Photography by RICH-JOSEPH FACUN
They left in paper scrubs; that was what upset Rosemary Trible, that in this moment of violation, when dignity had been ripped away, after stirrups and specula and having to relive the trauma for police officers and detectives, doctors and nurses, these victims of rape rustled out the door in scratchy paper pants that made them look like Smurfs.
Still in fear, still trying to figure out what they had done, where they had gone wrong, what they shouldn’t have worn, what they should have said, they were forced to face the world without even a decent set of clothes.
That, at the very least, had to change.
In 2011 Trible founded Fear2Freedom, a global nonprofit that raises awareness and works with those hurt by sexual assault. In the past five years the organization has partnered with more than 15 universities and 32 hospitals to give out more than 9,000 F2F Kits, packages for rape victims that contain, among other things, a change of clothes and a toiletry kit.
But solving practical issues is only a part of F2F’s ministry. The organization’s larger goal is to change the way people respond to sexual assault – to show victims, and the people who love them, that things will be OK. Maybe not now. But eventually.
That little bit of wisdom was something that took Trible a long time to learn.
It was just before Christmas 1975. She was 25 years old, four years into her marriage with Paul Trible, who would go on to become a U.S. congressman, and then senator, and eventually president of Christopher Newport University.
They were living in Tappahannock and she was making the hour-long drive to Richmond most days to do Rosemary’s Guestbook, a talk show hosted by a woman – itself a relatively rare thing during the 1970s. Her topics trended light, toward church fundraisers and innovative cooking, but once a week she would go after something meaty.
She’d recently brought on a police officer, a commonwealth’s attorney and two victims of sexual assault – this in an era when it was discussed in whispers, if at all. The faces of the victims were shadowed from the audience. Afterward the station was deluged with telephone calls. “That happened to me,” they said. “Thank you for bringing it to the light.”
Trible scheduled a stack of interviews, planning to record episodes of the usually live show so that she could take a few days off for the holidays. She decided to stay in Richmond one night, click-clacking away on her Underwood typewriter so that she could begin work early the next morning.
Late that evening she walked down to the hotel lobby for coffee, then returned to her room. That’s when the man leapt out from behind the curtain, closed a hand around her throat, pressed a gun to her temple and said, “OK, cute talk show host, what do you do with a gun to your head?”
The man was furious at the women on the show, at the attorney and at Trible, for daring to discuss the topic in public.
He raped her. Trible prayed for her own survival. She tried logic, but that just made him angrier. She pleaded and prayed, chanting the Lord’s Prayer to keep from going into shock.
Her attacker wore gloves and a mask, and when he was done he dragged her to a window that overlooked the parking garage. There was a driver in a getaway car. Before the rapist left he said, “I know where you live and I’ll kill you if you tell.”
Trible told anyway. She called security and they called police. She called Paul, who jumped into the car and drove to her side. A female officer took her to the hospital and the police station. When Paul finally arrived she said, “Hold me.” And he did.
She woke up the next morning terrified that if she didn’t show up on-screen her attacker would know she had told, putting her in even more danger.
The camera lights came on and she turned on her smile, but at the end of the hour she fell into Paul’s arms, crying, and her station manager told her to go home.
That weekend the Tribles held a Christmas party for nearly 100 people. She maintained her cheerful façade, even though she felt sullied and ashamed. It was even tougher at work, where for three months she played her role dutifully, frightened the entire time that her attacker would return. Finally she quit.
“I’ve lost Rosemary,” she told her station manager. “I have to go find her.”
Rosemary Trible had been a hugger, a person who trusted strangers. Now an ice wall protected her. “He not only tore my body,” she says, “he stole my joy.”
Paul was the commonwealth’s attorney for Essex County at the time. He and the police did everything they could to find her attacker. They failed. Her best friend came to support her as she campaigned beside her husband. A few months later Paul won a seat in Congress, and Rosemary took her performance to Washington.
What saved her was discovering that she was pregnant with their first child, which gave her a reason to live. Four years later she had their second.
Along the way she found opportunities to meet, and help, other survivors. She opened her home to their grief, went with them to the hospital. Mostly she listened, intently, her hand on their forearm for comfort.
But still, she kept her secret. “I didn’t tell others publicly about it,” she says. “One of the hardest things was keeping it inside.”
She began to meet with three other congressional wives, who became her “elephants.” That’s her analogy: If an elephant is shot alone, it will fall down and die. But one shot in a herd can survive because two other females will stand tight and hold it up until it heals.
“I cannot overstate the importance of having people who will walk alongside and allow you to express the pain rather than hold it inside,” Trible says. “Silence is the greatest friend of rape, and the enemy of healing.”
When Paul took the job as president of Christopher Newport in 1996 she carried her open door policy to the president’s home. Students knew they could call her, that she would come. One was assaulted during her sophomore year at the college, and for three years Trible remained her confidant and friend. This year Trible stood up in that student’s wedding.
“It has been my privilege for 40 years to walk with people who have been assaulted,” she says.
On her trips with victims to Riverside Regional Medical Center, Trible saw that victims’ clothing was often taken as evidence and that unless she took along a spare T-shirt, a pair of sweats, they would leave in paper scrubs.
