Sue McColgan was raped by a stranger more than 17 years ago. She has survived the trauma, she says, not by trying to forget it but by talking about it. That's the real solution to getting on with your life, she says.
"The only way to get rid of the stigma of rape is for people to be more aware of it. And to make people aware, you've got to talk about it," says the 33-year-old Overlea woman.
So she does. She talks about her own rape; she talks to other sexual abuse victims about their experiences; she talks to teen-agers about date rape and respect for one another. She even talks to clergy and educators about being more sensitive when counseling rape victims.
All her talk has won her accolades from Baltimore's Sexual Assault Recovery Center (SARC), where she has been named its Volunteer of the Year. Mrs. McColgan will be honored at a dinner and reception for SARC volunteers April 28 at the Primrose. It is one of several events planned in the area to mark April as Rape Awareness Month.
While more women like Mrs. McColgan are coming forward and talking about having been raped, much of society continues to stigmatize rape victims, says Cecilia Carroll, executive director of SARC. "This issue is still very much in the closet. People still try very hard to hide their abuse because of the blame placed on them."
But, she says, for each woman who comes forward publicly, many more are inspired to finally seek help quietly and privately. "Even though they're still keeping it from friends and family, more of them come to us for help after seeing and hearing a real live survivor," Ms. Carroll says.
Mrs. McColgan was a sophomore in high school when she was raped by a man police had labeled the "Towson rapist." She was abducted while walking on York Road, driven to an isolated parking lot and assaulted.
Unlike some victims, she didn't try to hide the facts of her rape. She told her family immediately, called police, went to a hospital for an examination and cooperated with the criminal investigation.
She was able to give police a good description of the rapist's vehicle and his face, and within a month of the attack, she says, police captured a suspect they had been seeking for 18 months. Eventually, he was tried and convicted on the sworn testimony of Mrs. McColgan and two other victims and sent to jail.
Part of the success of the conviction lay with her openness and readiness to talk about the assault. But her personal recovery, too, she says, was eased by refusing to lock the past in a closet.
"I've never hidden the fact that it happened to me," she says. Even when she missed school during the investigation, "people knew why because I told everyone from the start. It was not my fault. I never felt any guilt about it; I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
The advantage of honesty, Mrs. McColgan tells people, is that it opens the door to supporters from all around. Her mother and brother were her closest confidantes in the beginning, but she also depended on friends, including Michael McColgan, now her husband, whom she began dating during the trial.
"I couldn't have gotten through it without him. He put up with a lot," she says, noting that the aftermath of an attack can strain both new and old relationships. She and Michael married six years later and today have two children -- Carey, 5, and Kyle, 2.
"I've known her since shortly after [the rape], and I've seen her change gradually and become more accepting of what's happened to her," says Mr. McColgan. "And I've seen her change other people's attitudes. Especially my friends. You know, men can be pretty cocky about it; but she's changed them."
Her dedication to educating people about sexual abuse invariably extends into the community and even the workplace. At a job she started in January, where she designs and analyzes information systems for the health insurance industry, a few colleagues already have learned of her involvement with SARC and have approached her with questions about the organization.
And neighbors who discover in ordinary conversation that she does volunteer work -- and ultimately where and why -- have come to her later with their own tales of victimization.
"They say, 'I know someone who was abused . . .' and by the end of the conversation, I find out they're talking about themselves."
Since volunteering at the Sexual Assault Recovery Center about three years ago, Mrs. McColgan's audiences have ranged from women at the House of Ruth, where most have their own tales of sexual abuse to relate, to high school boys and girls. She also has volunteered at the city and state fairs and has helped produce public service announcements aimed at rape awareness. Her largest audience was at a symposium for clergy at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where 800 people listened to her story.
But it is often the smallest gatherings, where closeness allows more empathy, that produce the most fulfillment.