I have just finished interviewing several victims of the so-called “friendly rapist.” It’s getting late and I’m trying to finish the story so I can get home before dark and fix supper. My typing is interrupted by a fellow Dallas News reporter.
“You wrote a story several years ago about being raped, didn’t you, Rena?” he asks innocently.
I shake my head no. “I was attacked,” I explain for what must be the 99th time, “But I got away before he could rape me.”
“I see.” The reporter nods and walks away.
He doesn’t believe me.
It’s all so absurd that sometimes I have to laugh … but it’s infuriating, and a little embarrassing, that I’ve had to correct the story of my attack as often as I have.
It could be worse, I suppose. I wonder about the inane and cruel questions the real rape victims must get.
Dallas was the last place I ever figured I would be attacked. I had lived in a “transitional” neighborhood in San Antonio for two summers while working for the San Antonio Express-News – and escaped with only a few juvenile whistles.
I had lived on the edge of Harlem in New York, where several of my Columbia classmates were mugged on the doorsteps of the graduate women’s dorm, but I suffered only the insults of a few rebellious black youths who taunted me for being part of a white-racist-slum-landlord institution.
Oh, I felt a tremor of fear now and then when hurrying home late at night, but it never occurred to me that anyone would hurt we. After all, I was a reporter. Being a reporter always seemed like a carte blanche that made you free to slip from cultural group to cultural group, from student demonstrators to striking labor union workers, with the self-assurance that you were one of the gang, only a little more priveleged.
So it came as quite a surprise when a man sprang out of the shadows in front of my new apartment in Oak Lawn. He grabbed me from behind, covering my mouth and pinning my arms to my side.
“Don’t scream and don’t give me any trouble, or I’ll stab your f—— head right off your neck,” he ordered.
I screamed. (And was surprised to hear how shrill and silly I sounded. I had never heard myself scream like that before.)
He cursed and jabbed me in the neck with a pointed object. “Quit your screaming or I’ll stab you dead right here!”
I kept screaming and struggling and tried to remember what it is they always tell you to do if someone attacks you. My arms were pinned at my sides so I couldn’t scratch his face with my car keys. I was being held from behind so I couldn’t kick at his groin (like my brothers taught me) without losing my footing. Confused advice and panicky thoughts raced through my mind.
Despite my immediate predicament, my thoughts kept coming back to the fact that I would be late for my first day of work at UPI, and there probably was some guy angrily waiting for me to relieve him. I imagined being fired and not having enough money to pay my loan to Columbia, all because some poor, misguided fool had the bad taste to attack me at 6 o’clock in the morning.
I dug my heels into the dirt and begged, “Please just leave me alone! I’m a nice girl . . . I’ve got to get to work on time … let me go! Let me go and I’ll quit screaming and I won’t tell anyone!”
“You just get around that comer and I’ll let you go when I want to,” he said gruffly, punctuating his words with sharp stabs in my back.
What should I do now? It was completely dark and no one seemed to be awakened by my screams. I didn’t know anyone because I had just moved into the neighborhood, a respectable, tree-lined area.
I tried another tactic: “Look here,” I pointed out. “You don’t want to rape me and alienate me, I’m on your side. I’m a liberal! I’ve demonstrated in Washington against the war and for civil rights! I’m on your side! You need more people like me in the press to work within the system for changes …”
He apparently was not politically swayed.
“Get around that corner!” he ordered, with a rough jerk that nearly knocked me off my feet. “I’ve been through this once tonight and I don’t want no trouble.” He was still trying to wrestle me away from the front of the building into the shadows at the side.
But my mind was made up. I was not going into any dark corner. Nobody was going to rape me or stab me, not if I could help it. I tried one more time.
“Oh come on, this is ridiculous,” I argued as we waltzed awkwardly across the yard. “We look like we’re dancing out here. Let me go, because I’m not giving in.”
He started choking me with one hand and kept the sharp object poked in my back. I imagined gaping wounds in myself and began to wonder how long I could hold out. But just then the “sharp object” broke and I realized it was only a stick, not a knife.
“A stick! All you’ve got is a crummy stick!” I shrieked in triumph. I started screaming even harder, I scratched, I tried to use my brothers’ knee tactic – but all I did was lose my balance and we tumbled onto the ground. I struggled against his weight, unsuccessfully, and felt real, chilling panic.
Finally, a light flashed on next door. I wrenched away as my attacker relaxed his grip to look in that direction. I ran toward the porch and backed into the bushes at the comer.
“Help! I’m being attacked, let me in, call the police.” I pounded frantically on the door.
An elderly woman called out timidly, “I can’t. How do I know they won’t come in and get me, too?”
My heart sank – I could still see my attacker waiting in the shadows. “Oh, oh, just call the police, please, please, hurry!” I heard her walk away but I kept on talking so the attacker would not approach. I looked nervously at my watch. Exactly three minutes later, a Dallas police car drove up and my attacker quickly darted off between the houses.
“There he goes down the alley!” I yelled to the police. They crashed off through the bushes after him.
But they couldn’t find him. And to my great embarrassment, I found I couldn’t give them much of a description of the man.
This was another revelation for me: I always thought that as a reporter and former devotee of Nancy Drew mysteries I would be able to give a specific account of any crime I witnessed, with license numbers, colorful details, exact times, etc. Unfortunately, during my struggle in the dark, I never saw my assailant face to face.
