The Audacity to Restore: A Woman’s Story of Empathy, Justice and Healing

“It should be about sentencing in a way to start solving the issues that led to the crime and setting up pathways to repairing the lives damaged by it.”

It was a sweltering summer day in my suburban town in 1993.  I was a college student living at home, pursuing a degree in the social sciences. My real dream was to become a lawyer.  A true Gideon v. Wainwright servant, providing fair legal representation for indigent Americans.  On that July night, my parents had gone out and I was given strict instructions that I was not to leave the house.  Earlier, I had begged them for permission to go out with friends.

My parents were immigrants and conservative by any standard.  My job was to excel in my studies, and that was all.  Friends and socializing were kept at a minimum, and absolutely no mingling with boys was permitted.  I was the kid frequently bullied.  An everyday, easy target for humiliating ridicule; a dowdy, naive 19-year-old girl knowing little about the world beyond my parents’ protections.

On this July evening, I wanted ice cream. The store was just five minutes away – I could drive there and back before my parents returned.  I reasoned that should I fall short in my timing, they certainly could not stay mad for too long about me just going for ice cream. I grabbed my keys and dashed out to the store about five minutes away. It was almost dark, but not quite yet. When I was walking inside the store I heard and saw some rowdy guys in a truck.  It was not something I thought of as being out of the ordinary.  Just boys horsing around.

I bought the ice cream and returned to my car, digging the keys out of the bottom of my purse as I walked. I opened the door and dropped the bag of ice cream onto the seat.  As I was retracting the key from the door lock I suddenly felt a hand around my mouth and my feet quickly came off the ground. In a matter of seconds everything went dark as something was tied around my eyes.

I could hear multiple voices, but at the time I couldn’t catch all of the details going on around me.  My hands and feet were bound.  I had no clue what could possibly be happening to me.  I felt myself being carried just a few feet and then thrown into the back of a truck.  At least one person was also in the back of the truck, keeping my legs pinned down.  Only now, thinking back, I ask myself why I did not scream.  In the moment, I suppose I was overwhelmed by my own powerlessness and fear.  Perhaps I thought that a scream might make it worse, since all of the dangers were still unknown and dark to my sight.  And the more I think of it, the particular girl that I was, strange as it may sound, simply did not know to scream.

The truck started moving, and although things were happening so quickly, it all felt as if time was moving in slow motion.  When the truck stopped, I remember thinking that this was all my fault for leaving the house in the first place.  There was raucous laughter and breathing that smelled like beer.  They spewed vulgarities and racial slurs to “show her what white power is all about.”

I was dragged out of the truck bed, frozen with terror.  But even in that state there was something inside of me that would not let them see me cry.  They let me fall from the wall of the truck bed to the concrete and then they dragged me by my hair.  I did not utter a sound.  It would not be until years later, in therapy, that I learned that my silence was also my way to hold onto whatever strength and power I thought I had.

I told myself to calm down and for a few seconds I could hear one voice giving the orders.  I felt my clothing being snatched away.  I could hear boasts of how much of what they were “gonna” do to me.   The fear and the horror bubbled up inside of me.  I squirmed about more aggressively to somehow get away and felt gravel scratching and piercing my skin under me.  And still I did not scream. I could hear the snaps on their pants coming undone.  That sound can still set me on edge, even now.  It was all mixed up with their sneers, taunts and grunts; the noise of feet shuffling on the gravel, and the loud silence of distance, from my home, from love, from safety.

The blindfold was pulled off.  In the dim light of a street lamp a block or so away, I could make out four men with shaved heads, shirts off with swastika tattoos.  I later learned that I should have been particularly afraid at the point of them not caring that I could see their faces.

It was pitch dark with the exception of that street light in the distance.  All four were standing around me.  I heard them going back and forth about who gets to go first.  I felt the first attacker climb on top of me. Under his weight, in that instant, I taught myself how to disconnect from my excruciating pain – that this really was not happening to me. That I was out of my body and some other girl was laying in my space.  This first attacker told the others that I was “a virgin” and that they should expect to really “enjoy this.”  And in slow motion it seemed to continue, one after the other, as they teased and struggled amongst themselves, jockeying for repeat place in the rotation of raping me.

