Using the latest DNA technology, Charlottesville police in November linked a series of area rapes to a single perpetrator. The attacker’s modus operandi—violent sneak attacks on carefully selected victims—led police to suspect the serial rapist could be responsible for as many as seven assaults since 1997.
Hoping for a tip that could lead to an arrest, police released a composite sketch of the suspect (black male, late 20s, stocky) and encouraged citizens to report suspicious characters. The Daily Progress and WVIR-TV picked up the rape story, dutifully displaying the black-and-white sketch of a pudgy African-American. Their reports quoted police accounts of the attacks, warning women to lock their doors and travel in groups.
The Hook, an upstart weekly, went further than most other media, pandering to the tired racial cliché with a January account of a dozen attacks packed with pulp language like “terrorizing,” “brutal,” “stalking” and “predator,” the kind of words that create the notion that the rapist is an alien beast.
“People want to believe he’s somebody they don’t see every day,” says Charlottesville Police Lt. J.W. Gibson. “This guy is not going to be some drooling, rabid dog. He’s probably going to be just the opposite. He’s going to be somebody who blends in. When we catch him, his friends and neighbors will probably say, ‘I can’t believe it’s him.’”
In fact, despite media treatments that suggest rape only happens when an unknown black man crawls through the window, the reality is this: Most sexual assault victims in Charlottesville know their rapists as friends, lovers, leaders and parents.
The numbers tell the story. In 2002, the Charlottesville Police Department received 57 reports of “forcible” sex offenses (including rape, sodomy and fondling) and four reports of “non-forcible” incidents (incest and statutory rape). By contrast, the Sexual Assault Resource Agency (SARA) received 583 calls to its rape hotline last year. Of those, 380 were new callers. Most had suffered either rape or attempted rape. In 75 percent of SARA’s cases last year, the attacker was someone known to the victim.
Only a small percentage of local rapes make it to the police blotter, making the true story of sexual assault in Charlottesville’s homes, schools and churches more difficult to report than a composite sketch of a bad man might suggest. Very few rape victims share their stories with anyone. Their reluctance to rehash past trauma for the public record is understandable.
Joyce Allan is an exception. For many years, the 58-year-old nurse and psychotherapist remained silent about her childhood sexual abuse. She is speaking out now, however, because she wants to steer the conversation about rape away from street crime.
“Sexual abuse isn’t about sex, really,” says Allan. “It’s about power and control. We as a culture are not comfortable talking about abuse of power.”
It’s strange, says Allan, that sex sells—everything from toothpaste to mutual funds and daytime TV—yet frank talk about basic human appetites for sex and domination remains taboo.
“How many people do I know who have West Nile virus? None. But I know everything about it,” she says.
“But how many people in Charlottesville do you know who are suffering the emotional and physical effects of abuse?”
George Culbertson sure didn’t look like a rapist. In one of Joyce Allan’s childhood family photographs, her dashing father poses with his bride, Marjorie, shortly after their college graduation. In another suburban portrait, he stands with his children, Joyce, Gary and Dorene, beside a boxy station wagon parked in their driveway.
With his skill at fixing machines and his fondness for the Colorado mountains, Culbertson seemed to embody all-American manhood. He hid a dark secret, however. Culbertson was a pedophile. During his life he molested many children—neighborhood kids, scouts entrusted to his care, even his own daughter.
One day in 1955, in a moment Allan would later describe as the “atomic bomb,” Marjorie Culbertson walked into an upstairs bathroom to find George standing naked with 10-year-old Joyce kneeling before him, his penis in her small hand. Her mother “can still recall that I had a shocked look on my face as she walked in,” Allan wrote in her autobiography, Because I Love You. “What she and Daddy said to each other remains a complete blank to her. The only memory I have of this event, a clear visual memory I can still see today, is of a tiny rust spot on the bathroom window screen. I don’t remember the house, the bathroom, or event at all. Just that spot.”
