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January 18, 2003
This Day Shall Not Define My Life

By Lucretia Stewart

Counterpunch
23 July, 2003

Before it had always had to be pitch-black at night before I could sleep. Even the slightest light would wake me. In the summer, if there weren't proper curtains, I would wake at dawn. I had to turn the television off properly so that the red light went out and to cover the digital displays of the video recorder and the cable box because the glow would disturb me.

Before.

Now, it is as if I am a child who is frightened of the dark. A light has to be left on all night in the passage and in the distant kitchen.

The kitchen window is where he came in. I don't know his name and I doubt I ever will. I don't believe that they will catch him, though they claim to be pretty confident. We'll see.

When I think about that night, which, most of the time, I can hardly bear to do, it all, always, seems like a movie. Not like a dream or a nightmare, not as close or as vivid as that, but like a movie, which I saw several years ago, on a long, long-distance plane journey. But thinking about it, oddly, doesn't hurt.

He woke me up by hitting me in the face. I don't remember feeling any pain. Perhaps the fear blocked it out. I screamed briefly and then he turned on the TV. I couldn't understand what was happening. I said to him, "How did you get in?" because I knew that I had not left any doors or windows unlocked. I never do. Anyhow it was January and cold outside. There had been snow.

In the early hours of 18th January, a date that anyhow resonates for me because it was my father's birthday, I was raped in my own bed in my flat in north London. The paragraphs above were written three weeks after it happened in an attempt to set down what had happened. I am a writer and I am used to writing about myself, but that was as far as I could get. A later, less formal, less crafted account in my diary didn't fare much better and also had to be abandoned. I didn't want to think about the rape, let alone write about it, which was bound to involve so much thinking.

Now, nearly five months after the event, I am going to have another go. The American writer Alice Sebold, who was raped as an eighteen-year-old virgin, took fifteen years to write her dry, laconic, blackly humorous account. I don't want to wait that long. I can't afford to. I want to get it over and done with.

The man who raped me was a young, brown-skinned, black man in, I guess, his mid-twenties. He had what I would describe as a "London Jamaican" accent. One of those street cred voices, more Ali G than Bob Marley. I have spent time in the Caribbean and this man had not just arrived from the islands. He was of medium height and had high cheekbones and slightly slanted eyes. He looked like a cat. I like cats, but I didn't like him. He was wearing a dark top of some kind and what looked like black cycling shorts. He had a cap on his head. I had never seen him before in my life. He came in through my kitchen window, which he had unlocked. In the days following the rape, I managed to figure out how he did it. Years of reading detective novels had finally paid off. The police said that he must have spent some time outside whittling a stick. They wondered why. This is why: he found a green stick, a plant support, sharpened one end, then he stuck his hand through the cat flap and, with the stick, knocked the key to the window security lock (which hung by the window) so it slid down the stick. Then he stuck his hand through the cat flap, unblocked the window with the key and entered the house. I experimented myself. It was tricky, but possible. He would have had to be patient and he would have had to have been in my garden before, during daylight, to have looked to see where the key was kept--it was nearly invisible, hidden by the corner of the blind. By the time, he got round to unlocking the window, he was getting bored and he broke the mechanism for locking the cat flap in his haste. When he got inside, he lit a candle, one of two, which he would have found in a pair of brass candlesticks, and he began to search the dining room, where my desk is. The flat has very few doors. The dining room, living room and my bedroom all run into one another so he would have been able to see the whole sweep from where he was.

For weeks afterwards, along with the silvery fingerprint powder left by the police, I kept coming across blobs of grey wax, left like the spoor of a strange animal, on the floor, the surface of my desk, my printer. You could have tracked him by this wax. From the length of the stub that I found stuck on the kitchen stove, I calculated that he must have been there for twenty minutes or so. At some point, he removed his trousers and shoes.

All the while, I was asleep in my bed, less than thirty feet away. Then he woke me up. I screamed and he showed me the knife in his hand. It was my carving knife, a Kitchen Devil. An aunt gave me that knife with a matching carving fork seventeen years ago as a wedding present. It's something of an obsession of mine to have sharp knives in the kitchen so I knew exactly how sharp it was. Once I saw the knife, I didn't scream again and he turned on the television. One of my favourite shows was just starting, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is repeated on BBC2 late on Friday nights. That's how I knew what time it was. Around one. I had been asleep for less than two hours, since Newsnight finished.

