Unlocking a secret: Survivor recounts rape in a small town

Jennifer Mitchell, 37, of Raymond, is both a rape survivor and an advocate for other survivors of sexual and domestic violence. She is telling her own story, in hopes of helping other victims feel more comfortable talking about their experiences.

RAYMOND — Jennifer Mitchell doesn’t remember whether she was 17 or 18 when she was raped, what she was wearing or even where she lived at the time.

She remembers her rapist’s sudden, red-faced rage, the way the skin on her wrist burned long after he let go, wandering through dark hallways, filthy floors.

She remembers how he tried to cuddle her after he was done.

For nearly 20 years, Mitchell endured her trauma alone, even while working with other abuse and assault survivors.

“I think I tried to tell people, but I didn’t have the vocabulary,” the 37-year-old Raymond resident said last week.

In late September, she watched one of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s accusers, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, testify in front of the nation, and understood that she and this California professor were sisters in the same grim sorority: the one in every six American women who have experienced a rape or attempted rape.

Mitchell woke up one morning with a sudden, urgent need to talk about her rape. She told her sisters and her husband. Buoyed by their compassionate responses, she asked to tell her story to the Observer, in hopes that doing so might help other assault victims open up.

“I just want survivors to know they can come forward,” Mitchell said.

A sexual assault has the unique power to make a survivor feel utterly alone in the midst of a vast crowd. While the circumstances of each assault are unique, the experience is extremely common. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, an estimated 321,500 Americans are sexually assaulted each year.

“My story is so familiar. I’ve heard it so often,” Mitchell said in an interview at the Crisis Support Network headquarters, where she oversees domestic violence, sexual assault and crime victim advocacy services. During her nine years at the nonprofit agency, the mother of two has answered the state’s confidential crisis line, helped women leave abusive relationships and advocated for crime and sexual assault victims. She’s done extensive training on the physical, intellectual and emotional effects of abuse and assault, and how to overcome them. But the insight she gained as an adult professional did not make being raped as a teenager any easier to bear.

At the time of her assault, Mitchell was a pretty good kid, if a little lost. She’d earned her GED, but wasn’t sure what to do next. She lived with her parents, “just kind of floating.” She had a best friend and a few pals who were still in school, but she’d also started spending time with a small group of oddballs who were slightly older. A couple in the group had inherited a house between Raymond and South Bend, where they regularly hosted low-key parties.

Mitchell usually went to the parties with her best friend. She drank and smoked some pot, but overall, the gatherings were pretty tame. She never drove after drinking, so she often crashed there, getting up early so her mother would have her blue minivan in time for work.

She felt safe — the others tended to be protective of her.

Then, one night, she went to a party without her friend. It was the night that cleaved her youth into two very distinct chapters.

“I can tell you there is definitely a ‘before’ and an ‘after,’” Mitchell said.

There are holes in her memories.

“Thank god I don’t remember,” Mitchell said. “What I do remember is frankly hard enough to deal with.” It comes back to her in flashes now; like fuzzy snippets of an old home movie being projected onto a sheet. They drank the usual cheap, fruity malt liquor concoctions from 40-ounce bottles. They were in the kitchen, laughing, which was odd because they never went in the kitchen. In contrast to the rest of the dim and dusty house, it was brightly-lit.

In the next flash, her hosts had retired to their bedroom for the night. Suddenly, she was upstairs — another part of the house she’d never visited — with a slightly older acquaintance, “Brent.” They were in a tiny, cramped bedroom. Mitchell thinks she might have kissed him, but she wasn’t interested in going further. She tried to brush him off playfully. She didn’t want to anger him. She didn’t want to be the kind of girl who made scenes at parties. She heard Brent’s friend, “Chad,” and called out for him, hoping his presence might diffuse the situation. He came up the stairs and stood in the doorway. Under Chad’s gaze, Brent quickly let go of her. Mitchell wrapped her arms around Chad’s legs.

“We’re all staying together,” she said, trying for a light-hearted, joking tone. She tried to catch Chad’s gaze. He didn’t get it.

The weather in the room had suddenly gone stormy. Brent was beet-red, glaring at Chad. He grabbed her wrist and wrenched her arm off of Chad’s leg. With dawning terror, Mitchell realized she wasn’t going to be able to brush Brent off. He knew she didn’t want to have sex and didn’t care.

“I still had my clothes on. I really didn’t think that he would do that. It didn’t occur to me that was the road I was on,” Mitchell remembered. “It really didn’t.”

Enraged, Brent told Chad to get out.

“No” isn’t an easy word for teenagers — so new to their sense of self, so unsure of their place in the world — to say. In the insular culture of adolescents, girls often feel they have to earn their membership in any social group moment-by-moment; ever-vigilant to the shifting whimsies of the dominant members, ever-ready to subvert their own needs to keep things rolling smoothly along.

“You don’t have a right to your own outrage. You don’t have a right to assert yourself,” Mitchell said. The girl who does make a fuss, however justified, she added, is likely to be told, “You’re the crazy one. You’re the one who made a huge deal out nothing. You’re just being emotional and weird.”

