Out of the Darkness : It took Donna Friess of San Juan Capistrano decades to reveal her real-life story of the tragedy of incest.


Donna Friess has no trouble remembering when she got the idea for writing a book about being the victim of incest, a dark family secret she kept hidden for four decades.

It was the week before Thanksgiving, 1989, at Stuart House, a center for child sexual-abuse victims in Santa Monica, where she had gone to be interviewed by a police detective in a small room with a one-way mirror.

Friess, then 45, wasn’t the only family member to tell a story of being repeatedly sexually abused by her father as a child and teen-ager.


Three of her adult sisters and a 21-year-old niece also took turns being interviewed. So did Friess’ 3 1/2-year-old niece: Two generations of family members told of being sexually abused by Raymond W. Lewis Jr., a retired aerospace designer.

Friess’ 39-year-old sister--the mother of the 3 1/2-year-old--told investigators she was still being forced to engage in an incestuous relationship with her father.

Lewis, family members told police, would justify his abuse with arguments from the Bible and Darwin and protect himself by threatening them with violence.

Friess said her father kept an arsenal of weapons in the house and would tell his young daughters and his other victims that “sorry sisters end up six feet under” and “betrayers are executed.”

It was after all the interviews had ended, Friess recalls, that “the detective turned to me and said: ‘In all my years as a police detective I have never encountered a story such as this. This has got to be written.’ ”

It had taken Friess nearly 40 years to reach the point where she could reveal her secret, and a book was the last thing on her mind. But with encouragement from her husband, Ken, she would begin writing, tapping long-buried memories of when her father “did things to me in the dark.”

Lewis was sentenced in 1991 to the maximum 12 years and eight months in prison for molesting his granddaughter and committing incest with his 39-year-old daughter. Lewis, who has repeatedly said his conviction was based on perjury, was not charged with crimes against the other women because the state’s six-year statute of limitations for child molestation had expired.


Now, two years after her father was sent to prison, Friess’ book is finally reaching bookstores.

In “Cry the Darkness: One Woman’s Triumph Over the Tragedy of Incest” (Health Communications; $11.95), Friess candidly tells her story of growing up in what seemed--from the outside--an ideal Southern California family.

Friess, the eldest, said she was molested by her father for the first time on her first day of first grade. As the years passed, she and her sisters would each keep their own secrets of what their father did to them hidden from one another.

But in 1989, Friess learned that her father was continuing to abuse her 39-year-old sister. And unable to “sit idly by” with her sister’s young daughter in jeopardy, Friess said she finally admitted what had happened to her and rallied family members to tell their stories to the police.

“Cry the Darkness” is not the first time Friess’ story has been told, and it won’t be the last.

The case first came to public attention in August, 1991, in an award-winning Los Angeles Times Magazine cover story by Times staff writer Lynn Smith.


After the story appeared, Friess, a professor of communications at Cypress College and wife of the former mayor of San Juan Capistrano, made the rounds of television talk shows. Now known as a crusader for children’s rights, she speaks frequently to child protective groups, and next fall Jaclyn Smith will portray her in a CBS TV movie.

But despite the many times she has talked about her past, Friess concedes she’s feeling nervous now that her book is coming out.

“It’s just so risky to share yourself,” she said. “It’s one thing in an article about the whole case, but the book is about me and how I felt: It’s about feelings. What a risk (it is) to share how you actually felt. But, of course, that’s the the whole point: to share the human condition.”

Friess’ initial reluctance to write a book about her experience changed after her father’s arrest in January, 1990, three months after she and her relatives told their story to police.

Over the next four months, Friess began writing notes in longhand, filling a half-dozen spiral notebooks. And on Memorial Day weekend, with her husband out of town and three days to herself, she sat down at a computer and began writing.

“By the end of summer I had 430 pages,” she said. “Once you get started, it grabs you.”

Even then, however, she had no intention of doing more than writing her memoirs “to get it out, for the catharsis; I had in mind a family history for my children so they would know me better.”


The thought of having her story published for public consumption, she said, “was just too scary.”

But after her father’s conviction in a case that affected state law--it contributed to a change in what constitutes rape incest cases in California--she knew the story would be picked up by the press.

“I just went through a terrible thing to admit it happened to me,” she said. “It seemed like if I could tell my story I could help other people who were afraid to speak up: Despite this, we can make the best of our life.”

Friess, who has been working with the “Cry the Darkness” scriptwriter, describes the upcoming TV movie as a “psychological thriller.”

“It deals with that terrible conflict of realizing you have to do something to stop your dad and coming around to realizing that Dad isn’t the good guy that I portrayed him to be my whole life,” she said.

“It’s about having to stand up against Dad. If it were some guy , you could do it easily. But you love your dad. It’s a real conflict because you’re hearing that voice, loud and clear, all the time: ‘You’re betraying your father.’ ”


Friess describes the five months she spent writing her book as a “terrible” experience. “But by going through it--not walling it off like I had all my life--I got through it. The pain is like a tunnel: In order to heal, you have to go through it.”

In writing the book, Friess took care to describe the sexual incidents with restraint. “The books in print that deal with sexual abuse get into the gory details and, honestly, I don’t think people want to be beaten over the head. It’s horrible enough,” she said.

With her book, she said, “I’m trying to show how the child feels in this situation. I just tried to let the reader experience this like the child does: the wide-eyed, maybe confused aspect of the child, but still filled with love for the parent.”

Friess included details of her childhood such as wanting to become a Brownie, making friends and meeting her future husband as a teen-ager to show that “the abuse is not all that’s going on with the child.”

In the end, Friess said, “Cry the Darkness” is “a book of hope.

“I see it as a story of victims rising up and becoming powerful and getting on with their lives. I’ve always gotten on with my life.”

She acknowledges, however, that coming forward with her own long-held secret four years ago took courage.


“It was scary,” she said. “I was risking my marriage and my life, my relationship with my dad (and wondering) what people would think about me, what my kids would think.”

Although she said that after her father was arrested “he put detectives on us and went to our friends and tried to find something to discredit us with”--her other fears never materialized:

“My marriage is stronger than ever, my kids understand me and are closer to me for it. I didn’t lose my job, no one turned their back on me. But that’s the kind of stuff people think (will happen) and it didn’t happen. I didn’t lose anything.”

Although her father was sentenced to 12 years and eight months in state prison, Friess said he will probably end up serving only five years and eight months. The prospect of him being released in three years, she acknowledges, makes her “very nervous.”

Since her father’s imprisonment, Friess said, she initially received “a ton of letters” from him. Although she hasn’t read any of them, she said, her husband has read her portions of the letters from her father.

“He’s become religious,” she said, “so he’s quoting the Bible all over the place and justifying incest to show that it’s God’s will.”