As soon as the police questioning was completed, I hurried to the UPI office and my first day on the job.
Two or three staffers looked up apprehensively as I hurried in – no doubt thinking I had overslept.
But it didn’t take them long to notice that my dress was ripped along the shoulder, I had grass stains along the side of the garment and I had red welts on my neck and bleeding scrapes on my knuckles.
“I’m sorry I’m late, but I was attacked in front of my apartment,” I offered breathlessly, slipping into a desk and trying to look calm.
Everyone stopped typing. I looked so frazzled, they just had to believe me – or assume I went to incredible lengths to dream up an excuse.
Preston McGraw, one of the veteran UPI reporters with a vinegary voice and courtly manners, listened in amazement as I recounted my story, then asked politely, “Well, Rena, are you sure you’re okay? You can go home if you want to.”
All the men in the office agreed I could go home if I wanted to – no one would blame me. In their embarrassment, they didn’t know what else to say. Apparently no one in the office had ever come in late from an attempted rape before.
There was a pause . . . “Well …” Preston suggested with a curl of a smile. “Why don’t you write a little story about it? It sounds like it would make a terrific first person feature – Newswoman Has Narrow Escape From Attacker.”
Everyone stopped pretending to work again and was looking at me. (What would Katharine Hepburn do in a case like this? I wondered. Katharine Hepburn would have whipped that attacker to begin with.)
“Why not?” I answered, and proceeded to write a decidedly melodramatic version of the incident.
“It was still dark and I was on my way to work,” I typed dutifully, reliving all the details for my newspaper audience. I finished with the observation that after 23 years of thinking “It will never happen to me,” it almost did. “I was lucky I escaped with bruises, a few tears and a run in my stocking,” I concluded.
As the teletype operators got ready to send the story out on the wire, I felt a twinge of misgiving. What if my mother picked up her paper in San Angelo and had a heart attack? I called her on the WATS line. “Hi,” I said as naturally as I could. “I’m at work and I thought I ought to tell you that I was attacked on my way to work today. Butwasn’t-hurt-andgot-away. I’m going to write a story about it so other girls will know that they should scream and try to defend themselves, too.” I stopped to catch my breath.
“Oh really?” She sounded calm. Almost too calm. After all, her daughter had been very nearly raped, for gosh sakes.
“Well, is it okay with you? I mean will it embarrass you, or do you think it would be in poor taste?” I suggested, almost hoping that she would say “No, please don’t run it.”
“Go right ahead if it’s a good story,” she advised. “Is it a good story?”
“Of course,” I bristled.
“Good, I’ll be looking forward to reading it,” she said, and my fate was sealed.
The story of my attack was printed in towns ranging from Tyler, Texas, to Terre Haute, Indiana. Closer to home, it ran on the front page of the Dallas Times Herald.
I didn’t have much time to worry about the response to the article because I was busy moving to another apartment. My attacker, apparently a tenacious or spiteful type, had revisited my apartment building twice and tried to break in a door and then a window. Luckily, I wasn’t there despite the late hour – I was working the customary graveyard shift most newcomers are stuck with at UPI.
Before long, I began receiving clippings of the story in the mail from former schoolmates who wrote in the margin: “Glad to see what you’re doing now! Give me a call and we’ll have lunch sometime and you can tell me the whole story?”
Occasionally someone I was introduced to would snap his or her fingers and say, “I’ve got it! You’re the girl who wrote the story about being raped!”
“Not raped,” I would patiently correct. “Just attacked. I got away.”
To my surprise, no one seemed to believe me.
“Oh sure,” they’d say with a wink. “I know.” The implication was they believed I just said I got away because I was too embarrassed to admit I had been raped.
This strange phenomenon happened over and over – with pushy clerks in stores, to friends I ran into at Tom Thumb. “Oh, I read in the paper where you got raped!” they’d chirp. I never could come up with a wonderful comeback for that one.
The worst incidents happened a few years later. My sister, commenting on a news story about a rapist being arrested, asked “Do you think he’s the same one that got you?”
“I don’t know,” I murmered, “I wasn’t raped, you know, just attacked.”
“Well, I know that’s what you always said,” she hesitated, “but you know, I’ve been wanting to ask you all this time what really happened.”
My own sister.
And after I was married, when the incident would come up, my husband would always add that he had lived in an apartment across the street when I was attacked, but he had been on vacation in San Francisco at the time.
“Just think, I might have walked out in my yard to get the paper that morning and there you would have been, rolling around in the yard with some guy,” he mused at one such telling.
“That doesn’t sound very nice,” I objected.
“Well, I would have saved you of course,” he promised. “I wouldn’t let anyone rape you right there in the front yard.”
“But I didn’t get raped,” I corrected for what must have been the umpteenth time in seven years. “I got away.”
“I know, I know,” he reassured me, but I was never sure he really appreciated the distinction.
My own husband.
And there were others who actually seemed disappointed that the rape wasn’t completed, that I had no juicy details to share. My brothers still scoff and claim I could have kicked the attacker in the groin if I had really tried.
I can’t resist laughing about it sometimes.Except when I’m going out alone at night.I must admit I get a quick, unexplainablefear of the dark that makes me walk alittle faster – makes me look nervouslyinto corners. It doesn’t seem very funnythen.