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An open letter to the man who raped my wife

James Dankert

At about 10 a.m. on a weekday in mid-November, Bill sat down to write a letter. A steady rage had been burning inside him for a week, and this was the only way he could think to get it out.

Bill's mind was clear. He'd had his customary five cups of morning coffee, black. The kids were playing quietly. Bill touched his fingers to the keyboard of his computer.

You are a rapist, he wrote.

You drugged a woman. You drizzled your infection on her body with your small, pathetic tool. You did a woman who was nothing other than a warm corpse.

Bill imagined addressing the rapist directly, as if in that courtroom moment when a convicted criminal must hear from his victim's family. Tears dripped down Bill's cheeks as the words streamed out.

Big man, Bill wrote. Rapist.

He finished the letter in about 45 minutes. He sent it to a few friends. He let the letter sit for a few days. Then, on November 22, Bill sent the letter to City Pages.

 

NINE YEARS EARLIER, Bill's life had changed forever when a pretty blonde named Ella (names have been changed) walked into the Italian restaurant in Eden Prairie where he worked as a waiter. She wanted a job application. A week later, she was working as a hostess.

They had little in common. He was an uptight, self-conscious student at the University of Minnesota with dreams of becoming a big-time environmental lawyer. He spent far more time studying Spinoza than he did chasing tail. She was a party girl who wore skirts so short her panties showed when she reached for the oversized pepper mill. She spent her weekends with guys who went to motocross rallies and talked of engines and not much else.

She was also frequently high on meth. She hardly slept, staying up for days in crystal-induced cleaning frenzies.

One night when Bill was working, Ella came to the restaurant for dinner. Bill told her he'd gotten a scholarship and a new job. She said she had gotten a new job too, in a bank. They made plans to go out to celebrate later that week.

On a blustery December night in 1999, Bill pulled out all the stops. He took Ella to an expensive, cozy little place in the Warehouse District. He bribed their waiter ahead of time to have champagne waiting at their table (he wasn't yet 21). They talked about the poetry of Dylan Thomas.

After dinner, they walked into the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, where they cuddled under a blanket in the shadow of the Spoonbridge and Cherry. To Ella, the scene felt as if it were out of a movie.

A few weeks later on New Year's Eve, Bill left the restaurant at 11 p.m. and drove an hour and a half to meet Ella at a party at her brother's house a mile outside of New Prague. It wasn't his scene—too many mullets and too much cheap beer—but Ella was having a great time. She was one of only a handful of girls in a sea of country men, bopping around the party, amped on meth, chatting with everyone.

Bill had a couple of beers, got tired, and climbed into Ella's bed.

Ella was too high to sleep. She wrapped her arms around him and dug her fingers into his back. Her face pressed into his. Bill breathed in her smell.

"Promise me you'll never leave me," she said.

Bill inhaled. He felt as if Life itself—the force that drives the universe, that breathes being into every living thing, Life with a capital "L," as he thought of it—was speaking through her, to him.

"Ella," Bill said. "You don't understand. If I make that promise, it'll be you leaving me."

"Promise," she said.

He was her one chance, he thought. He was her one way out.

"Okay," he said. "I promise I'll never leave you."

Ella hugged him tight, for just a minute. Then she bounced back into the party.

 

ONE OF ELLA'S earliest memories is of her brother sticking his penis in her mouth and ejaculating while his little friends watched. He was nine and she was seven. She was so young that she didn't yet understand what the fluid was—she wondered why her brother was peeing in her mouth.

Ella's brother would take her to the attic, where they'd take off their clothes. He would tongue-kiss her and finger her in front of his friends. When they heard their parents come home, they'd dress hurriedly and scurry down the ladder.

At night, Ella, her brother, and their older sister would sit at the top of the stairs and listen to their alcoholic father sexually brutalizing their mother. They had no way of knowing whether her shrieks were part of some sick fetish or a nightly crime.

 

Ella's brother abruptly stopped molesting her when he reached junior high, shortly before their parents divorced.

