NOTABLE ACHIEVERS IN YOUR COMMUNITY : Victim Speaks Out on Rape to Help Others

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Darlene Harris is just starting her work as an independent activist and consultant on issues of rape and domestic violence.

Her goals are simple. It would be enough, she said, if one man would change his views, "and teach his son the respect that is due to a woman, and to have heart-to-heart talks with his daughter."

The 45-year-old Agoura woman would like to play at least a small role in changing societal attitudes that often blame some victims of rape for the crime and dump feelings of shame on others.

"I don't want anyone to hurt like I did," said Harris, who has presented her Speaking From the Heart program to youth groups and churches.

In her talks, she discusses the time she was raped by her boyfriend when she was 16, living in Rising Sun, a small Indiana town. At the time, she said, fear and shame kept her quiet. She is not even sure if she told her best friend.

"I protected everybody, even his family," Harris said. "I sacrificed myself . . . I was the only one in prison, and I put myself there."

She left that town after graduating from high school and eventually moved to California, but the painful memories followed her, she said. She was unforgiving and carried a dislike for certain types of men for years. Because the rape happened as she insisted to her boyfriend that she was a virgin, Harris said she was especially upset whenever someone doubted her truthfulness.

She sought counseling four years ago, and eventually became a hot-line volunteer with Project Sister, a sexual assault crisis prevention center for the Fontana area.

Harris said the training at Project Sister helped her come to terms with a lot of her problems. "It was just like they were in my head," Harris said of her trainers. "They knew stuff I hadn't even thought of to say."

But she said the real turning point came two years ago in a panel discussion at Pitzer College in Claremont. Not normally comfortable with public speaking, Harris said she blocked out everything else and spoke from the heart.

"It was the first time I had presented my story in public," Harris said. "The emotion surprised me. A lot of people clapped when I got done."

Since then, in her discussions with teenagers, Harris said she asks if they have someone they can tell if they are victimized. "Some of the girls will say, 'Nobody cares' or 'Well, they won't believe me,' " Harris said.

"Young girls don't tell, and parents don't know what to look for," Harris said. The victim may already feel guilty at being in a place the parent told them to avoid, she said, and from there more layers of guilt and pain can be added.

Sometimes in these sessions, a girl may come forward for the first time to talk about having been raped or molested, she said. Harris said she uses herself as an example, "To show there is a good ending, there can be."

Harris said she has found a way to forgive the man who raped her. And, today she can live without carrying a burdensome secret that had followed her from a small town in Indiana.

"It's great to be able to sit and talk to someone and not worry about what you're saying because you're not hiding anything," Harris said. "Life can be good. I'm convinced of that."

Harris can be written to at Speaking From the Heart, 638 Lindero Canyon Road, No. 234, Agoura 91301.

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