2009: Joanna Connors, The Plain Dealer, Cleveland
8/13/2009
ASNE Staff
Award for Nondeadline Writing
Thursday, August 13, 2009
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Nondeadline writing


Joanna Connors

Article list

Telling the story I tried to forget

May 4, 2008

I was running late. Again.

Dammit.

I was speeding down Euclid Avenue, headed east out of downtown for a 5 p.m. interview at Case Western Reserve University. It was 5:10.

Rush hour had begun, the daily exodus of workers leaving the city for the suburbs, hurrying through the "bad" areas. You could almost hear the steady beat of car locks clicking at East 55th Street, the percussive soundtrack to Cleveland's racial divide.

I slalomed from the left lane to the right lane and back, scolding myself in my usual manner.

"Why do you always do this?" I muttered. "Why, why, why?"

This was in 1984, when I was the theater critic for The Plain Dealer. It was July 9, high summer, still hot and sunny in the evening, and I wanted to get to Case, do the interview, and then go swimming before the pool closed. I had myself on a tight schedule, and I was already behind.

I'd lived in Cleveland only 10 months. I still didn't know all the shortcuts, but I did know that University Circle was crazy at this hour. I should have left more time.

I was going to Case to write a story about the Actors' Company, a summer theater group at Eldred Theater. The group was producing "Crossing Niagara," by Alonso Alegria, a Peruvian playwright. I was going to interview him and watch a bit of the rehearsal.

When I got to the parking lot on Adelbert Road, it was 5:20. I ran to Eldred, stumbling in the heels I was not used to wearing. The doors were open. Maybe they were still rehearsing and hadn't even noticed I was late. I ran up the stairs to the small lobby area on the second floor and looked into the theater.

Empty.

"Dammit," I said, under my breath. "They're gone."

I didn't notice the guy standing on the other side of the lobby until he said, "They said to wait a few minutes. They'll be back."

He was leaning against the wall, smoking.

He was a wiry guy, not much bigger than me, with an afro and big plastic glasses the size of bread plates, the style of the times.

I fidgeted and smiled. A few minutes passed. He took another cigarette from a pack of Kools and lit it.

After another couple of minutes, I gave up, and was turning to go back down the stairs when he said, "I'm working on the lights. Do you want to see what I've been doing?"

"OK, I guess so," I said.

I'd never seen the guy before. A yellow light flashed briefly in my head: Caution.

I ignored it, the way I'd just ignored every yellow light on Euclid Avenue.

I walked into the theater, down the right aisle, and climbed the steps to the stage.

He was right behind me. He pointed up toward the lights, with a vague wave of his hand, and said something that made no sense. Animal alarm flashed through my body, followed by a flood of adrenaline that said: This is not right. In fact, this is bad. Really bad. Get out of here. Now.

"I think I'll wait outside," I said.

Too late. He grabbed me from behind, pinning my arms to my sides.

I know this story will not be easy to read.

It isn't easy to tell, either. It scares me to tell it, and it scares me even more to think of the reaction to it.

It is about rape. It is about race and class. And it is about our community - our line-in-the-sand combativeness over these issues, and our stubborn and fearful reluctance to talk about them.

I needed to tell my story, and I think our community needs to see, and talk about, the huge barriers between the haves and the have-nots.

Much of what I encountered in reporting and telling this story ended up playing into the worst racial stereotypes. That is what I found, and I cannot change the facts. But I also found real people behind those stereotypes, people who suffered and survived much worse than I did and needed to tell their own stories.

My fear of how people will react wakes me at 3 in the morning, like a Parris Island drill sergeant, screaming: Are you insane? Why are you taking this risk?

I've struggled with this story for more than 20 years. It scares me so much that I stopped telling it when I no longer had to. I told it to the police, the emergency room nurses and doctor, the detectives, the assistant prosecutor, the judge and the jury. I told it to my husband and my sisters and my mother. And then, of course, I told it to psychiatrists and psychologists, so many over the years I lost count.

I told it over and over again, making it shorter, blunter, until it began to feel like I had made it up.

And then I stopped.

When I decided to tell it publicly, I decided I would have to tell the raw, uncomfortable and sometimes painful truth. All of it, including things that I never spoke of before, the feelings that make me look bad. If I held back, then telling wouldn't help anyone. Including me.

I took the volunteer training at the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center last year, where I learned that I am not alone in the way I reacted to my rape.

Like most rape survivors, I blamed myself. I chastised myself for being late, for being stupid: Anyone else would have seen the guy in the lobby and left right away.

Like most rape victims, I was ashamed, too. My shame was not about the sexual nature of the crime. It was about how I saw myself. I was ashamed of trusting this stranger, when I'm supposed to be a skeptical and observant reporter, and of not fighting back. I was ashamed of being a victim when I wanted to see myself as a strong, independent woman.

And like many rape victims, I kept it all inside and tried to live my life as though it had not happened, only to have it resurface years later. At the Rape Crisis Center, director Megan O'Bryan told me that they get more calls from survivors years or decades later than they do from more recent survivors.

The shame and self-blame lead most of us to keep our rape secret. Our culture conspires with us in this. We Americans have such an awkward, complicated response to sex. We're obsessed with it, ashamed of it, thrilled by it and deeply frightened by it. So we see the words "sexual assault" and we think "SEXUAL assault." We don't want to talk about it.

The fear I felt, all these years, was not primarily fear of another assault, although I do carry that fear, too, more for my daughter than for myself. It was a fear of exposure and shame.

I'm tired of being afraid.

So here is an uncomfortable truth: I ignored my instinct not to trust a stranger, because the stranger was young and black, and I did not want to look like a racist white woman who automatically does not trust young black men.

If he had been white? I'm not sure - but I think I would have left.

Instead, I stayed. I walked into that theater, down the right-side aisle, and into a life constricted by fear and hiding.

I wanted to scream. I tried to scream. But my throat closed around the sound. It came out strangled, a hoarse, "No."

"Be quiet," he said.

I felt metal on my neck. He had a knife.

"Please don't do this," I said. "Do you want money? Do you want my purse? Take anything you want, but please don't hurt me."

"Now, just be quiet," he whispered, as if calming a child.

He pushed me behind the scrim, a thin screen at the very back of the stage, then against the concrete wall, his hand to my mouth. He showed me the knife. It wasn't a knife; it was half of a pair of long, pointed utility scissors, a makeshift dagger.

"Now, I can kill you," he said. "But I won't kill you if you do what I say."

He took his hand from my mouth and started unbuttoning my blouse.

"Please don't do this," I whispered. "Please."

He kept unbuttoning.

I was shaking, hard, but no tears came. I was too terrified to cry.

I thought of something that might stop him. "I'm having my period," I said.

"Be quiet."

He tore at the last button on my blouse, and as he removed it I saw drops of blood dotting the front.

Wait. My mind took a few seconds to catch up.

My blood?

I put my hand to my neck, where the dagger had been. It felt sticky.

I looked at my hand. A bright red smear.

Yes: My blood.

I looked down and saw more blood on my skirt. In that instant, everything came into sharp focus, as if someone had adjusted the lens on my fuzzy view of the world.

Now, I thought. Now is when it happens to me.

I was 30 years old, and this was the day I would die.

When I look back at my 30-year-old self, I feel as tender and protective as I do looking at my two college-age children today.

I was a proud one. Oh, was I proud - of my independence, of my feminism, of my profession in newspapers and my new job at a top-20 daily.

I loved the newspaper life. I felt born to it. My father and my grandfather were both newspapermen - back when most of the people in newsrooms were, in fact, men - and I was carrying on the family tradition, first as the film critic at an afternoon paper in Minneapolis and now as the theater critic at The Plain Dealer.

But behind my pride was a bottomless well of insecurity, into which I fell on a regular basis. Waiting in the well to greet me was my own personal critic, who wanted answers, and wanted them NOW: What did I really know about theater? Who was I to criticize anything, let alone the honest efforts of creative people?

I didn't know then what I know now, which is: Lots of women have a critic inside our heads, questioning our competence and our right to be who we are. Therapists call it Impostor Syndrome. Inside, we feel like big fat frauds, and we're always on guard, waiting for someone to figure it out.

Maybe the critic was the natural byproduct for adolescent girls who came of age at the same time feminism did, in the late '60s and early '70s. We had grown up in the world where most mothers stayed home and made a career out of taking care of us. By the time we were adults, though, the feminist movement had given us new, and great, expectations for our lives. We took it as a given that we could and would choose another career, outside the home and alongside men.

We were suspended in midair, between one culture and another. That led to anxiety about our place in the world. I wouldn't trade being in that time and that place for anything, though. The freedom was exhilarating. And sisterhood really was powerful, corny as it sounds now.

Flush with righteous feminism, I rejected common-sense safety measures as sexist constraints designed by men to keep women down. I thought I should be able to do anything men did. So in college, I walked alone at night through the University of Minnesota campus all the time. Off campus, I hitchhiked everywhere, and I did the same one summer in Europe.

My friends and I read "Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape" and agreed with the author, Susan Brownmiller, that rape was "nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear."

Inspired by the book, I did an audio documentary about rape for a radio journalism class. I don't remember much about it, but I clearly remember the opening, because the professor played it in class and made fun of it.

It went: "Rape." (long pause) "Think about it." (long pause)

For my friends and me, rape was a political issue, not a personal one. It was a debate topic, a rallying cry. The actual crime would never happen to us.

I was young. And like almost every young person who ever existed, I was stupid about my safety. I drank too much, sometimes, and used drugs, sometimes. I thought bad things happened to other people, not me.

How odd that when the bad thing did happen to me, my reckless days were behind me. I was doing my job. I no longer did drugs, I did not drink too much anymore, and I wasn't hitchhiking. I was in Cleveland, Ohio, on solid ground.

