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How I came to forgive my rapist

My work as a crisis reporter brought me to an inpatient facility for violent criminals. There, I realized that the way we think about sexual assault is wrong.

It wasn't a prison, although it looked like one. The road was a long, narrow snake winding up a sandy dune. It ended at a locked metal gate topped with concertina wire. Beyond that lay a squat brick building on a barren lot. On its far side was a sea cliff — obvious from the salt breeze and the whoosh of waves breaking on rocks below.

Below was the dividing line between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. I was far from home.

So was a man I'll call John Smith, although his was only a few minutes' drive away. Raised in an impoverished section of Cape Town, South Africa, John was in this inpatient rehab for six weeks. Camp Joy, they called it. From outside its barbed wire, the name felt like mockery.

But John, who had voluntarily brought himself here, said it was, in fact, a place of joy. This was where he'd come to get free of the violence he'd committed. From the look on his face, it might be better off called Camp Relief.

I'd come to find out if the program that was helping to stop him from killing could also stop rape. And John, an admitted rapist, had the answer I'd come so far to hear.

Years ago, a boyfriend raped me.

This was in Chicago, my hometown, during an arctic March. Frigid wind poured through the drafty windows of the tiny apartment I shared with him. After dark, it felt as though night would be eternal.

Our story was a common one: We were young, underpaid, a bit aimless. We'd been dating for three years, and it had been all right, until it wasn't. He'd moved in and slowly become angry, spiteful, openly misogynistic. Once, during a fight, he'd vaguely threatened me with a knife.

He'd also begun waking me at all hours, too, demanding company or sex. Exhausted, I'd often beg to be left alone.

I wanted to evict him, but he owed me back rent and I was broke. In waking hours, I pressed for the money. He stonewalled and then screamed, and I fretted, caught between economic hardship and his intensifying rage.

Eventually, in a way, he began to comply with my pleading for sleep: He ceased to wake me, and instead began raping me while I slept — and even after I woke and tried to push him away.

Don't do that, I'd say later, fantasizing about beating him bloody. Why can't you just jerk off in the shower? Why can't you leave me alone?

It doesn't matter what you want, he'd say, and later do it again.

He was a puppy dog, John Smith.

He was 27 when I interviewed him this March, but he seemed both younger and older, world-weary and yet babyish. His hoodie left his average build apparent, but hid the gang tattoos he said he had.

We sat across from each other on two narrow beds in the counselor's dank bedroom and John told his life story, in the trilled, guttural accent of his native Afrikaans.

The backstory is like many others: He's from a neighborhood of tenement blocks on the Cape Flats outside Cape Town. South Africa, a nation of 50 million, has more than 9,000 murders a year — six times more per capita than America, and one of the highest rates in the world. Those killings are concentrated in a few rough areas, with John's among the worst-affected.

The details were overwhelming. At age 11, he'd watched his brother die by gunfire, choking on his own blood on the floor of a local convenience store. Soon after, another brother was murdered. John was numb. "That was where it started," he said.

Joining the gangster lifestyle that stole your loved ones is illogical, but few alternatives existed for John. He'd also fallen prey to what the group running Camp Joy called "infectious violence": exposure to trauma greatly raises the risk that a person will commit violence himself.

Now, after nearly a decade in prison for a gang-related homicide, John was at Camp Joy to escape his former life. The facility provided intensive psychosocial care to people needing help to leave their violent pasts behind. Here, John slept in a bedroom lined wall to wall with narrow cots, dined in an austere concrete room, and worked on converting a collection of shipping containers in the muddy yard into usable outbuildings.

John's spot came courtesy of a many-armed local nonprofit. The same organization runs a program called Ceasefire, which employs professional "violence interrupters" to talk prospective murderers out of killing. In two years, that program had reduced homicides in John's neighborhood by a substantial percentage. Camp Joy had helped by absorbing the youth who were best served by inpatient care. But while both organizations poured endless energy into stopping gang retaliations, neither did much about rape — even though four in every 10 South African men admit to raping at least one woman, according to local studies. The head of the nonprofit that ran Camp Joy said the figure might be twice as high among their clients.

"When it comes to sexual violence, I was involved in that type of thing," John said. "I was always rolling with the big boys, and I was seeing the cruel things they have done, not just to women but to men as well. ... They're sending out a strong message to their enemies. If they catch you with your girlfriend, they rape both of youse."

"When you were in a relationship with women," I asked, "did you ever have sex with them without their consent?"

"Yes," he admitted, describing violating multiple women. "Because even if they don't want sex, if I say I want sex then there must be sex right now, you see, because I need sex, because I'm full of stress out there on the streets. ... If they don't want to, I still make them."

"It's almost like going and getting high," I said about his demands for instant stress relief.

"Going and getting high, yeah," he said, nodding.

Was my then-boyfriend high on what he did to me? Was it stress relief to him?

It was the opposite for me. Rape was not defined by one moment of unwanted contact, but by the waves of panic that began after he first violated me, the sense that someone who would so brutally harm me could also kill me. Somewhere in my brain, a reflex told me to stay awake, awake, awake, forever, looking out for the wretched betrayal I had come to associate with ordinary sleep. At its worst, the exhausting, heart-shattering fear felt a knife edge away from death.

Years later, a friend I'd lost touch with bounded up to me on the street, surprised I was alive. At the time, I myself hadn't been sure I'd survive such intense stress.

