I Just Found Out My Rapist Died — And That I Was A "Lucky" One

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woman in bed with hand over face

I just found out that my rapist is dead. Not only is he dead, but he ended up killing a lot of women. I always wondered if he would rape again, but I never thought he would graduate to murder. 

I was 15 when I met him. It was at a friend's birthday party, and he was from another school, a friend of a friend or a cousin of a friend. We played ping-pong and pool, and he said he liked that I was not one of those girls who sat and watched the boys play, hoping the boys would notice them.

He was tall and strong looking, handsome and clean cut with a quick wit and ready smile. He was the kind of guy that never, ever noticed me. When he entered the room, everyone—girls and boys alike—turned to look him over.

I was outgoing, independent, athletic and a good student—traits not valued by the boys in my high school. I never had a boyfriend and guys only ever approached me to ask about my friends, who were beautiful, knew how to act just-not-smart-enough and had boys calling them all the time.

He surprised me and everyone else at the party when he picked me to talk to, to laugh with, to charm. When he asked me for my phone number, I never expected him to call.

We went on three dates—the first to the movies, surrounded by several of our friends.

The second was to my house, where he met my family and watched football with my father. It was a few days before Christmas, and we exchanged gifts in my parents' kitchen. I gave him a red and white wool button-down shirt and a cassette tape of a band he said he liked. He gave me a beautiful gold chain-link bracelet that he placed on my wrist, his big hands deftly working the delicate clasp.

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On our third date, we went to his cousin's house where I planned to meet his parents and aunt and uncle, but when we got there, no one was home. He wore the shirt I gave him for Christmas and, instead of introducing me to his family, he raped me.

To tell or not to tell? You ask yourself this even when you are just a kid, in shock, looking at the outside of your own house like you've never seen it before, feeling ashamed, sick and dirty. I had nothing to compare it to, so I had no idea what my parents would do.

Would they call the police? Would he go to jail? Would my father try to hurt him? What if I got pregnant? Would everyone at school find out? How could I go in there when everything had changed?

I stood perfectly still while snowflakes fell around me, making it seem even quieter than it really was. My father opened the door before I could move, and I immediately noticed that he looked sad. Did he already know? My mother looked like she had been crying too, and so did my sisters. How could they possibly know? But within seconds I realized that they knew of a different tragedy.

While I was out being raped, my grandfather had died.

My grandfather's death and his wake and funeral provided the perfect cover for my tortured emotions. It was my secret shame that I cried for myself and not for him. My inability to sleep or eat and my unwillingness to talk to my friends or go out seemed normal under the circumstances. Most importantly, my parents let me stay home from school for days.

After nearly a week, I worked up the courage to tell my best friend, who was smart and mature and would know exactly what to do. "I was raped. Finn raped me," I managed to say, terrified but relieved to have finally said the words out loud.

Sitting cross-legged and smoking, she slowly exhaled a long, white cloud and, like a tiny Bette Davis, said, "Oh honey, we've all been raped," assuming I was one of the many girls who finally gave in and said yes, only to regret it later.

My other friend, standing nearby, pretended not to hear and said, "Let's go. I'm almost out of cigarettes," and they both stood up to leave. Stunned, my face hot with embarrassment, surprise and anger, I forced myself to move.

It never occurred to them that I did say no, that I shouted the word over and over while he covered my mouth and nose with his large, strong hand, pressing harder with each angry word, ordering me to "shut up, shut up!" while I fought a losing battle of wills and physical strength.

A few days later, I saw one of them with Finn at the movies, and I knew that if my own friends didn't believe me, neither would anyone else. In one week, in the world of high school in which I lived, I had gone from being a smart, confident person to just another stupid girl who had sex with her boyfriend and was promptly dumped. 

In those first weeks, I waited. I waited every minute of every day, unable to sleep, unable to eat, fingernails chewed raw and bloody, wondering if my body was going to suffer the ultimate insult as a result of his actions. None of the options so neatly characterized as "pro-choice" seemed fair to me. Being pregnant would not allow me to invoke my "right" to choose—I would be forced to choose.

When I found out I wasn't pregnant, I broke down and sobbed with relief so deep it brought me to my knees. Then I went back to feeling nothing at all. 

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In the months that followed, I stopped studying, cut school, smoked pot, quit the track team, and fought with my parents—my poor parents, who had no idea what had happened and thought my downward spiral was somehow their fault.

Life went on, and after two years of community college to make up for my high school backslide, I attended and eventually graduated from a four-year college, went on to law school, embarked on a successful career, and married a wonderful man.

Would I have done something else, followed a different path had I not been raped? Would I be a different person?

I would like to think the answer to these questions is no, that he had no such power over my life, but that is probably naïve.

Exactly how it changed me, I'll never know. Maybe I would have more close friends, be more trusting of people's intentions, not expect the worst to happen as often as I do and, during my 20s and 30s, maybe I would have dated men who actually lived in the same state as me.

On the other hand, maybe I would have done everything exactly the same. In this case, time will never tell.

In the first few years, I often wondered if he hurt me for the same reason he said he liked me: because I was not one of those girls who sat on the sidelines watching the boys have fun, waiting for them to notice. Maybe, in his mind, it was his responsibility to put me in my place.

At other times, I would think he was simply not that deep, that my analysis gave his sick and simple mind too much credit.

Eventually, I thought of that time less and less. But when I did, my mind wandered to the one question that would always haunt me: Did he do it to anyone else?

Sometimes you get the answers to life's questions when you least expect them, like when you're sitting with your husband, sipping wine, watching the sunset over the river, and waiting for a table at your favorite restaurant. A woman recognized me from high school, and we made small talk about what we did, who married whom, and where we lived.

"You heard Finn's dead, right?" she asked, almost as an afterthought.

His name knocked the wind out of me. Did she say "dead"? I could barely hear the rush of blood pounding in my ears.

"He died of AIDS," she continued. "He got really into drugs and became a heroin addict. He knew he had AIDS but never told any of the girls he was with. He took a lot of those girls with him. Oh, our table's ready. Maybe I'll see you at the next reunion."

"Who's Finn?" my husband asked.

"Just someone I knew in high school," I replied. 

I could not tell this dear, gentle man my first boyfriend was also my rapist, that my first sexual experience was one of violence, and that I had just learned that I was one of the lucky ones.

Susan Kennedy has been a public interest environmental attorney for more than 15 years. She recently started her own business providing regulatory, policy, and strategic analysis to the environmental, legal, and academic community. She lives in coastal New Jersey with her husband and her golden retriever.

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About 15 percent of women become rape victims in their lifetime, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). Approximately two-thirds of rape victims know their assailants. If you've been sexually assaulted, it's never too late to seek help. Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1.800.656.HOPE to talk to a counselor. You can also visit an online hotline. If you know a rape victim, offer support without judgment or pressure. Encourage your loved one to get help, but know that only they can decide if and when they want to take action.