When Debbie Smith stumbled out of the woods behind her house where she was raped by a stranger, she made her way upstairs to her sleeping husband, a police officer.
All she could utter was, “He got me.”
It wasn’t until three years ago, more than two decades after that fateful afternoon in 1989, that she could even put the proper word on what happened: Rape.
Such was the severity of the trauma and disorientation that rape victims experience, Smith told a roomful of social workers and police officers recently in the N.C. Mutual Life Insurance building.
Smith’s talk, organized by the Durham Crisis Response Center, was part of the international “Start By Believing” campaign during the month of April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Smith and her husband, Robert, train police and do advocacy work with victims through their nonprofit, Hope Exists After Rape Trauma, or H-E-A-R-T. The couple’s work also led to passage of the Debbie Smith Act in 2004, to provide funding for DNA analysis on the backlog of rape kits across the country.
As Smith recounted the rape, the immediate aftermath, the investigation and prosecution, her voice trembled.
She was cleaning inside her home, in Williamsburg, Va. She went around back to fix a stalling dryer and left the back door unlocked. Moments later, a stranger came in, took her into the woods, where he robbed and repeatedly raped her.
When he left, he said that if she told anyone, he would come back and kill her.
Afterward, Smith sank so low that she contemplated suicide.
The examination at the hospital, the questioning by the police all felt like the assault was happening all over again.
“Inside and outside, everything that identified me was gone,” she said.
It took years come to terms with what happened, and eventually, Smith was able to say to a roomful of strangers:
“Rape is about power and control. You need to do everything to give control back to the victim.”
‘Start by believing’
In the immediate weeks and months afterward, Smith had nightmares punctuated by piercing screams. She felt confused and bewildered. She was afraid her rapist would return, that people would not believe her story.
She also felt guilty and full of shame, often blaming herself to try to make sense of what happened.
“She actually said to me, ‘If I had worn a bra, he wouldn’t have raped me.’ ” Robert Smith said. “I told her, ‘You were inside your house!’ ”
The social stigma, guilt and shame of rape, compounding the emotional devastation, can prevent victims from pursuing justice.
“Oftentimes, when it comes to victims of sexual violence, people start by doubting,” said Kandace Watkins, spokeswoman for DCRC, a nonprofit that provides counseling and other services to rape victims.
“People don’t believe the victim. They try to make sense of what happened by thinking she was drinking too much, or she was wearing the wrong thing. We’d like people to start by believing the victim.”
But although it’s sometimes believed that victims “cry wolf” and file false reports, the numbers don’t bear this out.
Robert Smith put false reports at about 5 percent, at most.
Every incident that goes unreported means the rapist could target more victims. According to the Start By Believing website, rapists attack an average of six times.
Smith’s assault also affected her family. It put rage in her son, fear in her daughter, and made Robert Smith feel responsible, thinking that he had failed to protect her.
Robert Smith had a different, also painful experience, in the aftermath of his wife’s assault.
When the officers arrived to investigate, they began asking Debbie questions, and to Robert, standing off to the side and watching his colleagues work, it looked like they were doing a great job. But to Debbie, it came off as a bombardment. She felt cornered.
It came as a shock to him when Debbie said she felt mistreated.
“Being a police officer, I can tell you that we don’t like to be wrong,” Robert said. “It was hard for me to hear that, but I walked out doing work a little differently.”
Some of the tips Robert has learned include:
• Interview, don’t interrogate
• Avoid the “third degree”
• Be careful about rushing to judgment
• Have confidence in your ability to detect deception
• Be patient
• Be a good communicator
• Be aware of cultural differences in body language
Robert also said the red flags police typically use to judge when someone is lying – such as changes the sequence of events and adding new memories – cannot be applied to rape victims because of their trauma.
Debbie would get flashbacks of the incident as she healed, with fresh details emerging as her mind put the pieces back together.
“With victims of sexual assault, that red flag doesn’t mean a thing,” Robert said.
A guilty verdict
In 1995, Debbie Smith’s rapist was identified by DNA evidence. He was already in jail for other crimes, and Smith felt a huge relief, like she was finally starting to heal.
As her case wound through the legal system, Smith said it triggered the guilt and shame she was trying to shed.
When she sobbed in front of the first prosecutor she worked with, Smith said he told her to separate herself from the incident.
The prosecutor tried to persuade her to drop the case, she said, saying the trial would cost taxpayers a lot of money and suggesting she just charge the rapist for the $30 he took from her wallet.
But Smith persisted, and was able to work with a second prosecutor and victim advocates who believed and supported her.
“I absolutely refuse to be shamed,” she said.
Her rapist eventually received a guilty verdict. He is currently serving two life terms plus 25 years in prison.