Thief of Night
BCE: In Greek mythology, night is a woman. Nyx, the powerful and voluptuous goddess of the night, is also mother to Hypnos (sleep), Thanatos (death), Charon (ferryman of the dead), Nemesis (retribution), Moros (doom), and Apate (deceit). These fearsome night dwellers lurk in shadows, stalk the perimeters of night, and dare women to enter. Women who trespass do so at their peril. In fable and lore, as in life, night favors thieves, murderers, and rapists. Nyx’s dominion is women’s nemesis.
7 p.m., December 1, 1977: She’d rather stay home, but she promised Frieda. So she pulls on her clunky, heavy-soled hiking boots, wraps Jack’s old grey muffler around her neck, and hollers goodbye. Swaddled in layers of wool and down, she’s ready for her four-block walk to Frieda’s house—for her Ph.D. celebration. The only thing she’s left uncovered is her head. She doesn’t want hat hair. She wants to be beautiful for Frieda.
She heads out the back door and into the cold, hunkering down against the wind-chill, clutching a bottle of champagne in a paper bag. She eases herself down the slippery slope of the driveway toward the deserted street, then turns toward Riverside and away from Jack, who calls to her from the doorway.
“You’re crazy to go out on a night like this. Let me drive you!”
“I’ll be fine!” she protests. “I can take care of myself! Back in a few hours!”
The clock on the Riverside Bank reads 7:01; temperature, 12 degrees F., not factoring in the bitter wind. No wonder the West Bank streets are empty. It’s colder than she thought.
Even the Viking Bar seems unusually quiet as she passes, no thumping bass notes, no loud, funky guitar licks—too blustery and bitter, she thinks, for any but fools to venture out. She inhales the familiar stink of piss and smoke, reek of mildew and fried onions and stale beer, rotted wood and human wreckage, all of it wafting through the seedy bar’s vent into the night air.
She’s repelled but comforted by the derelict grittiness of it all. This is her neighborhood. It’s home. It’s where she feels safe.
She hustles past and crosses to the other side of the street, where a solitary streetlight illuminates her path. A shout startles her, then a door-slam. Probably a rowdy being ejected from the bar.
She picks up her pace to avoid being accosted. She’s used to being hassled by unruly drunks. She can handle herself. But it’s freezing, and she’s in a hurry.
Something shifts. Brisk footsteps. Crunch of snow under a boot. An arm around her waist, another circling her neck in a stranglehold. Hot, boozy breath on her neck. Her mouth agape in a silent scream. Fist in her mouth, choking her. Taste of unwashed flesh, nicotine, beef jerky. Salt and sour.
She flails. His grip tightens. “Don’t move, bitch.”
1594 AD: Shakespeare’s Lucrece is raped in her own bedchamber, by “lust-breathed Tarquin,” her husband’s comrade, who comes to her in “the dead of night,/When heavy sleep had closed up mortal eyes:/No comfortable star did lend his light.” Night itself is asleep on the job, lids closed over starlight, and is complicit in the crime.
Tarquin will be banished for his offense (a light sentence, considering); but Lucrece bears the heavier burden; “she hath lost a dearer thing than life”—her chastity, a cherished prize coveted by many but to be given and taken without sin only in Holy Wedlock. She implores the night to conceal her dishonor: “O hateful, vaporous, and foggy Night!/Since thou art guilty of my cureless crime,/Muster thy mists to meet the eastern light,/Make war against proportion’d course of time.”
Of course, night does break into day, revealing the stain of the “cureless crime,” showing in her mien “the story of sweet chastity’s decay,/The impious breach of holy wedlock vow.”
Tellingly, the blood she sheds when she later stabs herself—releasing her soul from “that polluted prison where it breathed”—is black. The crime is hers. She must pay for what’s been stolen from her.
Women of the night: In the 1970s, women take to the streets en masse to Take Back the Night. “Women, united, can never be defeated!” they chant, giddy with their strength in numbers. And after the march, they tuck fugitive pieces of the night into their pockets and purses and go home feeling indomitable.
Some return to homes they share with life partners, some to men who are their allies. Others return to men who will berate or batter and rape them, dousing their beloveds with their rage to put their feminist fires out. And some of them will, whatever their circumstances, meet their undoing on the streets or in bars, at bus stops, in public bathrooms, in parking ramps, in workplaces….