Forty years after the “atomic bomb” detonated in that bathroom, Allan spent seven years tracing her family’s history of sexual abuse. The result was Because I Love You, titled to reflect the tangled relationships that set sexual abuse apart from other crimes.
Allan says she wrote her book to counteract a pair of popular myths about childhood sex abuse—that it is rare and that when it happens the rapists are creepy-looking men whose names are registered on the Internet as sex offenders.
“It’s much easier for us to think about rapists as people who are outside the institution,” or mainstream, says Allan during an interview at her workplace in Staunton. “But violent serial rapists are the smallest percentage of dangerous people. The church leader or the scout leader, however, is not likely to get arrested.”
Whether a rapist derives power from the blade of a knife or from his stature as head of the household, abuse of power is a common feature in all types of sexual abuse, according to police and rape counselors, be it an anonymous street crime or an assault in the kitchen.
In interviews, several local women said they knew people who had been sexually abused––although none admitted being victims themselves––and most said they view “sexual abuse” to be a wide range of behaviors from peeping and stalking to domestic violence and forcible rape. Indeed, on its website SARA defines sexual abuse as “any sexual contact through the use of threats, intimidation and/or physical force or violence.”
By this standard, sexual abuse is shockingly common: SARA data indicates the majority of last year’s 380 new clients suffered a “date rape” or attempted date rape; according to the American Medical Association, which in 1995 declared child sex abuse an “epidemic,” one in five boys and one in four girls will be sexually assaulted before they turn 18, most likely due to ongoing abuse by a parent or step-parent; and in 2001, Virginia’s domestic violence centers received more than 28,000 hotline calls, according to the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Data Collection System.
“Sexual abuse is part of domestic violence. Women in those situations feel like they don’t have the right to say no to their partner,” says Brandi Painter, an assistant director at the Shelter for Help in Emergency, a Charlottesville center for battered women.
In Allan’s view, it’s easier for people to think about rapists as boogiemen creeping through windows because our society offers myriad ways to ease that fear—police, courts, jails, handguns, even gated communities.
“People’s value systems tend toward protecting male authority figures, or protecting institutions like family and church,” says Allan. “To speak about sexual abuse is to create a huge conflict.”
The untold story of rape is a shadow, says Allan, a dark truth that trails victims long after the violence has ended. Even though it’s underplayed in the media, the legal system and even everyday conversation, intimate violence lingers on. “Silence doesn’t make the problem go away,” says Allan. “It just makes the problem harder to deal with.”
The Code of Virginia prohibits sexual intercourse enacted through force or intimidation, through a victim’s mental or physical helplessness or with a child under the age of 13. It’s punishable by a prison sentence of five years to life. The clean simplicity of the Commonwealth’s rape law contrasts with the messy reality of most sexual abuse.
“The huge problem with sexual abuse cases is that it’s very rare for any incident to have more than two witnesses, so it often comes down to one word against another,” says John Zug, Charlottesville’s assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney. “That’s always a problem, because the law requires a burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
SARA encourages rape victims to go to the UVA Medical Center emergency room immediately following the assault. There, nurses will gather physical evidence, using special lights and swabs to collect hair, saliva and semen samples. The process lasts about an hour. Nurses are supposed to summon both police and SARA counselors, and all rape-related emergency room visits should be reported to the police, say SARA counselors.
But SARA data indicates most rape victims do not visit the emergency room, and instead seek counseling weeks or months after their attacks. “Many women will deny it the first time they get raped,” says Jessica Cochran, a counselor for SARA. “They’ll tell themselves it didn’t really happen. Then when it happens again, they report it.”
Zug trains new SARA counselors about rape and the legal system; to help the counselors empathize with rape victims, he asks them to tell each other the details of their most recent sexual encounter.
“They’re embarrassed just talking about consensual sex,” he says. “Imagine telling a roomful of strangers about being raped. For people who haven’t been a victim, it’s easy to say they should go to the police. But for the victims, I don’t think it’s realistic.”
