The Survivors Project: Paul McComas
In its Nov. 14, 2012, print edition, Philadelphia Weekly ran an excerpt of its first book, The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse. The issue featured just eight of the 57 first-person stories we published. Here is another.
Editor’s note: Please take great care in reading this story, as it may contain graphic descriptions and other passages that may trigger strong emotional responses.
Name: Paul McComas
Occupation: Author, educator and public speaker.
Location: Evanston, Ill.
Relationship to victim: Boyfriend
While walking home alone one muggy night in September 1984, my first-ever girlfriend—a talented theater and music student whom I’d known since she was 12, and I, 13—was overpowered by a male stranger in a downtown Milwaukee alley. I wish I could refer to her as a “rape survivor” rather than a “rape victim”; I can’t, because she didn’t survive. Six months later, traumatized, desperate and depressed, she took the wrong step—namely, off the roof of the tallest building on the UW-Milwaukee campus.
She was 21 years old.
I suppose that, in many different ways ever since, I’ve been trying in vain to undo her tragic end.
By re-editing and enhancing the short films she and I shot together in our teens (in which she expertly played, among other roles, a starship captain, a primatologist, and a voodoo priestess), and then screening them at festivals worldwide, I’ve showcased her early acting talent. By basing the character “Stefanie Slocum” in my 2008 coming-of-age novel Planet of the Dates on my girlfriend as she was at 16 and 17, I took the winsome, winning, mischievous girl I loved, and re-imagined her as an irresistible literary character. By bringing healing to the heroine of my 2002 debut novel Unplugged—the story of an initially suicidal female musician’s fight to recover from a series of childhood rapes committed by her mother’s boyfriend—I rewrote my girlfriend’s final chapter, in the hope of affirming girls and women like her. Both Unplugged and my 20-month cross-country book-store tour for it were, at their core, less a commercial or even a professional enterprise than a ministry, a mission: a plea for victims of rape and other trauma to get help, keep going, reclaim all that is rightly theirs—and never, ever give up.
There’s also my work with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN).
The nation’s largest anti-sexual-violence organization, RAINN was founded 18 years ago with the help of musician Tori Amos. The blue RAINN bracelet I’ve worn continuously since I got it, and will wear for life, symbolizes the fact that this heroic organization and its mission are, like my memories of my girlfriend, a permanent part of who I am. Hence my ongoing efforts over the past decade to help RAINN financially, creatively and through advocacy and outreach.
Appointed to its Speakers Bureau last year and to its National Leadership Council in 2012, I’m working with RAINN now more than ever. This helps me as well as helping others, for through the work, I’m finally finding a measure of peace about the tragedy that befell my long-ago girlfriend. You see, RAINN and its affiliated rape-crisis centers don’t just educate the public to prevent sexual violence and help victims transition into survivors; they also help the loved ones of those who didn’t make it, enlisting our aid on behalf of others. They’ve saved so many—and in a very real sense, they’re saving me, too.
My onetime girlfriend gave me the mission, but my work in rape prevention/education and rape-victim advocacy has given me the means. For that, I am and forever will be inexpressibly grateful.
There is, of course, no way to bring back the young woman I lost—the woman this world lost. The curly-wavy auburn hair; the blue-gray eyes, sparkling with smarts and wit; the frequent wisecracks and the daily surprised-and-surprising observations . . . all of these are gone forever, have been gone for 28 years. But while it’s true that nothing can ever bring her back, it’s also true that nothing is, or ever can be, more important than preventing today’s and tomorrow’s rape/abuse/incest victims from themselves taking, as she did, the wrong step.
If you have been affected by this issue—or even if you haven’t, but nonetheless empathize with those who have—then please, volunteer at your local rape-crisis center, or join RAINN or a similar organization. Reach out, speak out, contribute, help. We possess the means to intervene—and we must. For to witness and work on behalf of these girls and boys, young women and young men, is to hand them back their lives.
The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse is available for purchase on Amazon.