A few years later, Ella's mother remarried. Ella spent the summer she was 12 with her mother and stepfather and his relatives in Indiana. Sex toys and porno magazines littered the house. Ella's stepfather kept saying that he wanted Ella, her mother, her sister, and him to pose for a Playboy ad. That summer, Ella's mother came downstairs in lingerie and showed her daughter her freshly shaved pubic area, as if the 12-year-old should be impressed.

Back in Minnesota, Ella's 18-year-old sister was getting married. The sister set 13-year-old Ella up with her fiancé's 18-year-old brother.

One afternoon, while they were hanging out at the mall with Ella's best friend, he asked Ella if she wanted to have sex.

"No," she said. "I'm not ready."

They left the mall and headed back to his place in his Dodge Aries, listening to Salt 'N Pepa's "Let's Talk About Sex." He took her into his bedroom and locked the door. He turned up MTV really loud, and Ella began to cry. Her best friend sat outside the bedroom door as Ella lost her virginity unwillingly. Later, Ella's friend told everyone at school about it and Ella became known as the school slut.

One night Ella started out drinking and playing cards with her sister and the men, and ended up in an orgy. Ella had sex with her brother-in-law and his brother while her sister looked on.

Another time, Ella's sister's husband picked Ella up to visit his wife at the hospital, where she had just delivered their second child. On the way there, they stopped to have sex. That time, it felt nice, Ella thought, to be desired.

By eighth grade, Ella was starting off her day with orange juice and vodka in a coffee mug. By ninth grade, she moved on to pot. Then opium, acid, mushrooms, and coke.

By the time Ella was 16, she'd had at least 100 sexual partners. She and her friend Danielle would pick up guys at the mall or the airport and go home and have sex with the men and each other. She kept track of the names in a little book.

In high school, Ella told the school counselor about the orgy with her in-laws. The men were convicted of committing sexual acts with a minor, Ella's sister of serving alcohol to a minor. Ella felt terrible about it. She even wrote a letter for each of their cases, saying that she had consented to the sexual acts. Ella's family blamed her for the convictions, and shamed her for telling. They treated her as if the whole thing—the orgy, the jail time, the family embarrassment—was all her fault.

Her junior year, Ella committed some minor offense and her father kicked her out. She ended up living with some of her brother's friends. One night, she and her friend Danielle consented to a three-way make-out session with one of the men. When he tried to have sex with Ella, she wanted to stop. He didn't listen. He raped her. Ella was 17.

Ella filed a criminal report. A few months later, she got subpoenaed to testify in another sexual assault case against him.

Ella graduated from high school and moved to Michigan to escape her family and drugs and her past, to start a new life, clean and different. While she was away, her assailant was convicted of sexually assaulting someone else. She didn't even have to testify. Ella felt good. She'd helped put an evil man behind bars, where he belonged.

 

THE NIGHT HE PROPOSED in her Richfield apartment, Bill wanted them naked—no fancy hair, no pretense, pure. He had this sense that she would strip him of his pompousness and posturing. He dropped to one knee and asked her simply. She said yes.

He was in love, but their differences drove him crazy. She would call him from parties, wired and chatty, at 3 a.m. One night a few months after they were engaged, he went with Ella to visit her meth dealer. The whole scene—tinfoil pipe, seedy motel, Ella dancing among a group of guys—disturbed Bill. He gave her an ultimatum. "It's me or meth," he said. She quit, cold turkey.

They had trouble with sex. The first time they tried, about six weeks into their relationship, they were naked in a hot tub where Ella was house-sitting. Bill went flaccid. He couldn't do it.

Bill had slept with seven or eight girls before Ella. He hated pornography—couldn't bring himself to watch it—because he felt it objectified women. He imagined himself as Hamlet to Ophelia. He'd spent the two years before he met Ella trying to memorize the play, line by poetic line.

 

At first, Bill was intimidated by Ella's experience—she'd had far more partners than he had. As their relationship continued, Ella was frustrated with his lack of aggression. She'd been drawn to him because he treated her as more than just a sex object, but his gentleness so annoyed her that she practically forced him to act like he was raping her. She wanted him to pull her hair and act like he was choking her—requests he found bizarre and refused.

They fought. Bill used big words and, when she didn't understand, told her to look them up in the dictionary. He was jealous of guys she spent time with, though she insisted they were just friends.

