COMMENTARY : She Refuses to Remain a Victim

Dianne Klein is a columnist for The Times in the Orange County edition. Her column appears there Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.

This is a story of violence, terror, humiliation and finally, inner strength. It is about rape.

Some of you may want to stop here. The brutality of this crime jars and spreads pain. It is explicit and raw.

A stranger raped Sher Fuller-Hookano, in her own house, on her own bed, in March. He has not been caught. The police believe this man will attack again; rapists usually do.

Seeing a rape victim's name in print may surprise you, even offend. The media rarely name victims of sexual assault. Rape victims, the reasoning goes, don't need a social stigma to compound their pain.

But Sher Fuller-Hookano wants to speak out, by name. She wants details known. She wants to make people uncomfortable, to show them what what rape truly is. She has done nothing wrong.

Many people still don't get it. They think rape is about sex when really it is about violence and domination and rage. Some even make jokes--while victims feel dirtied, powerless, and somehow to blame.

Sher hopes to punch a hole in the aura of shame and guilt by speaking out. She wants to warn other women. She wants her attacker caught.

"I was a rape victim," she says. "But I don't want to stay a rape victim."

Still, our conversations are laced with Sher's grief. Never are they without her tears. At times, she surrenders to the sobs. I can only wait.

Sher Fuller-Hookano had lived in a rented beach cottage in northern Laguna Beach for almost nine years. She married last year, but after about 10 months, her husband moved out.

They still kept in touch, however, seeing each other often as friends. As late as March, there were hopes that their marriage might yet work out.

At 45, Sher is independent and self-assured. She recently left her job as an executive assistant, confident she would have little trouble finding something else.

Sher loves to walk, and in Laguna, she would stroll down to the beach, through Heisler Park or just take in the local sights. Often she would go out alone at night, to dinner or a movie, or simply to feel the brace of the cool Pacific air.

"I used to feel real safe there," she says. "I used to sleep with the windows open. I never dreamed that anything would happen to me."

And it didn't for many years.

Then, in the early morning hours of March 18, Sher returned home from a St. Patrick's Day party at a friend's house in Costa Mesa. She was tired--it was 4 a.m.--and she was ready for sleep. She was just about to get into bed, when she noticed dust by her bedside table. A screen had been removed. She'd been robbed.

Sher wasn't too concerned about the loss--some jewelry, a new flashlight and her spare key were missing--but the next day, she made sure to change the lock that fit the stolen key. She mentioned the burglary to her next-door neighbor and told him that maybe he, too, should be more careful with his things.

Still, Sher wasn't overly worried. She didn't even bother telling the police. She figured the chances of recovering her property were, at best, slim to none.

Monday evening is Sher's time for television. She usually stays home, to watch "Murphy Brown," then follows that with another favorite, "Designing Women." On March 19, her routine complete, she lay down to sleep after watching the 11 p.m. news.

It was chilly. The sweat pants and T-shirt that she was wearing made her feel warm in her bed.

About 10 minutes later, already fast asleep, Sher heard a noise. It jolted her awake.

"At first, I thought it sounded like the whole back of the house was coming off," she says. "Then I realized that it was someone trying to break in. In this millisecond, when all this is happening, I thought that I didn't have enough time to get to the front door and the phone was in the kitchen. I didn't have time to call 911."

Then, in an instant, Sher's fear gave way to an indignant rage.

"I got so furious, so angry, that somebody was breaking into my house. I thought it must be a transient. It sounded like he was kicking in the door. I thought he was probably mad that his key didn't fit.

"So instead of trying to get out of the house, I got up and went through the bathroom, toward the back porch, to confront him. I was screaming, 'Get out of my house!' . . . Then I saw him, just standing there. The SOB was in my house. I was screaming at him, telling him to get out. Then he hit me with his fist and said, 'Shut the f--- up or I'll kill you.' Then he reached around the corner and switched off the bathroom light. He knew where it was."

It was then, Sher says, that raw terror blocked out everything else.

"I got really scared. I thought he had seen my pictures, my passport, the pictures on the mantle of me with my family. He wasn't coming back to rob me. He was coming back for me . Not for anything else."