Today, women still march, still link arms to steal a few hours of night in solidarity. They still don’t walk alone after dark, or even in daylight, with impunity. They still startle reflexively at footsteps, all systems on high alert, adrenaline pumping, whistles and pepper spray at the ready, fists and feet poised for fight or flight. The night doesn’t belong to them.
The night they seek to own still belongs to others—to sundry strangers, friends and acquaintances, bosses and coworkers, and men who profess their love. And when the unthinkable happens, they still ask themselves: Why me? What did I do to deserve this? And the answers come back to them in age-old finger-pointing questions: How many sexual partners have you had? What were you wearing? What were you doing out alone at that hour? Why didn’t you fight harder?
Did you ask for it? Did you like it?
They wonder: Is it my fault? What did I do wrong?
December 1, 1977: She screams, but there’s no sound, just the thunder of her heartbeat, blood surging to her head, ka-thump ka-thump. Wind-scorched cheeks flame and flash-freeze. Fire and ice. Baritone growl of his voice.
“Shut up or I’ll kill you, bitch. I’ve got a knife.”
His fist unfurls. Fingernails scrape across her tongue, scratch her cheeks; grimy fingers stab her tonsils. She gags, and he squeezes her tighter, tugs on her blue down jacket with his free hand. The jacket rips, sighs, exhales flakes of down.
“Fucking cunt—stop your squirming.”
Her soul leaves her body and floats skyward like a pale rogue moon, guardian and voyeur, snow angel rising to hover, shine its candle, bear witness. Her body goes limp, and he relaxes his grip.
“You gonna cooperate, bitch?”
She can see him now, in shadow. He’s tall, swarthy, slight of build but wiry, strong. She can’t see his face, only his eyes, flaring above a tightly wound wool scarf. Does she know him? Has he been watching her? Does he know her name, know where she lives? She inhales him—rank reek of dank cellars, cheap booze, BO, fried food, nicotine.
She gags, swallows to keep from vomiting. If she vomits, he’ll probably kill her.
In the world beyond, lamplight and the faint, bluish flicker of TV screens glimmer through curtained windows. Exhaust rises from chimneys. People are inside. Warm. Safe. Oblivious. If she screams, they won’t hear. It’s winter, time to close out the world.
He drags her into the alley, shoves her against a garage. A garbage can tips, clatters, spills its refuse. He laughs, a rasp over her flesh. Haha. A dog barks. She falls to her knees, frozen in place, his supplicant.
His crotch is at eye level. A gloved hand grips her shoulder, pushing her down. Glint of fury in his eyes.
He grabs her by the hair, pulls her toward him. “Take off your jeans. Lie down. On your back. Slowly. Now! Or I’ll do it for you.” He shoves her again, and she lands spread-eagle across a crusty snow bank. She unbuttons, fumbles with the zipper.
“Hurry up, bitch.”
He leans over to untie her boots, yank them off, toss them aside. “Can I keep my jeans on partway?” she asks. Polite. Deferential. He lifts her legs and tugs off her jeans, flings them aside. Her underpants dangle from one leg, a limp flag of resistance flying at half-mast.
She whimpers, or maybe she cries out. “Stupid cunt,” he mutters. “Keep your fucking mouth shut.” Fog, or maybe smoke, swirls from between his lips. He descends in slow motion toward her frozen body, as if to do pushups. Grunting.
He grasps her wrists and pins her arms above her head. He’s hard, his weapon unsheathed and rising, his body a clenched fist. She’s a stone, hurtling over the precipice, sinking into a trance. She’s drowning, vortex roaring in her head.
The weight of him crushes her into the snow bank. He moves on top of her, inside of her. Thrashing. Ramming. Pump and grind. Short guttural breaths. Bile in her throat. She writhes, moans. Flexes her vaginal muscles. She knows the moves.
Dead weight. Frosty miasma of foul breath.
Hurry. Make him come. Get it over with. Squeeze. Thrust. Pump. Flex. Scrape. Bone against bone against ice. Soul on ice. Freezing on contact.
