Portrait of a rape victim

Anna Quindlen

June 21, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

THE MOMENT of truth came for Carolyn Field when she was appearing on a television show. The producers had it all worked out; she would have her face shadowed and her voice distorted, as though she were a visitor from the witness protection program.

Field refused the subterfuge. A man had raped her in her Tulsa apartment while her daughter slept in the next room. She wanted the lights and the cameras on her so she could make it personal.

"Those nameless women I'd read about, it never seemed real to me," she says now. "I wanted people to know that I was a real person, that I had a face and a name."

The crime of rape has moved into the light in this country, but anonymity still shelters most of its victims, and when Field tried to step out of that shelter in 1986, she found out how pervasive its assumption had become.

When she wanted a reporter to use her name, she had to fight with his editor about her right to eschew anonymity. The story told of how the rapist nearly severed her finger with his knife, how he took a gun she kept under her pillow for protection and held it to her head while he raped her so violently that she slid to the floor, how he said he knew her daughter was in the house.

"After he said that, I would have done anything he told me to," Field says.

We have made progress in the prosecution and perception of rape over the last two decades. In 1969 there were 1,085 rape arrests in New York City -- and 18 convictions.

Today the number of convictions for the borough of Manhattan alone is in the hundreds. Linda Fairstein, who runs the sex crimes unit in the Manhattan DA's office, says when she came on board 15 years ago, four lawyers could comfortably handle the volume of cases. Today there are 16, with an additional eight handling only sex crimes against kids, and all are overworked.

One reason for the change was a change in state law, once the most stringent in the country. It included a vestige of centuries-old common law, a corroboration requirement, which held rape prosecutions to a higher standard.

A woman could testify that she was robbed at knifepoint but could not prove that the thief had raped her unless witnesses could testify to the attack.

It is a testimonial to progress that such a requirement seems not like a relic of the 1970s, when it was overturned, but a reminder of the 1670s, as indeed it was.

Yet its underlying premise of some additional burden of proof still haunts sexual assault prosecutions. The woman who took the stand this week in the St. John's University case says her assailants talked of how no one would believe her.

Prosecutors sought corroboration through plea bargaining: two of those implicated became prosecution witnesses, describing how the woman was propped up half-conscious and half-naked while her fellow students pushed their genitals into her face and mouth.

Carolyn Field's assailant was a neighbor she had never met; he was quickly arrested and as quickly released on bail, in jail only slightly longer than his victim was in the emergency room. Field moved out of her own house, terrified to be on the same block as her rapist.

But she began seeing his car following her; by the time police arrived, the man would be gone. Everyone thought she was imagining things until the day she frantically called the police to say that the rapist was parked outside the phone company, where she was paying her bill.

When the police surrounded him he was carrying the same gun he had taken the night of the rape, the gun she had to protect her family.

Her assailant, Reginald Phillips, was sentenced to 81 years in prison in 1986. His first parole hearing will be in 1994. Carolyn Field likes to use his name, too, "for the sake of other women out there."

With all the controversy about naming rape victims, Field is on a one-woman crusade to convince each of us that the way to shatter incredulity about rape is to voluntarily personify it.

While the courtroom drawings in the St. John's case show the face of the alleged victim as a gray haze, Field says anonymity makes us not just anonymous but nebulous. "The way to fight back is to show our faces," she says. "When they can see that we're people like their wives, their sisters, then they know we're telling the truth."

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