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Wrenching for Wettig

March 15, 1992|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Patricia Wettig had an immediate visceral response the first time she saw her new TV movie, "Taking Back My Life," airing Sunday on CBS.

"I found myself so exposed in the movie," Wettig said, her voice filled with astonishment. "It is so emotional. It was hard in some weird way for me to sit and watch it with a room full of people. I became very vulnerable and I didn't know why."

"Taking Back My Life" tells the harrowing story of Nancy Ziegenmeyer, an Iowa wife and mother of three, who, in 1988, was abducted and raped one morning while waiting in a deserted parking lot to take a real estate exam. Fourteen months later, after her assailant was sentenced to life in prison without parole, Ziegenmeyer read an editorial by Des Moines Register editor Geneva Overholser encouraging rape victims to come forward and talk about their experiences in order to eradicate the stigma attached to rape. Ziegenmeyer went to the Register and told her story to Overholser. The series of articles won the Pulitzer Prize last year.

Ziegenmeyer is now a victims' rights advocate. ("I didn't do this for me. If I could help at least one person. ..."). She vehemently opposes the media revealing the name of rape victims without their consent, as was the case when NBC News, The New York Times and several other newspapers revealed Patricia Bowman's name as the woman accusing William Kennedy Smith of rape. Bowman's name, of course, only became widely known later when she chose to tell her story on ABC's "PrimeTime Live."

"Victims need a little time to tell family and friends and establish a relationship with a counselor, and until an arrest and indictment are made," Ziegenmeyer said. "They dragged Patty's name through all kinds of hell."

(Ziegenmeyer also doesn't believe the media should have used William Kennedy Smith's name before he was indicted.)

Wettig, who won three Emmys for her performance as cancer survivor Nancy Weston on ABC's "thirtysomething," said "Taking Back My Life" is not the typical woman-in-peril movie that seems to be permeating the TV screen this season.

"It's about a very complex, interesting woman and how in her life she deals with the situation and how it affects her life, changes her and makes her have a new direction in her life," Wettig said. "It is more like 'Tender Mercies,' about a small movement inside of a character."

Ziegenmeyer, whose book about her experiences, "Taking Back My Life" (co-written by Larkin Warren, Summit, $20), was recently published, described the story similarly: "I think the movie, like my book, is not necessarily another movie about a crime. It is about a young woman finding her voice and accomplishing something from finding that voice. I don't want the viewers to think of it in terms of rape, rape, rape. She was able to rise above that and get the help she needed. That is my message. Help is out there."

Harry Winer, co-executive producer and director of "Taking Back My Life," wanted to make the movie because someone close to him had been raped.

"I don't think anybody in film has dramatized (rape and its aftermath) effectively," he said. "I think the spirit of the picture is to attempt to help heal those who have been hurt, who have been victimized in one way or another."

Though little of the rape is actually depicted in "Taking Back My Life," the sequence is still graphic and terrifying.

"Thank God for that," Wettig said. "Too often these things are not horrifying when you see them on television. In some way you say, 'What's the big deal?' It is a huge deal and I think rape is a horrific crime and I think it should be exposed as that."

But watching the rape scene was difficult for the actress. "When you do it, you don't know how it will end up," she said. "It wasn't like we went through an entire rape."

When she first read the script she didn't think she would even be able to shoot the scene.

"I kept thinking, 'Will I be able to do it or will it scare me too much? Will I be sitting across the room and not really wanting to do it?' I felt to do this part as written I just had to go ahead and take the leap. You just sort of go with the emotion and it is very exhausting. It can be scary."

It was also scary at times for Ziegenmeyer, who visited the set, to watch her life unfold for the cameras. "It was all coming back," she said. "Some scenes were difficult."

Before she was raped, Ziegenmeyer had a reputation for living rather fast and loose. 'She wasn't like this little goody-two-shoes," Wettig said. "One of the mothers of the children who worked on the film read the script and said, 'This is a movie about this woman who was this slut to begin with.' I was so surprised that is what she got from reading the script.

"But you know one thing that is good (about the movie) is there is no question whether that is part of her character or not. It has nothing to do with the rape. At 7 in the morning when she was sitting in the car, she was hardly in the position of asking for it. Though you can say she was not the 'purest' woman around, it had nothing to do with the rape."

"Taking Back My Life" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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