Her practical solution to that one indignity started her on the path to a new ministry. In 2011 she founded Fear2Freedom, which provides help that is both practical and emotional. Along with the F2F Kits, the organization holds what Trible calls Celebrations – nights of free food, live music and survivors telling their stories.
Joe Belsterling, 23, happened upon one of those celebrations, and as he packed his kit he shared with an intern his own story. He had been sexually, emotionally and psychologically abused at 5 and 6 years old. Now Belsterling tells his story at F2F events.
“I’m trying to carry the message as far as I can,” he says, “to use the pain I’ve been through to show people that they can come through stronger, that what they went through can give them power to make positive change.”
He wants to move people away from the focus on vengeance and help them understand what will really help victims heal.
“The only thing that has made me whole again is accepting love from other people and loving myself,” he says. “Love needs to come first.”
So he started talking. Often and openly. His friends said, “Tone it down, you’re intimidating people,” and he laughed. “The thing is … at 3 in the morning they’re calling me, because they know it’s safe. That’s the power of de-stigmatizing it.”
One of the more powerful stories at these events is about a stuffed animal. The Freedom Bear is a custom-designed teddy bear with a hole where its heart should be. It comes with a story book that tells of the Christopher Newport student who at age 7 was having a tea party with her bear in the family’s backyard, her parents mowing and gardening out front, when a teenager came into the yard, dashed the girl’s bear against the fence and assaulted her.
The girl and her mother couldn’t sew up the hole in the bear’s chest, so the mother taught her daughter to write about her sadness and fears on pieces of paper and tuck them into the bear’s heart. It helped her heal.
“At that crisis moment we’re all children,” Trible tells audiences. “The bear says ‘I want to help you heal.’ It says ‘It’s not your fault, you didn’t deserve this pain, you’re not alone.’ ”
The bear comes with a backpack filled with slips of rice paper. Victims are encouraged to write about their fears, tuck the paper into the bear’s heart, and pull it out later and put it into water, where it dissolves.
“It symbolizes that you don’t have to suffer with it forever,” Trible says.
She gets students to pledge to be the change, to restore the joy. Then the music comes up and chatter begins as hundreds of students line up to fill the boxes with practical items – but also with love. They write personal messages on cards, like “You’re brave,” or “One person hurt you but there are a lot more people out here who love and support you.” They load the boxes into ambulances and sometimes walk behind them all the way to the hospital.
“The impact of it has been incredible,” says Beth Walters, a forensic nurse at Riverside. Victims have been through hours of interviews and exams. They’re exhausted, and when they’re given the box their eyes light up.
“When they read the note it’s very moving,” she says. “It gives them that first ounce of empowerment, like ‘Right now I know I’m in trauma but one day maybe I can turn this around for the better.’ ”
Trible runs programs at Virginia Commonwealth University, Washington & Lee, the University of Virginia, Tidewater Community College, James Madison University, Old Dominion University and Liberty University, among others.
The organization has sent kits to Cambodia, Peru, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Thailand. Each kit costs $30, funded by private donations, foundations and grants.
Jessica Biersack, now 36, got one. Not on the night a man dragged her behind a Virginia Beach shed, raped and beat her and left her naked, her jaw broken, a tooth gone. But later, when she went to the YWCA for a group counseling session. “What size are you?” a counselor asked, and brought her a box.
“I was really floored,” Biersack says. “I didn’t expect them to bring out this nice big box with presents in it. That night I went through it and just cried and cried, I was so enchanted by everything that was in there. It made a big difference in my healing process.”
She took her Freedom Bear to work with her. What she loved the most, though, was the handwritten card, which she framed and still keeps on her desk. “Despite what has happened to you, you are a strong person and you can overcome this,” it reads. “People love you and support you no matter what has happened to you.” It is signed by Allie, a woman Biersack has never met, and still it gives her hope.
Four years ago Trible added another celebration to the schedule, one she refers to as “The Shadow Event.” More than 1,000 Christopher Newport students listened as eight or nine students told their own stories of
survival, some for the first time. They spoke from behind screens backlit with different colors.
Audience members were given pieces of paper of corresponding colors. When they were moved, they wrote notes. “I never knew it could happen to a guy.” “Thank you for opening my eyes.”
The notes were gathered and given to the speakers, who opened them over the following weeks, one at a time. It is healing, to hear that strangers think you matter, that they send love even after you go
public with your greatest pain.
There were school counselors in the audience and a therapist backstage who offered support before the victims talked and comfort for them afterward.
“It is such a powerful and emotional and touching event,” says Mary Frances Parrish, a licensed clinical counselor with CNU’s office of counseling services. “To see that people are surviving, so that if you’re a victim or a friend or family member of a victim you can see that you don’t have to worry that they’ll never recover. It’s possible. Having Rosemary up there, unafraid to tell her story, has an immeasurable impact on these students and young survivors.”
It gives them faith. Faith that with time, and love, there is a way through. And ultimately, that is what Trible is: a woman of great faith. She has worked alongside Mother Teresa and later knelt beside her wheelchair.
She asked the nun how she could make a difference in the world, and Mother Teresa told her to go home and “love the person in front of you.”
“I realized the thing I could do is to help the person who is broken-hearted to find healing and to find her joy after it’s been stolen.”
Initially published in DISTINCTION, May 26, 2016