Why did you hurt me? I demanded of my rapist more than once before he and I stopped speaking. I was convinced his explanation would allay my suffering.

He never did explain.

But John did.

Rape, he said, wasn't something he'd set out to do. "For me, there was no time for me to step back. I'm already in it. I need to prove to [gang leaders] that I can also do what they do, because that's the only way for me to build my life, to come up in this business. ... If I really want to make a life for myself in this gangsterism, then I have to do whatever I need to do to survive."

He wasn't avoiding responsibility, from what I could tell. He acknowledged that none of his victims deserved what he'd done. "I was insane upstairs, in my mind," he said repeatedly. "I was always insane."

Now he is diligent about sanity. He relies on Camp Joy and Ceasefire the way drug abusers rely on a 12-step program. Before voluntarily interning himself, he sometimes called an outreach worker to report his darker impulses, he said. Fretting about how six weeks of inpatient care would stack up next to the years lost to violence, he wished aloud to stay at Camp Joy longer, to vest himself more securely in a peaceful life.

For years after the rape, I worked to heal the post-traumatic stress disorder it had created. At first, my rage felt like energetic insistence on a better life. But as time passed, the Buddhist aphorism that being angry is like drinking poison and hoping your enemy will die felt truer and truer. Rage burned inside me like battery acid.

Even worse, it sustained my rapist's influence on me. He was gone; he offered me nothing. Anger offered nothing. Letting go was the fastest way to be free of him forever.

If one Buddhist aphorism was right, I figured I'd embrace another. Soon, I found myself kneeling and bowing on the altar of a Zen temple in Chicago, muttering lines from ancient scripture. Hatred never ceases by hatred, I'd chant, knees sunk into the carpet, forehead hovering an inch above the floor. On the second go-round, I'd utter, But by love alone is healed. Rising and falling once more, I'd finish the verse: This is an ancient and eternal law.

Why doesn't that rapist motherfucker come do some fucking chanting? I'd think while kneeling, and then realize it was my life I was saving, my own hatred my love would heal.

In time, the chants grew louder than my fear. Instead of battery acid, honesty became clean, pure rocket fuel toward well-being. When I thought of my rapist, the words I forgive you began to ring through my head. He's never heard me say it aloud. But it was true. And my life was growing too good to bother about him anymore, anyway.

By 2010, clinicians who'd treated my anxiety told me I was healed. ("I'm so proud of you," one said.) At a routine appointment in 2012, my primary care doctor said, "You don't have this anymore," and archived every mention of PTSD in my medical records.

By the time I saw John, the story was so old it seemed hardly worth mentioning. It was so easy just to listen.

Nonetheless, his words echoed in my head.

For years after the rape, what I'd wanted was simple: my attacker's admission of guilt and an apology. I thought a sincere "I'm sorry" would signify the inner changes he'd made, and that grasping the harm he'd done would decrease the odds that he'd rape anyone else. I wanted that transformation in every rapist — and therefore an end to rape, for me and for everyone who is brutally awake, awake, awake, too terrified to rest.

I can't say my rapist and John were similar. One is a South African ex-convict, the other a white American with little more than fistfights on his record when I knew him.

But John had said what I'd given up hope of hearing from anyone: He acknowledged he was a rapist, and that he was committed to changing.

I was surprised at how good it felt. I was surprised at how much it felt like an answer to the problem.

John and I labor under complementary cultural myths: that he, as a rapist, is implacably and unstoppably evil, and that I, as a rape survivor, will be forever ruined by the worst few minutes of my life.

The myth about me is as degrading as the rape itself. The idea that every other achievement in my life could be erased by what some loser did suggests rape is almost unspeakably severe — or, more cruelly, that I wasn't worth much to begin with. This sexist illogic has allowed people to make bizarre allegations that I deserved rape, or that I liked it, or that it made me unworthy of love. Their cruelty has impeded my life — Hatred never ceases by hatred nearly as badly as the actual violation did.

But the myth about my rapist made my situation worse, too. The thing that could have healed me most — my attacker's acknowledgement and apology — was made less feasible by the entrenched idea that a rapist is an irredeemable pariah. If society had understood that my rapist could change, it would have created a logical demand for us to regard people who rape correctly, as rapists, rather than as hapless dudes imbued with undeserved, magical innocence despite their felonious violence. It would have created a demand for him to change and, more importantly — But by love alone is healed — an opening to offer a way to do that. Being honest and optimistic would have assuaged my pain, and it could have rid us all of a threat.

Believing rape is unstoppable, we make it so.

But it is stoppable. John has stopped.

Even with my own battle won, hearing him speak honestly made it clear how much easier things would have been if my own rapist had been that honest. In essence, John answered the question about how to eliminate rape: The solution is to face reality head on.

His presence implies not only a resolution to rape, but something more: a human capacity for transformation as vast and rich and little-known as the deep water below the cliff of that little rehab facility by the sea. This is an ancient and eternal law.

When I left Camp Joy, night had fallen. The road snaking downhill was as empty as the street below my apartment window had been in deep winter 2004. But if dark night seemed eternal then, all that endures now is my wish for an end to rape for everyone else.

Thank you, John, for the sense that we can do it.

M. Sophia Newman is a journalist who has reported from Bangladesh, India, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, and the US. South Africa is among her favorite places. For more of her work, see or follow @msophianewman.

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