While they were engaged, Bill met someone else. His friends said the new girl was perfect for him. Bill spent long, solitary weekends in the country, thinking. Had he really heard Life speak? Was it possible that he'd heard wrong?

It was a question that haunted him all the way up to the wedding day, where the presence of a childhood pastor warmed his cold feet. On a lakeshore in Bloomington in June 2001, Bill and Ella married in a quiet ceremony attended by about 15 family members. Ella wore a long, silky, lavender dress; her stepfather dressed up in a ridiculous shiny purple tux that reminded Bill of Liberace. Bill wept through the wedding. He could hardly say his vows, trembling with doubt. But when they kissed, Bill relaxed. They were married. They'd done it.

They honeymooned for nine days in the Boundary Waters. Ella carried a pack on her back and another on her front and Bill carried their canoe over his head. They hiked along portage trails and paddled across lakes until they'd traveled 26 miles. They swam and went fly-fishing and talked. When it rained, Ella ran outside their tent, naked. When they swam, a fish nibbled at her belly ring. Ella kept a daily adventure journal. They felt at peace.

 

ELLA AND BILL began married life together in a little one-bedroom in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis. They did city things—plays and fancy dinners—but they continued to infuse their life with the country. They planted broccoli sprouts, wheat, potatoes, radishes, green beans, and carrots. Bill's mother taught Ella how to can vegetables and fruits. Ella made salsa, spaghetti sauce, apple butter, cucumber-carrot marmalade. She ordered peaches from Oregon and made jam.

The difficulties that had peppered their months of dating only intensified after their marriage. No matter how frequently they had sex, Ella wasn't satisfied. Bill's lack of aggression made her feel ugly and fat. She'd grown up in a family where sex was compulsory and crying was not allowed. She couldn't stand how emotional he was about everything.

Bill was jealous and possessive. Several months into their marriage, Ella began communicating frequently with a man named Paul, whom she'd slept with and gotten high with back in Michigan. Bill couldn't stand it. He'd call Ella on her work breaks and she'd already be on the phone with Paul. Ella went to Michigan to visit Paul several times. She assured Bill that she and Paul were just friends.

One afternoon, Bill made Ella so mad that she left and went to visit her sister. When she returned, she had the name and telephone number of a marriage counselor. "If I'm going to stay," she told Bill, "we need to go."

They started counseling in the summer of 2002. They fought terribly but also had fun. Nearly every other weekend they took a trip, retracing their honeymoon route, paddling on a river in South Dakota, reconnecting in the outdoors they both loved so much. They had fun and remembered why they'd fallen for each other in the first place.

Bill was finishing school, working, and taking the LSAT; Ella had a good job teaching corporate training courses to employees at a healthcare company. They saved enough money for a down payment on a home and were looking at properties out in Oregon. Bill had his eye on Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.

Then in fall 2002, a close friend of Bill's died, and Bill lost his job. He sank into a deep depression, dropped out of school, and sought refuge in alcohol and weed. Emotionally bereft, he depended on Ella for everything.

The sudden changes to their lives jolted them. It was time to stop being children, to really work on their marriage. They bought a house in the country, down south in Le Center. They went to the counselor. They worked hard at getting along.

On Thanksgiving Day 2003, they found out she was pregnant. Ella called their family members with the good news. Bill spent a day at the Whitewater River north of Rochester, marveling at the sparkling, silver-blue streams, the 50-foot cliffs, the trees that seemed to celebrate with him—overwhelmed at the thought of becoming a father.

 

Halfway through her pregnancy, Ella found out about an opening at her company's Iron Range office. She called Bill. Should she apply? "Go for it," he told her. A week later, she had the job.

They slapped a coat of paint on their Le Center home and sold it in six weeks. Ella's doctor didn't want her traveling much, so they drove up north and picked out their new home in half a day—a 40-acre property with a house, an oil furnace, and all the promise of the life they intended to create together. They moved in mid-June 2004, and six weeks later their son was born.

The property was a mess. During the first two summers, Bill spent every weekend cleaning the land. He hauled away 13 tons of garbage and 10 tons of scrap metal. He dug up the ground. He shoveled up two feet of melted tires and 50 pounds of used tampons. The third summer, he pored over the soil and picked out hundreds of shards of beer bottles and cigarette butts, so that his toddler son could walk barefoot.

