Amanda Pagliarini has re-opened her 15-year-old case. Photograph by James Kegley
It’s important to admit when you’re wrong. Especially when that wrong is printed in black and white and read by thousands.
In November 2009, I wrote an article for The Washingtonian in which I recounted my experience of being raped at 14 by my boyfriend’s two friends. The heart of the story was about my getting back in touch with that former boyfriend, his acknowledging that he failed to protect me, and how forgiving him gave me a sense of peace and closure.
But in concluding that article, I also wrote about the rapists themselves:
“The state of Virginia doesn’t have a statute of limitations on felonies, which means I could still report the men who raped me . . . and I can understand why some people might think I should. But I can’t see how pressing charges would bring peace to anyone involved, especially me.”
I received many angry e-mails from readers about choosing not to report those men. Some were furious and accused me of being complicit or an accomplice. Others simply disagreed and tried to explain their position. A Washington blogger referred to me as “the happy rape victim.”
In each instance, I could understand why the reader felt as he or she did, but I remained settled in my beliefs. I saw the prosecution of one’s rapist to be a gift of justice and healing for the rape victim. I already felt healed. I also believed justice was akin to revenge—an eye for an eye. I have never found solace in revenge.
But then I had two experiences this summer that shattered my conviction.
First, I had the surreal privilege to spend a day with Dr. Maya Angelou at her home in Winston Salem, North Carolina. (One of my clients is a friend of Dr. Angelou’s, and he brought me along to a July 4 barbecue at her house.) As a writer, Dr. Angelou is one of my rock stars. As a human being, she embodies the spirit, energy, and heart I will spend a lifetime aspiring to. She gathered everyone in her home for a prayer that day, and she said something I had heard her quoted as saying many times: “When you know better, you do better.”
Second, I, along with much of the world, learned more about Jaycee Dugard. I watched her speak with Diane Sawyer about the 18 years she spent in captivity, and I read the details of her imprisonment in her memoir, A Stolen Life. The Diane Sawyer segment chronicled the history of Jaycee’s kidnapper, Phillip Garrido. I learned that in one of Garrido’s first reported rapes, the 14-year-old victim refused to testify, and he went free. From that point forward, I went to bed most nights wondering, Could the men I let go free be hurting someone else right now?
Dr. Angelou’s saying—when you know better, you do better—is meant to free you from guilt and empower you to change. But in this instance, it felt like the burden of responsibility. Thanks to Jaycee Dugard’s story, I know better. I know that reporting a rape isn’t just about justice, but rather, reducing the opportunity for others to be harmed. It’s not about me, and it’s not about the men who raped me. It’s about protecting others.
I have been outraged by the reports of Jerry Sandusky’s alleged sexual abuse of children and Penn State’s handling of the allegations. But I’ve also had to consider the hypocrisy of my outrage. Sure, a valid case could be made that a silent victim is different from a silent witness. But for me, the two are not different enough. I witnessed, albeit firsthand, two men raping a young girl. And I remained silent, permitting them to go on and potentially harm others.
I was a scared kid back then. I would never fault my 14-year-old self, or any victim, for that matter, for remaining silent. But as an adult, to have promoted my position not to press charges—as I did in my 2009 article—was reckless, misguided, and wrong.
I now know better. And the state of Virginia grants me the ability to do better. So I have. I contacted the Fairfax County Police and was assigned a detective, who reopened my 15-year-old case. Though I expected the detective to blow me off, call me crazy, or question my validity, he has been fully committed to helping me. The outcome is now in the hands of law. It might turn out that it’s too late for the law to prevail. But it’s never too late to try to do the right thing.