MARYANN DeLEO: Reacting to Rape

Sharon Bernstein is a frequent contributor to The Times' Calendar section.

In Maryann DeLeo's documentary "Rape: Cries From the Heartland," which airs Tuesday on HBO, the camera starts rolling as soon as the police arrive. Based in the Memphis, Tenn., Rape Crisis Center, DeLeo follows five women--including a 72-year-old grandmother--and two girls through the aftermath of their attacks.

DeLeo has produced investigative reports for NBC's "Today Show" and has won a number of awards, including an Emmy and the Overseas Press Award for her work covering international affairs. In 1989, she co-produced "One Year in a Life of Crime," an HBO documentary chronicling the lives of three criminals in Newark, N.J.

In an interview with Sharon Bernstein, DeLeo concludes--perhaps not surprisingly--that society still blames the woman for "inviting" the attack.

Why did you decide to make a documentary on rape?

When HBO first asked me to do it, I was hesitant because of the subject matter, because I felt it would be very painful. I also felt that rape was something I was afraid of--I didn't know how close I wanted to be to it.

But I did start to do some research, and the first time I went to the Memphis Rape Crisis Center I realized that rape was a subject that everybody had to hear about.

You use the real first names of the women and girls, and show their faces on camera. Why?

I felt comfortable because I felt that the women felt comfortable. If I felt there was real reluctance, or that the women didn't want me there, I wouldn't have done it, because it was so painful to see so many people (at the Rape Crisis Center) feeling so hurt and upset.

The Rape Crisis Center was such a calm and safe environment. When they saw me it was complete choice. I felt it was their chance to speak out. Being in the Rape Crisis Center started to remove some of the stigma women feel about it being their fault. It's repeated over and over that it's not their fault.

What did you learn?

That nobody's exempt, that it could happen to anybody. It could happen at any age; it happens to men. I guess I was overwhelmed by the numbers. The center was always busy. When I first got there, the director of the Rape Crisis Center said, "When I leave here I'm home, safe, but when I come in there are more cases, so when I was home safe sleeping, there are people who were being raped in the city." That really stuck with me.

I also think that, after being with the people in the Rape Crisis Center, though it's still a frightening thing to think about, now I know that I would survive it. They helped these women walk out of there survivors.

What technique did you use to tell the story?

A lot of the time it's an observational camera--the camera is there, but I'm not asking a lot of questions. It takes place when they first come in, when they're being seen by a counselor. Sometimes I was with the police, and I would go out on a call with them. When they got to the scene, I would stay behind in the car. They would then come out and tell me whether the victim said it was OK (to tape) or not. There were times when the victims said, "No," and they never saw me.

Was it difficult for them to talk to you?

I think it was difficult. But in some ways, I felt that talking about it made them feel better. Talking about it helps (victims) to realize it's not their fault, they didn't do anything wrong.

There is a storm of controversy right now about whether journalists should use the names of rape victims without their consent. What is your position?

The crime does still carry a stigma, and it's so traumatic that it really needs to be up to the victim to give permission if they want their name and their face used. Some people say that rape is a violent crime and we use the names of victims of other violent crimes without their permission. It's true that rape is a violent crime, but it carries a different stigma.

It invades a very personal part of yourself, and to give people their power back you have to give them choices about these kinds of things.

What affected you most about the people you interviewed?

What struck me most was their strength, their courage. They've all stayed with me. And I don't think I'll ever forget them.

Why did HBO want to do a documentary about rape?

The idea came about because one of the producers up there had some women friends who had been raped, and he just watched as nothing really happened. None of the men went to jail, the sentences were plea bargained, and he watched what it did to his friends.

Is there a message in what you saw and learned?

I think our whole society has a long way to go in terms of violence against women. I hope people in general just start to change the way they think about these kinds of crimes, not just after it happens but before. I saw a lot of cases where people didn't recognize violence against women as violence. They just didn't think it was a big deal. They didn't see it.

I interviewed some inmates who were not in for sex crimes but were taking a sexuality seminar at the Rape Crisis Center, and they all talked about incidents where they had raped women in the past. It was suddenly dawning on them that it was violent and that it was rape. They had never even considered that forcing somebody to have sex is violent.

What has been the reaction of people who have seen the tape?

Men have a hard time watching the tape. There's one case in the documentary of acquaintance rape. There's no doubt in my mind this women was raped--she drank to the point of being unconscious. If you are unconscious, you cannot give your consent. I have had men watch it and say, "I don't think she was raped--she was drunk."

"Rape: Cries from the Heartland" airs Tuesday on at 10 p.m. on HBO.

art tk but photo of deLeo and we hope a scene from the doc.

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