The winters brought bitter conditions. Bill's eyes froze shut as he logged the woods to fuel the wood-burning stove they added to their home. They planted herbs, vegetables, strawberries, and raspberries; raised chickens; and sold their organic goods at the Ely farmers' market. They made plans to add honeybees, turkeys, a greenhouse, and dairy goats.

Five years passed, and they had a second baby, a girl. Bill cared for the kids while Ella worked, and she took over when she got home; he worked an online project-management job at night. They settled into a peaceful, quiet rhythm.

 

ON MONDAY, NOVEMBER 10, 2008, Ella came down to the Twin Cities for work. After her shift on Wednesday, November 12, she met up with a few co-workers at a bar in Eagan. There were five of them, two guys and three girls. She gossiped about work with the other women while the men played Big Buck Hunter.

Ella didn't know the people she was with very well, except for one: her co-worker Rick. She'd been his team leader and sat next to him for nearly a year when she worked in the cities. They both liked Chuck Palahniuk books like Fight Club and cheesy Jack Black movies.

Rick had visited their Iron Range home, met their children. Bill thought he was creepy. Rick wouldn't look Bill in the eye. Ella defended him. She thought he was a nice guy. A friend.

Ella was feeling kind of sexy in her calf-high boots, flowery blouse, and new jeans that made her butt look good. She had a few drinks: a couple of Captain and Cokes and some cherry bombs. Then, not wanting to get too drunk, she switched to water. She planned to drive home early the next morning.

At about 10 p.m., she walked into the bathroom. Bill called. She answered her cell from the stall.

"Hey," she slobbered to Bill. "What's goin' onnn?"

Bill was furious. They'd partied plenty together, but he'd never heard her so drunk.

"You're too fucked up to talk to," he told her.

"Don't let me go!" she said.

"No, I'm going to let you go."

He hung up on her.

Ella doesn't remember washing her hands or leaving the bathroom. She doesn't remember anything at all after the call.

She woke up the next morning in her hotel room in Eagan. Her naked body was folded over the end of the bed, her shoeless feet on the floor.

She looked at the clock. 6:20 a.m.

Ugh. Her right elbow hurt. Everything was confusing, foggy.

Her head fell back onto the mattress. She closed her eyes.

She woke again. 7:45. Shit. She was supposed to be at work by 8 a.m.

Ella pushed herself up. She walked to the mirror. Her left arm was bruised. Her right elbow was swollen. Her lip was fat and cut on the inside.

She dragged herself to the bathroom. When she wiped, there was blood on the toilet paper. Her rectum felt sore.

How did she get back to the hotel room?

Ella pulled herself together enough to pack up. Her suitcase was turned over, her clothes strewn about one of the twin beds.

She checked for her valuables: laptop, purse, car keys, cell phone. Nothing missing.

She shoved her belongings into her bag. She dressed, feeling dizzy.

Wait. Where was her second key card? She'd had two the night before. She couldn't find it.

She checked out and hurried to the parking lot. There was her car. How did it get there?

 

Ella called Bill. He was angry.

"How did you get home?" he demanded.

"I don't know," she said.

"How could you be so irresponsible?"

She drove herself to work. She sat through a morning session in a daze.

She checked her email. An angry one from Bill was waiting; she ignored it.

Her phone was dying. She instant-messaged her friend Amy at work. Could she bring a cell-phone charger after the session finished?

When Amy arrived, she was shocked at her friend's condition. "You look like shit," Amy said. "What the hell happened?"

"I don't know," Ella said. "I'm going to go sleep in my car."

No, she should lie in the company sickroom, Amy insisted. Ella's friend made her undress and looked at her bruises. Besides the elbow and arm bruises, handprint-shaped marks splotched the back of her thighs and down her legs.

Ella lay in the sickroom for a few hours, shaky, dizzy, sick.

"I just want to go home," Ella told Amy.

She got in her car and began to drive. It was cold but she was unbearably hot. She rolled down the window. She couldn't keep going. She pulled over in Forest Lake.

She called Bill. He didn't answer.

She called Amy. Could she come pick her up?

Ella called Bill again.

