OTI Online
Spring 1996

Diary of a Rape-Crisis Counselor
by Katherine Eban Finkelstein


There were 1,001 reasons why my relationship with my boyfriend, B., ended, but during the intensive, three-month rape-crisis training, I could feel it grinding to a halt. By the night of February 14,1 was home alone with my manual, Protocol for Emergency Room Volunteer Counselors, and my beeper, charged with fresh batteries. Of the 17 counselors in our rape-crisis program, I had volunteered to cover Valentine's Day. I figured, best to serve the community when I didn't have a date. It might even help me get over my recent breakup. I was tense around the house, even taking my beeper into the bath. I figured there would be some dirty tricks on a night universally devoted to love. But it was quiet. No one was brought to the emergency room.

In September, when an assistant district attorney came to our training and told us about a "good case" - a stranger had cut up a woman's labia with a kitchen knife and eyewitnesses had seen him flee the scene - I explained to B. that my sexual interest was temporarily waning. Secretly, I feared that enjoying sex would be some collaboration with terrible, dark events. One night in a windowless basement room at the hospital where we trained, I asked my fellow volunteers: "Is anyone else having trouble with ...sexual relations? I mean, I'm not feeling so interested in sex." A few of the women in the room nodded and approached me afterward with similar stories.

Abducting young women is not, indeed, a Lawful act; but it is stupid to make a fuss about it. The only sensible thing is to take no notice; for it is obvious that no young woman allows herself to be abducted if she does not wish to be. - HERODOTUS, 500B.C.

Rape, whether the prospect of it or the consummated act, is part of every woman's life. Yet going through the training was like living with the rapist, becoming intimately acquainted with the frightening him - the everyday man behind the violation. The grim recurrence of rape was the bedrock of our training: In America, a rape occurs 1.3 times every minute, 78 times an hour; one in three women are raped before age 18. The physical realities were our responsibility: We would hold the survivor's hand during evidence collection, which included everything from combing pubic hairs to photographing bruises. We would stay with her as the police asked minute questions about penetration. We were to be the consolers and the tour guides to the judicial system.

Through the intensive training, I hoped to resolve an event in my own past. I had been 14 years old, on a family vacation, when a man who worked at the resort where we were staying dragged me down to the beach and raped me. Year after year, the event kept returning as a long, slow tide of grief. Sand, stars in a black sky, waves falling on the shore were continually suffused with terror. The rape-crisis training seemed to hold the solution, to provide sandbags against the erosion of both my dignity and feelings of intactness. Yet it was also a slow-burning fuse between me and my boyfriend. By the time my training ended and my emergency room stint began, we had separated.

It was a july evening. Iwas on call. On numerous occasions I had waited for someone to need my help, yet all had remained quiet. So when my beeper went off it was a sound so strange it took me a while to realize that it was neither the smoke alarm nor the coffeemaker. I called in to the charge nurse and learned only the barest details: A young woman in her 20s, Nancy, had come in just moments ago. It was a date rape that had taken place the night before. The woman had already showered. Real evidence collection would be difficult, if not impossible. I grabbed my manual, my beeper, my purse and was out the door, with little time to reflect. The emergency room was a warren of activity. Behind the numerous patients in curtained-off cubbyholes lay the GYN room. I pushed open the heavy air-lock door and entered the refrigerated space. There sat a young, attractive woman huddled on the examining table. She had wrapped herself in a hospital bed sheet.

"Nancy," I began slowly, "are you all right?" She nodded her head thoughtfully. We had been trained for every imaginable response to rape. Some women wept. Others laughed uncontrollably. Others were sullen. Nancy was fully rational, and open to the comfort and help I could provide. Slowly and with evident relief, she told me her story.

At a nearby beach, she had met a young man who introduced himself as a rock singer by the name of Tiger. He had been surrounded by friends. He spoke of his manager and agent. He had elegant dreadlocks. He dazzled her. They arranged a date and later that week, he picked her up at work in his friend's van. They returned to the beach and spent a romantic evening under the stars. At 2 A.M., they were driving back to the city when he pulled off the highway with the claim of a flat tire. He then climbed back into the van and raped her vaginally and orally. He attempted anal penetration but as she struggled, he lost his erection. As he drove her back to the city, she recalled, he said, "We shouldn't have done that. I should have used a condom.''

He dropped her off at home and she showered three times. The next morning, she went to the local police station and told them she'd been raped. Because she was unsure about whether she wanted to press charges, the police told her to return only if she decided to do so.

The longer I stayed with Nancy, the more upset I became. To me, there was absolutely no doubt that she'd had sex against her will. Yet to Nancy, her own case had all the dark ambiguities, twists, turns, and long dark alleys of date rape. Was it her fault? Had she wanted it? Did she fail to resist? Was it all the product of some giant misunderstanding? I sat there and held her hand. I asked her whether she wanted to press charges. She said that she didn't know. She was afraid. He knew where she lived. She feared what it meant to go up against a budding rock star. I continue to believe the man was no one but a rapist. He had sold her a bill of goods.

