Assault Victim Writes Play About Crime

She thought she'd found heaven by the ocean. Then she was brutally attacked. She lived to write a haunting play about the crime and the love that saved her.

By: Leslie Milk

Lifestyle editor Leslie Milk (lmilk@washingtonian.com), also an author and playwright, writes often about the performing arts.

In dreams she remembers her head hitting the tile floor. A pair of boots near her face. Red blood on her white sweater. Her first real memory is of waking up in a hospital room, making her way to the bathroom, and seeing a monster in the mirror. Of the attack itself--the man who grabbed her from behind, hit her hard in the head, and slashed her face--Jeanette Buck remembers nothing. Some might say that is a blessing. Buck sees it differently. She wants to make sense of a senseless act. Why was she chosen as the victim? And why was she chosen to survive? She wants to find a connection with her attacker--to deliver him from evil.

She wants to capture the outpouring of support and love that enabled her to again feel human.

All this sparked the spiritual journey that led Buck to write There Are No Strangers, a play that opens this month at Theater J in the DC Jewish Community Center.

"I'd come home late from work. I'd walk along the alleyway through the Mexican-tiled courtyard to my little bougainvillea-covered house. Did he see me then? Did he watch from the parking lot next door? The police found a dusty chair imprinted with footprints leaning on the fence. Did he stand, leaning on the fence, peering over?"

--From There Are No Strangers

Jeanette Buck grew up in Farmingdale, New York. She came to Washington to attend American University and stayed to become part of the Washington theater community. In the late 1980s and mid-'90s she was stage manager at Horizons Theatre, for Shear Madness at the Kennedy Center, for The Rocky Horror Show at Woolly Mammoth.

In 1994, Buck went back to school, to Ohio University in Athens for a master's degree. For her thesis she wrote and produced a film called Out of Season, a love story about two women in Cape May. The film, released in 1998, won festival awards and the kinds of reviews that encourage a budding director to head to Hollywood.

Buck moved to Los Angeles and fell in love with a guest house behind a duplex in Venice Beach. It took six months for the landlord to move his graphics business out of the house so Buck could move in. She was willing to wait, even though it meant camping out with a succession of friends.

For six weeks Buck reveled in her new life and her light-filled house within walking distance of the beach. Her nearest neighbors were writer Tess Clark, actor Rob Roy--whom Buck had worked with in Washington--and Rob's wife, Amy Roy. Buck felt she had found a home in a community of creative people.

Easterners tend to have a Hollywood vision of Venice Beach--bodybuilders, volleyball games, inline skaters on the boardwalk. In the 1960s, Venice was known as an affordable enclave for avant-garde artists like Ed Moses and Robert Irwin.

The neighborhood Buck lived in had a darker side. A few blocks away, the Los Angeles Police Department had added 24-hour patrols to crack down on gang-related crime. Drug dealing and prostitution were rampant.

Jeanette Buck was too enchanted with her new home to worry about crime. Besides, she was strong. She had studied self-defense. Years earlier, in what she describes as her "men's-sport-jackets-and-Doc-Martens phase," Buck had been attacked by a group of teenage boys near Dupont Circle. They had pelted her with pieces of broken concrete. Buck screamed at the top of her lungs, hoping they would think she was crazy. They stopped in their tracks as she ran past them.

Buck felt so healthy that, leaving Ohio, she hadn't taken the option of extending her university health insurance.

On February 8, 1999, Buck returned to her guest house from the market. She was in her kitchen when a man slammed into her from behind. Later she learned that he had used a knife.

Buck lay unconscious on the floor for about an hour. Sometime after regaining consciousness, she managed to get up, remember her neighbor Tess Clark's phone number, and call her.

Clark had just come home. She had been out shopping but suddenly had had a vision of someone being attacked. She had met a well-known psychic a few months earlier, and he was coaching her to trust her psychic instincts. So Clark cut her errands short to come home. When she arrived, she noticed that the gate to the alley next to their little complex was open. It normally was locked, and only residents had keys.

Something "felt wrong." Clark opened her front door, walked into her house, and sat there, not making any noise, afraid an intruder was somewhere inside.

Then the phone rang. It was Buck.

"Tess, can you come back here?" she said.

Clark found her standing in her doorway. Her white sweater was drenched with blood. Blood was pooled in the middle of the room and splattered on the wall. The doorknob was sticky and red.

Clark told Buck to lie down. Buck asked for ice. "My nose really hurts," she said.

