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ROBIN ABCARIAN

A Place of Solace From the Horror of Rape

October 09, 1994|ROBIN ABCARIAN

She sat on the end of the riser, facing 500 people under an immense white garden party tent on the lawn of a fabulous canyon estate. She had a glamorous look about her--she wore a short creamy suit with clunky boots, and her short hair was crimped and oiled and combed straight back off a face that was luminous--angelic even.

She had that Beverly Hills aura: gorgeous, privileged, pampered. A stranger, you would guess, to suffering of any magnitude greater than a broken nail.

But that's the thing about rape. The scars are rarely obvious.

We had gathered under the tent last week to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center, and to honor all the women brave enough to break their silence in an effort to make a difference. Gail Abarbanel, the social worker who founded the center at Santa Monica Hospital and serves as its executive director, sat with the young woman and four others who had come to testify to the help and healing they and their families received from the center, a pioneer in the field of rape treatment.

*

Calmly, devoid of emotion, Abarbanel told their stories. This is what happened to the young woman, who asked not to be named:

(She) came to America when she was 7. Her father was a movie producer who had brought the family here from Italy. They attended the best schools and lived in increasingly beautiful homes. But (her) father was difficult. He collected guns and used them to intimidate the children and their mother. When she was 12, her father decided her nanny wasn't needed anymore. He began to enter her room at night and that was the end of her childhood. By age 13, he was regularly raping her at least three times a week. The audience--including Tipper Gore, Abigail Van Buren, Quincy Jones, Sherry Lansing, Norman Lear, Marsha Mason and Susan Dey, to name but a few--seemed to be holding its breath, holding back tears.

(Her) life became a mixture of shame and fear. . . . Her father told her they had been lovers in a previous life and that he was preparing her so that when she had a boyfriend or husband she would know what to do. But there were no boyfriends. (She) was never allowed to date. She was allowed no activities outside the home. She had become her father's captive. As (she) neared the end of high school, she began to dream of escape. She knew that if she did not leave the house now, she would be there forever. She packed her bags and told her father she was moving out. He called her a slut and a bitch. And he looked at her and said, "Take that whore of a sister with you." When she summoned the courage to tell, she found solace at Stuart House, a small, beautifully appointed building near the hospital that was a dream of Abarbanel and Aileen Adams, the treatment center's legal counsel.

Stuart House, which opened in 1988, provides free legal, medical and social services under one roof for sexually abused children. The young woman did not have to tell her story untold times on separate visits to police, prosecutors, social workers and therapists.

Stuart House professionals filled the courtroom in 1991 when her father, Alexander DeBenedetti, pleaded guilty to two counts of raping a minor and was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

"For that support," said the young woman, now 24, "I love them."

*

There have been many other improvements in the field of rape treatment and prosecution since Abarbanel persuaded hospital officials that they needed to give special care to rape victims:

In California (and most other states), the sexual histories of victims are no longer allowed in testimony, judges are no longer required to instruct juries that rape charges are "easily made and hard to defend against, so weigh the words of this woman with caution," victims must no longer prove they tried to fight off their attackers.

In 1990, the center produced a film on campus rape that is shown nationwide, and Abarbanel and Adams have authored a handbook about campus sexual assault that has been described by some college administrators as their bible.

That's the kind of difference two decades makes.

And yet.

Despite the changes, women are still made to feel they have brought rape upon themselves.

In July, at the sentencing of a rapist in Santa Monica Superior Court, as the judge tried to explain why he was sentencing the man to less than the maximum term allowed under the law, he lectured the victim, a 26-year-old administrative assistant.

She had dated her assailant for a few weeks before he came to her apartment one night, tied her up, whipped her with belts, held a knife to her breast, photographed her and raped her.

Instead of using the opportunity to lecture Antonio Esauma Pinlaisquigi, convicted by a jury of rape and false imprisonment, the judge devoted most of his remarks to the victim, who was briefly addicted to cocaine at the time of the attack but who had been sober for more than two years at the time of the sentencing.

"I'm not saying (the victim) is deserving of censure," said the judge. "If anything, hopefully this episode in her life will allow her to evolve to a higher plane than she was at before she met Mr. Pinlaisquigi. Maybe this will be the old axiom about you hit bottom before you start up. I hope so. She was going nowhere when she met him. And the problem is, if it wasn't him, it would have been somebody else that would take advantage of a person who was in the emotional/psychological trauma that she was in."

Someone needs to evolve to a higher plane.

And it sure ain't the victim.

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