Standing on the stage, I felt his hands on me. I felt the blade next to my neck, then next to my chest. I felt the scrape of the concrete wall on my bare back.

But that was my body. The rest of me had slipped away, and was up in the rafters, suspended - out of place, out of time.

From up above, I watched my body with a strange detachment. I didn't feel fear, or panic, or any of the other emotions I would expect. I knew I was watching myself, but at the same time I felt like I was watching someone else. Someone in a play.

For her, I felt - I guess the word is concern. And pity.

Down on the stage, the guy had pulled down my skirt and pantyhose and underwear. They puddled at my ankles. Then he started taking off his own clothes. He still had the scissors at my neck, so he was fumbling at his pants, trying to get them unzipped with one hand.

When they finally were down, he pushed me against the wall and tried to have sex with me, standing there. When that didn't work, he turned me around, my face to the wall.

That didn't work, either, so he pushed me down to my hands and knees. That worked. After a couple of minutes, he turned me over and pushed into me again. He moved fast, with a mechanical detachment. As he did, a gold cross hanging from his neck dangled in my face.

He saw my wedding ring.

"Are you married?" he asked.

"Yes," I said.

"Have you ever had a black man before?"

"No."

"I bet you've always wanted to," he said.

His breath carried the smell of cigarettes and alcohol.

I knew what he wanted me to answer.

"Yes," I said.

He stood and pulled me up by my hair, so I was kneeling. "I got to get off," he said.

He pushed his body into my face.

Up above, I watched.

I took my story and buried it inside myself, as deep as I could. I didn't tell my friends, I didn't tell my two children when they were old enough to hear it, I didn't talk about it anymore with my husband or sisters or mother.

I told them, and myself, that I was fine. Fine! Just fine. Can we please not talk about it anymore?

But here's the thing I have discovered: I might have buried this story, but it was not dead. It was still alive, and it grew in that deep place I put it, like a vine from some mutant seed, all twisted and ugly. And as it grew, it strangled a lot of other stuff in me that should have been growing. It killed my trust, my confidence. It almost killed my sense of who I was.

The vine poked its way to the surface two years ago. It is not a coincidence that it came up on another college campus. It probably could have been any campus, but it was at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., the place Sigmund Freud chose to give his only lectures on his first and only visit to America, in 1909.

I was with my daughter, Zoe, the two of us huddled under an umbrella in a cold October rain. Zoe was a senior in high school, and we were doing the obligatory college tour: Five days of following backward-walking student guides from dorms to dining halls to libraries.

We were headed toward yet another library when the guide stopped at a small telephone box, which hung on a pole by a blue light.

"We have these all over campus," he said. "They're safety stations. If you're walking alone at night and you think someone is following you, or you might be in danger, you get to one of these blue lights, call, and help will be there within five minutes."

"Five minutes?" I whispered to Zoe. "Who are they kidding? Five minutes is way too late. In five minutes, you could be dead."

She rolled her eyes, the universal teenage response to fretful parents.

I looked at her. My beautiful, strong, confident daughter. She was a part of me, and I was a part of her. She had me in her blood, her cells. I would die for her, I would kill for her, and now I could see only one thing: She was prey.

She was going to a college campus, somewhere, where help is always five minutes away and she is prey.

I had to save her. I had to tell her.

The rapist was having trouble. He kept turning me over, standing me up, pushing me to my knees. None of it seemed to satisfy him.

He kept kissing me, asking me if I liked what he was doing.

Why was he doing this? He was treating me like a girlfriend, like he thought we would be together after this.

And then it hit me. This was a prison rape.

He stopped once, when we heard a noise from downstairs: Bang, like a door closing. Would I be rescued?

He put his hand over my mouth and grabbed the dagger: "Be quiet. Be quiet." I nodded and he took his hand away.

The noise was followed only by silence. No one was coming. He pushed me to the floor again.

How long did it last? I had no idea: My sense of time slipped out of my grasp. The theater felt like a sealed tomb, something out of an Edgar Allan Poe story, soundproof and windowless.

I tried to feign cooperation. "I think people are coming," I said. "They might come and catch us. We should get out of here."

He got up and started pulling on his pants. I got my skirt.

"Get your purse," he said. I got it and gave him all my money. He wanted the coins, too.

He put the dagger-scissors up to my back and pushed the point in just enough so I could feel it.

"OK," he said. "We're going to go outside now. I told you I wouldn't kill you, but if you do anything stupid when we get out, I will kill you."

He led me out a back door and down a staircase, holding my arm, with the point of the scissors pressing into my back.

Then we were outside. I registered the change in one-word thoughts: Bright. Sun. Air.

DAVE.

In the sun, I could see the tattoo on his right arm: "DAVE," carved into his skin with crude capital letters. It looked like it had been done with a ballpoint pen. Or scissors.

I could still feel the scissors point in my back. Now I knew his face and his name. Or his prison boyfriend's name.

"Where's your car?" he asked.

I knew too much for him to ever let me go. I had to save myself.

"It's right next to the attendant's booth," I said. "We can't go there. We don't want to get caught."

He turned me, so I was facing him. He licked his finger and rubbed at the blood on my neck. He smoothed my hair.

"Now, don't you go to the cops," he said. "If you go to the cops, I'll have to go to prison."

"I won't. I promise."

"If I have to go to prison, I'll miss you," he said, almost cooing.

Then he kissed me on the lips and walked away.

How do you tell your own children a story like this? I could have kept it from them and never told. But I felt I owed them an explanation.

This is why I hovered over you. This is why my internal alarm clanged constantly, why I treated every tumble and scrape as an ER-level emergency, and every sleepover party as a potential kidnapping situation.

I wanted you to embrace the world and live boldly, but my actions taught you to fear the world and not trust anyone.

I hope this will explain my thousand-yard stare, the one you hated because it meant I was not paying attention. I hope it explains all those times I vanished into myself.

Did you notice? Can you forgive me?

It took me months after our college trip to work up the courage to tell Zoe. She cried. She said now she understood why I was so overprotective as a mother, why I smothered her, and why my husband guarded her every move.

Then I told my son, Dan, who got angry. He did not say much, but in time he came home with a tattoo on his chest: "MOM," inside a heart.

Both of them wanted to know more: Who was this guy? Why did he do it? What was his story?

I didn't know.

I had seen DAVE five times: When he raped me. When I identified him two days later in a lineup. When I sat across a table from him in the county jail three weeks later, to testify in a parole revocation hearing that would keep him in jail. At the trial. And at the sentencing.

I knew he had gone to prison. Beyond that, I didn't know much more than his name. Yet, if I made a list of the most influential people in my life, DAVE would be near the top. He had controlled so much of how I lived my life.

I had told my children. Now it was time to answer all their questions - and mine.

I had to reclaim the parts of me I lost to him.

It was time for me to go find DAVE.


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One search ends, another begins

May 4, 2008

They caught the rapist on July 10, 1984, at 5 p.m. on the Case Western Reserve University campus.

Larry Donovan, a University Circle police investigator, was on undercover surveillance in the quad for just 38 minutes when a man fitting the description I gave police strolled past Eldred Hall.

To Donovan's amazement, DAVE returned to the scene of the crime the very next day, at the same time, wearing the same clothes - shiny black tank top, dark shirt, dark trousers. They found the gold cross on a chain - the one that had dangled over my face as he raped me - in his pocket, along with a screwdriver, a pack of Kools and a copy of Black Cherry, a porn magazine. His zipper was down.

University Circle police turned him over to the Cleveland police, and that night we got the call: They had arrested a suspect. His name was David Francis. He was 27 years old. Could I come in to view a lineup?

The next morning, I went downtown to police headquarters with my husband, Chris Evans. I had been clinging to him like a frightened child since the minute he walked into the emergency room at University Hospitals, where I had to tell him what had happened. The nurse who called him said only that I had been in an accident.

When I saw his stricken face, I could barely say the words: "I was raped." They sounded too blunt yet too melodramatic.

The people who loved me most were the ones I could not bear to tell. I knew Chris would never blame me, as some husbands and families do. But I was already blaming myself, and it made it hard to talk to him. The same with my mother: I asked my older sister, Nancy, to call her in Minnesota and tell her.

At police headquarters, the detectives wouldn't let Chris come into the lineup with me. I felt jumpy. It didn't make sense: I knew David Francis was in police custody, behind thick one-way glass. Still, when they switched on the lights, fight-or-flight adrenaline flooded my body.

He was looking at the floor, second in the line of seven men. When the lieutenant told him to step forward and turn right and then left, he looked up. His eyes were bored. Insolent. He was trying to intimidate me.

"That's him," I said when the time came. "Number two."

The following day a detective went to see Francis at the county jail. He told the detective he had gone to the Case campus for a jog. He said he couldn't have raped anyone: He had bone cancer, he claimed, and had not been able to get an erection for six months. He said the doctors gave him six months to a year to live. That's why he was released on parole from Lucasville prison, where he had been serving time for multiple felonies including aggravated burglary, on July 2, 1984.

One week before he raped me.

In the summer of 2006, I finally gathered my courage to go find DAVE. I thought he was still in prison.

I wasn't sure how to start, or whether I could bring myself to confront him if I did find him. So I decided to begin the way I would any other story: with documents that would lead me through the case and his criminal history from the beginning.

First, I called the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office. They gave me a file that was thick with police reports, witness statements, rap sheets, subpoenas, lab reports, the assistant prosecutor's trial notes, appeal briefs and grand jury indictments, all stuffed together in no particular order and bound with a rubber band.

I started sorting the papers into piles, and was halfway through the stack when I came to a page that stopped me.

On a court record, someone had scrawled the word "DECEASED," underlined three times.

David Francis was dead.

He died of Hodgkin's disease in prison on Aug. 18, 2000. Sixteen years after he raped me.

