This past week has been hard on me. You see, I am a survivor of sexual assault.
And when I hear or see people — men or women — accusing another woman of lying about her assault or asking why she doesn’t remember this or that or why she didn’t report it sooner, I say, “You didn’t experience it. If you had, you would know she is telling the truth. You wouldn’t respond the way you are. It would hurt you more."
I’m writing as a witness. My experience was not Christine Blasey Ford’s. But I live with mine. The violation of my body and my spirit is one of the shaping influences of my life.
I’m amazed when people criticize someone for not remembering everything about an incident of sexual abuse. We don’t remember anything in its totality. I know there is much about this event I don’t remember — whether it was spring or summer, why I was home alone that night, where my friends had gone. They’re all important details, but I have no recollection. Here’s some of what I do remember.
I was a VISTA volunteer in Baltimore, Maryland. The year was 1971. I lived with two other women volunteers, one from New Jersey and one from — don’t remember. Both of them were out on dates the night three young men from the neighborhood broke the frame off the front door and came into my apartment.
I moved toward the telephone and one of them said, “Don’t touch that. I have a knife.” I didn’t see it but I didn’t touch the phone either.
I was ready for bed. Had put on my nightgown, was reading before I went to sleep. I was reading “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” in which the narrator-heroine talks about being able to go to a private place where no one could get to her. I told myself I could go to a place like that to escape as I was led into my roommate’s bedroom.
Two of the three men raped me. One had been in our apartment before. I think the other one had come to the apartment another time, and my friend Delphine had sent him away without my seeing him. But his hair and his bad teeth matched the description she’d told me.
While one or the other man was on me, I glanced out into the kitchen and saw the third man taking food out of the refrigerator and putting it in a bag.
There were chicken leg quarters wrapped in aluminum foil. We made $50 a week. We’d just gotten paid and had gone to the grocery store, and here he was taking our food. I couldn’t believe it — not enough to rape me, you have to steal my food, too?
The men weren’t in the apartment very long. On the way out, the guy who had the knife told me not to call the police.
I called the police as soon as they left. I didn’t know who to call to come be with me because the people I knew were out for the evening. I knew other people but didn’t have their phone numbers.
The volunteers — I think there were two dozen of us — were fairly isolated one from another. And Baltimore is a big city.
When the police came, they were efficient but they were not kind. I still had on my nightgown, and no one suggested I put on a robe or change my clothes. None of the officers was a woman. They were there for a while, got the information, then left.
I thought about who I could call, called them, but no one was home or they didn’t answer. Delphine lived in an apartment half a flight up the stairs from my apartment. I had the key to her place, and her dog, a big, brown friendly dog, was there, so I went up there and hugged the dog and we shook together on the bed all night.
A friend came and got me the next day and took me to a community center in our neighborhood where I could hide out for a while. He regretted that I had no friends from the center whom I could have asked to stay with me. I said I wouldn’t have wanted anyone else there when the men broke in.
My other friends were upset, but no one knew what to say to me so some said nothing at all. The woman I worked for at the inner city credit union I was helping to develop said, “Now you know how we feel,” as if only black women were raped.
I’m tense writing this down.
I went to my gynecologist to make sure I wasn’t hurt internally, but he sent me to the health department, as if he didn’t want to touch me.
A few nights later, my roommate Marilyn and I heard noise on the street in front of our apartment. We looked out the window, and the two guys who raped me were yelling up at the window.
One of us called the police. They came fast and got on the bus that the two men had just gotten on. The police arrested the two men. I had to go to the station and identify them, which I did.
I was going to Massachusetts to be with my family. I didn’t want them to know what happened to me, but I called my oldest sister Pat, who lived in Ohio, and told her. She called my Aunt Flo who told my mother, who told my father and my sister Mickey.
I went by train to Connecticut where my sister Susie and her husband Don met me. They were very sweet. I remember their putting their hands on my shoulders so protectively.
My mother never said a word to me about the rape. My father only said on the last day before I returned to Baltimore, “Did they hurt you?” He meant physically, so I could answer no truthfully.
I told Mickey I had to go back. I couldn’t let the rapists scare me off. I was doing work I believed in and I wanted to continue to do it.
I never got any counseling, didn’t even consider it, though I had counseling about other things later on. Before, I had felt safe, willing to go out and talk with people about the credit union, go into schools to set up banking programs for kids. I didn’t feel like I was being rash, but I felt like people were getting to know me a bit, so I was safer.
When I returned from Massachusetts, all I did was hide in the tiny back room of the credit union. I didn’t even know I was doing it until my boss told me.
I couldn’t sleep unless I left the lights on. Even today — 47 years later — sometimes I have to sleep with the lights on.
About a year later, a district attorney called to tell me the two men were going on trial, and they needed me to testify. The men were tried separately.
The first trial was for the man with the bad teeth. He was being tried by only a judge. I gave my testimony, and the judge decided in the man’s favor.
He said I couldn’t have recognized him if I’d seen him only that one time. The man’s face was inches from mine and I couldn’t recognize him?
The second trial was by jury, not 12 people but seven. That fellow, who had been to our apartment, had also been in the service, he had told us. He was found guilty, though I never knew what his sentence was.
No one at the DA’s office seemed at all interested in me beyond my testimony.
I stayed in VISTA for two years, then stayed in Baltimore another year doing part-time work and writing occasional theater reviews for the Baltimore Sun.
In writing this column, I’m surprised by some of what I remember. What I’ve never understood is how I could have had such an experience, and yet I still feel on the periphery of it. As though I’m still looking at it, trying to confirm it. As though other people were not paying attention to me or to my experience.
And in fact, many of them weren’t listening.
We need people to affirm us, to hear our stories whatever they are. The stories and the people are parts of who we are. Listening to us and our stories substantiates us.
Zaccaria is the Winfield News Manager for the Cowley CourierTraveler.