"I'm not feeling myself," she told him.

"Did you do any drugs last night?" He was getting worried.

"I don't know," she said. "I don't remember."

He told her to get to the hospital. Amy picked her up. They left Ella's car at the Wal-Mart parking lot in Forest Lake, and drove to the emergency room at Fairview Ridges in Burnsville.

Amy called Rick from the hospital. She asked him what had happened. He said he didn't know, he'd left Ella at the bar.

Ella saw a nurse. She told her what she could remember. When was it that she talked to Bill? She flipped open her cell phone to check, only to discover that all her text messages had been erased.

The nurse swabbed the outer and inner layers of Ella's vagina, in and around her rectum. She brushed a sample of Ella's pubic hair into an envelope. She took blood and urine and gave Ella a pregnancy test. Thankfully, it was negative.

The nurse told Ella it could take up to six months to get the rape kit back. If they found a DNA match—meaning if they already had it on file—they might be able to identify the man. If the DNA wasn't already on file, catching him would be unlikely.

While she waited, Amy called Rick again. She wanted to know how Ella got so bruised.

This time, Rick changed his story. He told Amy that he'd taken Ella back to the hotel. He said she'd fallen down while she was taking her boots off.

At the hospital, Ella's phone had died. Bill called for her on Amy's phone.

"Ella's with the SAFE nurse," Amy told him.

Bill panicked. He recognized the meaning of those words—SAFE is the acronym for Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner. His wife had been raped.

He called the hospital and got Ella's room.

"What happened?" he asked her.

"I don't know. I'm really scared," she said.

He got off the phone and sobbed. He sobbed for hours. He had some drinks.

Ella went home with Amy. She called Bill and said she wouldn't be coming home that night.

"Why didn't you tell me?" he asked her.

"I didn't want you to think I was dirty," she said.

 

ELLA ROAMED AROUND the house like a zombie for days. She lay in the fetal position under a blanket on the couch. She tried to interact normally with her kids, but when Bill asked her questions, her answers trailed off into the ether.

Bill wanted desperately to know the details of what had happened, but Ella didn't want to talk. They took a walk around the property; she walked silently ahead of him. It was as if she were alone. He was just there, watching her be alone.

A few hours after his wife got home on Friday, Bill followed a mentor's advice and called the Sexual Assault Program of Northern St. Louis County. "He was in shock," says the mentor. "He was angry."

The woman from the program said Ella's behavior was typical of someone who'd been drugged. The mental fog, the sick feeling—it all added up to a rape drug.

Bill tried to imagine the likeliest scenario: Rick took her home. She woke up naked, bloodied, and bruised.

How could this happen? Bill thought. Why had he hung up on her that night when she was so out of it in the bar? Why hadn't he listened when she said, "Don't let me go!"

 

Bill called the Range Mental Health Center. "My wife's been raped," he said, "and I'm going to need some help getting through this."

When they finally got around to unpacking her suitcase, Ella noticed that the jeans she'd worn that night were missing.

She talked to a co-worker who said she'd text-messaged her between 7 and 9:30 p.m. that night in Eagan. According to the co-worker, Ella's texts were full of misspellings. "It was hard to decipher what she had texted," the co-worker says.

Ella went to work on Monday. Rick instant-messaged her online.

"Are you okay?" he wrote.

"How did I get so bruised up?" she wrote back. "I don't remember anything. Do you think someone drugged me? Did you notice anything out of the ordinary?"

"No, nothing out of the ordinary," he wrote. "I don't remember anything either."

He wrote nothing more. Ella felt creeping suspicion rise up.

Bill steamed. Rick's story was changing. He'd told Amy on Friday that Ella fell down while taking off her boots. Now, on Monday, he said he didn't remember. Why wasn't he more concerned about her? Why didn't he ask what had happened to her?

Bill was certain Rick had raped his wife. He thought about sending him an email. "Oh, by the way, did you know Ella has AIDS?" he would tell him, just to make him panic.

Bill looked up Rick's criminal record: a conviction for disorderly conduct with a sentence that included a domestic abuse program.

Bill was obsessed. Rick had been to their house. He knew their kids. Would he try to take it all, now that he'd had his wife?