I stared at the words. The fire-breathing dragon I set out to slay was already slain. I felt let down and relieved at the same time: I would not get to confront DAVE / I would not have to confront DAVE.

Now what?

I couldn't give up my search. I wasn't sure why I felt compelled to dig into the past this way, but I knew I had to do it. I needed to face my fears, but I also wanted some understanding: What brought him to this? Who was he, and why did our paths collide in violence? What happened to him afterward?

Or was I really trying to find out what happened to me afterward? I had to continue the search. I needed the trial transcript.

At the Old Courthouse on Lakeside Avenue in Cleveland, a grand marble staircase led me down to the basement file rooms for the county clerk of courts.

In the hallway, towers of stacked boxes formed a cardboard canyon of mortgage foreclosures. Divorce actions. Child-custody battles. Competency hearings. Property disputes. Robbery trials. Murder trials. Rape trials. File rooms held more of the same.

I felt hollow. I had entered a repository of grief, a warehouse holding the collective pain, bitterness, fear and sorrow of the people of Cuyahoga County.

The clerk handed me my small piece of the grief: Case Number CR-193108: The State of Ohio v. David Francis.

From an envelope, the evidence tumbled out: the gold cross, Polaroids of my injuries, Francis' mug shots and two tiny envelopes containing hair samples. Mine, and his.

I opened the transcript and read, on the first page:

Be it remembered, that at the September, 1984 term of said court, to-wit, commencing on Wednesday, the 17th day of October, this cause came on to be heard …

Be it remembered.

I turned the page and read, remembering all I had tried to forget.

Six days after I identified Francis, the county sheriff's server handed me a subpoena. I had to testify at a parole revocation hearing on July 24 at the Cuyahoga County Corrections Center.

Why? I wondered. He's already locked up. I had heard that rape victims felt raped a second time by the criminal justice system, but I thought that had ended in the 1970s with training programs for law enforcement and medical professionals. Now I was seeing it. I was a cog in the system, not a person with feelings.

I had to go to the jail, sit across a table from the guy who raped me, and testify against him so they could revoke his parole. That way, if the county released him on bail before the trial, he'd have to go back to a state prison.

I was not allowed to bring my husband or a friend with me. The only person I could bring would be my attorney.

I didn't have an attorney. My case was being handled by the county prosecutor, who was working for the people of Ohio. When the case went to trial, I would be a mere witness.

I panicked. How could I face my rapist alone?

My husband called the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center. They'd sent a counselor to the emergency room the night I was raped. Now they came through again: They had a legal intern who could meet me at the jail and go in with me. She would hold my trembling hand.

The hearing took place in a room in the jail's crowded common area, where dozens of thugs in orange jumpsuits turned to look at me as I walked through. Their stares made me feel naked.

The guards brought Francis in, handcuffed but not shackled. I was trapped with him again. I felt sick with fear.

He took the chair directly opposite me, slouched down, and fixed me with the stony gaze that he would hold for the entire hearing.

I shook as I told the story. Francis made derisive, clicking sounds as I spoke. His stare made me feel like I was lying. It said that he knew the truth: I had cooperated with him.

And the truth was, I had. I had cooperated to save my life.

In August, I testified again, this time to the grand jury. On Aug. 17, they indicted Francis on 18 counts of rape, kidnapping, felonious assault, attempted rape, gross sexual imposition and aggravated robbery, each count with a violence specification.

At his arraignment, he pleaded not guilty. The judge set bail at $150,000.

The rest of the summer moved in slow motion. I went back to work, where the reporters and editors were kind. Two women confided they had survived rape, too. But mostly my colleagues were embarrassed; everyone knew what had happened, but no one knew quite what to say.

That was fine with me. I didn't want them to say anything. I felt the way I did when my father died, when I was 22: With every sympathetic word or glance, my throat burned and my eyes flooded with tears I tried to will away.

I did not want to be told I was brave. I didn't feel brave. I hadn't fought back. All I had done was endured and survived.

After half a day I went home, went to bed and cried.

My husband and I went to a therapist named Penny, whose office had no furniture, only big pillows on the floor. We sank into the puffs of down and told her we needed help with getting through the trial.

The first thing Penny told us was that most marriages do not survive this kind of trauma. She gave us a statistic, but I don't remember it. We barely listened to her warning: We were sure we would be the exception.

Penny told me I had to get angry.

"Punch the pillow," she said. "Pretend it's the rapist. Yell at him. Tell him what he did to you."

I could not do it. It felt silly.

Besides, I did not feel angry. I felt empty. I was a ghost, my body made of vapor. It would not feel anything now; it had felt too much during the rape.

I welcomed this absence of feeling. It meant I had recovered, I thought. So after three sessions, we quit therapy.

I wanted to be fine. I wanted to be the person I was before the rape: strong, independent, proud. I wanted the rape to disappear, as though it had never happened.

My husband tried to support me; he was consumed with rage. He wanted to kill my attacker. I didn't understand it - it made me feel like I was his property, not his wife - but all of our male friends did. And now that I have a daughter, I understand it, too.

He stopped talking about the rape. I stopped talking about it. Our silence clanged against the walls of our marriage.

The weeks went by, August into September. Allen Levenberg, the assistant county prosecutor, called me with updates every now and then. I wanted it to be over and asked why it was taking so long. This case was progressing quickly, he said.

During pretrial meetings, he told me I was an ideal victim, because as a reporter I noticed details. He didn't add that I was white, educated and had a career, but I understood that he meant that, too.

Levenberg was a compact man with a brusque, humorless manner that always made me feel like he was judging me. He was one of the best lawyers in the prosecutor's office, handling major crimes, but I heard he was not popular with his colleagues.

Once, he asked my husband to leave the room, then looked at me sternly and asked, "Why the HELL did you go into that theater?" I went home sobbing.

Levenberg told me they had evidence: On the stage, the police found a tiny piece of paper scrawled with phone numbers. They called them all, searching for a connection to Francis. On one, his mother's boyfriend answered.

As the trial date got nearer, I worked myself into frenzies of worry. What if the jury noticed the inconsistencies in my descriptions? In one, I said Francis had very dark skin; in another, just dark skin. And if I had been face-to-face with him for almost an hour, why didn't I remember if he had wispy facial hair, or sideburns?

I passed the days crying and the nights in terror. In my nightmares, Francis was leaning over my bed, his hand covering my face and his hot breath whispering in my ear:

I'll miss you. I'll see you again.

The next time I saw him was in October, in Courtroom 17C of the Cuyahoga County Justice Center, Judge Harry A. Hanna presiding.

The trial took a week. I spent most of the time alone, in the hallway, because as a witness I was not allowed to hear other testimony. I understood this, but I felt isolated and lonely. My stomach hurt so much I couldn't eat, which made me lightheaded. I sat on the hard chair, wanting only to lie down in a fetal curl.

I took the stand the second day and continued the next morning. Francis sneered at me from the defendant's table, right in my line of sight. His hair was now in tight braids. He wore a shirt and tie.

On the stand, I felt like an actor in one of my recurring dreams: under a spotlight, with no idea what my lines were or even what the play was. I could not stop trembling.

Levenberg took me through the rape minute-by-minute, asking questions like, "Were you wearing your glasses at the time?" And, "At this time, were you up against the wall, on your back, facing the wall, or what?"

The questions seemed absurdly detailed, but my answers mattered. The two public defenders, stuck with a defendant who had tattooed his own name on his arm, were trying to build a case of mistaken identity. They had failed with their first attempt, a motion to get the lineup thrown out on the grounds that David Francis was the only one in it with a DAVE tattoo.

They never grilled me about my sexual history, the way defense attorneys do in movies and TV but almost never do in real life. Ohio has a Rape Shield Law that completely prohibits that kind of inquiry.

They never tried to argue that the rape was consensual. Their cross- examination made me anxious, but I did not see them as the enemy. I knew they had to defend their client to the best of their ability.

They also offered two alibi witnesses. All alone out in the hallway, I had lots of time to brood about this. What if the alibi held up? What then?

My husband and my mother watched the trial but came out at regular intervals to report on the proceedings.

At one point, my forever-dieting mother brought news she thought might cheer me up: "The ER doctor described you as thin!" she said.

"Thin, but not very smart," I said.

Another time, my husband came out to report on the first alibi witness, Lucie Renee Elkins, a 21-year-old single mother whose testimony hinged on the purchase of a TV Guide. She said she was sure Francis was with her in her apartment on East 79th Street that day, because she sent him out to buy her the new TV Guide and a beer.

"You don't remember what day of the week that was, by the way?" Levenberg asked.

"It had to be a weekend because he was going to get me a TV Guide," Elkins said. "Which was Friday, right. Friday, that is when they come out."

"Right," Levenberg said. "And you needed a new TV Guide, right?"

"I get them every Friday," she said.

Levenberg hid his triumphant grin until he was outside the courtroom. The day Francis raped me, July 9, 1984, was a Monday.

One of the public defenders asked for a conference out of the jury's hearing.

"I can't vouch for the credibility of these people at all," he told the judge. "I am only putting them on because my client has instructed me to do so."

The defense did not call the second alibi witness. Because he had a lengthy felony record, Francis did not testify either.

The jury took only an hour to return a verdict of guilty on all 18 counts.

The next day, Oct. 26, Judge Hanna sentenced Francis.

I shivered when the judge spoke:

"Those of us who believe in God and try to live by God's law are also taught to try to see the Lord in all of his creatures," Hanna said. "In this position, that is getting increasingly harder. Today with you, Mr. Francis, it is nearly impossible. It is an evil and vile thing you did. Fortunately for her, and unfortunately for you, you picked on a woman who had the courage to fight back and stand up to you and prosecute you, so that at least she has spared the July 10th victim that you were looking for, and all of the other victims that you may have looked for, because there will be none. She prosecuted you, the jury convicted you, and for my part, sir, I shall bury you in the bowels of our worst prison for as long as I can."

