The 2-year-old clutched her beloved stuffed tiger while her mother was repeatedly raped.
Mother and child lay on the bed together during the attack.
Long, skinny fingers of a man’s hand clamped across her mouth jarred the woman awake that February night in her Independence apartment. That man assaulted her first. And then the other men, apparently buddies of the first guy, each entered the bedroom and took their turns. It lasted at least two hours.
They ordered the 30-year-old into contorted positions — stuff of porn flicks, she thought to herself. Then they splayed her out, photographing her body with cellphones.
One man briefly held a pillow over her face. She felt her body go limp, fearful of being smothered.
Only once did the young mother scream. She got punched in the back of the head for it. Early in the attack, she reached for her little girl and attempted to scramble away. She’d moved only a few inches before being pinned back down.
Fight? Flight? She chose survival.
Cooperating seemed best. A struggle would surely cause her little girl to scream, and then what?
So she coaxed the toddler, “Mommy’s OK,” stroking her hair, holding her little hand. The child remained serenely calm, sleepy much of the time, a tiny miracle for a girl known for her feistiness.
She believes there were at least three attackers, maybe four or even five. They seemed young, in their 20s, inexperienced in crime and life. They didn’t know what her NuvaRing was, tossing it on the floor.
But their victim once worked in a Kansas City area domestic violence shelter. She knew evidence would be crucial for detectives later. She suggested the men use K-Y Jelly, which would leave their thick, gooey fingerprints throughout the apartment.
Besides, she said, “What they were doing hurt like hell.”
When they’d had enough, the rapists threw a blanket over the young mother and left.
She listened, fearful they were lurking outside. She hesitated to turn on lights. She couldn’t find her phone to call police. So she picked up her laptop and began posting on Facebook, attempting to rally help from friends, hoping to find someone online at 3 a.m.
That was the beginning of Taylor speaking out: for herself, for so many women.
Taylor belongs to a generation of women who have had enough. They are educated, empowered and fed up.
She wrote on Facebook: I spoke up because I’ve wanted to speak up for years.
A ‘pure victim’
Nearly three months have passed.
Mother and daughter have moved to a new home. It’s a secured building, unlike her old apartment. More than $10,500 was raised in two weeks by more than 280 people. The initial goal was to finance moving the young family, buying a new mattress, pillows and other items.
She has returned to work. And she has taken other precautions so her attackers cannot find her.
DNA samples are back from the crime lab, a promising advance for Taylor. The findings can be checked against databases of known offenders. Independence police declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.
Mike Sanders, a former Jackson County executive, is representing Taylor through the investigative process. Sanders, now with the Independence firm Humphrey, Farrington & McClain, is also a former county prosecutor.
The lead detective OK’d Taylor speaking to reporters. Taylor hopes to draw attention to the case, possibly encouraging a tip. She’s done several interviews for local television, her faced cloaked in shadow.
This month, she spoke to a group of nurses, recounting her three-hour rape kit exam. She offered insight, like getting the initial samples collected quickly. And how, though she needed to use the bathroom, she didn’t because wiping herself might destroy evidence.
And she keeps writing. Posting on Facebook under an assumed name. She’s used the hashtag #CantShutMeUp. And #ThisIsOurReality.
I can’t count all the private messages I’ve received that say, “I’ve been assaulted, too.” “I’ve been raped too, but I never had the courage to speak up.” Neither did I.
Taylor’s willingness to talk, to break social norms about sexual assault, is about more than achieving justice with criminal convictions. In a way, she accepts it as a responsibility.
I hadn’t been drinking. I hadn’t been dating around, or inviting boys over, or goofing around on Tinder. I was what some might consider a “pure victim.”
Like a lot of women, she knows the feeling of being treated like prey — jeered at by strangers, ogled and groped.
I’ve had a man drive parallel to me in traffic while masturbating on a highway in California. I’ve had somebody with his hand in their sweat pants stalk me through the Barnes and Nobel (sic) on the plaza while he played with himself. I’ve been fondled while I’ve been asleep. I’ve been raped when I was too drunk to move, let alone consent.
This is the world we as women live in. This is our reality.
For Taylor, the night in February was just the first time that the details fit a rape story that people would readily accept. A sustained attack by strangers. A smashed door frame.
“People think it is personal because it’s sex,” she said. “But this is something that is in our culture.”
Society’s queasiness about sexual assault has long been coddled. We expect women to keep quiet, to muffle their pain to avoid the stigma. That shrouding we ask of the victim allows people space. We make assumptions about the woman’s behavior, who she is, why she was targeted.
It keeps truth hidden.
This way, a lot of people don’t have to think about the prevalence of such attacks. They can stick to the false assumption that most rapes are by strangers. Or that an attack by someone a woman knows is somehow less of a crime.