Sher began to fight, screaming and crying and hitting the intruder with all her strength, but soon he grabbed her by the throat. He threatened her, swearing, his anger on the rise.

Because the rooms were dark, her description of her attacker is vague. He was young, perhaps in his 20s, slender, but with a muscular build. His dark hair was cropped close to his scalp. He may have had a mustache, and probably stood at least 6 feet tall. Sher is 5-feet-10.

The man's strength, however, was overpowering. While ordering Sher to keep quiet if she valued her life, he hit her, again and again. He pushed her through the bathroom into her bedroom. He was tearing at her clothes.

There seemed to be blood everywhere, she recalls. It was on the floor, the walls and now, on the bed. Sher wondered if he had cut her. She felt numb.

"He was holding my head down, on the side, and the bedspread was cutting off my breath. I pleaded with him to please let me up. I told him that I couldn't breathe. I was so scared. Finally, he said he would, if I would do as he said. I told him I would. I knew I was going to die."

It was then, Sher says, between gut wrenching sobs, that she seemed to leave her body. It was as if her spirit, floating above her bed, was watching the horror going on below.

"I kept trying to see his face even though he told me not to, if I didn't want to die. I thought, 'I'm going to die anyway. I want to know who this bastard is. I want to see who is going to kill me.' "

With her body gone limp, Sher could feel her attacker ripping off her clothes. One of his hands seemed to be always at her throat.

The man took off his shorts and pulled his tank top over his head, leaving it draped across his shoulders. He got on top of her and tried to kiss her on her mouth. Then he entered her with such violence that it hurt.

He commanded her to touch him and to perform oral sex. Sher did as she was told, under threat of death. The man entered her, five times, after ordering her into different positions.

"Then he told me to turn over on my stomach," Sher says. "I thought, 'Now he is going to kill me.' I had pillows over my head. He told me not to look at him and I heard him moving around in my house. I just lay there.

"I heard him in the kitchen. I thought maybe I'm going to get a knife in the shoulder blades. I was petrified. I was just waiting. . . . Then, after a while, I heard the close of the back gate. I knew it was him leaving. I ran to the closet and grabbed a robe and ran to a neighbor's."

The rape lasted about 10 minutes, by the clock. It still isn't over in Sher's mind.

"You are changed," she tells me. "It's like my other life is gone. I'll never be the same."

The physical marks from Sher's attack are gone, her bruises faded. The blood that had covered her body, and her house, was not her own. Police speculate that Sher must have broken her assailant's nose.

But rape is a crime that never ends with the act of physical violence. Two months after the attack, it is tearing at Sher's relationships, dredging up fear and shame; it has carved scars deep in her soul.

Sher's assailant, statistics show, will probably strike again. Someone else's soul will be etched by his wrath.

Roy Watson, who is 23 years old, was the neighbor to whom Sher turned when she ran from her house, in her pink bathrobe, moments after being raped.

Even if she had wanted to, Sher could not have phoned the police from her home. The rapist pulled her only telephone from the wall, and stole her purse, too.

"At about 12:20 that night, I heard this terrible pounding on my front door," Roy says. "There was Sher, just bawling her eyes out. Her blond hair was brick red from all the blood. She was bruised. I assumed what had happened, but I didn't really know. This is not something that you prepare for."

After Roy called 911, and Sher was taken by ambulance to South Coast Medical Center, other officers arrived at Roy's home. Two fire engines came moments after that.

Roy told police what he knew, but he really hadn't a clue. Not even the neighbors' black Labrador retriever had made a sound from next door.

"This one cop, he was very young, maybe 19, who stayed behind, says to me, 'If the neighbors come asking you what happened, just say that she was robbed,' " Roy recalls. "He said, 'We don't want to upset anybody or start a panic.' I acted like I agreed with him. . . . I didn't go advertise it, of course. . . . Some people become very ashamed of something like this. I was trying to respect her privacy."

But Sher's privacy was shattered when her rapist broke into her home. When Roy told her what the officer had said, Sher was annoyed. She told him to tell the truth to all who asked. She wants everyone, and especially the neighbors, to be warned.