He then sentenced Francis to 30 to 75 years. "I hope I am giving you a life sentence," Hanna said. "Because that is what you deserve. And if I am not here in 20 years when you go before the board, these words will be … They will be part of your file. That is all."

Judge Hanna's words made me feel good about myself for the first time since the rape.

How did David Francis respond? I could not bring myself to look at him. But tucked into the prosecutor's voluminous file, I found a report from the sheriff's deputies guarding him.

"He stood and looked in the direction of the victim and said, 'Yeah. Go ahead and celebrate. Pass out cigars,' " the report read.

The deputies told him to sit, but "some moments later, the defendant, David Francis, again turned around to face the victim and stated, 'I'm gonna f- you up.' "

I can't discuss the trial, or the rape, or my long-term response to it without going into the issue of race. I'd rather not. As we are seeing this year, in Barack Obama's history-making campaign for president, race remains an almost impossibly tangled subject for Americans. We're afraid to discuss it, for fear that we might unknowingly blunder, say the wrong thing, and reveal ourselves as racists.

But I am white, and the rapist was black. Those two facts create cultural dynamite.

In "Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape," Susan Brownmiller devoted an entire chapter to race and rape.

The first line of that chapter says it all: "No single event ticks off America's political schizophrenia with greater certainty than the case of a black man accused of raping a white woman."

It's an incendiary combination, steeped in the most shameful chapters of American history - beginning with slavery, when white masters routinely and legally raped their female slaves, and extending into the Jim Crow era.

One of the many toxic legacies of this horror was the rage that Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver wrote about in his 1968 memoir, "Soul on Ice," in which he acknowledged raping several white women.

"Rape was an insurrectionary act," he wrote. "It delighted me that I was defying and trampling upon the white man's law, upon his system of values, and that I was defiling his women and this point, I believe, was the most satisfying to me because I was very resentful over the historical fact of how the white man had used the black woman. I felt I was getting revenge."

The Jim Crow era added another historical shame to the mix. Brownmiller cites the infamous cases of the Scottsboro Boys and Emmett Till, who had been put to death for coming too close to white women.

She admits to her own knee-jerk reaction to a case she covered as a reporter: Three black defendants were accused of raping a white woman, and because of the sordid history of lynching innocent black men for rape, she automatically assumed that the victim was lying. She was not.

As a child of the '60s, I shared Brownmiller's knee-jerk suburban-white liberalism. I grew up in an integrated suburb, Evanston, Ill. In junior high school, I read and loved "To Kill a Mockingbird," and I sang along to Janis Ian's "Society's Child." My first boyfriend was black. We marched in the streets of Evanston for nondiscriminatory open-housing laws.

I struggled with my reaction to my rape for a long, long time. I feel deep shame to say this, but this story is not worth writing if I don't tell the truth, however uncomfortable and harsh: The rape made me fear black men I did not know, especially young black men.

I hated this fear. I tried to reason my way out of it, and I spent a lot of my time in therapy trying to overcome it.

Finally, a psychologist asked me the obvious, common-sense question: "But do you also fear and avoid strange white men?"

My answer was yes, of course. The difference was that fearing white men did not make me feel bad about myself. It did not make me feel like a closet racist. It did not bring me shame.

Along with my feelings of detachment, isolation, fear and numbness, I wrestled with guilt. As odd as it might sound, I felt guilty that I had grown up with advantages in life that my attacker probably had not had. The trial escalated that feeling. David Francis and his witnesses were not educated, were poor, and actually lived in Cleveland, not one of the suburbs.

Poverty was the real issue here, not race. One morning during the trial, Levenberg reported that all the alibi witnesses were on welfare and were breaking rules by living with boyfriends. He could discredit them in his cross-examination, he said, and get the welfare office after them, too.

I did not want to win that way.

David Francis came from a world I did not know. When he raped me, the Two Americas - the Two Clevelands - collided. One was white, suburban, well-off. The other was black, urban and desperately poor. Were crime and violence the only way these two worlds can meet?

My quest to find David Francis would take me into the other America to find out.


Article list

The privileged and the cursed

May 4, 2008

David Francis planned to return to Cleveland. After serving time for raping me, he intended to live in a house on East 82nd Street owned by Lula Mae Foster.

That's what he told prison officials, anyway. In one parole application, he called Foster his aunt. In another, she was his grandmother.

Foster still lives on East 82nd, in the Hough neighborhood, one of Cleveland's most distressed. In the summer of 2007, I went to see her.

It takes 10 minutes to drive to Hough from Shaker Heights, where I live. But not many people make that trip. It leads across the border of what former presidential candidate John Edwards called the Two Americas: on one side, a leafy, prosperous suburb; on the other, a city that the U.S. Census Bureau designated the poorest big city in America in both 2004 and 2006.

Shaker Heights was once synonymous with power and wealth in Cleveland. That reputation remains, even though Shaker has changed. At the end of the 1960s, residents organized to fight the white flight that was crippling other suburbs. Shaker became a national symbol for successful integration and a haven for liberal-minded professionals.

My husband and I moved there in 1984 because of the diversity; in high school, I had lived in an integrated suburb, and Shaker Heights felt comfortable and safe.

Hough, on the other hand, did not feel safe. Foster's house is just 3½ blocks from the corner where racial tension erupted into riots on July 18, 1966. The infamous six nights of arson and violence left scars that never fully healed.

Even 15 years after the riots, in his book, "Cities Within Cities," Common Pleas Judge Burt Griffin wrote: "Hough ranks near the top in all of Cleveland's disagreeable statistics - welfare recipients, crime, abandoned buildings, rate of illegitimate births and school dropouts."

This is the image I carried, although the neighborhood has changed in the past few years. Brand-new houses fill long-vacant lots, sharing the block with abandoned houses boarded with plywood.

I was nervous about going there. Was I being stupid all over again?

I asked a friend to go with me. We drove past a deli at the end of Foster's street, where bright-red signs advertised: Auto Supply. Groceries. Hygiene. Beauty Supplies. Ribs, Wings and Polish Boys.

When we got to Foster's house in midafternoon, we sat in the car for almost an hour while I took deep breaths and tried to control my shaking hands. This is the part of the job most reporters hate: Knocking on doors unannounced to ask nosy questions. I really hate it, and this time it was personal.

We watched the house, a three-story colonial built in 1900, when Hough was a fashionable Cleveland neighborhood. Now the baby-blue paint was peeling and the front porch slumped with exhaustion.

A stocky man walked up the driveway and went inside; a minute later, we saw him watching us through a window. It was time to knock on the door or leave.

When I knocked and told Foster I wanted to talk about David Francis, her nephew - or grandson - she was puzzled.

"David Francis?" she asked. "Who's that?"

I explained about the parole records.

"Oh, David Francis," she said. "Millie's son." She led me inside, hobbling on creaky knees.

Foster, a short, heavy woman whose sunken cheeks make her look older than her 61 years, raised 10 children in this house, five McIntyres from her first marriage and five Fosters from her second. Grandchildren and friends had lived there, too, over the years.

But never David Francis. He was no relation at all. Foster had no idea where he'd lived in Cleveland.

Foster met Francis' mother, Millie, at a basement after-hours place called Velma's. That was back in the 1970s, when Millie and some of her kids had moved to Cleveland. When she was drinking hard and down on her luck, Millie moved into a room in Foster's house. Velma took Millie's youngest kids, Laura and Neamiah.

Foster called into the dining room: "Do either of you remember David Francis?"

Two men looked up from their lunch.

"David Francis?" one said. "No."

Foster thought for a minute. "I remember now," she said. "It was years ago. They called me from the prison to say he died."

They asked her what to do with his body. "I said, I couldn't tell you. All I know is, his mother is dead, his brothers and sisters are in Boston, but I don't know any numbers. You'll have to do with him what you do. I don't have the money to bury him. I hated it, but there was nothing else I could do."

The two men came into the room: Her oldest son, Charles McIntyre, wearing a cross the size of an Olympic medal, and his brother, Frankie McIntyre, the guy from the driveway.

I recognized Charles' name from Francis' police records: Back on Oct. 12, 1977, they'd been arrested together for breaking and entering. I thought it was odd that he didn't remember his one-time partner in crime, but I didn't let on that I knew anything.

Foster said that Millie had moved to Cleveland from Boston to get away from her husband. She was scared of him. So she followed her oldest daughter, Charlene, here after Charlene - pregnant at 16 - married a guy from Cleveland.

But Millie was an alcoholic and had arthritis, and her health got so bad that in the summer of 1984 she moved back to Boston, where she still had family. Within a couple of months, she died in a house fire there.

"She was in a wheelchair on the second floor," Foster said. "They say her husband set the fire."

Foster thought the youngest daughter, Laura, still lived in Cleveland. But she didn't know how to get in touch with her, or with any of the family in Boston.

"I haven't thought about Millie or her kids in years," she said.

In myths and legends, the fire-breathing dragon never has a family.

The dragon always lives alone, and the person who sets out to slay him has to go through a scary forest first.

I went through the Massachusetts Bureau of Vital Statistics.

This was later in the summer of 2007, when I went to Boston to dig through birth, death and marriage certificates that were yellowing with age.

They led me to Charlene Blakney, David Francis' oldest sister, who lived in New Bedford, 45 minutes south of Boston.

I had three phone numbers and three addresses for her, which took me into neighborhoods where all the houses had either security bars or plywood on the windows, where people move out in the middle of the night, leaving behind whatever can't fit in the car. All three places were vacant; at one, the front door hung open on one hinge.

I was with a photographer from The Plain Dealer, and I was hyperaware that we were going into dangerous neighborhoods, just like Hough, but in a city I didn't know.