Her body on autopilot, faking it. Doing what it’s trained to do. Muscle memory.
Let him mistake her terror for passion. That might save her.
She moans. “Hey, baby, you likin’ it, huh?”
“Mmm,” she says. She’s not there. She’s left her body.
Later, she’ll remember—remember trying to pretend that this is just some guy she met in a bar after a few too many beers, gruff and mean but harmless. Maybe he won’t kill her if she just gives him what he wants. She can deal. She’ll be OK. This isn’t really happening.
She’s always been a lousy liar.
Five minutes. Ten. Twenty. Tick tock. All feeling gone. Everything shut down. Frozen. Numb. Snow angel drifts away, candle flickers out. Dark gets darker, night’s eyelids close. Stars wink and disappear. If only he’d just get it over with. Maybe she’ll die here. He’ll be the last person she ever sees.
She’s awake. A dark figure looms over her. He yanks her up, jerks her face toward his open fly. Bile in her throat. No. Please. Anything but that. She clenches her teeth.
Waning crescent moon, blinkered stars, spangled ice-crystal haze. In the house across the alley, a light goes off in one room, then on in another. No one looks out. A truck clatters by, and a car groans to life down the block. She’s dying under an indifferent sky, and the life around her is heedless.
She’s still on her back, naked from the waist down. She feels dismantled, as if her limbs might be strewn about waiting to be reattached, her whole body needing reassembly. He’s walking away from the wreckage. He turns back toward her. The scarf has fallen around his neck, but she can’t see his face. He’s backlit by a streetlight—he’s a silhouette, a hideous Rorschach blot.
“Hey babe, got any cash? A joint? How about a cigarette? Here. Put these on and get lost. And keep your fucking mouth shut.”
A bundle tossed in her lap. Jeans crusty with snow. Stinging wetness between her legs. Cum on her thighs, lips, cheeks. Salt, sour, bitter. Slime, blood, ice. Boots gone—over there, by the trash.
He’s done with her. He strides away back toward the Viking, lighting her Merit 100, shoving her nearly full pack and a few bucks into his pocket. Humming tunelessly, swaying to a beat in his head. As if nothing happened. As if he hasn’t just left her in ruins, plundered and stranded, exiled from her self. Dead.
A brown paper bag is tucked under his arm—the champagne.
She struggles into her jeans, pulls herself up, grabs her boots and jacket, runs, slips, falls, retches. Her lip is swollen and bleeding, and her cheeks are lacquered with mucus. Her teeth shiver and collide like castanets. Clickety-clack.
She’s too exhausted to keep going. I could just stay here, she thinks. Let them find my body in the morning. But I’m alive. Just one block to Frieda’s. Yes, Frieda. Her celebration. She’ll be wondering where I am.
When the police arrive at Frieda’s, she’s swaddled in layers of blankets but still shivering, her body wracked with shudders. She’s led to a chair, where she collapses. Geoff, Frieda’s partner, barrels through the front door, shouting, “I’ll kill that sonofabitch!” Geoff, who wouldn’t hurt a fly.
Nothing seems real, not this house, not her friends, not her arms or legs, which seem to belong to someone else. She has no idea what time it is. She picks at a hangnail, wishes she could wash her hands. She curls her fingers into fists, her body into a coil. Impenetrable, but combustible.
She reeks of him. She feels his hardness impaling her, hacking her open. She hears a wail. It’s coming from her, from her core, but no one else can hear it.
Cops are in the room. They begin to question her, and suddenly Jack is standing behind them, framed by the doorway, out of breath, disheveled, wearing his old green Army surplus parka.
“Who’s this?” one cop asks, wary.
“It’s OK, he’s her boyfriend,” Frieda assures them.
They let Jack through. He slumps into a chair about three feet from her and leans toward her. His eyes gleam with tears, but he seems unable to touch her, even to move closer, as if he’s afraid she, or he, might break.
“What did he look like?”
“Sort of like him,” she says, pointing at Jack. “The same jacket, same hair.” Jack looks stunned, and she laughs, all the pent-up agony of the past few hours erupting into a wild burst of hysteria.
Nobody moves. The cops stare. “Um, do you mean to say…?”
