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February 6th, 2013 WW Editorial Staff | News Stories
 

I, Survivor

Three writers tell of their experiences with violence, and their journeys back.

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A rapist is in jail, but her fear still runs loose.

by Anna Bjornberg

In the winter of 1995, I was 16 and a high-school senior in Boise, Idaho. I was miserable in Boise and counting down the days until I could leave for Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., the next fall. One weekend in November, I drove to Portland with my best friend to see Sonic Youth and Bikini Kill at the Roseland Theater, and it was one of the greatest nights of my life.

Back in Boise three days later, I was raped.

He was a man I’d met only briefly a few weeks earlier. I’m not sure where he came from, but one day he was hanging out with a group of kids I knew. He was older; he said he was 20 but later I found out he was 25. He claimed to be part of the “Rainbow Family,” but he didn’t seem like a hippie at all.

The night it happened, I’d run into him downtown and he latched onto me. I tried to get rid of him but he offered to buy beer and I reluctantly gave in to hanging out with him. After an hour or so of drinking and talking, I told him I was going home. Instead, he forced me to drive my car deep into the hills above the city, and then he raped me in the back seat for several hours.

More than once he put his hands around my neck and started squeezing. I knew I would die that night; there was no doubt in my mind. I kept picturing my naked body being discovered, and I just hoped he would leave some evidence behind.

Eventually he was done, and he threw my clothes at me and told me to get dressed. Then he took me back to his apartment and forced me to take a shower. He told me he would kill me if I told anyone, then let me go.

I drove to a hotel just down the street from his apartment complex and asked to use the phone to call 911. The rape was really violent, and there was blood running down my legs. I knew I needed to go to the hospital, and I honestly never considered not reporting it to the police. 

I had to have emergency surgery because of internal injuries. It was actually a blessing in disguise—the severity of my injuries made it hard for him to claim it was consensual.

I spent a couple days in the hospital. I gave a description to the police and told them where he lived. I looked at a set of mug shots and picked out his photo immediately. He was finally arrested six days after it happened.

A month after the rape, I testified before the grand jury, and the trial was scheduled for about six months later. His main defense strategy was that he claimed I was a prostitute. But there was so much evidence against him that he pleaded guilty at the last minute in the hope of gaining leniency.

So instead of a trial, there was only a sentencing hearing with a judge. The rapist never took any responsibility or admitted to any sort of wrongdoing, even though he was pleading guilty. His strategy didn’t work because he was sentenced to 10 to 30 years in prison.

He became eligible for parole in 2005, and I attended the parole hearing. The rapist got his chance to say whatever he wanted first, and it was the same as the first time around: I was a whore who was asking for it. Then the parole board asked him a few questions. It was really overwhelming seeing the rapist again and I started to cry as soon as I stood up to read my statement.

The parole board took only a few minutes to make a decision, announcing it had decided not to grant him parole.

Five years later, in 2010, he had his second parole hearing. This time, I sent a private letter to the board; I didn’t want him to know how deeply affected I still was by what he did to me. I heard that at this hearing he finally, sort of, admitted to raping me. But he added to his lies: that he was a pimp and planned to turn me out. He was denied parole again.

The next year, he went back before the board and won parole.

I also chose not to attend this hearing, because I was almost certain he would be getting out soon and I didn’t want him to see me and know what I look like now, in case he came looking for me. I spent the next several months feeling like my life was about to end, both figuratively and literally, because I really do fear he’ll find me and kill me.

Just around the time I expected him to get out of prison, I received a letter from the parole board saying his parole had been revoked. The parole board required he complete a six-month sex-offender treatment program as a condition of his release. And he refused.

As it stands now, he’s supposed to serve out his entire 30-year sentence, which would keep him in prison until 2025. He can apply for another parole hearing each year, and I’m sure he will. I’ll continue to write letters to try to keep him in prison for as long as I can.

I do feel grateful that I’ve had the last 18 years to live my life feeling relatively safe with him locked up.

But once he’s released, I doubt I’ll ever stop looking over my shoulder, waiting for him to come after me again.

Anna Bjornberg is a Portland writer. This story is revised from an account she wrote anonymously last year for xojane.com.


ERIN ROOK

“Slapping, shoving, choking, kicking—I couldn’t deny what it was.”

by Erin Rook

We met during summer orientation at a New England women’s college. I was an orientation leader, and Nehal was one of the new students. At the time, we were both lesbians. (We’ve both since come out as transgender men).

I hadn’t gone into orientation looking for “fresh meat” as some of my peers did—Nehal pursued me, and hard. By that evening, we had consummated our relationship. A few weeks later, he professed his love by drawing it on my back with his finger. Come fall semester, we were essentially cohabiting.

I was a 22-year-old “student leader”—editor of my college newspaper, president of the Communications Liaison, member of the Feminist Union (aka FU). I was mild-mannered but by no means weak-willed.

Nehal was a fiery 18-year-old tennis player whose hard-to-place accent and unfamiliarity with American culture was endearing. (I made him his first ever peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich). He was cute, funny and charming (and a head shorter than me)—hardly threatening.

But it took less than a year for a charismatic Dr. Jekyll to turn into a monstrous Mr. Hyde. Sweet nothings gave way to searing insults. In place of loving touch, his hands delivered punishment and his body, denial.