This time, though, I didn't feel nervous or sick. I felt detached from my body, observing myself, just like I did back in Eldred Theater. I felt like I was watching a character in a cop thriller, a confident woman who knew what she was doing. I was impersonating the woman I was before the rape.

I found Charlene on the third phone number. Her son answered and sounded suspicious when I told him I was writing about David. He said Charlene would call back if she wanted to talk to me, but he didn't think she would.

Five minutes later, Charlene called, sobbing. "Do you know what happened to my brother?" she asked. "I tried to find him. I knew he was dead, but I've never known what happened to him."

She was still crying when we got to her apartment, a dark warren of rooms at the top of a steep staircase. Moving boxes lined the walls of the dining room, where a fish tank the size of a refrigerator stood, empty.

I gave her some flowers. I'd wanted to do something to acknowledge her grief, but the only place I could find flowers in that neighborhood was a grocery store. The plastic-wrapped bouquet now looked cheap. Paltry. She barely looked at them, and didn't put them in water.

"He was my favorite brother," she said when we sat down. "Everyone thought we was twins, 'cause we looked so much alike."

She did have his eyes. If he had lived into his 50s, outside of prison, David Francis might look like Charlene, now 57: a body gone soft and round at the middle, a face etched by years of drugs and alcohol and trouble, eyes that miss nothing.

I eased into the reason behind my visit by telling her what I had learned: He died of cancer and was buried in a prison cemetery.

She cried some more. And then she told me about her family.

"I used to tell people this family was cursed," she began.

David Anthony Francis was born Dec. 11, 1956, in Boston, the fourth child of Mildred and Clifford Francis, who would have five boys and three girls together.

When they married, on Aug. 8, 1950, in front of a justice of the peace, Clifford Francis was 24 years old. On the marriage license, he recorded his occupation as "truck driver."

Mildred Morrell was 30 and a "stitcher."

She was also six months pregnant.

Their first child, Charlene, arrived that December. Her birth certificate lists her mother's race as "Col." and her father's race as "Red."

Clifford Francis was full-blooded Narragansett Indian, or so he told his children, and he looked it. The youngest child, Laura, remembers his "high-red" skin and long, long hair. Charlene remembers his Indian superstitions: He would not be photographed, for one thing, because he believed it would steal his spirit.

But Clifford Francis was not a truck driver.

"Your daddy's a pimp."

Charlene was in high school when another kid told her that. She wasn't sure what it meant, but she found out fast enough. It meant that the other women who lived in their house - sometimes two women, sometimes three, with their kids - worked for her father.

Everyone called him T.C., for Top Cat.

T.C. was a large man. In Charlene's memory, he weighed 500 pounds, at least. He lived large, too. He always drove a Cadillac and he always had plenty of women and plenty of money - though he never spent it on his children.

Most of the women worked the streets for him. Mildred didn't, not as a prostitute. Mildred stole for T.C., though, usually with one of the women in the house. They'd steal clothes, jewelry, food, and bring the stuff back to him.

T.C. wasn't just big. He was mean, too, especially when he was drinking, which was most of the time. He beat Mildred and made her children watch. He beat the other women. He beat his boys - Clifford, Joseph, David, Philip and Neamiah.

"Oh God, he'd hang 'em up on hooks and beat them with belts," Charlene said. He kicked them. He broke bones. The oldest brother, Clifford - they called him Heavy because he was big, too - walked funny for two years from one of T.C.'s beatings.

He didn't beat the three girls - Charlene, Linda and Laura. But T.C. was cruel to them in other ways.

"He told us we were worthless, we were stupid, that we weren't nothing but a bed sheet for men," Charlene said.

Charlene, being the oldest, tried to take care of the younger kids. While T.C. was drinking and fighting, she took them upstairs, tried to make sure they were fed. She remembers once all of them were together in a bedroom, plotting how to kill T.C.

Charlene dreamed of poisoning him.

Once, David actually locked T.C. in a room and set it on fire. T.C. jumped out the window.

The five boys started getting in trouble really young, stealing cars mostly, and flopped back and forth between juvenile detention and jail.

David had just turned 12 when he got the first entry on his rap sheet. It was 1968, and he was arrested for assault and robbery.

His juvenile rap sheet goes on from there, 53 entries that record an adolescence of constant arrests for theft, breaking and entering, carrying concealed weapons, doing drugs and escaping from detention.

The girls, too, got into trouble with the law, Charlene said. Drugs and prostitution. Authorities took her kids away for a while.

She always thought the whole family would end up dying from drugs or alcohol. Three of them were already gone: Heavy was murdered in a drug deal gone bad; Linda and David died of cancer.

Of all of them, Charlene thought, David was the biggest mystery.

He was a real loner. He had a problem with rage, too. "He would get so mad, until he wanted to kill somebody. But the thing is, the madder he got, the calmer he would get. He'd start talking real soft and low, calm, and then you knew to get the hell out of the way because he was going to have one of his fits."

That's what they called them. Fits.

David Francis' younger brother, Philip, remembers getting sent to a juvenile home with David when he was 10 and David was 12.

I found Philip in prison at the Bridgewater Correctional Complex in Massachusetts, where he was serving time for rape, for molesting Charlene's son. Anthony was 12 at the time; Philip was 39.

Charlene turned him in, but it was too late to save Anthony. He is now in prison in New Hampshire on a sexual-assault conviction.

I wrote to Philip in prison, asking for an interview. He sent back the form-letter permission, which he had signed with the uncertain block lettering of a kindergartner.

I was queasy as I approached Bridgewater, a big complex of prisons south of Boston. Philip was in the Massachusetts Treatment Center, a prison for sexual offenders, and I knew that talking to him in this prison was the closest I would come to confronting David Francis.

It was more like interviewing a child. Philip, now 51, carried the weight of the childhood beatings in his frail, slouched body. He shuffled into the interview room, sat down, and looked at the table. He wouldn't look at me. When he spoke, I could see that he had only three or four teeth, and he seemed mentally slow, probably from one too many blows to the head.

When I asked about David, Philip smiled and barked out a short laugh, his eyes still focused on the table. David was his big brother and maybe his best friend, he said. David was nice to him: He gave Philip his first drink and cigarette when he was 5. First vodka, then beer. They got drunk, very drunk.

They never stopped drinking after that. Their father always had alcohol in the house; it was there for the sneaking. Philip remembered that David and their big brother, Heavy, had to force him to go home from school every day. He hated home. He was so afraid of the beatings, the hooks, the bullwhip his father used when he had been drinking.

To this day, alone in his cell, Philip still tries to figure out: "What did us kids do to deserve such a tragic life? You know?"

The first time I talked to Charlene, I didn't have the courage to mention the rape.

But I knew I had to tell her why I'd come looking for her, so I asked her to go to brunch. I returned the next day. She was dressed in white pants and a canary-yellow top, with lots of jewelry and makeup and shiny gold shoes, an outfit she said she'd last worn to Heavy's funeral in 1994.

She didn't want to go to brunch. She'd been up all night with nightmares about David, so we sat again, the flowers I brought the day before in a vase between us.

As we talked, she kept coming back to one question. Why would a newspaper be writing a story about David? Had he murdered somebody?

The time had come to tell her. Straight out would be best, like diving into a cold pool.

"I was his victim," I said.

"What do you mean, his victim?"

"He went to prison that last time for rape," I said. "He raped me."

I told her the story the way I'd told my daughter. Gently.

Now she was crying again, saying this was not the brother she knew, that he had plenty of girlfriends and didn't need to rape anybody, that he always protected his sisters. She knew he was capable of murder, sure. He had that thing, that uncontrollable rage. If I had come to her and said, "I'm doing a story because David killed two or three people," that would have made more sense.

"I know what rape is," she finally said. "I was raped myself. But I asked for it, because I was on drugs and I was prostituting. It was just me, being stupid."

She said she never reported it to the police because, hey, what the hell, you're prostituting, what do you think you're supposed to get? Besides, the first time, the rapist was a white guy, and she knew the cops would never go after a white guy for raping a black prostitute. And the second time, she was trying to get crack.

"I asked for it," she said.

It was like a script from the hot-line training I'd done at the Rape Crisis Center.

"No, Charlene," I said. "You didn't ask for it. It was not your fault."

She shook her head, tears rolling down her face. "If I hadn't of been so stupid," she said.

"You know, that's what I was saying to myself for 20 years," I said.

She wiped her tears.

"Yeah, but it's different," she said. "I mean, you had a good job, and my brother had no right to do that to you."

I knew what she was saying: that I was not a drug addict or prostitute, and she was, so she deserved what happened and I did not.

But I also heard what went unspoken: I was white, I had money, I had an education, I had parents who did not hit me.

I had all the things Charlene had not had in her life. She was used to being a victim. It was her world. It was not my world.

"Charlene," I said. "Those guys had no right to do what they did to you, either."

She wiped at her tears again.

"It's terrifying," she said. "Especially when you think they're going to kill you."

"I know."

I used to think that the only thing I ever won out of pure luck was the Beatles' "Second Album." This was in 1964, just before the Beatles came to Miami, Fla. The radio station WFUN had a call-in contest, which I won by dialing all but the last digit of the phone number, and waiting.

I was 10 years old, the middle of three sisters, in a middle-class American family. My father worked as a reporter for the Miami Herald; my mother worked part-time nights as a nurse. We moved north when my father became a magazine editor, first in Chicago and then in New York. My mother kept working; in Chicago, she went back to college and became a nurse practitioner.

I thought we were an ordinary family, with our share of both fortune and trouble. My parents did not inherit wealth or status, but they gave their own children an extraordinary legacy: We never had a doubt that we were loved, or that we deserved a place in the world.

What did Clifford and Mildred Francis pass on to their children?

"Them kids didn't have any choice but to turn out the way they did," Charlene told me. "We never had anybody that was really nice to us, you know, like most kids get hugs and kisses, we got punched and slapped and kicked around and told we were worthless."

