It is the kind of secret society you don't really know about until absolutely necessary. Once you become a member, wrapped in the loving, been-through-it-all arms of this collective of survivors, you wonder how you would have made it through your ordeal without them. Kind of like calling your mom after a rough breakup, when the sound of her voice instantly reminds you that you are loved, unconditionally.
Here's what happened to me.
Coming home late one Saturday morning after a night clubbing in the city with my girlfriends, I found myself at 2 a.m. walking briskly down Grand Avenue as it wrapped around Lake Merritt. The area was notorious for a decided lack of parking for its many apartment dwelling residents, and that night I was forced to park my car a good seven blocks from home. I shivered in the cool winter air, in my short burgundy corduroy skirt and low cut black v-neck sweater. I remember being glad I was wearing black knee-length, high-heeled boots I could actually walk in, for once giving in to common sense over style. I hadn't planned on walking this far when I got dressed to leave earlier that evening.
Just a block away from my 1920s red brick apartment building, a car driving down Grand pulled over on my side of the street, just a few feet from me. I pulled out my cell phone and punched in 9-1-1 on the blue-lit buttons, ready to hit dial. I've lived here for ten years -
this is a safe neighborhood, I thought, right before I was grabbed from behind by a big man, who held a gun to my head and demanded -
Give me all your money.
It got worse.
Forcing me up the street, my attacker stopped me right in front of my own building, pulling me into the shadows in the long shared driveway, just out of the arc of the security lights. We were soon joined by a second man who started hitting on me. Not physically, but actually hitting on me, as if we were out at a club and there was not a gun involved in the equation.
Hey baby, you look kind of cute, he whispered, while his friend searched my pockets for money.
You got a boyfriend?
It was at this point that I remembered where I'd stashed my money, and quickly retrieved about $20 and my ATM card from the front pockets of my skirt, handing it over to attacker #1. He took the money, turned, and began to head back to the car, calling for his friend,
Hurry up, man, let's go.
I'm not finished here, my rapist said, leading me back behind my apartment building to the dark parking lot directly below my apartments fourth floor windows.
Afterwards, I didn't want to call the police. It was like one of my nightmares coming to life: not only being raped, but voicing the events of that night, making it public and then being treated as a rape victim. Luckily, I called a close friend, who begged me to dial 9-1-1 while she raced over to be with me. I did make the call, and my friend arrived just ahead of the police.
Crammed inside my small studio, the officers who arrived on the scene took my statement, beginning right from the time I left the City to drive home to Oakland. Then they escorted me to Highland Hospital to a special Sexual Assault Center, tucked into a quiet corner of Emergency, with its own comfy old couches, waiting and exam rooms. My friend still there to hold my hand, the officers lingered in the doorway as I lay down on the couch. They explained that they'd put a call in to my advocate, who was on her way. I had no idea what they meant by my advocate, but they sounded positive about her arrival.
Maria Jose bustled in about half an hour later, at 5 a.m. It had taken her a minute to wake up, get dressed and rush to the hospital, where her advocate's duty was to simply be with me through my hospital experience. She answered my questions about the process, kept up a steady stream of chatter through the hours. When the doctor arrived, Maria was there as I went through a standard gynecological exam, complete with a mouth swab to try to obtain DNA samples from my rapists' sperm.
You should call BAYWAR, Maria Jose gently urged. Bay Area Women Against Rape, she added, seeing my blank look. They can help you through this. Maria Jose pushed a card into my hand, and I promised to call when I was ready. I'd been to several therapists in my lifetime, and my impression of the whole group was not favorable. Before she left, Maria Jose gave me a hug and made me promise again that I'd call BAYWAR when I was ready.
Working with Oakland's mostly young, incredibly supportive detectives in the Special Victim's Unit, I went through weeks of detailed questioning and worked with a composite artist who used state of the art computer software to create a resemblance of my attackers. I participated in several photo line-ups and finally an actual in-person lineup in the basement rooms of Oakland's downtown police station. My attackers were found and arrested, everyone assured me, surprised, in a remarkably short amount of time. The next step was to meet with the District Attorney, and proceed to trial.
All I had ever read or seen or heard about rape trials is about the victim, the girl. How she's pried open and examined by her own lawyers and then defense attorneys, who use any means necessary to get their clients off. I was terrified of a trial.
I have a suggestion, one of the detectives ventured tentatively, as he was filling me in on the details of the arrest.
There's this great group called BAYWAR, and they offer support and free counseling for victims of sexual assault, and they'll even go with you to trial. He stopped, looking at me sincerely.
I think you'll like them.
