[This article grew out of my experience as a volunteer with the volunteer program I refer to in the first paragraph. I changed enough of the details to make it impossible to identify the victim, but otherwise it’s as faithful an account as I can manage. Needless to say her name wasn’t Carla.]

The call wakes me up Saturday morning at a quarter to six. We have a client coming in to the hospital, a rape case. This is my week on call as a volunteer with the local rape and domestic violence hot line. I’m so sleepy I forget to call my partner, just throw on my clothing and get into the car.

Carla is well-worn, in her early thirties, long but messy light brown hair. Her pants are clean, but her shirt and sneakers are filthy. She’s in the rape unit of the hospital–something new, just started last year–with a police officer. She’s so upset she can hardly talk. Whenever she gets out a few words, she starts stammering and sobbing. Frequently she dabs at a cut on her cheek that’s oozing blood. The wound is worse than it looks; she’s bleeding inside her mouth, too. We can smell the alcohol, not just on her breath; it seems to be coming out of her skin.

The cop has a lot of patience, and he needs it. Carla has trouble telling her story, and it doesn’t always make sense. As we finally put it together, she and her roommates, Joe and Freddy, finished their case of beer about three in the morning. She walked over to one bar that she isn’t allowed into, but she looked around outside in case someone she knew was there. Jerry, a pal of hers, came out to talk to her, and she told him she was heading over to another bar. “Maybe I’ll see you there,” he said, “and maybe I won’t.” She walked a couple of blocks over to the bar she was allowed into, and Jerry showed up a little afterwards.

Carla left the bar at a quarter to four. She doesn’t own a watch, but she tells the cop, “I always look when I’m leaving a place to see what time it is.” A friend of Jerry’s, she can’t remember who, drove them back to the first bar, where they got Jerry’s truck. “He was drunker than I was,” says Carla, “so I drove us back to my place.”

When they got there, Joe was still awake. He and Jerry gave Carla some money to go out and get cigarettes, and she walked over to the 24 hour convenience store, she says. On her way home, she saw two teenagers with bicycles. Carla says they gave her some lip, and she answered back.

Suddenly, someone else grabbed her from behind and hit her, knocking her out. When she woke up, one of them was on top of her. She saw four others, the kids with the bicycle on one side, two new faces on the other. The two new ones had their pants off and already had condoms on. But Carla’s tough. She fought them off, picked up her ripped pants, and walked home. She gives pretty good descriptions of the teenagers, although the colors of some of their shirts change from one telling to the next. She’s sure she can recognize them.

When she got home, she got into an argument with Jerry because he wanted his cigarettes and the kids had stolen them. She beat Jerry up, she tells us. Then she got herself to the hospital, she doesn’t remember how.

The story is full of holes. Carla says the attack occurred in the middle of the street, but the cops don’t find any blood there, and it doesn’t make any sense anyway. With plenty of sidewalk available, why would they take a chance on getting hit by a car? A woman who lives on the block says her dog didn’t even bark. I wonder about the condoms, but the cop tells me that rapists often wear them now because they know about DNA testing. Still, could Carla have seen who was wearing condoms by the available light? The late night clerk at the convenience store knows Carla pretty well, and he says she wasn’t in that morning. But we can be sure that someone beat her up. Aside from her face, she’s got abrasions on her head, her chest, and her back. Later, the cop tells us he suspects she went out to get some crack, and got beaten when the deal went sour. That would explain better why Jerry was so upset.

After the cop is finished interrogating her, the nurse can finally do the rape kit, the examination they do to get forensic evidence. It takes more than an hour. Later, the nurse tells me Carla was too afraid of needles to give her a blood sample, but there was so much bleeding inside her mouth that she got enough for a sample anyway. She also tells us that she can’t be certain whether or not a rape occurred. My partner and I converse and drowse while we’re waiting for the examination, then for the doctor to put stitches in Carla’s mouth, then for a technician to take X-rays to make sure nothing is broken. Carla’s shoulder really hurts, she tells us, but it turns out she’s only bruised.

I watch with admiration as my partner speaks with Carla, taking a firm tone but talking sympathetically, and putting her arm carefully around Carla when she starts to cry. She has a lot more experience with this than I do. Most of the volunteers are women, partly because more of them offer to help, but also because women talk more easily to other women. I always have a woman as my partner and I’m always in the backup position, never the primary, because I’m a man.

The cops at the station do their best to get a coherent story out of Carla, but they can’t. Seven hours after we first arrived, the cops give up and drive her home. They bring her back in the next day for a couple of hours more questioning, and we come back also. Finally they give up and type out her statement. She says she is no longer certain she can recognize her assailants. She signs the statement, bums a cigarette from a cop, and they drive her home.

This isn’t the first time Carla has been raped, she tells us, and it may not be the last. Any woman can fall victim to this crime, but it’s probably commoner among the ones who drink heavily, use other drugs, and walk around late at night. She mentions a daughter in passing, but there’s nobody in her life right now except for drinking buddies, and she doesn’t do anything but collect disability checks and drink. She doesn’t have a telephone, but she knows the channel numbers of most of the cable TV stations.

My partner and I got Carla some crackers when she was hungry and gave her someone to talk to while she was waiting. We didn’t talk to her about drinking or the way she lives her life. It’s none of our business. We gave her booklets about being a victim of crime and told her how to get in touch with the professionals at our office for help with the police or counselling. They’ll probably never hear from her. We may not have done her any good. But we treated her with respect, answered her questions, and did whatever we could for her. No matter who she is or what she does, somebody beat her up. I hope they catch the guy.

Leslie Gerber

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