Michelle Bowdler


The Surprise that Surprises No One


For me, it begins with this story.  I return to it every time there is yet another national conversation on sexual assault and wonder if or when anything will change.  Twenty years after a violent home invasion so terrifying I could barely function until I could again, the memories returned.  This return stunned my nervous system and in spite of the blessings of a wonderful family, friends and career, I spent many a day feeling that there was still a knife at my throat.  I got help – fortunate to live in Boston where some of the best trauma experts practice – and began to understand I was not alone.  Unprocessed memories too overwhelming to feel at a moment of terror have to go somewhere.  Think of it like a cancer that goes into remission – not ever truly disappearing, but lying in wait, finding a way to pop up at the most inopportune time.

What I also came to understand, though, is that responses to trauma are not simply cellular, but contain an enormous social and cultural component.  While old memories flooded my nervous system, I worked at a university in a leadership position when college’s response to sexual assault survivors became front page news.  I saw young women and men suffering both from their experiences with sexual violation as well as the secondary pain of being disbelieved, shunned from friend groups, and unable to complete their studies.   At about the same time, I read that Massachusetts had thousands of untested DNA samples in their state crime lab going back as far as the mid-1980s, and wondered about my unsolved case.  Then, I read further that there were untested, abandoned rape kits everywhere.

And I got busy, very busy – to feel better, to learn about my case as well how and why so much rape evidence simply sat untouched.  What does that fact tell society about this felony crime and can looking at this information critically help victims who wonder and wonder still why they feel so alone and unseen.



Somewhere in the city of Detroit sat an abandoned warehouse.  Birds flew in and out of open windows, the floor littered with stray feathers and rat droppings.  Long ago, its thermostat broke and what lay stored inside became subject to temperatures that sweltered past 100 degrees in summer, and dropped below freezing in the cold Michigan winter.  Inside the building sat boxes stacked from floor to ceiling, filled with forensic evidence.  Over 11,000 untested rape kits were discovered there just a few years back, each representing a person who on one of the worst days of their lives submitted to a multi-hour intrusive physical exam hoping it might help identify their rapist. For the eleven thousand human beings that each one of those uninvestigated cases represented, no call ever came.   Worse still, when the city finally began to go through these old evidence kits, they found matches to serial rapes that would have been prevented had they tested them sooner.

What happened in Detroit was no anomaly; human rights groups identified cities that ignored rape evidence over decades – Dallas, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Memphis, Las Vegas, Houston, Milwaukee, New York City, and dozens more.  Estimates of close to half a million evidence kits that held DNA of violent criminals simply had never been tested.  They were disregarded, shelved, and left behind.

We must not lose sight of how those kits came to be, gathered from the private folds and spaces of women whose bodies themselves had been transformed into crime scenes.  These women went through this procedure, many still in a state of shock, most likely expecting that the evidence collected be used in the service of identifying and convicting the perpetrator who committed unimaginable violence on their person.  The hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits existed because hundreds of thousands of individual victims agreed to submit to a procedure consisting of head and pubic hair combing; vaginal, anal, and oral swabbing and retrieval of saliva, blood samples and fingernail clippings, taken carefully under a bright light of an emergency room by strangers, following a violation that defines vulnerability.   They would have had internal exam performed.  They may have had blood drawn for a pregnancy test done, been given medicines to prevent sexually transmitted infections; and had pictures taken to document bruising.  These victims could have stayed home, choosing instead to be comforted by someone they felt safe with.  But they did not.  They went to the hospital and had this procedure done for a reason.  Try to imagine years or decades later learning that absolutely nothing had been done with your rape kit except to treat it like useless trash.  Some cities stored them untouched for years, some decades.  Others held onto them for a while, and then threw them away as unsolvable cold cases, as if the aging evidence became useless all on its own.

As each of hundreds of thousands of rape survivors tried to rebuild her life with no news, the question of whether she would ever learn more about the crime that had ravaged her body and soul went unanswered.  Like Detroit, when other cities began attending to their untested kits, rapists were identified, but often the statute of limitations had passed and prosecution was no longer possible.

The most recent wave of news about sexual assault, harassment, and abuse of power along with the perpetrators’ weak apologies and promises to get help, is simply put, more of the same.   The list of famous men — along with everyday men – who experience no consequences for their crimes is beyond common place.  It is the rule rather than the exception.   What is certain is that they almost always walk away from the accusations with far fewer scars to life and liberty than those they hurt.  Just ask the current occupant of the White House.

We know this: rape is the most under reported felony and the least successfully prosecuted.  Only about six out of 1,000 rapes will lead to incarceration (RAINN).  Victims are routinely disbelieved and our pleas – first for the rapist to stop and then for law enforcement to seek justice – are ignored.  So how do rape victims survive in this environment when everywhere around us, there are conclusions to be drawn that what we went through matters to no one?

Rape in this country is not treated as a crime of brutal violence but as a parlor game:  his word against hers, regret sex, revenge against a scorned lover.  It a game of it didn’t happen; she’s unstable and everyone knows it; she just wants attention or maybe money; she wants to destroy his life; she is part of a well-crafted political conspiracy to discredit.  It might be laughable if it didn’t work so much of the time.

Given all this, it seems fair to ask whether rape is actually a crime.

Studies estimate that maybe 2-10% of rape claims are found to be either false or baseless (NCVRC).  But, we must ask what that means, exactly.  Who decides what is false or baseless?  I’m guessing it’s some of the same people who put hundreds of thousands of rape kits in warehouses and police lockers and never look back.  If you have ever had a rape kit done or tried to report a rape to the police, you understand it is no one’s idea of a good time.  Describing in detail sexual humiliation and unimaginable violence is not something a human being would choose to do if they had any other option.   And yet, the fact that we even have the phrase in our vernacular he said-she said — as if it’s as likely as not that a woman would lie about sexual violation — is itself telling about where this crime lives in our culture.

As my wife once said to me on a day my own intractable memories grabbed me hard, “You aren’t crazy; what happened to you is crazy.”  Despite all the facts that could lead me to conclude otherwise, I have to believe change is possible. I have to believe that this time, a reckoning toward justice will occur.  Otherwise, it is simply too crushing.

This is why I will tell the story of the Detroit warehouse, the hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits nationally and my own story repeatedly, way past when it seems the saturation point must surely have been reached.  We must try to help nudge the needle in our flawed world and the world doesn’t make it easy.  Every voice that refuses to be silent — whether it’s a day, a month or over thirty years past the moment they were victimized – tells us so much more than the violence done to them.  It tells us about the world we live in where freedom is a concept given only to a select few and that our bodies and the right to their sovereignty is not yet secured.