'Nothing would ever be the same again' Gail Kaplan tries to help other rape victims learn to cope.

April 23, 1991|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Evening Sun Staff

Gail Kaplan lived what many admirers called a fairy tale life. She had a husband and three grown children who were devoted to her, a lovely house in an exclusive neighborhood and friends all over the city. Her family's business at the Pimlico Restaurant was thriving and she relished her newest career in catering.

That was before the night of July 14, 1987, when she was beaten and brutally raped by an intruder in her secluded Mount Washington home. It was an experience that changed her life forever and disrupted the lives of other family members as well, she says.

"My children wanted everything to be the same. Everybody wanted everything to be the same, but nothing would ever be the same again," she said.

Kaplan did her best. She returned to work, underwent psychotherapy and gratefully accepted emotional and physical

support from friends and relatives.

Now, as Rape Awareness Week gets under way, Kaplan is bringing her personal struggle into the public domain. When Saks Fifth Avenue turns its Owings Mills store into a park setting May 5 for a fund-raiser to benefit sexual assault centers in Baltimore and Baltimore County, Kaplan will be standing front and center as its honorary chairman.

Kaplan has been a board member of Baltimore County's Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Center for the last two years.

She hopes that addressing the issue of rape in the light of day -- or, in the case of Saks, under the bright lights of an exclusive store that caters to women of means -- will convince more people that the crime can happen to anyone anywhere and that its victims must have a chance to recover from it without suffering undeserved shame.

"I always thought that rape happened in dark alleys and bad neighborhoods, that it happened where there's crime. It didn't happen to suburban white women," said Kaplan.

"But, really, it crosses all socio-economic levels. And it affects every member of your family. You're never the same."

Kaplan's life has changed considerably since that night nearly four years ago when she was home alone and awakened by a man who broke into her house looking for money. When she couldn't produce the cash, he hit her and repeatedly raped her before running away. After the attack, Kaplan immediately phoned a neighbor, police and her husband, Lenny, who was still at work at the Pimlico.

She dutifully did what sexual assault victims are encouraged to do: She reported the crime to police, went to the designated hospital rape-care unit for an examination and, in the months to come, cooperated with police in their investigation, though a suspect was never caught. She even sought out a psychiatrist experienced in rape counseling the day after the assault.

But no amount of responsible action could prepare her for the emotional fallout she was to experience.

"I remember saying to Lenny on the way to the hospital that I understand now what Holocaust victims went through because it was the first time I'd ever been through an act so horrifying that I had a choice to block it out and not admit it was happening. The brain lets you do that."

She remembers her treatment at the hospital as "a cold, unsympathetic" experience and says she felt "like a pariah" around some acquaintances.

"Nobody knew how to react to me. And I didn't know how to react to them, either. At first, I was very infantile. I would curl up on the floor crying. I refused to wear my own clothes. And I couldn't go back home."

Her family rallied around her after the attack.

"We treated the week following my rape as a period of mourning. I didn't work; Lenny didn't work. Our children came home" from jobs in Chicago and Boston.

Kaplan and her husband lived with various friends for two months after the rape because she couldn't face returning to the scene of the attack. "Finally, I said, 'I've got to go back and try to live there.' "

But it was one adjustment she just couldn't make. They put the Mount Washington house up for sale and moved to a condominium on Canton's new waterfront. The move was not without emotional conflict. "This was where we thought we'd live the rest of our lives, where our kids thought they would be getting married," she says of the house.

About the same time, the couple sold their share in the Pimlico Restaurant and started Classic Catering. The business move, which already had been planned when the attack occurred, was still a welcome change of venue. She was eager to erase all reminders of the nightmarish incident and sank into an uncharacteristic dependence on family and friends.

"I was never really alone day or night, probably for that first year," says Kaplan. That was the worst part; I had to learn again the skills of being independent."

It was indeed an odd feeling for a woman who prided herself on independent accomplishments over the years, which included careers in speech therapy, gerontology and education before she joined husband in the family business in 1984.

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