Buck's right cheek had been slashed to the bone. A gash ran from the middle of her forehead down her nose, which was broken and pushed to one side. One of her eyes was out of its socket.

Clark was afraid to touch Buck's face. She filled a towel with ice, gave it to Buck, and called 911. Police and an ambulance arrived at the same time.

Buck was losing consciousness. The police didn't try to question her. Officers told the ambulance crew to have her admitted to the hospital under a fake name. They assumed that the attack was gang-related and that Buck might need protection.

Amy Roy was home now, and she called her husband. When Rob arrived, the Roys, Clark, and Mary Tucker, another actor friend from DC, followed the ambulance to UCLA Medical Center.

The next time Clark and Tucker saw Jeanette Buck, in the emergency room, the blood had been washed away and the damage was more apparent. Her face was severely swollen; stitches down its length made it look like a football.

Buck was woozy from painkillers. "Did you tape Ally McBeal for me?" she asked Clark.

Clark and Tucker tried not to show Buck how horrified they were by her appearance. But as soon as they left the cubicle in the emergency room, Tucker's knees buckled.

"Mary fell to the floor," Clark recalls. "She was white as a sheet. We just sat in the hallway crying."

Mary Tucker called Buck's brother David in Stafford, Virginia, and sister, Karen Burgess, in DC. They got on the first available flight to LA.

"The first time I saw her," says Burgess, "I almost fainted."

Buck's jaw was wired shut. Her head was swollen to an unrecognizable size. It took days for the doctors to rule out brain damage.

She spent a week in the hospital, very little of which she remembers. Months later, on a return visit for reconstructive surgery, a man approached her in the corridor and asked if she remembered him. Then he introduced himself as the doctor who first treated her in the emergency room.

"I'm glad you don't remember," he told her. "It took me six hours to sew you back together, and you screamed in pain through most of it."

Because she had no health insurance, the medical bills were staggering. When UCLA hospital tried to transfer Buck to a county hospital, her sister stood in the hallway crying until the administrator let her stay.

News of the attack spread throughout the theater community, and offers of money and help began pouring in. The cast of Shear Madness collected money. Friends tapped other friends. Checks came from all over.

A friend of Tess Clark's, a spiritual adviser to the stars, called to ask what she could do. Clark explained that Buck would need major reconstructive surgery to put her face back together. Fifteen minutes later, Clark's friend called back with the name of a team of plastic surgeons who would donate their services.

The care Buck received from friends and loved ones not only had saved Buck's life, it also would save her face.

When Buck was released from UCLA Medical Center, her ordeal was far from over. With her jaw wired shut, all of her food had to be puréed. For months, she couldn't see out of her right eye. After her cheek was reconstructed in May 1999, her face suffered a persistent infection. Every day she went to the surgeon's office to have her cheek drained.

"I had some dark moments," she says. "I was in a place where beauty is everything. I was in Hollywood looking for work, and I couldn't go out."

But she was never alone. Knowing that Buck could not bear to go back to her guest house again, her friends created a haven in Tucker's guest room where she could recover.

Friends from all over the country flew to Los Angeles to be with her. In Washington, Amy Austin, another friend from Buck's Horizons Theatre days, coordinated the visits. Austin was not surprised by the response. "Jeanette's a pretty extraordinary person," she says. "You know that she'd do it for you."

"It was almost festive," recalls Clark. "We used to see how many exotic juices we could make and how big a straw we could get between her teeth."

One Saturday in late May, the doctor pronounced that although she would have to return for additional surgery, Buck was well enough to leave town. She jumped into her car that afternoon and began driving back to Washington. During the summer, a friend at Ohio University offered her a teaching job. Buck accepted. She went to Athens that September.

In the 18 months after the attack, Buck endured five facial surgeries. On one of her trips west, her brother Richard came from Florida to help her move the last of her stuff back east. In her storage locker they found piles of letters and cards written to her after the attack. That is when Buck realized the full measure of the love and support that had sustained her. Ultimately, the messages would inspire There Are No Strangers.

"I discover who I am reading the cards and letters I receive," she writes in the play. "The gift of these words is so important as I piece myself together."

In Ohio, Buck discovered that although she loved teaching, she still felt too vulnerable to be alone. In 2002 she came back to Washington for good. She found a job as production manager at Theater J and, having written scripts, began teaching playwriting at the Theatre Lab. Last summer she was stage manager for The Glass Menagerie, part of the Tennessee Williams festival at the Kennedy Center.