There was soft light in the room. I couldn't figure out where it was coming from until I turned and saw a candle on my bedside table. He asked where the money was. What money? I didn't have any money in the house. In my purse there had been less than $35. He couldn't believe me. There had to be some money. Then he asked for my PIN numbers. I told him that I had the same number for all the cards. He seemed puzzled by this, but he made me write down the number on a piece of paper torn from a newspaper lying by the bed. He said, in his London Jamaican gangsta rap voice, that if I had given him the wrong number, he would come back and kill me. He said that, if he couldn't get any money, he would come back and kill me. I told him that I had no money in my account, that I had an overdraft limit and that I was already right up against it. I was frightened that his request for money would be declined and that he would indeed come back to kill me.

After we were done talking about money, it was time for the other thing. He moved round to the other side of the bed and I realised, at that moment, what was going to happen. It seemed such a cliché. I thought, "Oh, no, not that" and I must have said something to that effect because he nodded and said, "Yeah, that." I won't go into details about the rape. Just don't let anybody tell you that rape is like bad sex (though that is exactly what I told myself at the time and for some days afterwards; I also made jokes to distance myself). But it could have been worse--he could have beaten me and he could have kissed me (Alice Sebold's rapist did both--I couldn't have borne the kissing).

I remember feeling briefly embarrassed by my white, hairy, winter legs, seeing myself through his eyes and wondering for an instant what I must look like to him. Then, just as quickly, I thought, "Don't be ridiculous. This is not about him finding you attractive" and feeling a flush of shame at myself for having, even for a second, wanted to be attractive to him. But, during the act, I went into some other place in my head. I could still feel it when he hurt me and I knew that I was bleeding, but I just waited for it to be over. And it soon was. All the while I could see the knife. All by the soft glow of candlelight like a travesty of a romantic evening.

When he had finished, he knotted the used condom (which he had brought with him) and tucked it away. Then he tied me to the bedstead. I sleep in a French eighteenth-century bed, all carved fruits and flowers, which my father found over forty years ago in an antique shop somewhere. He took a dressing gown cord and tied my hands to the bed head. Then he tied my feet together tight. Even if I could free my hands, I would fall over trying to walk. As he tied me up, he noticed the little ruby ring I was wearing. He took it off my finger. Then he took my watch, an old stainless steel Omega that I had bought in the market in Phnom Penh in 1990. Then my chain and the cross which was a real gold copy I had had made of one my husband had brought me from the Metropolitan Museum. Next to it hung a tiny gold elephant that an old boyfriend had found in Dublin. I always wore them.

He began to ransack the room. I have a lot of stuff and I could see that it infuriated him. Drawer after drawer of underwear, socks, scarves, tights, sweaters, tee shirts. Where was the money? Where was the valuable stuff? He got so frustrated that he missed it. There was a silk bag of jewelry in my dressing table drawer, but he didn't see it. All the while Buffy the Vampire Slayer was in the background, saving the world from evil.

He had asked me at the beginning whether there was anyone else in the flat. I said, "No". I lied. Next door in a tiny room off the hall asleep in a bed no wider than a bunk was a Spanish friend. Marisa had been living with me for a couple of months while she was working in London and I knew she was home because she had come in just as Newsnight was ending.

Now he asked me again. Again I said, "No." He went towards the kitchen (i.e. away from me and from the door leading to the hall). While he was gone, I managed to free one of my hands, but he came back before I could do any more. This time he was wearing his trousers--low-slung, baggy jeans that I once saw described in an American mystery as "wife-beaters". He shook his head. I think that he even tut-tutted as if I was a naughty child and he set about tying me up again a lot tighter. He told me not to complain about my back hurting this time. He didn't care. He said he was going to see if I was telling the truth about there being nobody else there. On the TV, Buffy had ended and a 1940s black-and-white horror movie called The Isle of the Dead was starting.

All I could think about was how to get free before he found and hurt Marisa.

In 1998, a paranoid schizophrenic vagrant living in a van on the street outside my house had become obsessed with my gardener, a pretty woman. One morning in late March, he had attacked her and stabbed her twenty-two times. I heard her screams from the bath, but I got there too late. I don't mean she died, but the damage was done and it has taken her five years to be halfway OK. Mentally, that is. The physical recovery was quicker.

I couldn't bear it if I was too late this time. He shoved a pair of tights in my mouth and gagged me with a tee shirt. He put something black over my head and placed the lighted candle on the bed next to me. If you struggle, he said, the candle will fall over and the bed will catch fire and you'll burn to death. I could see dimly through the thing on my head. He opened the door to the hall. I saw the light come on. He must have gone first to the bathroom, which was directly opposite Marisa's room. Nothing for him there.