But one guy had walked away for a few minutes before it was his turn.  He was coerced back and the other three were teasing him.  I heard him say “why don’t you leave her alone?  You guys are done.”  When I heard him say that, for the first time, I made eye contact.  He did the same and I could see he felt compassion for me.  But the teasing was apparently too much for him and although looking away from my face, he raped me as well.

The pack leader reappeared in my focus with a tire iron in his hand and I prepared to feel him hit me in my head with it.  I prayed to die.  Instead, he penetrated me with it and I felt it pierce something inside of me.   The sharp stabbing pain finally brought tears to my eyes, which I hated.  I could not let them see me broken.

Unimaginably, it got worse.  One of them flipped me over and sodomized me with the tire iron. It ripped and tore into me, and I gushed blood. “Please kill me,” I whispered to the one who seemed different from the others.  And somehow, he convinced them they should leave.  He got into the truck with the other two, but the leader came back with a knife.  He pulled up my top and slashed my chest just above my breast.  My eyes still closed, I heard them drive off.

I must have lain there for a long time. I had to muster up the strength to try to move, driven by the insane notion that if I could just get back to my car somehow, I could clean up before my parents got home, and they would never know.  But I couldn’t even get up onto my knees.

I looked around and figured out that I was in the parking lot of an office building, not far from the store where I bought the ice cream. I could see a main road, but the weekend traffic was light. Who knew how late it was?  At a certain point I stopped struggling to get up. I just closed my eyes and asked one question of God: “What do you want me to do?”

In that exact instant, a car pulled up. A woman got out of the car and ran to me. “What happened?” she asked.  I couldn’t answer.  She had the most angelic voice I have ever heard to this day.  She went to her car, came back with a blanket and covered me with it. I could feel myself still bleeding. She told me she was not leaving me, and called 9-1-1.  After I heard that, I passed out.

I woke up two days later in the hospital. My father was holding my hand. I was immediately overwhelmed with shame, the same nauseating emotion I have struggled with ever since.  I have learned to live with it, but I don’t think it will ever completely leave me.

A male police detective came and spoke to me, but I just wanted him to go away.  I could not bear anyone even looking at me.  They sent over a female detective the next day.  She told me they had caught the attackers, who had all confessed.  Somehow, I was able to answer some of her questions. Before she left, she told me they were all members of Aryan Nation, a group I had never even heard of.  She told me that they should never be released from prison and she was going to see that that happens.

After four major surgeries for extensive internal damage, and several weeks in the hospital, I was finally sent home.  I had no idea what I had to look forward to in my life; nor did I care.  I spent six weeks in bed completely medicated. Otherwise I would not have been able to sleep with the terrors and the nightmares.

A young female prosecutor came to the house to speak with me.  She was nice to me, but I heard something vengeful in her voice when she spoke of the gang; it was not something I was accustomed to.  That’s what stood out to me about her in those first couple of meetings.  More than once she told me: “I am going to lock them away for you for a long time.”  And I thought “wait, you’re doing this for me?”  I wondered if that was really what I wanted to happen.  I wondered if this – all of this–was somehow much bigger than me.  I did not want to claim it as mine.  So how in part even, could it be about me?

I did not return to school that following semester.  I underwent intensive therapy for the next seven months.  I slowly learned how to talk to myself about my feelings and release them.  The court proceedings had begun and I needed to meet with prosecutors.  In the conversations that followed I realized I was interested in who these men were more than anything else. Like most people who suffer trauma at the hands of another, I was preoccupied with why it happened.  More specifically, how had these men reached a point where they were capable of inflicting such harm on another human being?

However, to get any information on them I had to prove how badly I wanted to know, and that I was not too fragile to pursue the hunt.  Even gleaning the slightest bit of information from prosecutors was a struggle.  Knowing what I know now about how the system is set up to work, no one really wants the complaining witness to feel anything but revenge.

