Hats Off to the Central Park Rape Victim
by Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez
The gutsy 73-year-old woman who was raped by a drifter in Central Park has been on my mind since I first heard about her. The assailant has been caught, and it turns out he has a history of raping and murdering elderly women, going back to the 1980s.
The mystery is why a man like that was let out of jail. We keep kids in prison for minor drug infractions, but we let a psycho rapist and murderer out on parole and allow him to drift across state lines without supervision?
Like so many other homeless people, he ended up drifting around in Central Park, and according to the victim, whose name is being withheld to protect her privacy, he had it in for her because a couple of weeks earlier she photographed him masturbating in a lonely section of the park.
She was a birder who wandered the park with her binoculars and camera around her neck, in the wooded section known as “the Ramble,” which I remember well from my own youthful ramblings. I would never set foot in the park alone without my big dog beside me, though. I knew better than that. And if I ever saw anyone looking suspicious, I made a beeline for the nearest police officer. Growing up in Manhattan, you knew you always had to be on guard.
The birdwatcher probably took his picture to identify him to the police, because she did report his obscene public activity to a park ranger. Unfortunately, her warning was ignored.
Now, after she was pushed down in the bushes and raped in broad daylight, the police aren’t ignoring her anymore. Thanks to her alert vigilance, she was able to pick her assailant out of a police lineup just a day or so after the crime occurred.
Knowing as much as I do about sexual assault and its psychological effects (I teach a course in Gender & Violence) I have to say I am very impressed with the cool demeanor of this victim.
No hysterics or undue shame — this woman is speaking out, and in the process setting a model for other women to follow.
Rape statistics in the US are pretty ugly.
- Every two minutes, someone in the US is being sexually assaulted. Each year there are nearly 208,000 sexual assault in the US
- 54% of rapes are never reported, and 97% of rapists will never spend a night in jail
- 80% of victims are under 30, 44% under 18
- 38% of rapists are a friend of acquaintance of the victim
So the most recent Central Park rape was unusual on every score: the victim was an elder, the rapist was unknown to her, and most important, she marched right out of the shrubbery where she’d been raped and reported it to the police.
In your more typical rape case, a young woman may not want to report the crime because a) it’s embarrassing; b) she would have to undergo invasive evidence-gathering; c) she might be afraid that the rapist, if not arrested, would retaliate against her; d) it’s common knowledge that rape trials are long and intense, and rarely result in conviction.
All this is true. But it’s also true that if more than half of rape victims do not report the crime or press charges, then that allows the assailants to proceed with cocky impunity.
I don’t think that was part of the picture with David Albert Mitchell, the Central Park birder’s assailant.
He was just a dangerously unbalanced, violent man who has obviously been failed by the criminal justice system. He should never have been granted parole.
But many rapists circulate in our society much more suavely, preying on young women and girls without necessarily even realizing that what they’re doing is wrong.
In a culture where violent pornographic videos are easily available on the internet, and violence against women is a common ingredient in music videos and Hollywood films as well, it is not hard to see how a young man could get the impression that violating a woman is just another way to prove one’s manhood.
More of us older women have to stand up and say no to this violence.
For quite some time, my heroine in this work has been Eve Ensler, whose V-Day organization has been incredibly successful in channeling women’s creativity and righteous passions into educational anti-violence work.
I don’t yet have a name or a face to put on the 73-year-old Central Park rape victim, but I want her to know she’s my heroine too.
Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, Ph.D., teaches comparative literature, media studies, and human rights with an activist bent at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, and directs the annual Berkshire Festival of Women Writers and the new Citizen Journalism Project at WBCR-LP. She is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision, and blogs at Transition Times.