“Omigod, no, no! He’s my—Oh, Jack, I’m so sorry….” And she finally cries, enfolded in Jack’s arms, still shivering.
“I’m so sorry, so sorry,” she says. He tightens his hold, and she wriggles away, finds Frieda’s waiting arms.
December 2, 1977, 1 a.m.: She’s in the examining room, waiting for the doctor. She was instructed by the police not to wash or change clothes. Her blue down jacket, filthy with oil, alley dirt, and him, is draped over a chair. Her other clothes are gone—to the lab. Jack has brought fresh underwear, jeans, and a sweater.
“Some birthday, huh?” she says to no one. She’s alone in the room.
She’s been photographed, prepped, asked lots of questions she can’t remember about details she’s already erased. They’ve taken her vitals and samples of fluids. Her throat aches, and she’s still shivering, even though she’s wrapped in heated blankets. The nurses tell her she’s in shock—that’s why she has the shakes.
Jack and Frieda wait in the hall; she’s not allowed “visitors.” The doctor finally arrives, carrying some kind of instrument. Why is this strange man in her room… with a weapon? She stiffens, grips the cold metal sides of the examining table.
“It’s OK,” he says. “I’m a doctor. I’m not going to hurt you. Now could you please scoot back and lie down? Put your heels in the stirrups?” He seems weary, impatient. He’s here to save lives. She’s not dying—she’s just another rape victim.
She asks for a nurse, a woman, who stays in the room for the examination, holding her hand, soothing her. When the cold speculum meets with dry resistance, the doctor instructs her to relax. “I need to collect evidence. I can’t examine you if you fidget,” he says—brusque, without pity. As his lubricated finger slides into her vagina, she feels the lacerating burn all over again, the violation, the fear. She squeezes, tightens her grip on his finger. He sighs and pulls out.
She vows never again to let anything inside her. That violated space is hers, sacred. But first she’ll have to disinfect it.
What she remembers most about that night in the days that follow: his body’s excretions, clammy and rancid and sour—sweat, boozy breath, must and rot, spittle and cum. Percussive chafe and lunge, stinging afterburn. Astringent sting of wind and snow. Warm lights in windows against bone-chilling dark. Antiseptic fluorescent glare of the examining room. Cold prick of the speculum, the doctor’s slimy, impatient, glove-clad fingers. The burn.
And the cold, always the cold. She can’t stop shivering. She won’t stop for days.
She takes long, hot, soapy baths twice a day, trying to warm up, trying to wash away the stain and the stench. No matter what she does, she can still smell him. She’s a rancid sponge. She has absorbed him.
Mid-December: The neighborhood weekly newspaper reports on the front page that “a woman, age 32, was raped on 19th Avenue South around 8 p.m. The perpetrator is still at large. Anyone with information….” She reads it over and over without recognition, letting the bare facts sink in, with the odd, detached awareness that she is that woman, naked and nameless, stripped of her self. A cipher.
December 4 or 5: She’s at the downtown Minneapolis police station paging through huge three-ring notebooks of mug shots, scanning the faces: boys next door, choirboys, cherubs, greasers, punks, devils, blank slates. What they have in common: they’re male, under 40, medium to olive skin, dark eyes, longish dark hair, about 6 feet tall, maybe 160-175 pounds. They’re known rapists who roughly fit the description she has managed to construct from the phantasmagoria in her brain.
She wonders out loud why she’s here—after all, she never really saw anything but his eyes, those hot coals burning into her. She won’t recognize him.
“Maybe you’ll see something,” says the lieutenant. “Something you forgot. Something that rings a bell. His MO tells me this guy’s a pro; he’s done it before, and he’ll do it again. I know he’s in this book somewhere.”
“I didn’t fight hard enough.”
“You survived. That’s what matters.”
“But I shouldn’t have let him do… what he did!”
“You didn’t let him. He forced you.”
“But I … cooperated! I moved—I moved my hips… you know, to get him off… I just wanted it to be over! I did what he wanted! I feel so ashamed, so dirty….” Her throat burns with bile, and she chokes back a sob.
The lieutenant leans toward her, smiles. A gentle smile, fatherly. He isn’t supposed to touch her, but she almost wishes he would. Maybe his hand is warm. Maybe he could make her stop shivering.
