Bakersfield resident Hannah Ruth Joseph sat down at her computer a few weeks ago, opened a new Microsoft Word document and began writing.
...I was raped by a so-called neighbor. He was 26, I was 11.
As the doctor examined me, she asked if I felt anything. I said I did not. I was numb.
What she said, as she looked down at me with an accusing and angry face, was, ‘You're a bad little girl.’
“I still believe I’m a bad little girl,” said Joseph, who is now 80, as she sat in the living room of her East Bakersfield apartment on Wednesday.
Over the years, she has tried to remember details from that day in 1950 in Revere, Mass., where she grew up.
“I see him coming (into the apartment building) in his Air Force uniform. I was sitting on the step in the hallway by myself,” she recalled. “He had something in his hand, he walked me upstairs and I don't remember anything after that except being in the doctor’s office.”
“When I think of him now, he has no face,” she added, something she says has helped her to heal.
But one thing she remembers clearly: no one believed her or gave her the support she needed.
A new dialogue
Time have changed and rape and sexual assault are no longer the taboo subjects they once were. Help for victims is now widely available, and awareness of the pervasiveness of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment has reached new levels, thanks to movements like #MeToo and TimesUp, which have encouraged more people to speak out about their experiences.
As part of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, organizations countywide are raising awareness throughout the month about the services and support they provide victims. And local experts are hailing the major shift nationwide in the discussion around sexual assault.
A new type of dialogue has been started, said Cindy Lyday, external affairs manager with the Alliance Against Family Violence & Sexual Assault
“The lie ... that you can’t talk about it and you won’t be believed is the first thing a perpetrator would say to a victim,” she said. “This #MeToo movement is the opposite. When someone says this happened to them, they won’t be questioned and they’ll get help.”
Services available locally to rape victims through the Alliance Against Family Violence & Sexual Assault include a 24-hour crisis hotline, hospital accompaniment, emergency shelter for up to 60 days, individual and group counseling and court accompaniment and legal advocacy for those who report an assault. Similar services are offered at Women’s Center – High Desert, Inc., in Ridgecrest, which also has offices in Lake Isabella, Mojave and Tehachapi. All of the center’s services are free and kept confidential except for certain instances. Both organizations are open to men and women of all ages.
On their own timeline
Despite available community resources, it still takes courage for many victims to reach out for help. Lyday recalled a women who rang the Alliance’s front doorbell and ran away 11 times before coming in.
“It takes a while to build up that trust and to figure out what’s behind that door,” she said. “Trust yourself enough and love yourself enough to know that when you buzz that front door, you’ll be met with compassion.”
Each victim of sexual assault “is on their own timeline for healing,” said Sabrina Heinze, a counselor at the Alliance.
"There has to be a point when they are ready to share their story," she said.
Lyday said the Alliance sees more than 650 people each year, and those are just the ones that seek help.
Many rape victims choose to go on their own path toward healing, as Joseph did in 1988, 38 years after she was raped.
'I wanted him to admit it'
“I decided to look for him," she recalled as she sat in her living room in east Bakersfield on Wednesday.
She contacted the synagogue in her old neighborhood and managed to get a number for him.
“Then I thought, ‘Oh my god, what do I do now?’” she said.
She dialed the number.
“I knew what he did, but I wanted him to admit it," she remembers thinking at the time. "I had to hear it. I had to know it."
When he got on the line, the words came out: “Do you remember coming up the stairs and you said something to me and you took me upstairs and you raped me?”
At first, he denied the allegation, she said, but later gave her the admission she needed to hear.
"What do you want me to do now?" she remembers him asking.
"I don’t want you to do anything," she told him. "I want you to know I’m still here, and you can’t make me disappear."
"And I have to tell you I forgive you for what you did. But you need to know I’m doing that not for you, but for me, because I need to get this out of my system and my heart."
This type of action — restorative justice, as it's known — has become common among rape survivors, said Amy Nelson, community outreach advocate with Women’s Center — High Desert, Inc.
After Larry Nassar, a doctor for the USA gymnastics team and Michigan State University, was convicted last year of molesting hundreds of girls over the years, the judge in the case allowed dozens of his victims to confront him in court during sentencing over several days.
“It can be a way of healing someone to hear others say you weren’t making it up,” she said after hearing about Joseph's story. “It was really brave of her to do that.”
Someone is listening
Another way survivors can empower themselves is by participating in events taking place this month. The Alliance’s Take Back the Mic on April 18 will feature various artists sharing their written works and performances. The event will begin 7 p.m. at the Junior League. The Alliance will also hold its eighth annual Power of the Purse fundraiser on April 26 at the Gardens at Monji with special guest Elizabeth Smart, whose story of being abducted at age 14 in 2002 and raped repeatedly by her captor made national headlines.
“You have the power in your purse to change someone’s life,” Lyday said. All funds will go toward the Alliance and its counseling services.
Though the month will pass, Nelson reminds survivors that organizations are ready to help them at any time.
“I hope when they walk through our doors, they know someone is listening, and we’ll do everything we can to help them and get them through their journey to healing,” she said.
And Joseph, who still carries pain in her heart, is happy resources she did not have are out there now.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” she said. “I wish more people would take advantage of it.”