“Rape isn’t taken seriously unless you have bruises and scars,” Taylor said.
What’s lost should be the most obvious. It’s the rapist who ought to bear the burden of shame, not the victim.
Taylor had lived at the apartment complex a year. The lease agreement, filled out to renew for another year, was sitting on the counter. The location was convenient for her daughter’s day care.
The lock to the apartment was likely easy to break, although it was deadbolted that night. It never had lined up quite right. She suspects it might have been broken before.
Either way, the man standing next to the bed, his hands on her face, is what woke her up. He told her to get on her stomach. He ordered her not to scream or she’d be hit.
The man took her fuzzy black pajama pants and put them over her head.
Taylor knew she didn’t want to see anyway, fearing that might cause the men to think she would identify them later. She held the pants in place during much of the ordeal, tugging the fabric down, keeping it in place.
Soon, another man’s voice could be heard in the bedroom’s doorway. “Dude, are you really doing this?”
She berated their naivete in her head, witty sarcastic comments. “You’re idiots,” is what she thought of their childlike banter.
They asked her name. She told them a fake one.
Consciously, she spoke calmly. She wanted some control. So Taylor adopted an almost joking demeanor, hopeful this would help keep their guard down. As if, when this night ended, she’d merely get up and go to work. She asked them if it was raining outside. She told them she’d need to be up by 5:30 to make it to work on time.
And she took mental notes. It was one of the men’s birthday. One guy was called Josh. She focused on voices, the feel of their jeans, the clank of belts.
The jeans were better quality. They used little slang. All but one was probably white.
As it continued, she thought about the books on her shelves. One is titled “After Silence.” It’s a woman’s account of regaining her sense of self after a rape.
Taylor once worked at a local domestic violence shelter. She’d done intake with the women and worked with their children. Like a lot of women, she’d always wondered how she would react if she were attacked.
I made them get me a glass of water. They opened cabinets. They touched door knobs. They called each other, texted each other. They knew enough to use the back door to our building, which didn’t secure properly.
One man kissed her on the lips. Another tried to put his penis into her mouth. They had her jack them off. She rubbed the semen on the pants, smeared it on the bed. Securing evidence for police.
Taylor loathes contemplating and yet hopes for the day she confronts the men in court. Her wish? Bags over their heads, tiny holes for their eyes. That way, she’ll never have an image of their faces. It will be one less memory to overcome.
Waiting for justice
Her little girl has begun waking at night, her small limbs thrashing about as she yells, “No! No!”
Her mother wonders if the toddler is acting out in ways she instinctively knew she could not during the attack. Therapists are working with the child. And Taylor is receiving professional help as well. It was during her second session that she finally, deeply sobbed.
The fact that I was helpless to protect my daughter, to get her out of that situation — that was what traumatized me.
It took weeks before Taylor could go to sleep at night without help from medication. Her nights were cold sweats, jumping out of bed with her heart racing.
She’s still irritable, often on edge.
“Life doesn’t stop for trauma,” Taylor said. “You still have bills to pay, and I have a child to raise.”
And yet gratitude is equally present. If she hadn’t spoken up, if she hadn’t alerted a large network of friends, she might never have known how much encouragement she could draw. That brings resolve.
Taylor is upwardly mobile by her college degree, her work record, her social capital. She identifies as a victim, yes. But one who is unwilling to abide by the constraints long tied to rape. And she has the support. In particular, there is a tight network of influential female friends that she calls her Warrior Women.
Many people, she realizes, are not so broadly blessed. She knows most rape victims will never talk so openly, outside their much smaller circles of influence.
If they ever tell anyone.
If somebody comes to you saying they’ve been raped, don’t expect them to be as public about it. Don’t expect them to rush to call the police, or beg for an ambulance. Expect fear of judgment, fear of not being believed, fear of being left further isolated and alone with their secret. This is why, when a rapist is finally brought to trial and charged, this is why women everywhere celebrate. Because these crimes are committed against us with alarming frequency, and that’s as close as most of us will ever get to knowing justice.
Taylor is acutely aware that the stigma encircling rape ensures that many men will get away with the crime. True predators know women’s reluctance to speak about rape works in their favor. Taylor refuses to add her silence.
“We give them control when we don’t talk about it,” Taylor said. “This isn’t going to ruin my life.”
So now I wait. I wait for the investigation, for a match, for an arrest, a trial, a conviction. For a sentence. For some resolution that won’t fix the fact that holding my daughter’s hand puts me back on my stomach on that bed. I wait for answers that won’t give me back the wind that’s been knocked from my lungs. For justice that won’t revive my sense of safety.