From the moment he left the room, I began struggling to free my hands. They were tied, as before, with the belt from my fleece dressing gown. Fleece doesn't make good knots. It is too soft and slippery. I got my right hand free, but I couldn't untie the left so I untied it from the bed head and left the belt on my wrist. I had shaken the covering from my head and I could see. I pulled down the gag and this is where I get muddled. I can't remember if I dialed 999 before or after I cut through the bonds round my ankles (they were too tight to undo, but I found a pair of scissors on the bedside table). I whispered into the telephone. I was frightened he would come back.

I ran into the hall and hit the panic button. When Geoff had stabbed Nicki, my godson had asked me why I hadn't pressed the panic button. I said I had forgotten that it was there. This time I didn't forget. It made a hideous noise.

I pulled back the blue chenille curtain, which acts as a door to Marisa's little room. She was standing in her pyjamas, looking sleepy and bewildered. The man shrugged as if to say, "Oh, well, win some, lose some", pushed past me, ran up the stairs to the front door, unlocked it and let himself out, taking my knife with him. Marisa says that I was shouting as I came into her room. "Get away from her. Don't touch her." I don't remember. I must have been quite a scary sight. Naked, except for the gag now round my neck and the belt hanging from my wrist, and with a black eye.

I had always wondered what I would do if I was raped. How I would behave. I imagine most women think about this at times. Would I fight?

Would I just lie back? Would it really be that bad? A staple of pornography is the rape that becomes a turn-on. Only a man could have that fantasy. I had always told myself that I wouldn't put up a fight, unless I thought there was a chance of winning. I had no chance. I was at every possible disadvantage: naked, taken utterly by surprise, wrenched from sleep, defenceless. And he had a knife, a big, sharp knife. A Kitchen Devil.

There are no good rapes, but what you don't know, until it happens to you, is that the aftermath can be almost as bad. Chaos ensues. Everything is awful. You feel completely alone. The police, even when they mean to be helpful, seem pitifully inadequate. The "chaperone", who comforted me the night it happened, had been seconded from another unit and someone else replaced her the same day. The replacement was perfectly nice, but she wasn't the woman who had hugged me at two in the morning and who had seen me at my lowest moment. I worried because the new woman was allergic to cats (I have two). I needn't have, because I have only seen her twice and she has never been to my flat. The police doctor, a small, dark woman, who conducted the rape exam, was half an hour late and then interrupted the examination to take a five-minute call on her mobile phone leaving me lying flat on my back with my feet in stirrups.

Initially, however, I experienced a kind of adrenaline high that buoyed me along. So I made jokes and I talked frankly and with some detachment about what had happened. That was easy enough because I literally couldn't believe that it had happened. It seemed completely unreal to me.

I drank enormously: quantities of alcohol, which had no discernable effect, except to calm me a little. I couldn't sleep at all without pills (and even then I woke at the slightest noise--I would say, "If an ant coughs, it wakes me.") I didn't like taking pills because I was scared to go to sleep. At night, my mouth went completely dry, as if I had been on a plane for twenty-four hours, had drunk four bottles of red wine and had fallen asleep with the electric blanket on, so I woke continually to drink water. I wasn't thirsty. It was just that my mouth was so dry. I talked to my doctor, who said if it continued, she would test me for diabetes, but it was probably caused by fear. I had no nightmares, perhaps because, as my therapist suggested, "waking" life was enough of a nightmare.

Every night I thanked God that I wasn't dead, also that I hadn't been wearing the ring made from a bronze seal depicting Apollo playing his lyre, which my father had given me. For the second time in my life, I couldn't listen to music. The first time was in the weeks following my father's death. I thought that perhaps being raped was like a death, but then I realised that I couldn't listen to music because I didn't want any noise. I wanted to be able to hear in case someone tried to get in. I no longer lit candles in the evening. I found another watch in an antique watch shop in Clerkenwell, a Longines of about the same date as my old Omega. Everyone said I was being "very good, very brave." My "bravery" lasted about as long as the black eye. As the bruise faded so did my high.

I watch too much television. I thought it would be just like CSI. Forensics would find the rapist. And quickly. He had used a condom so it seemed unlikely that the rape examination would yield anything much, but he had left behind a sweater in the kitchen when he ran out through the front door. I didn't realise that it would take four weeks for the initial test results to come back, that I could do nothing, except wait. The weeks that followed had a surreal quality. At the suggestion of the police, I called Victim Support. "Hello, I have been raped and I'd like to talk to someone. And I'll need a form from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA)."

"I'm afraid no-one is available to talk to you till 9th February."

"You are joking, aren't you? By that time I might be dead."