Did they have a choice? Of course they did: Plenty of people grow up poor, even in abusive homes, without becoming criminals.

But for David Francis and his brothers and sisters, crime was the family business, just like journalism was my family's business. Their father taught them to hate themselves and to be violent with the people closest to them.

I know that when I went across the border into the other America, searching for an understanding of David Francis, that I went as a visitor. I have not lived there. I realize that what I saw and heard often played into stereotypes of race and class that I have worked my lifetime to see beyond.

We have this notion in America that our founders managed to do away with the Old World system of inherited class. We tell ourselves that with hard work and gumption, anyone can pull himself up out of poverty and misery. Those who don't? Well, they just don't have what it takes.

But we cannot choose what our parents bequeath to us. With one encounter, David Francis lodged himself into my life, changing the way I lived in the world. I never thought of him with anger or hatred. I thought of him with fear. I wonder: What of that fear and distrust have I passed on to my own children?

I still have that Beatles' album, stamped "WFUN: Fun! Fun! Fun!" I used to joke that I couldn't part with it: It was my first and last jackpot.

I had to live awhile to see that it was not, of course, my first jackpot. I hit that one on the day I was born, in 20th-century America, to parents who cherished me. With my first breath, I was automatically among the most privileged human beings in history.

Even broken families exert a powerful pull. Francis followed his mother to Cleveland sometime in 1977. I couldn't find any evidence that he ever had held a job, but his adult rap sheet starts with a Sept. 10, 1977, arrest for possession of criminal tools. The rap sheet goes on for three more entries: breaking and entering, receiving stolen property and grand theft, most of them in connection with stealing cars.

But no violent assaults.

That seemed odd. What propelled him to such a big leap, from stealing cars to rape?

I didn't know about his many aliases.

Turns out, I was not his first victim.


Article list

Partners in crime, allies in courage

May 4, 2008

David Francis was not always David Francis. He changed his identity with nearly every arrest.

When he was arrested for receiving stolen property, he was Dalin Allen.

When he was arrested for aggravated burglary, robbery and carrying a concealed weapon, he was Daniel Allen.

When he was arrested for breaking and entering, he was Tony Wayne.

And he was Kevin Brown when he was arrested in Cleveland on Jan. 22, 1978, for aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, carrying a concealed weapon - and kidnapping.

The kidnapping charge stopped me. As David Francis and the other aliases, he had limited his crimes to stealing cars and breaking into buildings.

The kidnapping was his first crime against a person - at least, the only one I could find. What had he done to draw that charge? Who was the other victim out there?

I learned about the aliases in the thick file the prosecutor's office gave me - a disorganized pile of lists, police reports, court records and investigative notes. But in all of that, I could find nothing more about the kidnapping charge.

There was no trial transcript, because he pleaded guilty. The police department couldn't find the 30-year-old arrest report.

I'd struck out. But the question continued to nag me: What exactly did Kevin Brown do?

In January, I decided to go back to see Charles McIntyre, Lula Mae Foster's son, who had told me he couldn't remember David Francis. But I knew the two had been arrested together in 1977 for breaking and entering.

I was not as nervous about going into the Hough neighborhood this time. Foster had been friendly when I showed up at her door unannounced; after that first visit, I had gone to see her in the hospital after her knee surgery.

McIntyre was in a more talkative mood this time. His memory of David Francis had returned, too.

"Yeah, we ran together," he said.

Francis had followed the path of his mother, Millie, to Cleveland in 1976 or 1977. He was 20 or 21, younger than McIntyre by four years, but McIntyre saw promise in the kid from Boston.

"He was a diamond in the rough," McIntyre told me.

McIntyre took him under his wing. "I was basically schooling him," McIntyre said. "He was my protege."

"In crime?" I asked.

"In crime, and the ladies," McIntyre said.

He wouldn't tell me anything about the crimes, though.

Kevin Brown did not have a police file, but Charles McIntyre did. I wondered if I could find an answer there.

The prosecutor's office gave me a file of microfilmed copies - blurry and dark, almost impossible to decipher. I read through it, and was almost at the end when I found a connection.

On Jan. 23, 1978, while he was already in jail for another crime, McIntyre was charged with two counts of aggravated robbery.

And two counts of kidnapping.

Kevin Brown was arrested Jan. 22, 1978, for aggravated robbery. And kidnapping.

They did it together. McIntyre's file had all the details.

At lunchtime on Monday, Aug. 29, 1977, the Rev. Thomas Gallagher answered the door to the rectory of St. Philip Neri Church on St. Clair Avenue in Cleveland.

A young man was standing there. Gallagher thought he recognized him, maybe from his old church, St. Agatha on St. Clair and East 109th Street.

The young man asked the priest a couple of questions about church youth programs, then asked, "Can I use your bathroom?"

Gallagher hesitated. Did he really recognize this young man? Maybe he shouldn't let him in. But Gallagher ignored the caution light in his head. He had worked in the inner city for years, and it did not feel right to suspect the young man. He pointed to the bathroom.

A minute later, the man came out of the bathroom holding a .38-caliber blue steel revolver.

"I have a present for you," he said, pointing the gun at the priest's head.

The young man opened the rectory door and let in a slightly older man. The first man was clearly the leader.

"Where is your housekeeper?" he asked.

Patty Marek was in the kitchen, making hot dogs for lunch. Patty was a volunteer, only 15 years old. It was her last day of summer vacation.

Patty came in. Gallagher was surprised; she didn't seem to be afraid. She was angry.

"This is the third time I've been robbed," she said. She was tough; she lived in the neighborhood.

The leader turned to Gallagher. "You have three minutes to show me where all the money is."

Gallagher took them upstairs to his bedroom safe. As Gallagher opened the lock, the leader cocked the gun at his head with a loud "click." Gallagher has remembered the sound of that click for 30 years. He took it as a warning: Don't try pulling a gun out of the safe.

The other robber heard the click, too. "Don't shoot the minister unless you have to," he said.

When the safe was open, the men made Gallagher and the girl lie face down on the floor and tied their hands and feet. Then they took Gallagher's briefcase and filled it with the cash in the safe: $1,201 in bingo money.

The second guy went through the priest's pockets, then the girl's. He took the watches off their wrists, a turquoise ring from Patty Marek and a gold pocket watch from the priest's dresser.

They forced the priest and the girl into the closet. Then they barricaded it with a dresser and some chairs and left.

The priest waited awhile after he heard them leave before he pushed out of the closet, cut their hands free with scissors and called the police.

Four months later, when police arrested Charles McIntyre for another crime, they found Gallagher's gold pocket watch.

Five days later, police arrested David Francis. He told them his name was Kevin Brown.

Father Thomas Gallagher, now 77 and retired, was startled when I told him last month that one of the men who tied him up is still alive and out of prison.

"When all this happened, I was thinking they might come after me because I was a witness," he said. "If I say anything now, will he?"

We were having coffee in the food court of Summit Mall. Gallagher had told me to look for the "short guy in the collar," but I would have known him anyway, from the photo in The Plain Dealer story at the time of the robbery.

He told me he stayed on at St. Philip Neri until 1990, when he was assigned to the Veteran's Affairs hospitals in Cleveland and Brecksville. I asked if he was afraid to live in the rectory, alone, after the crime.

At first he said no, he was just happy he survived.

But then he reconsidered. "I always had stress under the surface. When I was driving around, or out for a walk, I was afraid they might see me and do something to me."

He wonders now if the stress triggered his diabetes.

"Could you have asked to be transferred to a suburban parish?" I asked.

Oh, yes, he said. "But it didn't change my attitude about living and working in the inner city. Even before I was a priest, I felt very strongly about interracial justice."

In the late '50s and early '60s, he earned a master's degree at Case Western Reserve University and did a summer program created for clergy working with racial issues. "It was a radicalization experience," he said.

In 1965, he and another priest defied their bishop's wishes and marched from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He met King on the plane going down to Alabama; King sat with them to discuss theology and St. Thomas Aquinas' concept of "the unjust law."

He was on the boards of the Urban League in Akron and the NAACP in Cleveland.

Sitting there in an ordinary mall on an ordinary day, drinking coffee with this short man in a collar, I got that otherworldly feeling I get in the presence of the extraordinary. Something mystical was going on.

David Francis had lodged himself inside this priest, too, instilling stress strong enough to possibly trigger diabetes. But although the crime made him more watchful, more cautious, Gallagher had not let it stop him.

I was meant to find him.

He worked in the inner city for 25 years, retiring in 2000. "I am satisfied with my life," he said. "I was ordained at the right time. Now priests working for social justice are thought of as too radical."

"Were you able to forgive the two men who robbed you?" I asked.

He seemed surprised. "When they didn't kill me, I forgave them right away."

I never worried that Francis might come after me. After the Court of Appeals upheld his conviction on Jan. 9, 1986, I believed the 30-to-75-year sentence would keep him in prison for a long time.

I had no idea that he came up for parole twice. I didn't know that I had to register with the state department of corrections if I wanted officials to notify me so that I could object.

Over the years, therapists encouraged me to get angry about the rape. I never could. I've had all sorts of conflicting emotions about it, but I've never been really angry.

Now my anger began to simmer. Somebody should have told me about the notification system. David Francis could have gotten out of prison, and I never would have known.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction now has an Office of Victim Services, which helps victims in several ways, including setting up meetings with offenders. But victims still have to register to be notified of parole hearings.

The department could not find the records of his first parole hearing, in July 1995.

Records of the second hearing, in May 2000, are boilerplate, with filled-in forms that suggest he was not a model prisoner. His work assignment was library aide, but the record noted he was not currently working. He spent more than a month altogether in disciplinary control - solitary - for possession of contraband, disobedience of a direct order and making threats. The parole board tabled the decision until September 2000.

