Looking death in the face: I was almost murdered at age 18

Me during the late spring/summer of 1976, somewhere in upstate New York. I was 17.

Alaina Holt-Adams did a very brave thing the other day. She posted about her rape experience at the hands of her psychiatrist when she was 15 years old. It took enormous courage for her to post about that, and I am proud of her for doing so. I think she’s glad she did too.

But it made me start thinking about something that happened to me when I was 18. I’m not really ashamed or afraid to post about it, because it happened so many years ago, but for years I couldn’t even think about it without it setting off severe panic attacks.

I was raped and almost murdered–in my own bed by a total stranger.

During the summer of 1977 I was living in a co-ed residential facility for adolescents with emotional or behavioral problems, most of whom could not live with their families for one reason or another. Many of these kids were personality disordered themselves, having suffered at the hands of abusive psychopathic or narcissistic parents. Many of them had grown up in poverty. My mother and I could no longer live with each other, and my psychiatric problems were severe enough to qualify me a spot in the residence.

The residential facility was in New York City, in the East Eighties. During the 1970s and 1980s (until Rudy Giuliani became mayor and started his campaign to clean up the city in the early 90’s), New York City was a cesspool of filth and crime. The city was losing money fast, and funds that would normally go toward improving the infrastructure or finishing building projects just weren’t available.

New York was riddled with unfinished buildings that sat in their half-completed state, sometimes for years, attracting squatters and the homeless, and serving as hangouts and crash pads for heroin and other hardcore drug addicts. As you might expect, these unfinished buildings were hotbeds for violent crime. No woman (or man for that matter) who valued her body, her possessions, or her life would be caught dead walking anywhere alone at night. The subways were filthy, covered with graffiti and trash, and extremely dangerous, even during the day. I always carried a can of pepper spray with me, just in case. Everyone I knew did too.

The residence I was staying in (which no longer exists) was housed in a Brutalist building on East 87th Street. Located next to it was one of these abandoned, underfunded buildings, its steel-and-plywood scaffolding still up, and you’d have to walk under a makeshift plywood tunnel to pass it on the street. The scaffolding was about four feet away from my bedroom window (I had a private room) and about two feet beneath it.

My room was on the third floor and had casement windows–the type that open out rather than slide up and down, and you have to crank open. It’s my understanding that casement windows are much easier to break into than the more popular sash-type windows, and during the summer months, I’d leave the windows closed (there was air conditioning) though unlocked. I had a lot of potted plants on my window sill, but no curtains or any other type of window covering. I hated the Venetian blinds and kept them up all the time. Anyone could have seen in. I never really gave this any thought. To the best of my knowledge, no one could see me in there. My room was in the back of the building and we faced no other occupied buildings.

New York City was filled with scenes like this during the 1970s and 1980s. Even the “good” neighborhoods weren’t immune to urban blight due to the lack of funds.

I had dark blue plastic sheeting taped to cover the built-in fluorescent light over the small Formica desk in the corner. I never could sleep in complete darkness (to this day, I can’t) and the blue light was soothing to me as I listened to the radio while I fell asleep. It was dark, but I could still see.

One hot summer night I woke up suddenly. At first I thought I must have been having a terrible nightmare, but I realized with dawning horror that this was no dream–it was actually happening.

There was a man lying on top of me, and he had his rough fingers up inside me. My face was pressed down into the pillow (I was on my stomach) and I couldn’t move. I tensed my body and tried to fight him off, which was impossible given the position I was in. Realizing that I was awake, the man shoved his entire fist into my mouth (I have no idea how he was able to do that, but it sure felt like he did) and pushed my head down further into the pillow so I couldn’t breathe. At the same time, he pulled his fingers out of me. And then he spoke, in a low, demonic voice:

“Scream and I’ll kill you.”

I didn’t scream. Like a trapped animal, I froze in place while struggling to breathe. I felt dissociated from my body, as if I was watching this happen to someone else.

I felt him shift on top of me and use his knee to roughly push my legs under my body, and then he raped me. Still pushing my head hard into the pillow, when he realized I would not make a sound, he finally removed his fist from my mouth. I began to feel dizzy from lack of air. The pain I experienced during those moments was so intense I felt like my head was exploding with knives of white hot light.
I knew he was going to kill me.

Then something happened. I stopped panicking. I started to relax. I knew I was going to die on this night, at the age of 18. In my mind’s eye, I saw the headline of my murder on the front page of the next day’s edition of the New York Daily News, my entire sad life memorialized by a smiling black and white newsprint photo, reduced to another tragic statistic that would be forgotten within months. There would be a funeral and a lot of fake tears and hugs. Life would go on. My existence really didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. I felt my smallness, my powerlessness in a world that was never very kind to me. I think this sort of “relaxing” happens when we know we are going to die a violent or painful death. The dissociation is the mind’s way of coping with unbearable pain and the unbearable knowledge of imminent mortality.

Photo taken in 1977, the year I was almost murdered.

My dissociated state probably saved my life. Suddenly–I don’t know if he heard something or not–the man stopped raping me, got up, and ran out of the room. I turned around just in time to see the side of his face as he fled the room. In the blue light, I could see he was either white or Hispanic, and not very tall. He had dark hair and a short beard. That was all I could make out.

I began to come back into myself and started to shake and sob uncontrollably. I ran to the houseparents and told them what happened. They believed me, and came upstairs to investigate. They inspected the empty room next door to mine, and discovered an open window that was directly over the scaffolding below. Police determined the man had probably seen me in my room, figured out the room next door was unoccupied, and used the scaffolding as a means to climb into the building. The window may have been left open, or he could easily have opened it himself.

What really made my blood run cold was discovering a large butcher knife under my bed the next day. The man must have dropped it as he fled my room. I knew with the certainly the sun will rise tomorrow that he had been intending to maim or kill me with it.

The rape investigation required me to be checked by a medical doctor. No semen was found inside my body, and I was unable to identify enough information about the intruder to be able to pick him out of a book of mug shots the police showed me. There seemed to be hundreds of violent criminals who fit the description I gave.

For two years I could not sleep without my door barricaded at night. Things got especially bad after I got my first apartment. I had trouble sleeping, frequent nightmares, and slept fitfully at best. I was always tired. I was afraid to go out, and afraid to be alone. I was terrified to be alone at night, and had to sleep with every light in the apartment on.

Gradually I overcame these fears, but the rape has always haunted me and I still can’t sleep in complete darkness. I still get chilled to the bone when I think about how close I came to death that night in 1977.