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Adam Smeltz: State College Rape Survivor Shows Unassailable Resolve -- and Tells Her Story

on March 26, 2012 6:04 AM

In the DNA-linked stranger rape cases, she's listed as Victim No. 1.

We have known her only as a number. That's how the system tends to work. Survivors of rape -- the public doesn't often learn much about them, their strength, their thoughts.

But Victim No. 1 wants you to know her story.

She wants you to know what happened to her can happen to anyone -- "absolutely anyone," as she said. She knows it wasn't her fault.

"I want people to know I'm just like every other single student out there," she said.

She also wants you -- everyone -- to be safe. She hopes a public airing of her story -- what she's endured -- will stand as a public service, a means of prevention.

Before we get into details, though, let's pause for a moment and stop calling her a victim.

She and I met a couple times last week. I'm here to say, as objectively as I can, that I've never interviewed someone stronger, more unflappable or with a greater sense of purpose.

Survivor No. 1 is a woman of unassailable resolve.

Seeing her now, you wouldn't know cuts and bruises marred her face in August 2010, after a rapist attacked late one summer night in State College's Highlands neighborhood. You wouldn't know the self-consciousness she felt when people looked at her visible wounds. You wouldn't know she felt awkward when friends jokingly -- unknowingly -- asked if she'd been beaten up.

"That's a really uncomfortable situation, obviously," she said.

Fact is, she was beaten. The attacker, linked to two subsequent stranger rapes in the borough, has subjected women to both sexual and other physical violence, police have said.

He appears to remain on the loose, his identity still unidentified. (More information is posted here.)

For Survivor No. 1, wounds went well beyond the tangible. In the weeks right after the rape, she wondered if strangers on the street might be her attacker, if they might be witnesses to the crime, if they might know something.

Unfamiliar situations with unfamiliar people became stressful. Bubbly by nature, she turned hesitant to talk even casually with strangers. She moved out of her student home, near the downtown. She had a horrible dream that she was attacked by an assailant without a face.

She doesn't know what her rapist looks like. She doesn't remember details of the rape itself, which happened when she was walking home alone. (She'd been drinking that night, she has said. The rapist appears to target college-age women who are, in the words of police, "highly intoxicated.")

It took a while -- and some therapy -- to help her realize again that "not everyone is a bad thing." Time, too, helped her to the realization that she didn't need to apologize.

"Just understanding that it wasn't my fault -- that was a big thing," she told me.

Also big are her relationships with loved ones -- including her boyfriend -- who have stayed with her and been hugely supportive throughout. She has learned to communicate better with them, so they understand better the nuances of her bad days, her thought processes, her stressors.

At the same time, she has learned to see State College through a different prism. A Penn State student, she grew up in this region. It was a gentle, comforting place to be a kid.

Now she isn't sure that young people here see and comprehend the dangers in their midst. She still sees intoxicated women walking alone at night, even after news of the DNA-connected rapes broke earlier this month, she said.

"It's everything I can do not to stop and tell them to find someone to walk home with," she said. " ... I think it's important that we take responsibility for one another."

As for her own habits, she still goes out socially. But "I really don't like drinking as much as I did before. It's not something I want to worry about. ... Obviously, I don't want to put myself in that situation ever again."

Her wisdom comes off not as preachy, but as informed and grounded. As we talked, she emphasized a few central messages:

  • Others raped should go to the police. "You could be helping other people, too -- including yourself," she said. Rape survivors should know there's a full range of resources -- counseling included -- that's at their disposal.
  • It's important that friends of rape survivors acknowledge what's happened. That acknowledgment provides critical validation. "Just standing by, being there and understanding" can mean the world, she said.
  • If someone comes home with visible injuries, if something doesn't seem right, don't ignore the signs. "If you think it's suspicious," she said, take action -- whether that's calling someone's parents or the police. "Don't just assume it was something little, because it could be something huge."
  • Employ the buddy system. Don't let friends walk home alone.

As she considers her own future, Survivor No. 1 knows her life is forever altered. But she wanted to share this, as well:

"I don't think life will ever go back to the way it was before, and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing," she said, reflecting on her own, more-cautious approach. " ... But you can get back a lot of what you have lost."

She's planning for a full life, a productive career, a professional focus perhaps on child psychology.

"I don't want this ever to happen again," she said. "To anyone."

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