Still I hesitated.
I know them, he continued, and if you want, I can talk to them, ask someone to give you a call.
I sighed, knowing I had to do something. It had been about a month since the rape and I needed to talk to someone. I knew I was worrying all my friends and family with my silence. And with a possible trial looming, I needed to be prepared. But I wasn't going to give in easily.
If I do talk to someone, I countered, I want it to be someone like me. Someone who really understands what I'm going
That sounds fair, he agreed. So you want someone...?
Youngish, I began, confident he'd balk by the time I got to the end of my very specific list,
Black, female - and a lesbian.
He just laughed. That shouldn't be too hard, Alison. I'll call them today, and you can expect a call within about a
We'll see, I muttered, but thanked him anyway for the effort.
Pearl, my assigned BAYWAR counselor, called about a week later. We had an initial, brief phone conversation where she explained her role and BAYWAR's rape crisis program. I was entitled to about three months of weekly, hour-long sessions with a peer counselor, there was a 24-hour crisis hotline available and, Pearl assured me from the very beginning, she would be there for me through the entire trial process. All of the support services were absolutely confidential, and completely free.
It was right then that I began to fall in love with BAYWAR.
Pearl counseled me through my initial feelings of guilt about being raped, stemming from my rapists' comments about my clothing, and about walking around alone after dark. It was something I learned to be a common feeling among survivors, and I wanted to be able to live on my own again without fear. Without worrying that what I wore would attract unwanted attention. She made me realize I was not to blame for what happened. Pearl also gave me, an aspiring writer in training at Mills' MFA program, books of stories written by and about other survivors of color, she encouraged me to journal, to write poetry, to do whatever I could to express my experience, to get it out and on paper. At our weekly sessions in BAYWAR's Oakland office, Pearl became a friend, and helped me to get to a point where I felt ready to work with a district attorney to testify against my attackers in court. I am positive that I would not have had the courage to go through it without Pearl, and the entire BAYWAR community's quiet support.
The trial itself was alternately as bad as and then not as horrible as I expected. I was appointed a third, court specific advocate by the City of Oakland, who was involved in each of my meetings with the DA, came to court and answered my questions, and gave me all the information I needed to take leaves of absence from my job to participate in the trial. She also signed me up for the Victims Compensation Fund, which helped me pay for additional expenses like counseling, when the BAYWAR visits ran out.
Due to my triumvirate of support--my two advocates and BAYWAR counselor--I was able to muster the strength to get through the pre-trial, face my rapist and attacker and point them out to the court, telling the story of what happened to me on the morning of December 19, 2003. I cannot overestimate how much of a help they were.
It's not over yet.
I await the actual trial phase, where I will sit in front of a judge and jury to try to make sure my attackers are held accountable for their crimes and punished to the full extent of the law. I hope that, for a time at least, they won't be able to hurt anyone else.
As difficult as my experience has been, I know it could have been a lot worse. I know that I had unusually sympathetic support from the Oakland police officers, detectives, and district attorneys I worked with. I know that, even a few years ago, personal advocates were not part of standard protocol. I was treated respectfully, my privacy safeguarded and identity kept from becoming public knowledge - I was lucky. I know that I have had every possible access to support imaginable, and for that I am eternally grateful to Bay Area Women Against Rape.
Today I learned of the death of the woman who helped make this whole experience bearable, a woman who is the original advocate for victims of sexual assault, one of the first champions of rape victims' rights and co-founder of BAYWAR: Oleta Kirk Abrams.
I understand that the world works in mysterious ways. Had Oleta Abrams' foster daughter not been raped thirty years ago and then mistreated by police who answered her call for help, not allowed to contact her family, and mocked by doctors who did not even give her a standard exam for pregnancy or venereal disease; if Oleta 's foster daughter had not been the victim of such an uninformed, unsympathetic group of law enforcers, Oleta might not have had reason enough to co-found BAYWAR, to provide for others what was denied her own foster daughter. My situation might have been a lot worse. I did not know Oleta Kirk Abrams. But for her and her foster daughter, and their strength, I am eternally grateful.
So, in May or June of this year, when the roses bloom in the Bay and women gather to honor this courageous woman who passed in winter, I will be there to pay my respects and to show my love . By that time, I hope to have put my own trial behind me. I want to move on, to continue to heal, and to begin the process of becoming a peer counselor to other young survivors. To follow in the footsteps of the women who supported me through one of the worst ordeals of my life: Oleta, Pearl, Maria, and all my advocates.
May Oleta rest in peace.
BAYWAR's hotline is: 510.834.7273