He hands her a jacket—his. She shakes it off. It smells like him. Male.
“You did what you had to do. You just might have saved your life.”
“But I should have fought harder.“
“Look. I can show you some pretty grisly photos of women who thought they could fight back and win. They lost. You can walk out of here and go back to your life. Be thankful for that.”
“What kind of life am I going back to? I’m afraid of my own shadow.”
“But you’re alive, with no serious injuries.”
“I’m not so sure about that.”
Late December: She returns to her campus job. She even walks alone across the Washington Avenue Bridge—after sunrise, when lots of students are about. But every man she sees spooks her. Was it him? Or him?
A man in her office who’s been putting moves on her cheerfully welcomes her back, as if she’s been on vacation. She doesn’t like the look of him. Was he the one? He’s about the right size, could be the same voice. No, it can’t be. She walks away, trembling.
She’s heading for the women’s bathroom and a burly man emerges carrying a wrench. A plumber. She catches a whiff of him—sour and moist. Shaking, she dashes back to her office to call Jack and ask him to pick her up. As she’s leaving, Barbara, her boss, says, “Isn’t it about time you got over this? You have work to catch up on, and you’ve used up your sick time. You’ll have to fill out a vacation slip.”
So much for sisterhood.
Late January 1978: It’s 3 in the afternoon, and she’s standing in line at Riverside Bank, a block from her house. Someone steps up behind her, brushing her shoulder. She gags on the smell. Booze and smoke on the breath. Testosterone. Must and sweat. She whirls around, meets the sharp gaze of a scruffy man in a hooded parka, a dirty scarf around his neck. She flees, her heart pounding.
Is he the one? Did he recognize her? Did he follow her? Does he know where she lives?
Jack is waiting for her at home. He scoops her up, bundles her in his arms. “Shhh…. Calm down, it’s OK. You’re safe. I’ll go with you next time, I promise.” He nuzzles her neck, and she pulls away, shivering. He’s wearing an old flannel shirt, and he smells musty and sour. Male.
Spring 1978: Patti, an old friend, calls to invite her for a walk by the river. “I don’t think so,” she says. “It’s getting dark, and… Jack’s not home, and … well, I just don’t really feel safe, not yet. I’m sorry—I know I’m a pain in the neck….”
“Shouldn’t you be moving on? You can’t lean on Jack forever, you know.”
She hangs up. It will be a long while before they speak again.
Maybe Patti’s right. Maybe she just needs to get over it. Sure, she’s been leaning—on Jack, on her sister, on any warm and sturdy support beam she can find. Jack is loving and patient in his solicitude, but she knows she’s become a burden. This has to stop.
One day she asks, “Jack, aren’t you sick of me needing you so much? Aren’t you just getting sick and tired of me?”
“Of course not!”
“So, I need to ask you something. Why didn’t you ever get angry, really angry? Didn’t you want to kill him?”
“So is that what you want? Heroics? Revenge?”
“No, but I did want you to fly into a rage, be a tough guy. I wanted you to want revenge, to show how much you care, even if you didn’t actually hunt him down and kill him. The funny thing is, if you were that kind of macho guy, I wouldn’t love you. I wouldn’t be here.”
When they finally part a year later, she wonders whether he’s relieved that it’s over. He doesn’t have to protect her any more, or endure her remoteness, her moodiness, her neediness, her grimaces, her shrinking from his touch. She can’t remember the last time she let him full-mouth kiss her. Hugs are okay, but sex is out of the question. The very thought of it makes her recoil.
1978: She begins speaking out, sharing her story. She writes polemics and letters to the editor. She speaks to women’s groups. She bears witness.
She worries that she’s just an exhibitionist, seeking attention and sympathy. But no, she just wants everyone to know: Rape is about power and dominance, not sexual desire. If you’re attacked, your goal is to survive, not to protect your virtue. And if you don’t believe that, you’re buying into all of the mythology about mothers/whores, good girls/bad girls, the sacred feminine/vagina dentata.
Chastity is not the better part of valor; survival is. Getting raped beats dying. I’m a survivor. I am woman, hear me roar.