I learned that two of my attackers were in and out of foster care almost since birth.  The other two came from severely dysfunctional homes; all four suffered extreme abuse from a parent or parental figure.  They were all in their early 20s and had gotten swept up in the Aryan Nation Brotherhood in an effort to find some type of safe bond with other people.  They weren’t much older than I was.

I was never asked what my feelings or opinions were on how this case should be handled.  I now understand that she was just doing her job, adhering to the norms of a prosecutorial culture. But I felt she was overzealous and clearly running an agenda.  She told me that all four would plead guilty and serve mandatory sentences of 30 years.  I thought “30 years!” and did the math in my head.  They would be in their 50s when they are released.  She gleefully remarked, “their attorneys did not even try to fight it. Easiest case I have had in the five years I have been in this office.”  That is a statement I will never forget.  This is when I started to see firsthand how even such life-changing cases can become a simple matter of expediency.

The court date was two weeks out and I tried to sort through what I was feeling about this, but I just could not at the time. When I attempted to discuss it with my therapists, they too seemed delighted at the idea of 30 years.  And I started wondering if I was indeed crazy.  I just was not able to reach down deep enough and process what exactly was bothering me, and I was too young and immature to understand this deeper level of myself.

But the feeling was real.  Despite my youthful perspective, I was thinking about who might they be after 30 years.  This “justice” was so different from what I was hoping would be a focus on fixing what went wrong with them – with any humans who do that kind of thing in the moments they do them.  I felt that understanding that was the only way to start understanding how I could heal myself.

Two weeks flew by quickly and the day of court arrived. The lawyers insisted I be there to give an impact statement.  I had written many drafts, but none of them felt right to me. All I could think about was that every person in that courtroom would see me as a rape “VICTIM.” I hated that idea so much I physically recoiled at those words.

As they walked into the courtroom, shackled and handcuffed, I felt the fear literally draining from me.  These timid and frightened kids were so different than whom I had experienced that I even wondered if these were the right people.  As each turned toward me, each made eye contact. The feeling that welled up deep inside of me was compassion. They were afraid. I could understand fear, I could empathize with it – even in them. They fruitlessly looked around the courtroom for the face of even one person they knew.  Not a single person was there for them.   Now, as a practicing defense lawyer, I see that anguish on the most hardened of faces at the point when defendants realize that they are all alone.

Afterwards, the prosecutors high-fived each other.  One said he had just made his promotion. I saw clearly that their conception of justice was irrevocably tied up with their desire for personal accomplishment.  It should be about sentencing in a way to start solving the issues that led to the crime and setting up pathways to repairing the lives damaged by it.

In the years that followed, I continued therapy and I learned to process the feelings of shame that had so overwhelmed me at first.  I came to reject the label of either victim or survivor, avoiding even support groups in which I felt the notion of “victimhood” was being perpetuated and reinforced.  They were literally keeping each other trapped in their pain and trauma, by endlessly acknowledging it again and again.  This not a judgement. It just wasn’t what I thought applied to where I wanted to be emotionally.  Almost every woman was completely debilitated in some way or another from her trauma.  I saw some women gradually gaining so much weight they became obese. A few never left their homes because they were so frightened. Some women could never experience even the slightest interaction with a man, even on the level of friendship.

I see myself, simply, as a woman who has lived through an experience of extreme trauma.  My perception of myself had to become my reality.  I also learned that shame was the most toxic emotion to my psyche and hence, the most difficult thing to release.  In time, I got to understand my shame triggers, and I got better at working through them when they surfaced.

Looking back, I realize that pivotal day in the courtroom affirmed my desire to become a defense attorney.  I completed college and was accepted to an out-of-state school.  I eventually interned at a public defender’s office.  I absolutely loved the work; it was my true passion.  The more I listened to clients the more I grew from their stories, just as I had from what I learned about the men who raped me.  Everyone had a story, mostly tragic, and I drew similarities between my life and theirs.  I realized that pain is pain regardless of how it is cloaked or arises in people.  And there the conflict began to rise up inside of me.