There Are No Strangers is her first play to be produced.

At first glance, Jeanette Buck's play has found an unlikely home. Buck is not Jewish. But Theater J is not a typical Jewish theater, notes artistic director Ari Roth. He was drawn to Buck's story because "it is a play about survival, affirming life."

Buck's script began as the voice-over for a short film. Roth read it and was bowled over. He asked whether she would consider adapting the script as a stage production with video.

Roth brought together a group of Washington's theater elite, including choreographer Liz Lerman, set designer James Kronzer, critic Bob Mondello, and actor Holly Twyford, for a reading in the DC Jewish Community Center library.

The script was less than 30 minutes long, but by the end "the men were in tears and the women were struck with fear," Roth says. It was clear that Buck had something special. "We've been growing it ever since," Roth says.

Theater J is more than an artistic home for Buck. Ari Roth thinks of it as a haven, too. Buck started as a temporary fill-in and has become part of the permanent production team. Now she has health insurance.

Holly Twyford will star in Buck's one-woman play. Twyford and Buck got to know each other when Buck was stage-managing here before, and Twyford had a part in Buck's film, Out of Season. Twyford says she is "honored" to do the play. But she doesn't plan to impersonate Buck on stage.

"Jeanette is a classic director and writer," Twyford says. "The story is more important to her than the actual person she is."

In the play, Twyford tells Buck's story in a series of verbal flashbacks and video clips, piecing together shards of memories and dreams, Buck's past and present, trying to come to grips with what happened to her. The play isn't a saga of Buck's medical ordeal--instead it documents the healing process that enabled her to go on with her life, tracing her spiritual journey and the impact the attack had on her beliefs.

Sitting in the sunshine at a sidewalk cafe near Dupont Circle, Jeanette Buck appears to have made a miraculous recovery. Her hands and her voice are steady. Her face and eye look unscarred.

But invisible to an onlooker, permanent damage to her nose still makes it difficult for her to breathe, and nerve damage prevents her from being able to feel her upper lip.

There are psychological scars, too. Being in Washington near her sister and her best friend provides emotional stability, but she is still afraid. "I fear not being able to protect someone I'm with," she says.

She also knows that her family fears having to rescue her again. "I can't put myself at risk," she says. She won't live in edgy neighborhoods that once seemedappealing.

She still grapples with questions that remain unanswered about her attack--and with peoples' reaction to it.

"Most people want to believe that I did something wrong. . . . I've been accused of being too friendly, living in a 'bad' neighborhood, and of not being street savvy. . . . What I know is that they need to believe those things. It's too difficult to acknowledge that something so awful could happen to you. . . . They lock their doors, look both ways, walk quickly and with purpose, and don't talk to strangers. They need to believe the rules will keep them safe."

--From There Are No Strangers

The Los Angeles police department never caught Buck's attacker. At first the officials didn't try, convinced that the crime was about prostitution or drugs, Buck says.

After three days, a female detective was assigned to her case, and finally photographs were taken of her face. But because she was attacked from behind, Buck could not give any clues to the assailant's identity. If anyone was stalking her--offended by her lesbianism, angry at women in general, or just fixated on her--Buck was unaware of any threat.

There is an inescapable element of shame in being attacked, Buck says--"as if I did it to myself, and I'm somehow to blame."

She suspects that her assailant has brutalized other women, bashed in and slashed other faces. She could not save those women any more than she could save herself. What she can do, she says, is pray for the man who brutalized her. Buck feels she has a responsibility to, as a Quaker friend put it, "bring him to the light."

"This man is not evil incarnate. His life is so dark. Is there any way to pray that the dark can be lifted? That's my challenge."

She wonders why her attacker stopped beating her--why he let her live. But she refuses to let the rest of her life be defined by him.

"A lot of people ask, 'Where is the rage? Where is the anger?' " Holly Twyford says. "That's just not in her."

Amy Austin remembers a phone conversation with Buck shortly after the attack. "Something good will come out of this," Buck told her.

"I remember being so mad at her for saying that," Austin says. "But that was her first impulse. Maybe this play is that something good--her telling her story will enable other people to tell their own stories."

For her part, Jeanette Buck focuses on the good that indeed has come out of her ordeal. "I am the recipient of unbridled generosity," she says. At the end of her play, she explains its title:

"Wherever I go, my community's with me. Whether it be in the darkness or the light. We come to agreements with each other maybe in this life, maybe beyond. Either way, there are no strangers."