I Am an Artist. That Is My Legacy.

There are so many things in this world, important things, that nobody likes to talk about. It is uncomfortable, awkward, an unpleasant experience by any count. Does that mean that we shouldn’t talk about them? Do we really think that silence is capable of erasing truth? No. And no. Einstein once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Isn’t that exactly the case with rape? Haven’t men been violating women since the dawn of time? Haven’t the victims been shamed into silence, made to feel like they “asked for it” with their behavior or style of dress? One in four women report rape or other sexual offenses because they are afraid of what other people will think of them, of the retribution that defense lawyers, the general public, their friends and family, even strangers, will direct at them. This isn’t right. It’s time to turn the tables. It’s time for women to stand up and say “There is no excuse for what you did to me. You had no right. I have every right to demand justice.” Jennifer Wheatley-Wolf stood up and demanded that right.

In the early morning of August 21, 1988, an unidentified man attacked Jennifer Wheatley in what she thought of as the “safety” of her own home. He wrapped something around her throat, forced back her head, and shoved a gag into her mouth, dislocating her jaw in the process. Finally releasing his hold on her neck, he proceeded to rape her, never once allowing him to see her face. He left very few clues to his identity, which made it seem as though he had done it before. But he left his DNA inside her, and two fingerprints on a candle by her bed. In 1988, technology wasn’t advanced enough for these two vital pieces of evidence to be of much help. She had never seen her assailant’s face. The detective in charge mishandled the evidence, causing much of it to be lost, and 20 years later, couldn’t even recall the case. With every good reason to believe that her attacker would never be caught, Jennifer could have given up. She didn’t. Neither did the man who picked up her case, Chief Investigator David H. Cordle, Sr. Together, with the goal of both bringing her rapist to justice as well as preventing him from hurting other women, they worked tirelessly to bring his identity into light and make him pay for what he did. It took 20 years, many false starts and disappointed hopes, but William Joseph Trice was finally found, brought in front of a jury and convicted guilty of 1st and 2nd Degree Rape, 1st and 2nd Degree Sexual Offense, and Burglary.

Although bringing Trice to justice was victory enough, Jennifer Wheatley went even further. She wrote a book, hoping that other women would read it, maybe even other women who had been victims of sexual assault, and understand that they were powerful. The book is written in the style of a testimonial, with occasional, more official, chapters written by the Chief Investigator, David Cordle. She talks about her experiences, the assault, and her recovery and reclamation of self, with a candor and honesty that is striking and powerful. In the case of most books, from a literature major’s perspective at least, we look at the prose, the diction, the syntax. We get caught up in the style and the characters, the conflict, the climax. But sometimes, all that stuff isn’t what matters. This is one of those times. What’s important here is the message. In a world where the criminals often walk free and the victims never find their voice, this book is a beacon of hope.

The most moving part of the book to me are the last two chapters, in which Jennifer gives her thoughts on how the world views rape, and then in her Victim’s Impact Statement. She speaks about the importance of giving rape victims their voices back after their assailants essentially stripped them of their identities as they knew them. “By giving her a voice, we also give her power. The very act of empowering a person who has suffered a sexual assault removes the social isolation felt by this person” (506). That’s what rape is all about: Power. Who has it. In this crime, the rapist gets part of his pleasure from stripping the victim of her power, of asserting his power over her to make her submit to him. By reporting the crime, by seeing the investigation through to the conviction, and by speaking out, the victim regains the power stolen from her. That is what Jennifer Wheatley achieved in writing this book.

Lastly, on the day when Trice was supposed to be given his sentence, Jennifer would have had the opportunity to read him her Victim’s Impact Statement, and therefore take the last step in the reclamation of her self. Unfortunately, William Joseph Trice committed suicide after his conviction, after having spent only six days in prison. However, she did get the chance to give her statement to the world by including it as one of the last chapters of her book. I just want to include some of her most moving statements as a close to this entry.

“I made the decision–in spite of what you did to me–and because of you–because of what you did to me–to focus on things in life that brought light to the dark and frightening memories. My obsession with painting, quilting, and photography is my way of keeping my life in the light, despite the fact that you made me afraid of the dark” (511).

And finally, I see this last quote as the most important lesson of the book. As a victim of rape, it’s hard to remember that the crime isn’t who you are, it’s who the rapist is. It doesn’t define you. It changes you, but it doesn’t define you.

I am an Artist.

That is my legacy.

You are a rapist. That is how the world will remember you.

I just want to congratulate Jennifer on the strength and perseverance of will that she displayed in writing this book, of sharing her pain with the world, of putting the shame of this crime where it belongs. I am proud that you are a part of my family, though I was born the year this happened to you, and we’ve never met, that I remember. You are the kind of woman that women should aspire to be. Thank you for sharing your strength.

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3 comments

  1. Important Update: In July 2012 a 3rd Victim was linked, through DNA, to the same man who attacked and raped Jennifer. This 3rd violent rape occurred on May 31, 1987 in Montgomery County, Maryland.

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