When it comes to legal action, things get even more difficult, particularly when the victim is a child, or when the rapist is a family breadwinner. In Joyce Allan’s case, for example, her father kept the young girl quiet with the pressure of family ties. “He told me he molested me because he loved me,” she says. “He told me to be a good girl, to keep our secret, that if I told they might send him away and I wouldn’t have a family anymore.”
Even a seemingly protective statute like Megan’s Law, which was passed locally in 1996 and allows police to post the names and addresses of convicted pedophiles, can backfire on a young victim. “If a child knows their father will be a registered sex offender the rest of his life, that doesn’t exactly encourage reporting,” says Allan.
If the legal system intimidates victims, so do the social and economic consequences of reporting rape. Women who are sexually assaulted by someone in their social circle must often make a choice between reporting the abuse and keeping their friends, says SARA’s Cochran.
“Often, the survivor will be ostracized from that group,” says Cochran. “People don’t want to believe that their friend is capable of such a violent act.”
In domestic abuse situations, the most vulnerable women are either very rich or very poor, says SHE’s Painter. “They are most likely to feel very dependent on their abusers,” she says. “They’re less likely to leave their situation.”
Faced with such roadblocks, women are left to deal with their sexual abuse by themselves.
When Marjorie Culbertson caught her husband molesting Joyce, she offered him a choice—commit himself to a psychiatric institution or go to jail. George chose voluntary commitment. Decades later, Allan would learn the details of his pedophilia from taped conversations with his doctors. Culbertson insisted, even after he was released in 1958, that there was nothing wrong with what he did with his daughter.
At the time, Culbertson’s chronic abuse was shadowed in secrecy. Joyce and her siblings were sent to live with relatives while Marjorie prepared for single motherhood. On a counselor’s advice, she told the children their father had a nervous breakdown and never discussed his behavior with Joyce.
“She was trying to protect me,” Allan says. “She couldn’t understand why I might have needed to talk about it.”
As Joyce grew up, she says she came to associate romantic feelings with her father’s abuse, even as she defensively blocked out specific memories of her childhood trauma.
Allan’s attempts to establish a normal life by marrying and bearing children ended in divorce. As a single mother in the 1970s, Joyce supported her children, Joe and Jenny, by running a day care service and accepting Welfare. At night, she drank heavily, cried often and burned through a series of sexual relationships she says were devoid of friendship or emotional intimacy. She contemplated suicide.
“It’s like I had two selves,” Allan says. “I was in a deep clinical depression.”
At the time, Allan says she did not connect her depression to her sexual abuse. In fact, Allan says she has few clear memories of her childhood to this day. She was so emotionally numbed that when Culbertson, who had spent two years in the hospital, asked Joyce to send her children to visit him in Colorado, she agreed.
“I made him promise he wouldn’t touch Jenny the way he touched me,” Allan says. “And I believed him.” It was a bad decision, she admits. But at the time, Allan says the shadow of her childhood trauma left her denying the truth about her father’s sexual desires, and perhaps contributed to other mental problems.
In 1979 doctors, having observed symptoms of amnesia, dissociation, memory distortion, flashbacks, depression and addiction in Vietnam veterans, identified Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder an official medical diagnosis. Today, Allan believes PTSD fueled the depression that nearly claimed her life, the hidden weight of an unseen shadow pulling her ever closer to darkness.
SARA trains its counselors to diagnose the long- and short-term symptoms of what’s called Rape Trauma Syndrome, a reaction to sexual assault and the related fear of serious injury or death.
Cochran says women respond to rape in various ways, but in the first six months following an assault they commonly have trouble eating, sleeping and concentrating. Additionally, they have feelings of anger, guilt and shame. Later stages of RTS include stress-induced headaches or stomach cramps, chronic gynecological problems and difficulties with work, family and personal relationships. Some women who call the SARA hotline say they are afraid to leave their houses, says Cochran. A song, a whiff of cologne or the glance of a strange man can induce powerful flashbacks in some women.