Bill fantasized about Rick dying a slow, painful death. The first time he'd killed a deer, Bill had held its heart in his hands until it stopped beating. He'd burned sage over it so that the animal's spirit would be released, as one of his Native American mentors had taught him to do. Then Bill buried the deer's heart so that no animals could get it.

Bill imagined slicing Rick's chest open. He'd pull out his heart and hold it—a rapist's heart—in his hands until it stopped beating. He wouldn't burn sage. Then he'd drop the bloody organ onto the ground and let the animals devour it.

 

ABOUT A WEEK after Ella got home, Bill was at the computer in the dining room when she put her hands on the countertop, looked down, and said, "I guess this is just my lot in life."

Bill snapped. He felt nothing but pure rage. His fist exploded against the wall above the computer. Their little boy's eyes widened and he ran to Ella. She bent down to hug him.

Bill went outside and fell down in the snow, barefoot, in his shirtsleeves. He screamed and sobbed. He raged so hard that he lost his voice for three days.

The rape was pushing them apart. Ella didn't want to think about it. She didn't want to talk about it. She just wanted to move on. Rick was supposed to be her friend. Was he really capable of rape? And even if he was, how would it help her to know? She'd just feel stupid for trusting him. Maybe she'd done something to provoke it. Besides, he was her co-worker. She had her family and income to think about.

She read a book, The Courage to Heal. She wrote in her journal. Just once, when she was writing, she got really angry. Bill was so happy to see her feel rage, but then it faded away.

When it began to seem like Ella might not prosecute, he wrote to City Pages. Soon after, she told him that she had spoken to a detective and could call him if she decided to seek charges.

One month after the rape, Ella initiated sex with Bill for the first time since the attack. At first it was great, but then it started to get methodical. Bill whispered into her ear.

"I love you," he said.

Ella began to cry. She pulled away and left the room. Bill followed and embraced her.

"Did I do something wrong?" he asked.

"No," she said. Her tears embarrassed her. She wanted to be alone.

The next day, Bill left a note for her behind the bathroom faucet: You are loved. He was proud of her, for feeling safe enough to cry.

 

EACH NIGHT after Ella lay down to sleep, the night of the rape haunted her. She played back the details she could recall, searching for clues. What was the last thing she remembered? Who was she talking to?

Ella couldn't bear the thought of facing a court battle. It could drag on for years. The jury might not believe her. Maybe they would label her a slut, or say she was to blame. She'd dealt with those reactions from her family for years. She'd been through all this before. She and Bill had worked so hard to create their life together. Did they really have to lay everything aside to focus on this disruption—on this rape?

 

No. She wanted to move on. Maybe it was better to just try to heal.

Ella called Bill to tell him her decision.

He yelled at her. She was talking psychobabble. She was channeling her therapist's clichés. If she didn't prosecute, the rapist would hurt other women. If she didn't prosecute, he would avenge the crime himself.

"You shouldn't make me feel guilty or bad for not prosecuting," she said.

She hung up in frustration.

Later, he sent her an email. He loved her and didn't want their marriage to end. "I believe I too quickly wrote off the cliché from your therapist," he wrote, "and I apologize for it."

Several days before Christmas—about five weeks after that dreadful November night—Ella had a dream. In it, her assailant raped another girl. Ella could see the rapist, but she couldn't make out his face. In her dream, the girl died.

Maybe the dream was a sign.

Ella called and told Bill that she'd lied to him. She hadn't talked to detectives. She'd never filed a police report.

He said he'd already known. She'd always been a terrible liar.

  

WHEN THEY HAD MOVED to the Iron Range, Bill had seen his role so clearly. He was husband, father, and protector. His job was to keep his family safe.

The rape changed everything, and changed nothing.

He would love her. He would honor her. He would relinquish his desperate need to control her. And that meant that he would support her, even as she let the rapist go free.

We take strength at how pathetic you are that to have a woman, you have to rape a woman, you have to drug a woman.

We know with blazing truth the strength of true hearts and unshakeable courage. That is what we have, and what you never will now, coward.

We take the strength of confidence and honor.

The strength of family.

The strength of children.

The strength of marriage.

The strength of Love.

With honor and courage

—A Real Man.


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