TV Reviews : Real-Life Rape Victim Goes Public in 'My Life'

"Taking Back My Life" may be the boldest expression of rape that has ever aired on prime-time network television (at 9 p.m. Sunday on CBS, Channels 2 and 8).

Based on the 1988 assault of real-life victim Nancy Ziegenmeyer, a Grinnell, Iowa, mother of three who elected to go public with graphic details of her humiliation, the movie is a clarion call to victims of rape to lift the burden of shame and anonymity and stand up and be heard.

For once, the press comes off smelling like a rose. The plot shows how it was an opinion piece written by Des Moines Register editor Geneva Overholser (Joanna Cassidy) that prompted the victim and her husband to come forward. The result, as we see, turned Ziegenmeyer into a national talk-show role model for other rape victims. The series of newspaper articles also earned the Register a Pulitzer, and a book by Ziegenmeyer, "Taking Back My Life," has just been published.

In short, a TV movie waiting to happen.

As the scarred, frightened and ultimately courageous bar-hostess rape victim whose prior reputation for sleeping around made many townspeople, notably her hostile mother-in-law (Ellen Burstyn), feel that she got what she deserved, Patricia Wettig is terrific--scrappy, flinty, vulnerable.

Notwithstanding the dominant theme, what drives the script by April Smith is not its didactic scream but its gritty human story of an estranged couple struggling to make their marriage work when the wife, who is white, is nightmarishly violated by a cool and collected, sharply dressed black man inside her car in broad daylight in a college parking lot in Des Moines. Those were the facts. Race, however, is not an issue in the dramatization, and the Des Moines Register editor orders her staff to stay clear of racial angles in their coverage.

Director Harry Winer captures the rape scene through the lurching, tumbling viewpoint of the woman with sufficient detail to make you flinch. The attack is only seconds long but brevity is its strength. Rape, like murder, is a staple of dramatic entertainment. It's how you are made to feel about it that makes the cathartic difference. You feel this rape.

But the most graphic material, representing a new level of prime-time candor, is the clinical aftermath of the attack--both during the woman's medical exam, with her mouth being swabbed for evidence of oral sex, and later during her descriptive testimony at the rapist's trial. Many family newspapers don't permit the kind of language replayed here.

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