It's late at night, and you're alone in your apartment, tired but on high alert, unable to sleep. In the dark, you pray. Despite the fact that at this time in your life you would never describe yourself as a "religious" person, it is definitely a true prayer, not the bargaining offer of an exchange (I'll reform, if only . . . ); you are not the one in need. You are the one whose job it is to help those in crisis, and although you signed up for this gig, you wish desperately that your job didn't exist, wasn't needed—not tonight, not anytime. Not while you are the volunteer on call, committed to driving at whatever hour of the night to whatever hospital emergency room phones in a case of sexual assault. Given that a possible career in criminal law was what brought me to St. Louis, it's easy to see how I found my way to S.A.R.T., the city's Sexual Assault Response Team. The program was (still is) based out of the Metro St. Louis Y.W.C.A. For volunteers, the program involves intensive training, education, role playing, and support meetings. For survivors of sexual assault, it offers a non-judgmental presence in a moment of need, plus access to individual and group counseling, case management, and coordination of services to help with coping and recovery. In 1993, I served as a volunteer crisis counselor for several months before I left St. Louis, and I have to say it was a harrowing experience—one I admit I was as relieved to end as I was committed to beginning. I remember, on those nights when I had the "graveyard" shift (we never called it that, of course), how lonely and terrifying the world outside my windows seemed. Under night's opaque cover, someone was screaming or not screaming; someone was scratching, clawing, spitting, struggling, or choosing the path of least resistance in order to survive. Daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, young or old, all races; nor was it unheard of to receive a call about a male (man or boy) in the E.R., though it was not common. For S.A.R.T. to receive a call, the case had to be reported, and the fact was that for every call we received, there were untold numbers who suffered without help or treatment, who endured a private hell and refused a chance to put the wheels of justice in motion. The assumption of stigma in cases of rape is well known, the fear that the "victim" would be blamed—often a real problem, still, despite some solid public education efforts made by those in law, medicine, social services, the arts—fear that the legal system would fail those it's meant to protect . . . We never called them "victims," that was another thing I remember. They were always "survivors," which was a more empowering designation, one that put emphasis on the fact that whatever the person did or didn't do to get through that moment of deepest violation, it was the "right" thing to do, since they were still with us, alive. Broken perhaps, but not lost. Three in the morning. Staring at the telephone and willing it to stay silent. Sometimes it did, and all I endured was a night without much sleep, if any. Other times, the three o'clock call would rip through the apartment—who knew that the sound of a telephone could be so loud, so jarring, like an assault in its own right? On those nights, I'd splash water on my face, clip on a hospital I.D., drive wherever I was needed. Sometimes it was the well-off hospital with superior resources and a luxe interior, other times it was the under-funded, stressed and strapped regional hospital servicing the city's underprivileged population. I drove into good neighborhoods and blighted ones, car doors locked and my nighttime street-smarts at their peak. I checked in with the E.R.'s triage nurse, who briefed me on what was going on. After cardiac arrests and shootings or other lethal emergencies, a rape survivor has priority in the E.R., but nevertheless that can sometimes mean a long wait (mercifully in a small, private room, the "rape room"), during which you are often the only chance at comfort that a survivor has. In all the times I was sent out, I never saw a family member or friend present, although I know this must have happened, too. I remember faces and bodies, equally shattered, equally small in the shapeless, thin hospital gowns. I remember phone calls made, receivers slammed down on the other end of the line. I remember women wanting a shoulder to cry on; others wanting nothing, not any form of comfort or conversation at all. I remember doctors, police, and evidence collecting. I remember women who had no way to get home, once they were dressed in the spare clothes that S.A.R.T. kept in a closet on site. I was not allowed to give rides, and I never did. I don't remember any rule about taxis. If there was one, I confess I ignored it: more than once I paid out of my pocket for someone to get back home. And I would go back home myself, following the same deserted streets, trying to resist the urge to follow in my imagination the survivor I'd just seen; trying to disengage, because sooner or later you had to. You had to go back to your own unbroken life, your own safe haven, and try to feel good not guilty. You had to try to get some sleep. And you had to pray, again, that the next time you were on call, the phone would stay silent and you could tell yourself that it meant a quiet night in a world of violent crimes.
NOTE: If you are, or know someone who is, a survivor of sexual assault, there are people who can and will help. Nationally, you can contact RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), which Worth magazine calls one of "America's 100 Best Charities". They sponsor the NATIONAL SEXUAL ASSAULT HOTLINE, which is a 24/7, free, confidential service, both online at www.rainn.org and at 1-800-656-HOPE. Their site offers resources and education for survivors, their families and friends. In St. Louis, S.A.R.T. also offers a 24/7 support hotline and basic information on their Web site, here.