The trouble is, she can’t shake the feeling that she was chosen for this crime. She’s still captive to the myths. The crime against her confirms it; she’s a slut. And partly what she’s doing now is rationalizing, and seeking vindication. I was completely covered, no skin showing. I didn’t ask for it. Really I didn’t. I didn’t! He said he had a knife. No, I didn’t see it, but he said he had one. I fought like crazy. I’m a good girl. Really I am. He overpowered me! I did what I had to do to survive.
It wasn’t my fault! (Or was it?)
Summer 1979: About a half mile from her house, she’s accosted by a truckload of men. Hey, sweetheart, looking for a good time? Want a dick sandwich? She pretends not to notice, but they persist. What’s the matter, bitch? You don’t like cock? They pull up beside her and the driver flicks his tongue. She ducks into a storefront office. She wants to hurt those men. Instead, she has a panic attack, the first of many to come.
She tells the story to a women’s group at a church. A man in the back row, a stranger to the group, maybe a voyeur, asks, “If you don’t want that kind of attention, why are you out walking the streets alone? Don’t you think you need to take some responsibility?”
All forty women turn in unison and glare. “Why the hell are you even here?” one woman asks. “Haven’t you heard a single word she’s said?” “Misogynist asshole!” another shouts. He doesn’t even flinch. On their way out, one by one the women hug her, leaving their tears and lip prints and mingled scents on her cheeks. The man remains seated, watching, scowling.
Maybe it’s him. She flees, running for her life.
1980: Joseph Ture scowls at her in black and white from the front page of the Minneapolis Tribune. He’s on trial for raping and murdering Diane Edwards, a young waitress, on a West St. Paul street. She returns his ferocious gaze and feels a tremor deep in her gut. There’s something about those eyes. It’s him.
Weeks later, when Ture is convicted and sentenced, she feels relieved, elated. She’s safe now. He’s off the streets. He can’t hurt her again.
1981: She has a flare-up of herpes—her indelible stain, his legacy and calling card. The virus he deposited in her has been hiding out in her basal ganglia. It will lie in wait there for the rest of her life, skulking about in the shadows then rising up periodically to strike without warning, to make sure she never forgets. Lucrece was right. There is no end to this cureless crime.
2004: Joseph Ture, while serving his sentence for Diane’s rape and murder, is sentenced to four consecutive life sentences for murders he committed in 1974. When the story comes out, she learns that in the 1970s he was a suspect in several rapes, attempted rapes, and murders—but was never charged. She now knows he is not the man who raped her. Her name was not on the rape hit list that was found in his car all those years ago. And in 1977, he was living in another town.
“Her” rapist might still be out there. He could be anywhere. She wonders: How many other women carry his stain?
December 1, 2013: I don’t think much any more about “my rape.” And I rarely tell my story. Why talk about it? It’s done.
But as old memories surface, and as I recognize more and more how deeply embedded are the shocks and dislocations of that night, how intrinsic to who I am, I realize that I need to own it and write it—my story, my rape, my rapist. Make him a character in my story, and I can banish him.
So this is my testament, my manifesto, my writerly exorcism. But I’ve written it in third person, as if it happened to someone else. After all these years, that feels right.
It did happen to someone else, in a way. It happened to that nameless 32-year-old woman in the newspaper. But that woman is still inside of me. She’s the grown-up version of a little girl who lay awake night after night terrified and watchful, waiting for the devil to show up and drag her off to hell. She’s me.
I try to take good care of her. But I also need to get some distance from her. If I don’t, she might rise up and overpower me, just as he once did, when the night’s thousand eyes were asleep.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, one in six women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. In the U.S, someone is sexually assaulted every two minutes. And only six percent of rapists will spend even a single day in jail.
In what’s called “blitz sexual assault,” a stranger appears out of nowhere to attack his prey, usually at night in a public place. That’s my story. There are so many others.
Decades later, I’m still marching with those women, stashing away pieces of night on the installment plan. The goddess willing, maybe one day we’ll pay off our debt and claim the deed of ownership. The night will belong to us.
I am a retired university communications professional who is spending her retirement catching up on her own writing–poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. As a woman, daughter, sister, spouse, ex-spouse, survivor, teacher, and mentor, and student and citizen of a troubled world, I have many stories to tell.