your life.
I felt strength rise in my spirit as I spoke, even when my insides danced with adrenaline. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her. A middle-aged woman reached for a floor microphone. Her hostility seethed from her first words, “How dare you. . .” to her last, “just wait a few years.” Every woman in the room tasted her bitterness and I felt humbled by her accusation.
Was it too soon to tell?
Perhaps time would make me as hard as she was.
Do I dare hope that life could be good again?
I confronted the truth: not everybody heals the same way. And not everybody heals.
Since that day I’ve lived both boldly and quietly about this piece of who I am. I’d like to think that when someone compliments me on a positive attitude that true healing helped to shape that in me. And when someone says I’m courageous, they’re noticing strength fought for and won.
And what about my faith? That was the hardest battle. I had said my whole life that I wanted to be like Jesus. Now I realized in a very small, but meaningful way that I could identify with Him. I was an innocent victim—as was He. But much more than identification, I clung to Him in my crushed spirit and He was near to me.
Every Thanksgiving, I return to this story that has shaped my internal life.
I’m proud of some things, grateful for more. At peace. Sometimes I stand in the balance between a broken heart and a heart strengthened by God in the broken places.
How did the healing come?
I think it started the day I decided to live, in spite of the crime. With this one decision, I chose the lessons. I would live with compassion. I would make courageous choices. I would serve with mercy other people who are broken like myself.
Twenty-five years is enough time to know if the healing is real. And that some scars bring even deeper healing. Some crimes can be redeemed. Some people never understand. And some whys are never answered.
Today, I can look at my life and see it for its mystery, as Fredrick Buechner says, “in the pain of it no less than in the holy and hidden heart of it. Because in the last analysis, life itself is a gift.”