Book sheds light on the silence surrounding sexual violence

“Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid,” is the self-lacerating mantra that Joanna Connors plays in her head. Her non-fiction account of her own rape— and of her search for the life and history of her rapist—is filled with an unrelenting honesty about sexual violence, race in America, and the realities of incarceration and poverty. This is not a memoir of survival or an uplifting story of the spirit overcoming the life-denying degradations of violence and misery. It’s much more of a journalistic exploration of the consequences of brutal poverty and hopelessness. And the consequences of being raped.

The last words Connors’ rapist, David Francis, says to her are, “When I get out, I will find you.” The rape took place in 1984, and many years later—after much often ineffective therapy—Connors decides to turn his words back upon him. She sets out to find David Francis, and “I Will Find You” uses all of Connors journalistic skills (she was and remained a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer) to uncover Francis’s miserable life.

But we’re denied the dramatic moment of Connors’s confrontation with her rapist because we quickly learn that he died in prison in 2000. Instead, Connors delves into his childhood and finds, unsurprisingly, a horror show. The litany of abuse David Francis suffered— largely at the hands of his 500 pound father—is difficult to read. In an interview with Connors, his brother Phillip wonders, “what did we do wrong to deserve such a tragic life?”

Tragedy, murder, infanticide, rape, domestic violence, starvation are all the realities of the Francis family history.

Still, Connors has no interest in forgiving David Francis for his brutality. “I wanted to write about my rape in detail,” Connors writes, “…to show that rape is not what most people imagine it is from watching movies.” The offhand manner in which some films and television use rape—often as barely masked titillation that tries to claim it as horror while at the same time sexualizing the experience (the awful use of rape in “Game of Thrones” is the most obvious example) —is exposed by Connors’s dry, factual account of viciousness.

It is no surprise that Connors is haunted by the experience, but the most insidious aspect is the shame and self-blame she feels to her core, despite knowing that these feelings are not logical. But it’s hard to fight thousands of years of culture that blames women for the violence men inflict upon them. From the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (1780 BC) to the schizophrenic codes of Jim Crow America, women have always been implicated in the crime— often treated as the ruined property of husbands and thus killed for the crime of being raped.

It is also very different for Joanna Connors to know she might have done a few things differently, in hindsight, to protect herself, than it is for a culture to vilify her for her perceived missteps. Even her lawyer, who she grows to despise, accuses her of some unnameable crime by asking, “Why the hell did you go in that theater?” Connors was raped when she arrived late for an interview at a college theater. The only person there was Francis, who soon lured her into a backstage area and kept her there for over an hour of torture.

I wanted to write about my rape in detail… to show that rape is not what most people imagine it is from watching movies.

Even as she knows that her lawyer’s question is filled with the misdirected history of blaming women, Connors wants to know why she ignored her own tingling sense of danger and went with Francis when he said he wanted to show her the work he had done on the set. Her unflinching answer is uncomfortable. Connors is white; Francis black, and Connors refused to assume that a black man was a danger to her even though she was growing aware that this black man meant to do her harm. The paralyzing moment, what James Baldwin calls “that panic-stricken vacuum in which black and white, for the most part, meet in this country” let her enter the space. Her inability to act based on the individual in front of her is a complicated racism all its own, and Connors deserves much credit for making it a public discussion.

The only surviving member of Francis’s immediate family is his sister Charlene, and she is the source of much of the retelling of the family history. But Charlene has her own history of being raped (according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 17.8% of American women have been raped or had an attempted rape inflicted upon them), and the shared experience with Connors is some of the most powerful writing in the book. Charlene is no hero (her infant daughter died in a fire she started) but her survival through extreme violence and poverty is remarkable.

“I Will Find You” is not easy reading, but it is necessary reading for a culture that seems unable to talk reasonably and openly about sexual violence.

Connors eventually realizes that her rape did not just happen to her—it deeply changed her entire family—and if we continue to isolate women who have been raped we will continue the silence around it. Read this book, talk about it. You might create a public space for others to talk about what has happened to them. !