On Thursday morning, Karen Pomer and I returned to Virginia Avenue in Santa Monica, a place that held many traumatic memories for her.
It was on this block in October 1995 that Karen was raped in her car by a man who had abducted her at gunpoint as she arrived home one late evening after a rally against domestic violence. This was shortly after the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, who had brutalized his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, during their marriage. Spousal abuse was on everyone’s mind.
When her rapist left her to relieve himself, Karen escaped, and ran screaming to the first home she could get to. She pounded on the door but no one answered.
The gunman recaptured her, took her back to her car, drove to an alley south of Pico Boulevard and continued assaulting her until dawn.
In February 1996, Karen and I returned to Virginia Avenue.
She was one of the first rape victims I had ever written about who was not only willing to be named, but wanted to be named. Together, we decided to try to get some answers. Why had neighbors not opened their door to a screaming woman?
It turned out, they were too scared. Neighbors told us they called 911, and figured the cops would take care of things. But the police who responded never found Karen. They did not search a wide enough swath of the city; they never looked south of Pico.
Karen reported her assault right away. She correctly identified her suspected rapist from police photos, but detectives never tried to find him. The Santa Monica police detective assigned to her case was not only dismissive, she ended up in prison for shooting her married police officer boyfriend. A prosecutor told Karen that she would never be a victim because she knows karate.
The way Karen’s case was handled was a stain on the reputation of the Santa Monica Police Department. More than five years would pass before the rapist, who had been in and out of prison for other crimes, was caught. He’s now in prison for life for a litany of other felonies.
The system failed Karen. But so, really, did the culture.
One of the neighbors who opened her door to us in 1996 was polite but devastating.
She’d told us she’d read in the news that the screaming had come from a young woman who was being raped.
“We were wondering,” she asked Karen, “what were you doing out so late?”
If you have not experienced the sting of victim blaming, it’s hard to understand how much it hurts.
I’ll never forget the look on Karen’s face as her eyes filled with tears.
For those of us who have watched what seemed like a positive revolution in the way we think and talk about sexual assault, the last few weeks have felt like tumbling back in time.
After attesting to the credibility of Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when she was 15 and he was 17, President Trump viciously ripped into Ford at one of his rallies. He mocked her inability to remember all the details of the night she said she was attacked by Kavanaugh, who now sits on the U.S. Supreme Court.
There is nothing unusual about that. “It’s so weird trying to remember all this stuff,” Karen told me Thursday as we tried to figure out which door she had pounded on the night of her rape. “You forget things.”
In another blow to victims who step forward, First Lady Melania Trump told ABC News during a trip to Africa that women deserve to be heard, but only under certain conditions.
“We need to have really hard evidence, if you accused of something; show the evidence,” the first lady said. “I do stand with women but we need to show the evidence. You cannot just say to somebody ‘I was sexually assaulted,’ or ‘You did that to me.’”
This is not standing with women; this is standing with perpetrators.
I called Gail Abarbanel, who founded the Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center 40 years ago. Abarbanel is a soft-spoken, single-minded advocate for sexual assault victims who has pioneered a revolution in the way adult and child victims are treated.
“I don’t know what ‘hard evidence’ is,” Abarbanel said. “Rape is a violent crime, but most victims don’t have serious visible injuries. The injuries are invisible, for the most part. And they hardly ever have witnesses. Almost never.”
Over the last four decades, Abarbanel has witnessed and pushed for many improvements in the way the medical and justice systems treat sexual assault.
“There used to be so many discriminatory practices,” she said. “Rape was such a stigma. You were damaged goods. Hospitals treated you like a low priority — the nurses would come out to the waiting room and say ‘Where’s the rape?’
“If you reported your rape to the police, you became a suspect and could be forced to take a lie detector test, or submit to a rape exam. Victims would be put on trial, the focus would be on their character and behavior and sexual history. You had to prove you resisted your attacker because we had resistance requirements in our rape laws.”
And then, “one of the most discriminatory things we had,” Abarbanel said, “were the instructions the judge had to give the jury: ‘Rape is a charge that is easily made and hard to defend against, so examine the testimony of this witness with caution.’”
“We’ve changed a lot,” Abarbanel said. “But it’s very hard to change private attitudes and all these misconceptions.”
What was she doing out so late? Why did she wait so long to report this? Why can’t she remember every single detail? Why was she wearing that? Where is the “hard evidence”?
Karen Pomer, 63, a longtime social justice activist, has continued to fight for victims’ rights. She is on the organizing committee for the second #MeToo Survivors’ March, which is scheduled for Nov. 10 in Hollywood. “Please don’t forget to mention that,” she said.
How could I? We’ve got a president who boasts about assaulting women, a first lady who hasn’t got a clue about sexual assault and a Senate that just put a man credibly accused of sexual assault on the Supreme Court.
The work is far from done.