Laguna Beach Police Chief Neil Purcell said he agrees. Those in the neighborhood should know what had occurred.

"I know I was violated in the most horrible way possible," Sher says, her voice broken by tears. "But I still want to fight back. I refuse to be a victim. If I don't, it will mean that he has won."

Many who are close to Sher cannot fathom this. They are confused, repulsed and find they do not know how to act. The men in her life, especially, cannot put their horror into words. Sher says she feels shunned.

Marlene Phillips, a marriage, family and child counselor whom Sher has been seeing once a week since the rape, isn't surprised.

"A lot of men are very uncomfortable talking about rape," she says. "They might see the woman as having been dirtied, that it was her fault. The feelings might not be as overt as that, but it's there, that they are damaged goods. . . . If someone hits you over the head and steals your purse, it's a random act of violence. If someone rapes you, then it's because you are a slut or wearing seductive clothes or you shouldn't have been there. It becomes the woman's fault."

But Phillips says that victims, too, often share those feelings of having done something wrong. And convincing them otherwise can take time.

"I think part of that is a need to feel some control," she says. "If you tell yourself that you were at fault then you can see that next time, you'll avoid certain situations; you will be back in control. But most of the time, and certainly in a stranger rape such as this one, it is just one of those things. . . . Beyond certain obvious precautions, there is really not a lot you can do about it."

Lessening the trauma of rape means talking about it as well. It is a slow process and it hurts. Rape is still an unspeakable crime. Child abuse was like that a few years back. But now people are talking about that crime. Now they are fighting back.

"This is so important to talk about," Phillips says. "Pushing it away only lets it fester someplace else. . . . I think that what Sher is doing is very brave and I commend her. It is important that people recognize that these people are victims, that they have done nothing to invite this crime. Rape is so cruel and vicious. It preys on a lot of levels. The public at large sees you as guilty, as involved in the attack, so you don't get a lot of sympathy."

Detective Ron Sapp, who is handling Sher's case for the Laguna police, says he is surprised Sher has come forward, but adds that maybe the publicity will help. He has no suspects. Perhaps if Sher's attacker rapes again, he says, the next victim can get a better identification.

Although there was another rape in Laguna exactly two weeks after the attack on Sher, police report an average of fewer than 10 rapes a year in the last decade. "We are kind of a sleepy little community," Sapp says. "It is really not a problem here."

The second rape, also unsolved, was committed by a man with apparently similar characteristics, but Sapp says he has ruled out any connection. One suspect was slim, he says, the other weighed more than 200 pounds.

I first met Sher at her new home, a place one can only enter after using secret electronic codes. Her new phone number is unlisted and an answering machine screens her calls. She still hadn't hung her pictures on the walls.

No longer does she walk alone at night. If she travels alone after dusk, it is by car, directly to the house of a friend.

The only time that Sher has been back to her Laguna home was with a friend, whom she stayed with for three weeks after the attack, and then only to retrieve her clothes. Caked blood seemed to be at every turn.

"It was like walking into a nightmare," she says.

Sher and I keep talking, about her fears and her loneliness, about trauma that perhaps only time can heal. The sessions with Phillips, recommended by the Rape Crisis Hotline volunteer who stayed with Sher at the hospital, seem to be of help.

"You know what is so bizarre about something like this happening to you," Sher says, her voice trailing off, "I have always been an independent person, taking care of myself. Now, with this, it's like a chink in my armor. All the bad things, the things that I've just pushed down inside, things that I didn't even know were there, all of that keeps coming out. It's like the straw that broke the camel's back.

"I don't want to be treated as a leper," she goes on, tears of desperation streaking her cheeks. "Before, I was always busy, doing things, seeing people. But now I see that I'm all alone. That's the reality that's slapped me in the face. . . .

"You know . . . I used to be a bleeding-heart liberal. But if I had a gun and they brought that man before me, I could blow his head off with no problem."

But no, Sher says, she does not own a gun and she doesn't plan to get one.

She wants to get on with her life, to put this ugliness away. But she will never forget it.

Nor should we.

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