In the courtyard of my home, in a piece of Mexican pottery, sits a tree. It wasn’t a tree when I got it. It was a little plant, just one of several I received in 1993 as a thank-you gift. During the past 20 years, I’ve kept it alive (sometimes just barely), through tremendous life upheavals that necessitated getting rid of lots of other stuff, including family heirlooms. It’s amazing how easy it becomes to purge possessions when you’re forced to move frequently. But not this tree. For me, it’s a talisman of strength, of a woman whose courage I’ll never forget.
It’s Cherie’s tree.
I met Cherie (not her real name) while doing victim advocacy work for a local non-profit. She was about 40, married, with three children. And she was obsessed with finding her rapist.
Many years before, Cherie was raped late at night her own bed. The assailant struck while she was sleeping, covering her face and then assaulting her. In a split second, however, she saw his face. It was imprinted in her mind like a particularly grotesque tattoo. It never went away.
In America, we’re urged to “get past,” “get over,” to “forgive” “overcome tragedy,” to “Let go and let God.” Cherie tried all this. It never worked. The depth of the violation wouldn’t allow her to put the past in a locked box. She was determined to find justice.
By the time Cherie walked into my office, she had been visiting police stations for years. Week after week, she perused books of mug shots. She knew she’d find him. I’m sure the cops thought she was crazy. They encouraged her to get on with her life. That is, until she saw his picture one day.
Sometimes you get to witness extraordinary events and this was one of them. I accompanied Cherie to the trial. Blessed with a loving family, she was surrounded by supporters in the courtroom. She testified despite what we do to rape victims, despite any suggestion that the ensuing years might have dulled her memory. She was sharp and dignified.
By the time the suspect took the stand in his own defense, I knew Cherie was fine. I stayed because I just couldn’t leave. I sat there, transfixed. He was a nondescript guy, not terribly bright. It took all of five minutes for him to confess to Cherie’s rape. Sighs of relief dominated. But then this man went to say that not only had he raped Cherie, he’d also assaulted several other women. Turns out he was responsible for a number of unsolved rape cases and it was only through Cherie’s tenacity that he was stopped. Needless to say, he was sent away for a very long time, while Cherie was set free.
I’ve never kept up with Cherie, so she doesn’t know I still have her gift. She doesn’t know that the real gift goes far beyond a terrarium filled with houseplants. She taught me that sometimes you must press on, no matter how difficult, no matter how much others press upon you to stop. You must press on until your soul tells you to stop.
Guest contributor Diane D’Angelo is Phoenix-based (by way of Detroit)writer and longtime activist. The former chair of the city’s Human Relations Commission, she has blogged for Huffington Post, Elephant Journal and Voices of Arizona. She is grateful to Natalie Goldberg for setting her free to write. Diane is old enough to remember when “liberal” wasn’t a dirty word and “feminist” had nothing to do with party affiliation.