Still Alive to Sound of Music : Victim of Brutal Attacker Struggles but Rebuilds Life

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Without a trace of stage fright, Cheryl Bess sang out with her clear, sweet soprano voice when the time came for her solo at the small church service.

"Ask and it shall be given unto you, seek and ye shall find," she sang, with one hand on the microphone, the other on the leash of her guide dog. "Knock and the door shall be opened unto you. Allelu, alleluia."

For some in the audience a week ago, the hymn's power was not so much in its inspirational lyrics, but in the realization that a hideous crime against Bess in 1984 could not take the music from her life.

At the age of 15, while on her way to school, she was kidnaped by a 65-year-old man who tried to rape her, then poured a quart of sulfuric acid over her head and left her for dead in the desert.

Bess, who had just started her sophomore year at San Bernardino High School, was left blind and virtually without a face.

Now, nine years after the incident that made worldwide news, the 23-year-old Bess has had more than 50 reconstructive surgeries to rebuild her eyelids, nose and lips with skin grafts.

And like the painstaking work to make her a new face, Bess, who will always bear visible burn scars from the attack, is also rebuilding her life, attending college and training to become a professional disc jockey.

"I'm going on with my life," Bess said with typical resolve.

Meanwhile, her assailant, Jack Oscar King, who was captured only hours after the assault and convicted in 1985, remains in prison at the California Men's Colony near San Luis Obispo, serving a 34-year prison sentence. The earliest he will become eligible for parole is May, 2000, when he will be 81, according to the state Department of Corrections.

Although Bess still feels a great anger toward her assailant--or the "alleged human being" as she and her mother, Norma Bess, refer to him--she's not one to dwell on the tragedy.

Her life these days is literally filled with music, from her eclectic collection of compact discs, ranging from Barry Manilow to Megadeath, to her involvement with the Christian rock group at her Capistrano Beach church and the classical piano and radio classes she takes at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo.

The music that was always important in her life has taken a profound importance since the attack.

"Music is my life," said Bess, who lives with her mother in South Orange County. "I not only listen to it, I perform it. Basically, I can't do anything without music."

Out of necessity, Bess has slowly replaced some of her old dreams, such as becoming an obstetrician, with new ones, like becoming a disc jockey.

That isn't to say she has abandoned all her dreams from her cruelly lost teen-age life, namely her wish to go on a date someday.

"I'm still hoping," she laughed.

"I never got to go out on dates and proms," added Bess, on a more serious note. "I missed out on all of that. That's something I regret having missed. But it wasn't my fault. That's one consolation."

An aphorism from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche has also provided a consolation of sorts to Bess and her mother: "That which does not kill me, makes me stronger."

But as the Besses know so well, resolve doesn't make a person forget, or necessarily forgive.

"In a way, it hasn't eased," said Norma Bess. "She's walking around now, but she's walking around with a dog. A lot of her choices were taken away. . . . Yeah, I'm bitter. Look what my daughter lost."

Through it all, she has worked hard to make sure her daughter leads as normal a life as possible, and is not treated like an invalid. Little things, like insisting her daughter wear a skirt and blouse to church, rather than her customary jeans and long cotton shirts, help achieve that goal.

"We could either hide in the house, or we could go out and face the world," Norma Bess said.

One of the first things Bess did after the attack was to learn Braille. She now flies through about 15 books a month, either reading with her fingertips in Braille, or listening to them on tape.

Eventually, after moving to Orange County to be closer to the hospital where she has had extensive surgeries, Bess was also able to return to high school in Anaheim. But she stayed in school only two months before going back to the hospital for surgery.

"It was hard because I wasn't used to being out all day," Bess said of her brief return to high school. "I got tired easily and I was very self-conscious. I was self-conscious anyway before."

Bess later finished her high school work through home study, and earned her high school equivalency degree in 1988.

Afterward, Bess said she took classes at a couple other community colleges, but was "floundering," unsure what to do with her life.

It wasn't until she decided last summer that she wanted to become a disc jockey that she found a new direction at Saddleback College.

Since starting radio classes at the college last fall, Bess and her 3-year-old yellow Labrador guide dog, Atina, have become familiar figures on campus.

Although Bess is still self-conscious about her appearance, she doesn't let shyness keep her from getting involved in campus activities.

Bess, who is never without her mirrored sunglasses, usually wears a soft-billed cap, her hair kept close to her face. The skin around her mouth is pulled tight, but she can still crack a grin. Her hands and forearms, also burned in the attack, resemble those of an elderly person, rather than a young college student.

While Atina has a bad habit of trying to chase after gophers and rabbits on the hilly campus, the good-natured animal is a perfect icebreaker for students who want to meet Bess, but are shy about approaching her.

More than once during a recent day on campus, a pat on Atina's head from a student sparked a conversation and handshake with Bess.

Atina loves the extra attention, and Bess enjoys the chance to make new acquaintances. Her involvement in a campus club for disabled students has lead to more close friendships.

Thousands of south Orange County residents who listen to the Saddleback College jazz station, KSBR-FM, have also gotten to know Bess, or Cheryl Anne as she calls herself on the air.

As part of her radio training, Bess hosts her own weekly radio program at the campus station, a hands-on class project she hopes will lead to a career in radio, preferably at a hard-rock music station.

With the help of a producer and pages of Braille notes she types days in advance, Bess is able to handle her radio show with growing comfort and ease. Velcro strips mark the important buttons she needs to push on the soundboard to activate her microphone and the compact disc player.

Her voice, perfect for radio, mixes well with the contemporary jazz format of the station. In a corner underneath the sound board, Atina snoozes and snores through most of the three-hour show.

"I got her used to music," Bess laughed. "I even got her used to heavy metal. But she loves this music; it's very soothing."

For the rest of her college studies, Bess records lectures and buys special textbooks on tape. Often, her professors give her copies of their notes, which her mother reads onto cassette tapes.

Tests are taken in the campus Disabled Students Center, and she can always count on help from her special assistant, June Patterson, when it comes to getting around the campus or catching the bus.

This semester, Bess is the only blind student using a guide dog on the 23,000-student campus.

"She's doing so great," Patterson said. "She's just a really special person, always so positive. And such a good sense of humor. When Atina does something goofy, we just laugh about it."

About the same time Bess started attending college classes again, her mother also convinced her to start singing at the Palisades United Methodist Church Sunday night Lighthouse Service.

Pastor Bruce Warner said he has seen Bess "blossom" since joining the church's Christian rock band, and is grateful she had the courage to start performing in public. She recently became lead singer of the group.

"A lot of people have been inspired because her handicap hasn't stopped her from using the talents she has," Warner said. "She's doing great. I think when people see her, it is just a challenge to quit complaining about their own limitations and get on with living life as fully as they can."

That's a lesson Bess said she has learned, albeit the hard way.

"I take time to enjoy things," she said. "I took things for granted so much. When this happened, I realized that you can lose everything in an instant. You'll never get it back."

For now, Bess is not expecting to go through further reconstructive operations, even if she were to win the lottery to pay for it.

Much of the surgery she's received over the years at the UCI Medical Center was paid for through donations received from well-wishers across the country, including members of San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

The Besses are grateful for the help, all of which has been used for Cheryl's medical expenses.

"I want these people to know if they hadn't sent donations, she wouldn't have got all the good care she got," Norma Bess said. "I want them to know she's better."

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