All the signs of abuse were there. The name-calling (“stupid fucking cunt” was his favorite), the put-downs (“You’ll never be a writer”), blaming me for everything—including attempted rape (“I was feeling rejected”).

Once the physical abuse—slapping, shoving, choking, kicking—began, I couldn’t deny what it was. So I started keeping notes in a private online diary, “just in case” it kept happening. And it did.

There was no real rhyme or reason to the assaults. They weren’t frequent enough to be predictable. But they were always my fault. I didn’t open the door fast enough, I dropped something, I was cleaning wrong.

One time he made me get on my knees, shoved a dirty sock in my mouth, spit on me, and hit and kicked me while telling me what I horrible person I was. As much as I knew what he was doing was wrong, that it was an outsized reaction to the circumstances, I couldn’t help feeling like I brought it on myself. I cheated (once), I lied (about the infidelity), and I confided in a friend (who turned out to have designs on my partner). I should have known this would happen.

Had these assaults happened back-to-back, I might have left sooner. But they were spread out, interspersed with legitimately good times. Such is the cycle of violence. Every incident is followed by a “honeymoon” period full of tearful apologies, sincere promises, romantic gestures. Until the tension begins to build again, exploding into another assault.

Eventually, crazy became the new normal. I couldn’t rely on anything but instability. Like a hostage suffering from Stockholm syndrome, I survived by identifying with my captor and focusing on minimizing harm.

When Nehal threatened to kill me in a drunken rage, I did my best to calm and soothe him. When he said he’d “take out” my entire family if I didn’t repay some money I owed him, I chastised him like a child.

“You can’t say that!” I admonished.

He responded in kind: “I meant, like, take them out for ice cream. Geez.”

It was all very surreal. People who say they would never put up with abuse don’t understand the insidious way it creeps into a relationship, the way that daily emotional manipulation wears away your defenses and self-worth, the way your abuser’s forcibly asserted worldview begins to cloud out reality.

I did reach out for help once. In the midst of some drama around Nehal having an ongoing affair with my best friend, I told the director of Residence Life that I was considering moving to a single dorm room because my partner was “borderline abusive.” Instead of picking up on my desperate, if understated, plea, she offered me a room key. It wasn’t the help I was looking for. 

I’m not sure why my friends never said anything. They knew Nehal was “difficult”—but they either didn’t suspect the abuse or didn’t want to ask. I was careful to make excuses for his behavior. If they knew what I was really dealing with, I thought, I’d have to leave. And I didn’t feel ready to do that.

When I finally left almost four years later, it took the better part of a year and weekly support-group meetings to begin to regain my footing. I wouldn’t have made it without Bradley Angle’s program for LGBTQ survivors and the friends and family who welcomed me home.

The past still haunts me from time to time, but in the five years since I left, I’ve learned and grown so much. It gets better.

But not until you leave.

Erin Rook lives in Portland with his fiancé and works as a freelance writer and web editor for PQ Monthly. The names he used in his story have been changed.


A death in public, an instinct ignored.

by Sunny Clark

LISA BONNEY
The last thing I expected was a call from my landlady saying she needed to take my new rental house back. Nor did I expect the reason why. She needed to escape, she said, “an ugly incident of domestic violence.”

It seemed unimaginable that a shrewd firebrand like Long Beach, Wash., realtor Lisa Bonney would be caught in the yoke of domestic violence. Yet, there was Lisa, in the summer of 2009, saying she had applied for a restraining order and that her boyfriend had threatened to kill her.

Lisa told me she had family around and said her beach house was her most likely route to safety and autonomy. I made arrangements to move back into my former residence, which was just down the street. Lisa moved back into the beach house that she’d left a couple of years before to be with her boyfriend, Brian Brush. Lisa told me her restraining order would expire, and I encouraged her to get another.

But not much later, I saw Brush with Lisa, doing yard work. I checked in with her and was politely rebuffed. She said she wouldn’t reunite with Brush, but he needed time to adjust.

In the following weeks, he was still around. Though I constantly felt misgivings, I was unsure if any action on my part would be overreaction, so I tried to ignore the nagging feelings whenever I looked up and saw Lisa’s house. My mind overruled my instincts at every turn.

On Sept. 11, 2009, I decided to leave for a weekend trip when I spotted Brush outside Lisa’s house, clearing out blackberry bushes. I walked in his direction, trying to think of a way to casually start a conversation.

His eyes were red and unfocused. I asked him, gently, what he was doing.

“You have to make up for what you’ve done,” he said in an even, calm voice.

I considered telling Lisa what he had just said, or telling the police, but I didn’t know if that would was best, or if it might make things worse for her. I decided Lisa would know best to leave if she needed to. So I left town with uneasy feelings. The last time I saw her alive she was standing outside her home, about 100 feet from Brush.

Later thats day, during an annual car rally in town, she and Brush argued in public. He shot her four times with a pump-action shotgun in view of many witnesses.

The 88-year sentence handed to him was but cold comfort to Lisa’s two teenage daughters. For their sake, especially, I regret not giving more credence to my instinct that day.

Sunny Clark is a Portland-based writer and filmmaker. 

 
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