The human spirit is a funny thing. The worst can happen, and if you arrange your mind just right, you can almost forget it ever occurred. For half a lifetime, Kimberly Meadows almost forgot--until this week, when it all rushed back: a summer afternoon, a shy girlfriend, a white lace blouse, a sickening loss of innocence.
The gang rape that Meadows witnessed as a teenager was not the first in human history. It was just the one that she kept to herself for 14 years. Then she heard on the evening news that a terrible killing in her neighborhood had been the postscript of another attack, this time on a girl she had watched grow up, and the memories of what happened to her friend came tumbling out of their neat compartment.
As police continue their probe into the July 26 sexual assault that culminated in the death of an 82-year-old woman who stumbled into its confused aftermath, an interesting phenomenon has arisen: Girls and women in the community are talking about their long-standing fear of rape, and speaking up for the victim on whom some members of the neighborhood have turned.
Sharon Shelton, director of the YWCA in Compton, said that in the wake of the incident, her agency has received dozens of calls from young girls saying they too had been gang-raped but had been too fearful to tell police. Others, like Meadows, 27, have spoken publicly about their experiences for the first time, lifting the lid on a practice that they feel has festered too long in secrecy.
"Every girl that age is frightened, and so are the parents," Shelton said.
Shelton's group is planning a special effort this week to reach young girls at Nickerson Gardens, the Watts housing project where the victim and many of her alleged attackers live. The organization will hand out literature and alarm whistles and encourage women and girls to be more aware of their surroundings, to walk in groups and map safe routes to and from school.
To be sure, Watts is not the only place where women view rape as a daily risk. The Los Angeles Police Department logged 824 rapes between July 1995 and July 1996. The Southeast Division, which handles Watts, reported 70--half a dozen fewer than the Van Nuys Division, in which rapes were most common.
Police and rape counselors said, moreover, that all rape statistics may be misleading because it is such an underreported crime, particularly when it comes to gang rape. Only a handful of gang rapes are reported annually to the LAPD, detectives say. In the Southeast Division, police investigate one or two a year, even though rape crisis counselors say such attacks are hardly rare.
Leah Aldridge, who directs the youth violence prevention program for the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women, said many girls fear retaliation if they report their attackers.
"We're looking at young girls who say, 'Oh no, I can't call the police because he's got his friend watching me,' " Aldridge said.
Other girls may hesitate to tell their parents or the authorities because they are ashamed, Shelton said. And in a neighborhood as intimate as Nickerson Gardens, a young victim may feel even more pressured to remain silent, she said.
"You know everybody in that community," Shelton said. "You may have been raped by the guy across the street."
That was how it was 14 years ago, on the day Meadows' girlfriend was raped. Everyone knew everyone. The boys who did it were boys they had known since elementary school.
She was 13 or 14 at the time, and she and her friends had walked over to the Hacienda Village housing projects not far from Meadows' house, ending up in the home of a boy they knew.
The youth lived with his mother, but she was out. And that was fine at first. They were just a bunch of teenagers, listening to music, hanging out. Then, all of a sudden, they looked around, she said, and there were 30 males in the house and only five girls.
The boys began circling the most vulnerable girl in the crowd, "a nice quiet girl, kinda fat," Meadows recalled.
"It happened real sudden--they just kinda grabbed her hair, and started ripping her clothes. She had on a white lace shirt, I remember, and blue-jean shorts. . . .
"All of a sudden it was out of control. They shoved the rest of us into another room and told us, 'You better shut up or we're gonna do you like that.' "
As she and her friends numbly obeyed, the sounds from the next room burned into her memory.
"More people kept coming and more and more," she recalled. "At first you could hear her crying, but then it was just quiet tears. And then finally it got quiet and everybody ran off, just disappeared as fast as they came."
Tentatively, she pushed open the door and found her trembling friend struggling to dress herself in her now tattered clothes.
"She was saying, 'It's OK. I'm OK.' We helped her get dressed, gave her some of our clothes. . . . We never told anyone or talked about it again."