He died in August 2000, of the cancer that had won him a parole in 1984.

At the time of his death, he had been in prison for 16 years. Over those years, the records show he participated in only two programs.

He got his GED.

And he completed a course called "Dealing With Depression."

I read that line again. And again.

I read it and cringed. I read it and laughed. I read it and finally - finally - felt rage.

I had been tested repeatedly for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. I had gone through sleepless nights and days I couldn't get out of bed. I had suffered panic attacks. Once, on a work trip to New York, I walked the stairs to and from my 15th-floor room, because I'd been terrified by an encounter on an elevator with a man who looked like David Francis.

And he had a problem with depression?

The night I was raped, my husband took me home from the hospital to a big, nearly empty house. Two months earlier, we had moved into a colonial in Shaker Heights, our first house after years of apartment living.

The house had four bedrooms, and we joked that we had to do something to fill them up. But I was busy, and I loved my career. I wasn't quite ready for children.

The rape changed that. It made me see that a single bad decision, a brief moment of not paying attention, a missed meeting - anything, anything at all - can change our lives. Or end them.

Near-death stories always seem to end with the person waking up and shouting bumper-sticker aphorisms: Carpe diem! Life is not a dress rehearsal! Etc.

I did not allow myself to have a Big Moment. But I did start to live less … oh, let's say less casually. I decided I should think about what I wanted out of this too-short life while I was here, and get to it.

I did. The trial ended in late October 1984, and by January I was pregnant.

My son was born Oct. 7, 1985, just short of a year after the trial. We named him Daniel. They cleaned him up before they handed him to me, wrapped like a burrito in a blanket, showing only a thick head of black hair and a face all battered and bruised from the difficult delivery. My husband said he looked like he had been mugged.

When I held him, my heart and soul filled like a balloon that has been blown up so far it almost breaks. It lifted me.

In that moment, I stopped fearing for myself. I began fearing for him. He was five minutes old, and I knew that if I ever lost him, I could not go on.

When we got home from the hospital, I wept for four weeks straight, uncontrollable tears running down my face. "I'm fine!" I kept saying. "I don't know why I'm crying!"

One day, when all the grandparents had gone home and my husband had gone back to work, I sat on the couch in that big, quiet house, my baby on my lap.

I looked at him, and he looked back, with that look of intense concentration babies sometimes get. I said to him, "You will always have me. I will always love you, I will protect you, and I promise I will never go away."

And then I cried some more.

Before he found me, David Francis had another victim in mind.

His baby sister, Laura Wills.

The youngest of the eight children, Laura came to Cleveland with her mother in the mid-'70s. She stayed here after her mother and Charlene moved back to Boston - her mother because she was sick, Charlene because she thought Boston would be a better place to raise her kids.

Charlene gave me Laura's phone number, and right before Christmas 2007, I went to see her. Lights blinked on a tree in the front room of her house. In the living room, a televangelist was preaching on the TV.

"I kept my distance from David," Laura said. "He was always a problem child. I think he was disturbed in the head."

She remembered her last conversation with him. It was in the summer of 1984, days before he raped me. Laura was 19 and had a new baby.

David wanted her to come downtown and meet him at a hotel. He didn't sound right, not at all. He wanted to put her out on the stroll - pimp her out. When Laura declined, he started threatening her, saying he was going to have her beaten if she didn't do what he wanted.

Laura moved before he could find out where she was. Next thing she heard, he had died in prison.

Like Charlene, Laura succumbed to drugs and prostitution, and lost her children. She, too, was raped.

Four years ago, she went through two drug- and alcohol-addiction programs to get clean. She went to church and back to her husband.

Now, at age 43, she has a 3-year-old son, all but one of her other kids back from the protective-services system, and goes to church at least four times a week.

I went with her, three times. Each time, Laura introduced me to everyone, hugged me, and told me she loved me. She took me by the hand and led me to the altar to be saved.

One evening in April, sitting in the church basement for a women's support group, Laura told the others, "It's a blessing that this woman, who was raped by my brother, doesn't hate me," she said. "It's a blessing."

Tears came to her eyes. Tears came to my eyes. Another moment of grace.

I couldn't speak. I could only nod and smile.

I've lost count of all the therapists I saw over the years. Whenever the depression came, waking me in the middle of the night and keeping me in bed during the day, I made another appointment.

I was not depressed all the time. My friends would be surprised if I told them about the dark cloud that regularly hid my sun in those days. On the outside, I was fine, just as I kept insisting to myself.

But a part of me had never returned after that day in the theater, when I left my body and hovered over myself, watching, certain I would die. I was still detached, still an observer.

Journalists observe for a living, so I had that going for me. I had become the film critic for the newspaper and worked at home most of those years. So it was easy to hide my depression.

I used humor, sometimes sarcasm, as a shield. I was a smart-aleck in my movie reviews. I also wrote a column, ironically titled "Domestic Bliss." I was J. Co., a power-mad diva ruling over the home office and underground laboratories of Domestic Bliss Inc.

I volunteered in my kids' classrooms and sat outside with neighbors on summer evenings, listening to our children play Ghost in the Graveyard. I had dinner parties and swam laps with a group of friends. By pretending to be fine, I was fine - most of the time.

But sometimes I wasn't all there. My daughter would wave her hand in front of my face and say, "Mom!" when I slipped away.

I still thought the rape had happened only to me. My children weren't even born at the time; how could it affect them?

I was so wrong. Families absorb trauma like gauze absorbs blood from a wound.

Every therapist I saw asked me, right away, if I was thinking about suicide. I gave my standard answer: No, I could never commit suicide. I had my two children: My daughter, Zoe, was born May 30, 1988. I loved them desperately.

On the other hand, I said, I could really, really understand why someone might want to commit suicide.

They always put me on anti-depressants, fast. When I began to feel better, I would stop. I hated being on medications, but I needed them. I hated needing them.

The first time a therapist diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder, I argued with her. PTSD happened to soldiers who had been in combat. What happened to me could not compare.

Evolutionary psychologists tell us we have fear embedded in our DNA. From the start, Darwinian selection favored the humans who were cautious - the ones who did not eat the pretty berries right away, the ones who did not blunder into the dark caves. It really was a jungle out there, a jungle where the reckless died, while the fearful survived to pass on their genes.

The risk-taking impulse did not entirely disappear, otherwise we'd have a hard time explaining bungee jumping and online dating. But fear has the definite edge in our collective psyche.

Fear protects us from threats. But fear is such a powerful, primal response, it appears even when no dark cave is at hand.

I tried to bury my fear, but denying it did not make me fearless. I had to unearth it, and understand it, to change things.

Now that I knew who and what David Francis was, I had shed some of my fear. But I needed a final confrontation.


Article list

Talking to the dead, taking back my life

May 4, 2008

David Francis ended his time on Earth as he lived it: in prison.

He was laid to rest in a cemetery that overlooks Pickaway Correctional Institution, on a bare hill with a view of the razor wire that curls like a giant Slinky around the prison.

I went there to visit him on Jan. 16, 2008.

The day was clear but cold. The razor wire glinted in the sun and the grass crunched under our feet as Mohammad Yakuba, the prison investigator, led me up the hill.

At the bottom, we went past a muddy construction site where they're building a new prison hospital.

At the top of the hill, under trees that spread their limbs over the dead, we came to the old part of the cemetery. It looked like a set for the graveyard in "Our Town," when Emily rises from her grave to spend one last day among the living.

The headstones here date from the early 1800s, when the institution down the hill was a state mental hospital and the staff lived on the grounds. Entire families rest here - newborn babies, loving mothers, old men - under rows of headstones topped with lambs and angels.

An invisible line separates these dead from the graves of prisoners. They lie in an open field on the hill beyond the old cemetery, 1,236 of them, their presence marked only by brick-size stones sunk into the earth above their caskets.

No angels or lambs watch over these dead. No one etched loving words on their stones. Their families did not claim them. They don't even have names: In death, as in their life on the other side of the razor wire, they are identified by numbers.

As the seasons change, and the grass grows over their small stones, the dead inmates lose even their numbers and disappear into the field.

David Francis, No. 130, was among those who had disappeared. Yakuba told me the cemetery manager marked the grave for me with a stake tied with yellow and red ribbons. I pushed leaves off some of the stones and found 133, but I couldn't find 130.

Yakuba went to call the manager while I paced off the distance and started pulling at the grass where No. 130 should have been.

The matted carpet of grass fought my efforts. I uncovered a tiny corner of stone, grabbed a stick and kept digging. The stick broke. I dug in the dirt with my hands again, uncovering more stone.

The earth was as cold as it was hard. My fingers turned into frozen claws, my nails brittle and breaking as I dug.

It took awhile, kneeling there in that cold graveyard, for me to realize what I was doing: I was trying to dig up DAVE.

I wanted to laugh at myself, at the irony - digging up DAVE was, after all, what I set out to do - but I couldn't laugh.

Yakuba returned with the cemetery manager, who pointed at the stake at the far end of the field, about 50 yards from where I was digging.

I walked over; Yakuba and the cemetery guy hung back and let me go alone.

I looked down at the stone: No. 130.

I stood there, feeling an odd emptiness now that my journey had come to an end. All this time looking for David Francis, and I never thought about what I would say when I found him.

Minutes passed. Yakuba and the cemetery guy were silent, waiting. A wind had come up, like a signal to hurry along. I wanted to get out of here, go instead to warmth and life.

I should say something, I decided, so I looked at "130" and said, "Well, Dave, Charlene and I are the only ones who really thought about you after you died."

Talking to him made me feel weird, like I was talking to myself in public. My hands were dirty, my shoes caked with mud. I had nothing to say. Why did I even come here?