Rape counselors say if victims of sexual abuse are left to grapple with their shadows alone, the results can be catastrophic. Unable to claim emotional or financial independence from a powerful figure, battered women often return to their abusive spouse, says Nicole Lloyd, a SHE legal advocate. Some women may also pass the cycle of violence to their own children.
Other women turn to self-destructive behavior. Many women in prison, for instance, have histories of sexual abuse, according to Linda Hamilton, director of Region Ten’s substance abuse treatment program.
“A large percentage of women in prison are there because of substance abuse,” says Hamilton. “There’s a very high correlation between substance abuse in women and sexual trauma. More than 80 percent of female addicts we see are either victims of incest or sexual abuse as an adult. Many of them accept it, because their friends have been assaulted. It’s part of the culture, in a way.”
The prevalence of sexual abuse and its powerful after-effects makes sexual abuse not just a problem for victims, but of the community at large, says Allan.
“These walking wounded are a part of our community,” she says.
In 1985 George Culbertson, who, despite hospitalization, continued to molest children during the rest of his life, committed suicide in his trailer in Colorado. With considerable relief, Allan believed his influence on her life was then over. She was wrong. In the mid-1990s, her children revealed that their grandfather had molested them during their summertime visits.
“I was determined to break the silence that had kept the shadow of sexual abuse running through generations of my family,” she says.
While researching her autobiographical book, Joyce interviewed Culbertson’s second wife, Irene, whose marriage to him ended after he molested a friend’s daughter. When Culbertson explained that fondling children’s genitalia was, for him, a form of affection, that he wasn’t hurting them because he didn’t penetrate them, Irene realized he needed help.
Culbertson had confided a secret to Irene, which as far as Allan knows, he never told anyone else. When he was a boy, his uncle had sodomized George during summer vacations. The news was a revelation.
“For the first time I saw the wounded, terrorized and silenced little boy that grew up to be my father,” Allan writes in her book.
Today, Allan is Director of Nursing at the Commonwealth Center for Children and Adolescents in Staunton. In her work, she helps emotionally disturbed children confront their own shadows. She says that because sexual abuse tends to be passed from one generation to the next, understanding the reality of rape requires showing compassion for abusers and victims.
“We don’t know why people become sexual offenders,” she says. “There are contributions of childhood experience, father absence, family violence and sex abuse of their own. Maybe there’s genetic pedophilia. We don’t know, because we’re not trying. We’re not being intelligent. We’re making emotional responses. We’re not exploring this. We just want to lock up the bad guys.”
Because most rape victims never have their day in court, rape counselors say the job is to help abuse victims regain a sense of power and self-esteem. “Women are guilt sponges,” says Region Ten’s Hamilton. “They take responsibility for [the abuser’s] behavior. We try to show them that they’re not bad people.”
Despite the terrifying ubiquity of rape, childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence, experts aren’t adopting a posture of alarm. Education, they say, is more effective than fear mongering.
“We need to focus on childhood sexuality so children know what’s normal,” says Allan. “If we just talk about abuse, we create the sense that sex is bad. Cultivating a fear of strangers is not a good thing.”
Counselors at SHE and SARA say sexual and physical abuse knows no class or ethnic boundaries. They teach women that they can’t spot a rapist or a violent person by looking at his wardrobe or listening to his accent. To find the rapist, look for behaviors.
Rape, says Charlottesville Police Lt. Gibson, is a form of domination. He hopes the much-publicized serial rapist’s desire to dominate will eventually put police on his trail, maybe through tips from someone who can look beyond his appearance to see suspicious behavior. “It’s possible he has a wife or girlfriend who was exposed to his manipulative behavior or role-playing that reflects a desire to dominate,” he says.
Most sexual offenders, from peeping Toms to serial rapists, commonly view women as possessions. They also tend to emotionally or physically manipulate others. Confronting the reality of sexual abuse does not mean wallowing in fear and mistrust of strangers, says Painter. To protect themselves, people should instead learn to recognize when powerful people take their control of others too far.
“That sense of possession is important, because it means you’re taking away someone’s humanity,” says Painter. “The first step in committing an act of violence is dehumanizing another person.”