"The problem is we have to be specially trained to deal with your sort of case and the people who are specially trained aren't available for several weeks."

"Well, send me the form anyhow."

"You'll need some help filling in it."

"I've completed an immigration form in Rangoon. I'm sure I'll manage this."

(I finally saw Victim Support on 7th March--the woman was great) I had to call the clap clinic for tests, AIDS and venereal diseases. "Hello, I have been raped and I need to make an appointment for some tests."

"There are no appointments till the end of February."

I wanted to scream. "Did you hear me? I have been RAPED."

Instead I said, "Please put me through to your superior."

The superior was a nice woman. She too had been raped--as an eight-year-old girl in Sri Lanka. "Only time helps," she said, after giving me an urgent appointment in ten days' time. When I put down the telephone, I thought, "What happened to me is nothing like as bad."

Six days after I was raped, I took my "spare" cat to be put to sleep. This was an unsocialised, fluffy, grey cat that had come to live with me some five years ago. She hated the other two cats; she was incurably nervous, shy and very greedy, but, in so far as she loved anyone, I believe she loved me. I had noticed that she didn't seem to be her usual self and that morning she allowed me to pick her up while she lay purring in my arms. She had a lump on her stomach which I had had expensively checked out some months before and it seemed bigger. Also she smelled of urine.

I called the vet. "If she smells, it's a bad sign," he said, "It means that she has stopped cleaning herself. Bring her in." I took a cab because my car had been vandalised after Christmas and was still in the garage. The vet said to leave Shadow and that he would observe her during the day, but he wasn't hopeful.

When I telephoned later, he said that her back legs had stopped working--he thought it was a brain tumour--and that there was nothing to be done. Except the obvious. It seemed too much. I held her in my arms--something she had rarely permitted in the years she had lived with me--while she went to sleep, while she died. A friend had driven me and we took her home and buried her in the garden, near, but not too near, the cat who had died of old age and the cat who had been killed by a car.

The next day, one week after the rape, one of my oldest friends died in hospital at the age of 53. He was a barrister and, when Geoff had stabbed Nicki (and then me when I went to her rescue), he told me that what had happened to me was outside the experience of 99% of the population.

This time I felt much more cut off from the rest of the world. I knew no one who had been raped. At least, no one who had ever said so.

A friend in New York asked, "Will you press charges?" "You bet I will", I said, wondering whether, in fact, I would ever get the opportunity.

I realised then that there was a stigma attached to rape and that he wondered whether I would mind people knowing that I had been raped. Because rape involves at least the accoutrements of sex (that is, something familiar), we make the mistake of thinking that it can't be so bad. Actually, it is the very fact that it involves something we have done before (unless you are an eight-year-old in Sri Lanka or, like Alice Sebold, an eighteen-year-old virgin in Syracuse) that makes it doubly horrible. A beloved, familiar, pleasurable act becomes horrible and frightening.

I still can't bear to think about sex because, if I do, then I know I will see his face and his body. For now, at least, that is spoilt for me.

Family and friends do their best, but they can't really reach you. Letters from strangers who had heard what had happened moved me, but they didn't make me feel any better. I was grateful to friends and relations for their love and concern and for any practical help (but, again, it all felt very remote) and I was correspondingly furious with those who, I felt, didn't understand or care enough. I hated it when one person told me, it seemed, dismissively, "You have gone through a life-defining experience". Please, no, let it not be so. I refuse to be defined by this.

I dreaded calling Antigua and telling my [black] girlfriend there what had happened. When I eventually made the call, she said sadly, "You'll never want to come to the Caribbean again." That's not the case. As I told her, "I can tell the difference between a good black person and a bad one." If anything, the time I had spent in the Caribbean and the boyfriends I had had there, meant that the rapist's colour wasn't an issue. I just wished that he hadn't been black because it was such a cliché. I also wondered to what extent the fact that I was white and middle-class had prompted the rape, how much racially-motivated anger had played a part.

It was incredibly difficult to get anything done. I could just about manage one chore or telephone call a day. There were days when I didn't bother to get dressed and just lay in bed, watching TV. It was as if I were swimming in treacle, or peering through a thick fog. Yet I couldn't understand why and I felt both listless and frustrated. A piece that should have taken five days to complete took a month. Anything creative was out of the question.

A writer friend, to whom I complained, said, "Give yourself some time about the writing. You've been through so much, suffered so much, the cistern has to fill up. I think that finally writing is a zest for details, an appetite for life, and your appetites have been horribly dampened. But one fair day you'll find yourself taking an intense interest in something even something trivial--and you'll refind that urge to write. I'm sure I'm right, esp. since your writing is so personal, is so much part of your inner mechanism." My inner mechanism, it appeared, had been thrown totally out of kilter.