What was being appreciated or learned or changed or gained as my attackers sat in prison for 30 years?    Let me be clear.  No amount of time they would spend in prison would heal me.  So, the truth I had to wrestle with was how much time would it take for them to grow to truly understand the harm they caused and still be given the opportunity to re-invest themselves into the society we share?

These were questions I had often asked myself since I began my healing process, but the feelings they brought up were so uncomfortable that I pushed them down.  I was conflicted about whether people can truly change. I didn’t somehow want to be responsible for these men causing trauma to another woman.  These conflicts began to weigh heavily on my mind.

I knew that I had the option of going to the parole board and trying to get them an early release.  By this time, that young female prosecutor had climbed up the ranks and we still kept in occasional contact.  I floated the idea to her and I quickly received a “you’re crazy” response.  I didn’t take it personally – her abrupt answer had nothing to do with me. She was afraid of all of the implications if I was right – what it would mean about her own choices.

I pushed a little harder and I told her I was seriously thinking about it.  She thought it audacious of me but allowed that I would have the final say in front of the board.  I continued to wonder if people could really change.  That was really all I needed to know – my entire decision hinged on that question.

It was now 2003, and a  couple weeks later I went out one night.  It was winter.  Four of us girls stepped out of a club about 2:00 am.  Out of nowhere, a guy ran by and snatched my purse. Instinctively, I kicked off my heels and chased him down the snowy sidewalk. When I caught up to him he just stopped.  I grabbed my purse from him. Not one word was exchanged, but we looked at each other for a few seconds.  I opened my purse.  I had about $100 – intended for groceries.  I made sure he saw that I was giving him every dollar I had. I wanted him to know that compassion could happen even to him.  Robbery did not have to be his option.

He didn’t snatch the money from my hand, but opened his hand to receive it.  He was an average-looking, ordinarily-dressed young man.  When he received the money, we both knew that in that moment something profound was happening.  A complete stranger had let him know she believed he could be different than his worst choices. I could feel the immediate effect this had on him, on me. Although we both would move on with no guarantees that he would never try purse snatching again, this was the moment I acknowledged for myself that people can indeed change.

The following day I petitioned the parole board for the release of the four men. Sixty days later they were paroled.  Within six months, through the prosecutor’s office, I received poignant apology letters from all four of them.  The very first letter I received was from the attacker with whom I’d made eye contact during the rape.  That was more validation that it was safe and not insane of me to feel and transfer compassion, even in the case of such a violent crime.  And I never once doubted the sincerity of their regrets because I also empathized with them as much or more than they did for me.  That’s how empathy works. We say it a lot.  But it only happens when you actually put yourself in the other person’s predicament.

And what really is enough time? There clearly is no pattern across our national spectrum. They could re-offend after serving 30 years as well. They were going to get out someday.  Perhaps as a society we could help redirect their mindsets and behavior in less than 10 years. Although there still exists no fully dependable rehabilitation, I had to ask, what is our goal here?  They all gave up the Brotherhood.  They had jobs and families.  They had furthered their education.  And I do know that they think of my empathy every single day in several ways and that they probably will for the rest of their lives.

My life was progressing and they were facing huge setbacks.  True, it was caused by their actions and they served 10 years in prison for those actions.  But more importantly, I had to keep progressing.  I still felt in some ways that I was working on freeing myself.

Twenty-four years have now passed since I was raped, and fourteen years have passed since I freed the men who raped me.

Four months ago, a man came into my life and my interest in him dredged up all kinds of mucky insecurities and fears, all stemming from my trauma.  I did not think I was good enough for him or that he could ever feel deeply for me.  But I slowly began to accept healing love that comes to us from outside our space just as I was learning to heal from within.  Through that connection we shared, he began to heal me the rest of the way.  I was realizing that from whatever source, the capacity to love, like the power of compassion, gives you sustaining power.  Five months ago, I could not have written this story.

Those four young men were the greatest teachers of my life.  Not that we are incomplete without hard traumatic lessons.  But that when they come, we will remember that justice can be funneled through empathy.  Justice can be focused on healing and restoring, and love.   Perhaps that last word is the biggest word of this story.  It may be for some, the strangest word to use in a story like this.  But not for me.  I’m free.