I have visited cemeteries with grieving families. I've listened to them talk to their loved ones at the grave. I've watched them plant flowers, clean mud off headstones and leave mementos. Once I visited a grave with a mother who played music from her car's CD system for her dead son.

I understand the kind of comfort and meaning a grave can offer mourners. It gives them a physical place to make a spiritual connection.

But I don't share those beliefs. I wish I did; I envy people who have that certainty about the mystery of death. And of life, for that matter.

I don't believe the dead can hear you speak. I don't believe that anything meaningful remains in their graves. I believe that our souls, or spirits, or whatever you want to call them, exist somewhere else after death. Where, I could not guess.

But we know the dead live on within the people who remember them.

I have been keeping David Francis alive, all this time.

When Judge Harry Hanna told David Francis, "I shall bury you in the bowels of our worst prison for as long as I can," he meant the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility. Lucasville.

I went to Lucasville in the fall of 2007, the last stop on my tour of the prisons where he had been held. I wanted to see where he had been locked up, for all those years I had locked myself up in my own prison of fear.

In 1984, when David Francis arrived, Lucasville was the state's only maximum-security prison, the kind they call lock-and-feed. It was, and still is, where the other Ohio prisons sent their problem inmates. Today, 94 percent of its inmates are transfers from other prisons.

"We get everybody else's maladjusted," then-warden Ed Voorhies told me. "They don't come here for singing poorly in the choir."

David Francis entered Lucasville on Nov. 30, 1984, and stayed for almost a decade, living in the tense conditions that led to the 11-day riot in 1993, which left one guard and nine inmates dead.

As we walked around the prison, passing lines of inmates walking single file along the wall, the prison spokesman, Larry Greene, told me: "Understand we're in a prison. It's deceptive. It's calm and orderly, but it's no way to live."

About half of the 1,460 inmates are locked in their cells 23 out of 24 hours a day, getting out only to exercise in wire cages and to shower. The rest go to jobs within the prison and are permitted a few privileges, such as group recreation time and meals in the dining hall. The average length of stay is about seven years.

Francis was among the 87 who were evacuated to the now-closed prison in Lima on the fourth day of the Lucasville rioting. Lima Warden Harry Russell said at the time that the group included the most psychologically disturbed of Lucasville's inmates.

On April 1, 1994, Francis was sent to the prison in Warren, and four years later, on May 14, 1998, he landed at his last prison, Lebanon. During transfers, he stayed briefly at Mansfield.

When I visited the Lebanon prison, I sat down with three inmates to talk about prison life. One of them, James Holman, told me he'd been in Lucasville at the same time as Francis.

"Back then," he said, "rape was looked upon as the worst of the worst. On kids especially, but even on grown women. His time was probably quite rough for that type of crime. I'm sure he was preyed upon, just as he preyed upon you."

That was supposed to make me feel better, but it didn't. When I visited Mansfield, I said something to that effect to Stuart Hudson, the warden.

"Don't feel sympathetic toward him," Hudson said. "Lots of people have hard lives, but they don't rape and murder other people. The guys in here deserve to be here."

Francis ended his prison life at the Corrections Medical Center in Columbus, which is part day-clinic, part hospital and part hospice but still a prison. It has a warden, guards working alongside the doctors and nurses, and locked cells for maximum-security patients.

Earline Shore, an assistant to the warden, showed me around.

The long-term care unit holds inmates with AIDS, Alzheimer's disease and cancer, men who have had strokes and amputations, men who poisoned themselves by making their own drugs and alcohol in prison.

David Francis would have landed here, in one of the two rooms set aside for terminally ill inmates. As we passed the rooms, an elderly inmate flashed us a toothless smile from his bed. He was drinking a Coke.

"This is nice," he said. "For a prison cell, you can't beat it."

After the rape, I couldn't go back to Eldred Theater to review its productions, and no one at the paper expected me to. That fall, I left the theater beat and became the arts and entertainment editor.

Everyone called this a promotion, but we all knew what it really was: I was like a cop who had been shot on duty. I was gun-shy. I needed a desk job.

It took me about two days to realize that this was a huge mistake. The tedium of editing was surpassed only by the writers' reaction to it: I might as well have been harvesting one of their major organs on my desk, with a letter opener and a stapler.

I ended many days hiding in the restroom, crying.

When I returned from my second maternity leave, I begged for a writing job. They made me the film critic.

I finally stopped crying. I did not stop being afraid.

Now I was back to going into dark theaters alone.

I went to many daytime screenings where I was the only critic who showed up. After sitting through several movies with my attention focused on the exit doors instead of the screen, I started asking the theater managers to lock the doors. They were puzzled, but they did it.

Not long after I returned from David Francis' grave, I realized I had to go back to Eldred Theater.

I immediately got a case of the dreads. Of course: Eldred. El Dread, The Dread. How odd I hadn't seen that in 23 years.

I went back in late January, on one of those Cleveland days that come in a dozen shades of gray, turning the world into a living daguerreotype. Students walked through the quad hunched over with their backpacks, heads down against the sleet. I walked with them, hunched over with my dread.

The theater was almost dark when I went in, lighted only by the ghost light on the stage. The single bulb on top of its pole glowed like an eerie beacon, leaving the edges and corners in deep gloom. I felt a charge in the air.

Some say ghost lights started way back in Shakespeare's time, when theater companies left candles on the stage to ward off the ghosts of performances past. Some say they light the theater for the friendly ghosts who live there.

All I know is that for me, this place was haunted.

I walked down the aisle to the stage. Two photographers from the paper hung back in the shadows.

When I climbed the steps, the ghost light cast a huge, hulking shadow of me on the back wall.

I walked toward the back corner where David Francis had dragged me. My shadow followed me, a giant bodyguard hovering over each step.

Painted scenery flats leaned against the wall in stacks, crowding the corner. It looked … ordinary.

I tried to see it that way - the way the hundreds of students and actors and stagehands had seen it over the years.

But to me this was sinister and sacred ground. Here was the place where, for an hour removed from time, I was sure my life would end. Here was the place where I lost part of myself.

I looked up into the fly space, almost expecting to see myself up there among the lights, watching.

I felt disoriented, but my body was alert, trembling from anxiety so powerful it made my knees lock. The ghost light and the looming shadows made me feel like I was in a German expressionist film from the 1920s - "Nosferatu," or "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." Nightmares on celluloid. I sat on the edge of the stage for a while, trying to escape the heaviness I was feeling. I thought about my brave children, who always lighten my heart.

I used to wonder if, in trying to hide my depression and fear from them, I had instead passed it all on, like a genetic disease. But even though they know they will have to answer questions about this story, and about their sometimes messed-up mom, they encouraged me to write it.

I thought about my husband, who had gone through the horror with me, and had gone through the silence, too. I did not know, until I did the training at the Rape Crisis Center, that rape is a family trauma, that husbands and other close family members suffer, too. In the end, we separated, for this and many other reasons that are not part of this story.

Sitting there in the dusky theater, I realized why I had not felt anything when I stood at David Francis' grave.

That cemetery was where the prison buried him. But here, in this theater, was where I needed to bury him.

I went out on this story to find David Francis. I thought if I found out who he was, I could discover the reason that our paths crossed. And if I could understand that, I could protect my children.

Now I could see that what I really wanted to find was not David Francis, but the source of my fear. I wanted to confront that fear and kill it.

What happened was not what I expected.

I found David Francis. I learned that he had a horrifying childhood, that he learned violence at his father's knee, and that he took that violence and horror and damage with him when he went out into the world at the age of 12.

I did not deserve what happened to me. But David Francis did not deserve what happened to him, either.

When I first started my search, my husband said, "He was a monster. Why do you want to know anything more?"

I wanted to know, and we as a country need to know: What created that monster?

"Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal," reported the Kerner Commission, a national panel that convened after the urban riots of the '60s. Forty years later, these two societies are still divided. A journey into the Houghs of America takes you into a separate country, where the legacy of slavery and racism still poisons lives.

We put up such high barriers at the borders - barriers of fear, distrust, misunderstanding, hatred. But what I found when I went into that other country was not hate, but kindness. I was welcomed into homes, and in them I found what I was really looking for all along.

I found Charlene, who stopped doing drugs and drinking, got her family back, and in time forgave and buried the father who hurt her. Charlene, who reacted to her rapes with the same shame and self-blame I did.

I found Laura, who took me to the church that had saved her and pushed me to the altar when the time came for saving me. Laura, who told me she loves me.

I found Father Tom Gallagher, who marched from Selma to Montgomery with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and would not let being held at gunpoint, tied up and locked in a closet stop him from doing what he was put on this Earth to do.

I needed to hear their stories. They needed to tell them.

"We did our part, we kept it inside so long," Laura said to me. "It's something that needed to be told."

Human beings have been telling each other stories since we lived in caves and had no written language. We tell stories to remember, to pass on our history, to worship, to teach, to exert power, to mourn, to celebrate, to entertain.

We tell stories to connect with each other. We tell our own stories - sometimes just to ourselves - to make sense of the world and our experience in it.

As a reader and a writer, I believe in the power of stories to bring us together and heal. I have asked so many other people to open themselves up and let me tell their stories, all the while withholding my own. I owed this to them.

As I worked on it, though, I kept saying, "I'm having a hard time with this. I can't write it." Not long ago, my therapist said, "Maybe you're saying, 'I can't right it.' "

Maybe.

And maybe that is the point, in the end: We all have burdens we must carry through life: grief and disappointments that we cannot change. But we can make them lighter if we do not bear them silently and alone.

I cannot protect my children. I know this. It is the terrible truth of being a parent: The day comes when we have to send our very hearts out into the world, unprotected.

But now I know that my children protected me, all those years. They tethered me to all that is hopeful. They made me brave. They held me to this life until I was ready to come back to myself.

Sitting there in Eldred Theater, I looked back up into the fly space. It's OK, I thought. You can come back.

 

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