Once Mitchell knew she wasn’t getting any help, her fight response kicked in.

“I remember thinking, ‘OK, I am super pissed,’”She recalled. She was lying on the bed. He was on top, trying to pull her legs up as she thrashed and kicked.

“I got him good a couple of times,” Mitchell said. “I remember that. But honestly from there, I don’t remember any more. I know I remembered bits and pieces of it after, but I really put this in a box.”

He fell asleep. She went downstairs. She wasn’t in any condition to drive. The floor was too dirty to sleep on. She curled up on the end of the couch where Chad was sleeping. He woke up, oblivious to what had just transpired, and started rubbing on her.

“I remember just having no clue what to do, no idea what’s happening, no idea what to do,” Mitchell said. She tried the couple’s bedroom door, but they had locked it and gone to sleep.

In a state of total shock, Mitchell couldn’t figure out what to do. Finally, she went back upstairs and got in bed with Brent. Still asleep, he moved closer and wrapped his arm around her.

She peeled his arm off and crept back down the stairs. Chad woke up and asked her for a ride. It took forever for the windshield to de-fog. When she got to his house, he told her to keep going, then directed her to an empty pullout on the side of the road. Confused, she did as he asked. He tried to climb into her seat. She tried to push him off. She had to tell him more than once to get out of the car.

The next day she had fingerprint bruises on her arms and thighs.

Last week, Mitchell asked her old best friend what she remembered. The friend replied, “You told me, but you didn’t use the word rape. You just said, ‘He wouldn’t stop.’”

At first, Mitchell said, she wanted to crawl out of her own skin. Understanding that Mitchell needed some kind of release for her overwhelming feelings of anger, shame and disgust, her friend took her down a logging road and parked the car.

“I ranted and I screamed and I cried and I kicked the shit out of her tires,” Mitchell remembered. “Anything to get this feeling out. I didn’t know how to process it. I just lost it.” Her friend let her to scream until she was exhausted.

She talked with the couple who owned the house.

“I couldn’t make myself say ‘rape,’” She said. “I did tell them he ‘forced himself on me’ or something.” The next time Brent showed up, the owner chased him out, saying he wasn’t going to do ‘that’ in his home. It was as though he didn’t really care if Brent raped, as long as it didn’t happen under his roof.

She tried to tell her mother when they were alone together in the minivan, but struggled to find the right words.

“Did he rape you?” her mother asked. Her chin was quivering. Tears were rolling down her face. Mitchell was overwhelmed by her mother’s pain. It was too real, too intense.

“Sometimes bad stuff happens, Mom,” she replied. They left it at that.

Mitchell understands now that many survivors bottle up their pain to keep their loved ones from suffering.

“I think so many survivors try to rest the waters,” she said.

Before, Mitchell was a bit rebellious. After, she said, “I hit the self-destruct button. I did anything and everything I could do to hurt myself. I really spiraled.” It’s common for survivors to smother their pain with alcohol, drugs, self-harm or denial. The loss of self-worth often leads victims into destructive relationships that further damage their confidence.

Her friends drank to have fun. She drank to obliterate the memory that she likens to a Jack-in-the-box. It lurked and lurked, then popped out the second she let down her guard. She did what she had to do to slam the lid shut.

“There was no concept beyond today. I wasn’t thinking about tomorrow,” Mitchell remembered. “It was just, ‘Get through that day.’”

She slept with her light on for a couple of months. Her mom and friends noticed, but they didn’t understand what had unleashed this unpredictable new girl with no limits.

Privately, Mitchell blamed herself — she had been drinking. She had gone upstairs with him alone. She might have fought harder.

“I didn’t realize I was running off of trauma,” Mitchell explained. “I thought I was fine, just having fun.”

Mitchell gradually started trusting men enough to date again. Eleven years ago, she got married. She found her calling and had children. But she never really healed. She had buried her own pain so deeply that she wasn’t truly able to confront it until the entire country started talking last month about the validity of old assault allegations.

“I can’t hear one more survivor talk about their trauma and their experience and see [Dr. Ford] on TV in front of the country sharing her experience and keep mine locked in a box one more day,” Mitchell explained.

“Telling my husband was hard, but he was fantastic and didn’t push me for details,” Mitchell said. “He just quietly supported me.” She was afraid to be vulnerable in front of her sisters. She feared they wouldn’t understand. She was wrong.

“It felt like exposing myself at my lowest point to them, and they both offered nonjudgmental, unconditional support and encouragement,” Mitchell said. “They both said if my story could help even one person, I had to tell it.”

Talking to a newspaper reporter was “terrifying.” She shook, and often had to pause to organize her thoughts. But, she says, opening up has been more liberating than she could have imagined. When she finally realized that she couldn’t bury her trauma anymore and started talking, she felt instant changes in her relationships with her loved ones and coworkers.

“Telling them was like a weight being lifted,” Mitchell said. “I felt like I was finally stopping the inner monologue. I felt like I was taking back my life. It allowed me to look at the trauma and how it still affects me, and I felt power in that.”

Crisis Support Network is available to offer help. Call 360-642-0095.

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