On The Issues Magazine - Nancy Fried; Even the Clouds are Crying
Nancy Fried; "Even the Clouds are Crying"

In real terms, she didn't have much of a case. She had no visible injuries. She'd already showered, so there would be little evidence left. Of course, the doctor would proceed with thorough evidence collection. Yet it would remain her word against the rapist's. She didn't know on what highway or even in what borough the event had taken place, which would create a problem of jurisdiction. Beyond any court of law, however, was the issue of her life. Without formal acknowledgment of the injustice, what would become of her self-esteem? I asked Nancy to visualize going to sleep that night. What would it feel like to have pressed charges? What would it feel like not to have? She asked me to call the police.

My training began one year ago in a small hospital-basement room. Each week, 17 women gathered for a three-hour training session on everything from evidence collection to rape and racism. I had anticipated a touchy-feely gathering of wounded women, a cynical view that insulated me from my own fear. Yet the volunteers who arrived were as distinct as the faces of rape victims: a brassy TV producer in a power suit and patent leather high-heeled loafers, an actress with large soulful eyes and a stripe of red lipstick across her face, a community activist with frizzy hair and the exhausted look of someone who has been hunched in a back room sending out mailings.

Our private reasons for joining the training never became public. To this day, I have no idea who among us had been raped. All I know is that some of the women had been drawn to the training in the hope that they could ameliorate the personal suffering of rape survivors. Others, like myself, were more intent on systemic justice. Rape occurred, the crime was terrible. But we were most interested in where grief met the system. How did a rape get reported? How did it get prosecuted? What are the hurdles a rape survivor must overcome before she achieves justice? I felt more comfortable taking the practical tack that had eluded me at age 14. We were trained to expect and demand that the police ask very detailed questions about the facts of the case: Did the rapist penetrate the survivor orally, vaginally, anally? Did he attempt to? Was it partial penetration? These questions were not to be regarded as voyeuristic or lascivious. They were crucial to the arrest of the rapist and made a world of difference in court. Even if there was only penetration by a millimeter, it was rape, not attempted rape. The leering police officer of legend, keen on all the sordid details, had been supplanted by the dutiful chronicler of abuse.

We, the rape-crisis counselors, were supposed to hover over these questions to ensure they got asked and that the results were duly recorded. The fact of the matter is that many rapes have gone unprosecuted because it is too painful and uncomfortable for people in the business of justice to press their way deep into the bodies of women who have been raped.

Divisions soon emerged among the volunteers in our program. Some objected to the legal system. They felt it was harsh and unfeeling to subject survivors to mincing interrogations about their body parts, that it was cruel of district attorneys to distinguish good cases from bad. The system should believe in, support, and take the side of women unequivocally. By contrast, I viewed such hazing as one detour on the route to justice. I was grateful that rape victims had taken their rightful place at the interrogation table. Was I an apologist for a sexist legal system? When I was 14, most rapes had just been bad dates or painful misfortunes, like falling down the stairs. There were finally systems in place through which complaints could be processed.

As my training intensified, my relationship with B. deteriorated. I felt suffused with anxiety about physical intimacy. After one particularly difficult training session in which a rookie district attorney had lectured us about the virtues of brutal open-and-shut cases, I ran down the street, late to meet my boyfriend at a nearby restaurant. He was perched on a barstool drinking a gin and tonic. It was a relief to see him. "God," I exclaimed, "I don't know if I can handle this." I explained how painful the session had been. I told him that my feelings about sex were growing more difficult. I felt that old wave, that old shadow, creeping back. He said that he understood, that we didn't have to have sex. It was the only thing for an enlightened '90s man to say.

Even though B. heard the words and responded with appropriate patience, nonetheless he felt hurt. He took my anxiety and distance as a personal reproach, as though he had failed to be sensitive. Back and forth, we traded silent and angry responses to rape. I felt that his hurt relegated my experience to the small and personal, just as I was struggling to understand the political and social ramifications of rape.

A piece of me had simply fallen away. As we lay in bed, as he kissed me or held me, a piece of me simply did not exist. I couldn't. I could no more have imagined, let alone wanted, any male body part inside of me than I could have wanted hostile aliens to land outside my apartment. It was simply impossible. Unimaginable. I had shut down. Ever since time began, I imagine there has always been a struggle between two bodies: one that wants and the other that wants no such thing. I am not talking about rape. I am talking about that paper-thin wall that arises inevitably between two consenting parties. So it was with B. and me. Sex had been an important part of our relationship. Yet we were closing in on the end. Even B. began to pull away. Soon, he wanted sex even less than I did. It was such a strange reversal. There was his beautiful body. I longed to touch it if only to reassert my emotional claim. Yet he didn't want me to. We had become two strangers.

