Kassie Edwards reported her rape. But that was before the attention on U-Va. or Cosby, via The Washington Post:
Kassie Edwards reported her rape. It wasn’t much of a decision, really.
She was attacked on Halloween 2008. Two months earlier, Edwards had transferred to Florida State University to be an African American studies major, with dreams of eventually working at one of the Smithsonian museums. Soon after arriving on campus, she was assigned a work-study job at the university library.
She had the 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift that day, and just before noon, she took the elevator to the third floor to restock shelves. It was dark until she walked out and triggered the motion-detector lights.
That was when she noticed a young man with bloodshot eyes standing very still in the lobby. No one else was around. She was pushing her cart down an aisle when he came up to her from behind, took her in a chokehold and wrestled her to the ground.
“Don’t say nothing,” he told her, indicating that there was a gun in the pouch of his hooded sweatshirt. She was afraid to scream but remained conscious throughout the attack. When the man was done, he pulled up his pants and instructed her to count to 100 before she got up — warning that if she didn’t, he would come back for her.
The backlash against women who have raised sexual-assault allegations against comedian Bill Cosby, including Victoria Valentino, left, and Barbara Bowman, could intimidate other women who have been sexually assaulted, Edwards says. (Left: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post/Rigjht: Erin O’Connor for The Washington Post)
Edwards counted to five, heard the sound of shuffling papers and ran to find a co-worker. Within minutes, Tallahassee police were at the library.
She didn’t cry until later. Until after the rape kit was administered at the hospital and a detective had taken her statement. Then her roommates took her home. “And I didn’t know what to do but just cry. I felt like my life had changed,” says Edwards, now 28.
Today, more than six years after the attack, Edwards is a victim advocate and speaker with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. She sat down for an interview at an apartment in Laurel, Md., where she has lived for two months and which overlooks the woods. Tall and outgoing, she now speaks of the rape with a matter-of-fact calmness. She feels it’s especially important to be vocal about her experience, in light of the avalanche of media attention that high-profile sexual assault cases have received in recent months.
She stayed in her room for much of the week after the attack, she says, and when she did emerge, she shuddered at the sight of every man in a hooded sweatshirt, wondering whether each one was her attacker.
Edwards had never known anyone who said they had been raped, and she had never thought that it would happen to her. But something happened as she talked to her friends about the attack. They started talking back — about their own experiences with sexual assault.
“I learned about all my friends who had been raped before, which I would never have known about because they were afraid to come forward. And these were close friends,” she says. “There’s a veil of shame about being raped.”
Rape and doubt
Two months after the attack, Edwards’s rapist was caught. He had raped two other women and then murdered his girlfriend. Edwards wrote a letter to be read at his sentencing. “I’ve forgiven you,” she wrote. “I hope you will live the rest of your life making the right choices.”
Her assailant, who was not a Florida State student, is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole, and Edwards doesn’t think about him much anymore. She finished college — had a great deal of fun and had her heart broken. She healed her wounds through prayer and counseling and poetry.
And whenever the opportunity arose, she talked about what had happened — to the media, to her friends, to audiences at spoken-word open-mike nights. She talks because it’s helpful to her, but more than that, because she hopes it will be helpful to others. “To give them inspiration to be more inclined to report crimes that happened to them,” she says. “Especially rape.”
And at this moment, her advocacy work feels more urgent than ever. The past year has shone a bright light on the issues surrounding crimes against women — first there were the accusations against quarterback Jameis Winston at Edwards’s alma mater. Then came Ray Rice, and the University of Virginia story in Rolling Stone, and the multiplying number of women coming forward to say that Bill Cosby once drugged and assaulted them. And unfortunately, Edwards thinks, the sum result is that it may now be more difficult for women to come forward than ever before — especially if their attacker is someone previously known to them.
“Legislatively we’ve made it easier for rape victims, but culturally I think we’re taking a couple steps back,” says Edwards, who works at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Although it didn’t happen in her case, Edwards says she has learned that one of the biggest problems is that people “tend to doubt the rape victims’ stories. They tend to blame the victim or they don’t believe them, instead of saying, ‘Oh, how could somebody do this?’ ”
Edwards fears that the backlash against women who have come forward — especially the Cosby accusers, whose motives have been questioned — will dissuade others from taking the same step. “Because they’ve seen how the victims are being portrayed,” she says. “It’s good that we’re talking about it, but the conversation is not steered in a positive light.”
Her message to victims is this: “It’s not something you could’ve prevented. It’s not about you being a weak person. It’s about somebody who doesn’t have control over their greed and their desire for power.”
She encourages victims to tell someone about what happened, although she knows that’s often a much more complicated endeavor than it was for her. “It’s about what feels comfortable for them and exploring all the avenues before making the ultimate decision not to report. Whether it’s reporting it to an anonymous hotline or friend or advocate or going to counseling.” By reporting the crime, she says, they may be able to prevent it from happening to someone else.
Edwards says that her initial fear — that her life would be forever damaged because of the assault — has proved not to be true. “Going through that experience just made me a stronger person,” she says.
The advocacy work in particular has added new depth and meaning to her life. But mostly she has just stayed on track, knowing that nothing — and no one — has the power to knock her off course.
In the coming weeks, Edwards will start a new job — at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.