Many people are tuned into the evolving case of the Golden State Killer, known locally in Sacramento as the East Area Rapist, who terrorized dozens of California women in the 1970s and ‘80s. But experts say that for survivors of sexual abuse, this is much more than a fascinating story.
Jaime Gerigk is the director of counseling and outreach at Women Escaping A Violent Environment, or WEAVE, a Sacramento resource center for survivors of sexual assault. We asked her how high-profile cases can force those who’ve been through sexual trauma to relive their experiences.
What might survivors of sexual assault be experiencing as the case of the East Area Rapist unfolds?
Gerigk: This triggers memories of the sexual assault that occurred. So oftentimes when news stories that come out about sexual assault, sexual harassment, people are triggered, and they often can relive the traumatic experiences even if they were years ago. It can feel like the sexual assault just happened.
There’s of course a sense of relief, and there’s this sense of accountability that someone who committed these crimes is being held accountable. But it also, for survivors often times it becomes a time where you start to relive what happened to you. … There might be things that occur like depression, maybe nightmares, sleeping problems, eating problems, anxiety. So it’s important for survivors to reach out for help and support if they need to talk to someone.
How much of an uptick have you seen in demand for services this week?
When you hear about news stories about sexual assault or domestic violence, if you’ve experienced it, it brings up those memories of your own experiences … so they’re going to our website, looking at our services, searching for information. We definitely get more folks who are reaching out.
These crimes were committed several decades ago. How do events of the past affect survivors over time?
When you experience trauma, the healing is a process. It’s not something that just goes away. We learn how to move on with life and do our day to day activities, but it’s always there. And some times are harder than other times. So for survivors, things like the anniversary of the assault can be a trigger, or maybe a news story like this.
People can sometimes feel anxiety or depression around that or just be really frustrated and scared and fearful and think, ‘Oh gosh I thought I was over this, this was years ago,’ and yet that’s just part of the healing process. When you’ve experienced trauma, it’s a lifelong process to heal. And there are times that are easier than others.
What are some do’s and don’ts for talking about the East Area Rapist case?
I know folks are curious and they’re wanting more information and to learn more about what happened, but we have to be really careful … We have to remember the survivors in the story, and know that human beings are impacted, and it’s not just about trying to get the most details. We also have to think about who was hurt by this and how can we help support them now.
How can survivors cope when headlines feel overwhelming?
You have to look at yourself and see what coping mechanisms work for you. Maybe that’s reaching out to friends and family, maybe that’s exercising, maybe that’s journaling, maybe it’s going and seeing your counselor or seeing a counselor for the first time. In every county in California there’s a rape crisis center, and we are here for support 24/7. Sexual assault survivors often feel a lot of shame and blame, and they often feel very alone. And it’s important at this time to remember that it’s not your fault, and you’re not alone, and that there is support out there for you.