In a Sacramento County courtroom earlier this week, Sandy James talked about the justice her sister Debbie Strauss never got.
“It saddens me to my core that my sister was not here to witness [Joseph] DeAngelo’s capture and incarceration,” she said of the confessed Golden State Killer. “After many decades of suffering, witnessing his capture and meeting so many other victims and survivors would have been incredibly healing for Debbie.”
James is one of the many loved ones who showed up in court this week to confront Joseph DeAngelo, also known as the East Area Rapist and Original Night Stalker, on behalf of his victims. Earlier this summer, DeAngelo pleaded guilty to 13 murders. He’s also admitted to dozens of rapes and abductions, many of which have passed California’s statute of limitations.
Strauss carried the trauma of being raped by DeAngelo for decades before eventually dying of cancer in 2016, James said.
“Debbie lived with constant fear,” she said. “Always wondering: Was he living nearby? Was he in her grocery store? Was he at the concert? The theme park? Parties? The movie theatre? Where was this monster?”
That feeling of constant anxiety, stemming from the loss of a sense of safety, is something many sexual assault survivors grapple with for their entire lives, according to Jamie Gerigk, director of counseling and outreach for WEAVE, Sacramento’s rape crisis center.
“For most survivors, it is just a lifelong process of healing,” she said. “For many survivors there isn’t something called closure. … It’s just a process of learning that it’s OK to not be OK today.”
Most sexual assault survivors do not get their day in court. For every 1,000 sexual assaults reported in the United States, fewer than five rapists will be incarcerated, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network’s analysis of federal criminal justice data. And many survivors who report to law enforcement say the process does not help them heal.
CapRadio asked Gerigk about trauma, closure and following the DeAngelo trial
On how sexual assault survivors may be impacted by the trial
“It definitely can be retriggering for people to hear the stories. But this part of the process can also be quite healing as survivors have an opportunity to hold their assailant accountable, being able to say out loud what the impact was and how long-lasting and pervasive the impact was to themselves and their families. And that piece can be quite empowering.”
On the trauma DeAngelo’s victims may have experienced
“Complete fear, loss of control, not knowing who the perpetrator was, not having a face for that, and just the impact on themselves personally and in relationships. Just dealing with things like depression and anxiety related to a sexual assault. It’s a lifelong process, healing from a sexual assault, it’s a lifechanging event. … But what this stage in the criminal justice process does is it gives a voice to survivors, so they can share what that impact was, and that’s pretty huge.
“Just to witness this, survivors being with other survivors who know how you feel without even having to say a word, that's what's important here. It's very validating. This process of healing after a sexual assault can be so isolating, and you feel often so alone.”
On the loss of a sense of safety
“There's a whole continuum of sexual assaults. It could be a stranger, it could be someone you know and trust. It could be an acquaintance. Whoever is the perpetrator in that case, your sense of safety gets completely shaken up. Your world gets turned upside down. You feel like you have loss of control in your life, and for those moments, your life was in someone else's hands … and so your sense of safety within yourself, but also within the world, is completely shaken up.
“It will look different for every survivor. But that sense of safety does have to get rebuilt over time. And there will always be times in that process, because it is lifelong, where it gets shaken up a bit. And so we just do what we need to do to try and build that safety again. So that might be with the relationships that we're in, you know, making sure that the relationships that we have are healthy. It might have to do with boundaries, with friends and family, or boundaries around strangers, boundaries around your home and what feels safe and what doesn't feel safe. So that is really different for everyone. But it's a little by little, step by step, and it takes time.”
On when closure doesn’t happen
“Many victims don’t get the chance to face their assailants. Many don't report to law enforcement after a sexual assault for a variety of reasons. And then even when they do, to come out on the other end where you're where you're able to hold that assailant accountable and provide a victim impact statement, it seems pretty rare. … And so even for folks who do get to confront their perpetrator or assailant and share with them the hurt and pain that they've caused … that doesn't necessarily mean closure either. Healing is really a process, not a product. And it goes in waves and survivors just learn what they need to do to cope. And so if that means checking the locks and windows every night before bed, that's what that means … And there are times when you have nightmares or flashbacks. And then you learn how to cope with them.”
On how survivors cope
“For all survivors, that looks different. It could be something like therapy. It could be art. It could be some other kind of creative outlet. It could be talking with friends and family who are supportive of you, exercising. It really looks different for everyone. I think the most important thing we can do as a community is just wrap our arms around survivors in terms of support and being non-judgmental in terms of that lifelong process of healing. I think one of the most hurtful things we can do as a community is to have this thought or feeling or even say to a survivor to ‘get over it’ or ‘this is in the past’. … It's really a very hurtful and painful comment to make. And it's just not understanding of the impact, how long-lasting and pervasive the impact of sexual assault is on someone's life.”
On talking to survivors about the trial
“It depends on your relationship with the person, to be honest. It really is OK to say to someone, ‘Hey, how are you doing? Are you doing OK? What's going on for you right now?’ It's really important in giving someone the space, the safe space to be able to share with you. And then if they do share being able to hold that, hold that pain, instead of trying to shut it down by saying ‘you're going to be OK’ or ‘this will all be over soon’, you know, just listening.
“It's similar to any kind of thing related to grief and loss. I think when we don't ask someone how they're doing or if they're doing OK, that's more about our own discomfort around what the response might be. So if we're really focused on that person that we care about, we're going to open up that safe space so that they can share what's really going on for them.”
WEAVE runs a 24/7 crisis line: 916-920-2952
You can also chat with a counselor online by visiting WEAVEinc.org
CapRadio provides a trusted source of news because of you. As a nonprofit organization, donations from people like you sustain the journalism that allows us to discover stories that are important to our audience. If you believe in what we do and support our mission, please donate today.