Why Washington Post journalist first wrote about her rape, 28 years later

Twenty eight years after being raped, The Washington Post’s Melinda Henneberger decided to share her story publicly for the first time.

She did so after hearing one of the many politically-charged rape comments made this election season. At the time, a Post editor suggested that it would be good to capture reaction to the comment by visiting a rape crisis center and interviewing someone who had been raped.

Henneberger, who oversees the Post’s “She the People” blog, saw the suggestion as an opportunity to reveal her own experience. She writes in her piece that, over the years, she’s felt increasingly worse about not having reported her rapist.

“At the time it happened, I really thought the decision to report or not was about me, and that the question was whether to shake it off and move on, or take him on legally and be labeled, oh, the new girl who took someone everyone in town knows to court,” Henneberger said in an email interview. “I still believe I would have had a completely different life had I done that. But, as time has gone on, I’ve also worried more and more about the women whose pain I might have been able to prevent had I fallen on that grenade.”

Statistics show that 54 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police.

Challenging assumptions

Henneberger knows it’s not hard to find someone who has been sexually assaulted. One in six women will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime, and 97 percent of rapists will never spend a day in jail, recent statistics show. Based on those figures, someone in your newsroom has been sexually assaulted.

Being aware of this reality informs our decisions when we assign stories and report them. When we understand that sexual assault is common, we’re less likely to make assumptions about our colleagues and our sources. We may also be less inclined to make comments that belittle the severity of sexual assault — and more inclined to cover it as an ongoing issue rather than as a one-time event.

Too often, journalists write about sexual assaults right after they occur and neglect to write follow-ups that highlight how traumatic these assaults can be. Henneberger has covered hot-button issues like sexual assault for years and has written follow-up stories.

Earlier this year, she wrote an extensive National Catholic Reporter piece about Lizzy Seeberg, a Notre Dame student who committed suicide after accusing a football player of sexual assault in 2010. Henneberger called it the hardest story she’s ever written, and said her own experience with rape “was reopened” after she started writing about Seeberg.

“[I] got to thinking about this vulnerable, big-hearted 19-year-old who could see what I couldn’t at 26, which is that it was all about the next woman. Can you imagine the guts it took a kid her age to take on the Notre Dame football program she’d grown up revering in her first (and only) month on campus?” Henneberger said. “It’s a relief to have finally said to the next woman that, late as I am, I’m here now.”

The Chicago Tribune republished Henneberger’s column, and D Magazine in Dallas ran a piece about it. The Dallas Morning News — where Henneberger was working the same year she was raped — chose not to republish the column. Assistant Editorial Page Editor Nicole Stockdale said via email that she was aware of Henneberger’s “very powerful column” but wasn’t able to run it due to length and time constraints.

The “silencing crime”

Henneberger said that after the rape, she resumed work at The Dallas Morning News as if nothing had happened.

“I … never missed a day’s work and marched right on with my life but did not do the right thing, which would have been to report the jerk, no matter the cost to me, so as to make sure he didn’t hurt other women,” Henneberger said.

“I’ll never know if he was right that I wouldn’t be believed, but I do think I was correct in also fearing that my brand new employers at the DMN would have labeled and marginalized me had I reported such a shocking thing. Still, I should have paid that price, frankly, so that even if I was not believed, it would be on the record when the next woman reported the same guy.”

She didn’t tell her children about the rape until the night before her column ran.

“It wasn’t easy, but I have no misgivings at all about having had that talk, especially because I think it’s important that they know that it’s a common experience, unfortunately, and that I have nothing to be ashamed of,” Henneberger said.

“I’ve talked to both of them before — a LOT, actually, especially since I’ve been writing about it over the last couple of years — about respect and awareness and the realities of sexual assault. But of course, it’s a whole different thing to think about that happening to your mother.”

While some journalists — The Plain Dealer’s Joanna Connors and CBS’ Lara Logan — have talked openly about their experiences with sexual assault, research shows that it remains extremely difficult for people to step forward. Elana Newman, head of research for the Dart Center, calls sexual assault the “silencing crime” for journalists. In an interview last year, she told me:

I think there’s still a stigma associated with sexual assault. The [journalism] field is incredibly competitive. There are so many difficulties; people are not apt to want to report any additional stressors in the field because of the competitiveness and the stigma related to any kind of assault on the body.

There’s also the fear that if you do step forward, people won’t believe you.

The language we use

Recently, Steve Buttry argued that journalists should stop using “alleged victim,” calling it an “insensitive,” “blame-the-victim term.” The word “victim” has its own negative connotations.

“I’ve certainly never thought of myself as a rape victim,” Henneberger said. “That’s something that happened to me, but it doesn’t define me, any more than having had cancer makes me think of myself as a cancer patient/victim/survivor.”

While Henneberger’s experience hasn’t defined her, it’s made her more aware of how common sexual assault is. Her piece — and reaction to it — is proof of that.

“The number of women who’ve told me their own rape stories since I wrote the column,” she said, “has not surprised me at all.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/mchughrosemary Rosemary McHugh

    Thankyou for this story. I am a Catholic physician who was sexually assaulted by a Carmelite priest when I was a young doctor. I understand what it is to never talk about it. Silence is not good. It only protects the abuser from being made accountable for his actions. Thankyou for having the courage to share this story.