My mother, who had recently broken her hip, would make the effort to come to meet me before or after I saw my therapist. We would have coffee, or a drink, and a snack. One day in early March, when everything seemed particularly bleak and difficult, as we sat in a sandwich bar in Gloucester Road, I looked up and saw her face. I understood then, some six weeks after the rape, how awful it was for her too and that one of the worst things was that she couldn't help. No one could. She would ask hopefully, "Is the therapy helping?" The truth was that it didn't seem to be, or not as far as I could tell, but who knows how much worse it might have been without?

Another problem was money. At the best of times, I am hopeless about money. This wasn't the best of times and I couldn't work. I am freelance so there was no question of sick pay. Even, if I had been able to get it together to apply to sign on and had qualified for benefits, it would have taken weeks. My mother was helping me a lot, paying for the therapy and giving me some money, but it was still a problem, not least because I spent a small fortune on a new burglar alarm that tolerated cats and which I could set for the night while I was in the flat.

My uncle and aunt paid for a grille for the kitchen window; my mother for beautiful louvered doors that would seal off the dining room. They all thought I should move. I wrote to my bank a month after the rape telling them what had happened and asking for their understanding and patience. I never got an answer, just a couple of returned cheques and unpaid standing orders. A desperate phone call ended with me hanging up in frustration and bursting into tears. I got the name of the chairman and group chief executive of Nat West and I wrote to them both, enclosing a copy of my original letter. The chairman never answered, but the group chief executive, Fred Goodwin, did on 1st April and after that, matters improved.

The police officer in charge of my case was moved to another department after a few weeks. No one thought to tell me. I found out only through a barrister friend who called the police on my behalf. His second-in-command has apparently also moved. The new "chaperone" casually mentioned it on the phone one day. These were external irritations--and that's all they were. Irritations, which were as nothing compared to the way I felt, except they made me feel worse.

The first lot of tests (from the rape exam) yielded nothing. The AIDS and venereal tests were negative too, revealing only that I had a natural immunity to Hepatitis B.

On 11th May, my chaperone sent me this message: "The forensic lab said that the material collected [from the rapist's sweater] provided a very mixed profile which was therefore unsuitable for inclusion on the database. However a single hair was located and appears to be the type that matches our suspect (black afro hair ) This has been sent for more tests." And, on 10th June, this came, "A further update re the forensic samples. The single hair was identified as your own. We have now been authorised to send any of the remaining samples to the lab in the hope that something evidential is found. This will be our last chance of finding anything left by the as yet unidentified suspect."

I wrote back, "How can a black afro hair possibly be mine? I have no African or Afro-Caribbean blood and I am a natural blonde. Also I never wore his jumper." Her answer said, " ...clearly you are correct from the previous entries. Sorry for any confusion. I may have misread his wording. I will get back to you asap." A subsequent e-mail told me that it was, in fact, a fingerprint that had been identified as mine.

My life now falls into two distinct phases: Before and After. And I have difficulty relating to Before; it seems another life. I have always felt rootless. Now I am utterly free-floating: everything seems more uncertain, more fluid.

The rape has also, in a sense, defined London for me--as a violent, unsafe place. I never cared much for London--too big, too dirty, but this has completed a process begun by the stabbing. But there are two main differences: firstly, Geoff was crazy. Secondly, I wasn't the main focus of that attack.

But let's look on the bright side. I can now sleep without pills and I no longer need the light on. Most nights are fine. Occasionally, but not so often as to be unbearable, things spook me: a cat's cold nose at night; an aural hallucination in which I can distinctly hear the sound of a telephone receiver being replaced by my bedside, yet there is no phone next to the bed and I know it; the (erroneous) impression that a light has suddenly been turned on; someone coming suddenly, unexpectedly into the room. I think I see things--a dark shadow moving in the room, but I am not terrified.

It helps, of course, that I am not in London, that I am on a Greek island where half the time we don't bother to lock our doors. And, since then, I have not once succumbed to despair. I am so grateful to be alive that worries that would have normally sent me half crazy seem unimportant.

At least, it happened when I had had a life, when I knew a thing or two, so that it couldn't shape my life, it couldn't be a life-defining experience.

Lucretia Stewart is the author of Tiger Balm: Travels in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia; The Weather Prophet: A Caribbean Journey and a novel which will be published in the US next spring by the University of Wisconsin Press. She is also the editor of Erogenous Zones (Modern Library). She can be reached at: stewart@counterpunch.org.