Months after B. and I separated, and shortly before going on call, I began a new relationship. The man (I will call him D.) is both more secure and less introspective than B. To him, rape and its echoes are matters for me to resolve - whatever that means for our relationship. He takes the sexual issues that arise between us seriously, but not personally. In D., I have found a man who is interested in what rape means for me and is relatively unconcerned with what it means for him. With D., I have been able to begin the long and tortuous process of recovery by filling in the blanks: reimagining that night on the beach and rewriting myself back into it. Instead of retreating into the natural setting, the stars, the waves, the sand, I am once again the furious and terrified girl, subjected to an unnatural act.

It was 12 midnight on that first July evening by the time I said goodbye to Nancy and left the emergency room. She had given a report to the police. They had taken the evidence. She was determined to press charges. I put her in a taxi and promised to call her the next day. I realized as I walked through the darkened streets that my lovemaking with D. is years and worlds away from what had happened to Nancy, even from what had happened to me. My own sexual life was no longer a mutated version of that echoing event in my past. My long-standing fear was assuaged and I had been freed from lingering shadows.

In August, one month after meeting Nancy, I was called to the emergency room for Genevive, 31, a large Latino woman with an IQ of 60. In a rambling and disoriented way, Genevive told me that she had been raped and beaten by a counselor at the group home where she lived. According to the female counselor who brought her in, Genevive had an abusive boyfriend and a history of accusing the staff. When I asked Genevive whether she wanted to press charges, she nodded her head enthusiastically. Yet it was clear that she had no idea what this would entail or even what it meant. Within 15 minutes of my phone call, there came a knock on the GYN door. There stood two police officers. One was an older Irish man with thick white hair and a stomach that protruded over his belt buckle. Despite the fact that I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, had my hair in a pony tail, and must have looked 18, he looked utterly relieved when I introduced myself. I gestured inside the room and asked, "Are you going to make a report?"

His face froze over in fear. "You're going to be in there with me, aren't you?" He did not want to face Genevive alone, a mentally retarded woman who had been brutally abused by her counselor. He did not want to sit in the GYN room face-to-face with her while she was half-naked and ask her uncomfortable questions, which it was his job to do.

"I'll be with you the whole time," I reassured, and with that we went in together.

Inside the GYN room, the cop lowered himself apprehensively onto a stool. He produced the necessary paperwork and began his questions, gazing down as though looking for a place to hide. Genevive, who refused to sit down, was so disoriented that she could not even answer questions about her address or name without my gentle and pointed coaching. When the questions turned to her body, things got even more difficult.

Turning a shade of beet-red, the police officer asked, "Did he put his penis inside of you?"

Genevive nodded. "I fought him off." The police officer and I looked at each other. "But did he put his penis inside of you?"

"He was hitting me," Genevive responded. I interjected, "Genevive, did he actually put his penis inside your body?"

"Yes," she said clearly.

"How long did he keep it inside of you?" the cop asked, angling to distinguish between rape and attempted rape. "For one hour."

The cop's eyebrows shot upward. The doctor, who had arrived with an evidence-collection kit, ascertained the problem and asked, "Genevive, do you have a boyfriend?" She nodded. "Does he put his penis inside of you?" Again, she nodded.

The cop, who saw where the doctor was going, then asked, "How long does he stay inside of you? Three minutes, five minutes, fifteen?"

"Five," Genevive chose. "But when he does it, it's nice. When this man did it, it was sickness.''

I exhaled slowly, saddened by her observation. With the grim facts seeming to take shape, the cop then asked, "How long did this man keep his penis inside of you?" "Three hours," Genevive declared.

It was clear that whatever happened, it seemed like three hours to Genevive. I knew what she meant. Somewhere in the floating island of the brain, whatever had happened to me when I was 14 seemed to be extending infinitely over the course of years.

Genevive, who was dazed from the questions, began to wobble. Then, as though in slow motion, she fell over backward and came crashing down on top of me. I fell off my stool. My coffee cup went flying from my hand. Its contents splashed against the wall. Genevive lay prone on top of me. The cop leapt up, nurses came running. In certain cases, this one among them, it was just not possible to get all the answers.

As it turned out, the police took Genevive's report but were unable to substantiate her claim. When all the facts came to light, her charge was quietly withdrawn. What I did see in her case was the system's willingness to listen to, to investigate, the charge of rape. As I was leaving the emergency room, the police officer took me aside and asked nervously, "What if it wasn't this guy who did it to her? What if it was her boyfriend?"

I said to him, half-scoldingly, "It isn't our job to decide that, now is it?" After all, it was a matter for the detectives and the district attorneys. The police officer and I were simply there to help Genevive through the threshold and into the system. He nodded in agreement. For allegations of rape, there was protocol. His responsibility was clear.


Contributing editor KATHERINE EBAN FINKELSTEIN is a writer of fiction and nonfiction and lives in New York City.

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