Tuesday, May 26, 2009

S.A.R.T.


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.

6 comments:

  1. What an admirable thing to do. Thoughtful touch to add the contact info. I'm not religious either, but I would have been praying too...

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  2. this is an aspect of life i knew nothing about till relatively recently in my life. it's said that ignorance is bliss, but now i know better - it's a sign of a happy comfortable childhood with a slow development towards maturity

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  3. Oh, how I wish this were an education no one needed, learning about the violent side of human life! I am so glad for those who can have "a happy, comfortable childhood," who can have the bliss of "slow development." That period of innocence (yes, also ignorance), however short, is magic.

    I grew up "street smart," learning about personal safety, what to watch out for—but my mother handled it well; she instructed me in a way that didn't paralyze me, as perhaps it could have at a young age. Growing up in large urban settings in the 1970s, when violence in the cities surged, my parents did not consider it an option to remain unschooled. Of course, they did not share graphic details: I was sheltered from violent news, unlike so many of today's children with not just the news but violent "games" and other media abounding. But I remember learning at a pretty early age what kinds of ploys were used by strangers to get children to go away with them. That sort of thing.

    Now, I find myself slowly passing on some of this horrible "wisdom" to my son. I have a hard time with it sometimes. On the one hand, living where we do, in the times we live in, I feel it's my duty to make sure he knows just enough to prevent him from being among the most vulnerable children. But I don't like to be the one to put hateful things in his consciousness. I try to be very careful of what I say, and how. I try to keep things as light as possible.

    But I confess, I don't understand parents who live in a place like New York City, and who do not take some basic precautions with even their littlest ones. I can't tell you the number of times I've seen backpacks with the child's first name (not initials) embroidered on them. Does it mean I'm paranoid when the first thing I think of is that any stranger could call the child by their name, say they know the child's parent, and a child could so easily think: "Oh, they know my name, so they know me, know my family..."? Tragedy has happened countless times like that, not just in cities of course. Maybe less in cities, if parents generally expect to have to educate their kids earlier about these issues.

    But I do, desperately, wish none of it were necessary!

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  4. You read my mind! I always feel like telling those parents, "Don't write their names on their backpacks!". But I don't. And I say an earnest prayer for all our children...

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  5. Breaking the Silence on Childhood Sexual Assault

    I was abducted, beaten and raped by a stranger. It wasn’t a neighbor, a coach, a relative, a family friend or teacher. It was a recidivist pedophile predator who spent time in prison for previous sex crimes; an animal hunting for victims in the bucolic, suburban neighborhoods of Lincoln, Rhode Island.

    I was able to identify the guy and the car he was driving. Although he was arrested and indicted, he never went to trial. His trial never took place because he was brutally beaten to death in Providence before his court date. 34 years later, no one has ever been charged with the crime.

    In the time between the night of my assault and the night he was murdered, I lived in fear. I was afraid he was still around town. Afraid he was looking for me. Afraid he would track me down and kill me. The fear didn’t go away when he was murdered. Although he was no longer a threat, the simple life and innocence of a 14-year-old boy was gone forever. Carefree childhood thoughts replaced with the unrelenting realization that my world wasn’t a safe place. My peace shattered by a horrific criminal act of sexual violence.

    Over the past 34 years, I’ve been haunted by horrible, recurring memories of what he did to me. He visits me in my sleep. There have been dreams–nightmares actually–dozens of them, sweat inducing, yelling-in-my-sleep nightmares filled with images and emotions as real as they were when it actually happened. It doesn’t get easier over time. Long dead, he still visits me, silently sneaking up from out of nowhere when I least expect it. From the grave, he sits by my side on the couch every time the evening news reports a child abduction or sex crime. I don’t watch America’s Most Wanted or Law and Order SVU, because the stories are a catalyst, triggering long suppressed emotions, feelings, memories, fear and horror. Real life horror stories rip painful suppressed memories out from where they hide, from that recessed place in my brain that stores dark, dangerous, horrible memories. It happened when William Bonin confessed to abducting, raping and murdering 14 boys in California; when Jesse Timmendequas raped and murdered Megan Kanka in New Jersey; when Ben Ownby, missing for four days, and Shawn Hornbeck, missing for four years, were recovered in Missouri.

    Despite what happened that night and the constant reminders that continue to haunt me years later, I wouldn’t change what happened. The animal that attacked me was a serial predator, a violent pedophile trolling my neighborhood in Lincoln, Rhode Island looking for young boys. He beat me, raped me, and I stayed alive. I lived to see him arrested, indicted and murdered. It might not have turned out this way if he had grabbed one of my friends or another kid from my neighborhood. Perhaps he’d still be alive. Perhaps there would be dozens of more victims and perhaps he would have progressed to the point of silencing his victims by murdering them.

    Out of fear, shame and guilt, I’ve been silent for over three decades, not sharing with anyone the story of what happened to me. No more. The silence has to end. What happened to me wasn’t my fault. The fear, the shame, the guilt have to go. It’s time to stop keeping this secret from the people closest to me, people I care about, people I love, my long-time friends and my family. It’s time to speak out to raise public awareness of male sexual assault, to let other victims know that they’re not alone and to help victims of rape and violent crime understand that the emotion, fear and memories that may still haunt them are not uncommon to those of us who have shared a similar experience.

    For those who suffer in silence, I hope my story brings some comfort, strength, peace and hope.

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  6. Dear Meninmytown,
    Your story is chilling, moving, important to tell. You were then, and are now, a strong and brave soul. For enabling the indictment of the person who did this to you, and for speaking out now. I am horribly sorry for what happened to that young boy you were all those years ago--indeed, I mourn the loss of that innocent boy--but I am also honored in a way that you chose to speak out here on this blog. I hope that indeed others will read this and not shy away but either seek or offer support. Comfort, strength, peace, and hope are such necessary elements in our fragile, human world. Thank you for your generosity in reaching out. I hope you are set free in return.

    All best,
    Allison

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