Disclaimer: I attended this event out of curiosity; as a woman, as a journalist, as a concerned citizen. I read Brenda’s story in November 2014 when John Canzano, sports columnist for The Oregonian, told her story to the public for the first time since her 1998 attack. I remember reading the story and feeling immense empathy for her as another human being, and at the same time, feeling overwhelming anger towards the people and procedures that stopped her from getting justice. I jumped at the opportunity to hear her talk.
The night I came home from hearing Brenda I had a flurry of emotions I didn’t expect to have. I didn’t sleep well and I woke up with her words on my mind. I had never heard someone speak so candidly, so detailed about a rape—a brutal, violent, horrific attack. I had never been exposed to such an ugly truth—not in all the articles I have ever read about anyone’s experience being raped. I started questioning my role as a journalist. I started questioning how as an industry we treat rape stories like sensitive subjects in which we need to edit out the ugly parts. We do this because by filtering out the details it makes it easier for people to stomach. But, to me, the concept of rape should be unpleasant for us to read, because nothing about the experience was pleasant for the victims.
Our silence in the media about what really happens when someone is held against their will, violated, and abused does nothing but leave their attackers with the last word. When we use words like “sexual assault” interchangeably with “rape” it does nothing but soften the blow about what actually occurred. Sexual assault sounds like an oops. Rape sounds like an out-right violation. The words we chose to use, to write, and to say shape the way we think about the subject. When writing this story, I made a conscious decision to not follow the hush-hush rules about how we talk about rape. I chose to quote Brenda on topics hard to hear, hard to stomach. And I chose to do so because it was hard to hear and hard to stomach.
If you continue reading this, I will start off by saying the same thing Brenda began her talk with, “What I’m going to be talking about can be triggering for some people…”
On Jan. 17, Brenda Tracy spoke at Linn-Benton Community College to a room of people who came to hear her side of the story. Most had heard part of her story. The part that took place 16 years ago, when she was gang raped by four men for six hours. But her story starts before that.
Tracy’s abuse started as a 2-year-old toddler. That abuse continued until the age of five as she was routinely molested by a family member. At the age of 9 she was raped by her babysitter’s boyfriend. She didn’t tell her mom until she was 12 years old. The statute of limitations in Oregon at the time was three years, and it had just passed. There was no justice for Tracy.
Fast-forward to age 19 when the then teenage mother married her son’s father. That marriage was plagued with abuse and domestic violence, once again making a victim of Tracy. It ended as turbulent as the relationship with a restraining order.
At the age of 24, Tracy decided to join her best friend for a night out. They were to meet her best friend’s boyfriend, two of his teammates from the Oregon State football team, his brother, and his brother’s friend. They met at the boyfriend’s apartment.
“At that time I did not drink. I was known for not drinking,” she told us. “Because of my history of attacks I wanted to be in control, so I did not drink.”
Her best friend assured her that they were in a safe place with people they knew. Tracy made an exception to her rule of not drinking and accepted one drink, made with orange juice. She didn’t get halfway through the drink before she started feeling sleepy and dizzy.
“Right before I had passed out I looked at my best friend and saw her boyfriend grab her hand and take her out of the room,” Tracy said.
What was about to happen to Tracy would change her life forever.
“I was in and out of consciousness for six hours and woke up to being raped by the four men left in the room,” she recalled. “I remember asking them to please stop.”
Although she doesn’t remember the entire six-hour ordeal because of being drugged and unconscious, she does remember parts. One time she gained consciousness when the men were using an object, a bottle, she recalled. Another time she woke up to them talking about how they could no longer penetrate her because she was “so swollen and dry.”
“They placed ice on my vagina but when that didn’t work they gave up,” she told us.
When she awoke the next day she was alone in the middle of the living room floor. She had her own vomit in her hair, someone’s gum in her hair, food crumbs on her body, a used condom stuck to her stomach, and bottles scattered around her.
“I just remember feeling like a piece of garbage in the middle of the room that they forgot to pick up,” she said with a shaken voice and tears in her eyes.
She was confused. She didn’t remember it all, but she knew she didn’t give permission to any of them. She found her best friend still in her boyfriend’s bedroom—she had been in the apartment for all six hours Tracy was being gang raped.
Tracy told us that as her friend drove her home she was already blaming herself for what had happened. If she wouldn’t have had that drink. If she wouldn’t have been in a house full of men. If she wouldn’t have been so stupid.
As she was trying to convince herself that she slept with all of the men, because she didn’t want to admit the appalling truth, her friend commented to her that “things got out of control last night.”
“I remember when she said that I remembered thinking, ‘You knew. You let that happen to me,’ she told us.
From that moment forward she realized her friend was no friend at all. In fact, she used the phrase “she was dead to me” as she explained the betrayal she felt from someone she trusted.
Tracy was now faced with an attack, a rape, once again. She didn’t want to tell anyone, but she knew she needed to go to the hospital. This was not the first time she would have to tell her mom she had been raped. She was embarrassed and disgusted by herself.
On the way to the hospital, she told the room of teary-eyed onlookers, that she had decided it was time for her to die.
“If I’m only here to be raped and beaten and abused, then what’s the point?” she told herself. “Just get through this rape kit, then you can die and everything will be better.”
At the hospital, she began a seven hour rape kit examination. During that exam she was with Nurse Jenny, Jenenne Stanley, who walked her through things they had to do to document her attack, including plucking 10 pubic hairs from her bruised and swollen genitals.
But something profound happened in that hospital room.
“I thought Jenny would look at me like I was gross, but she didn’t,” she said. “She had so much compassion. She was so nice and treated me like I was beautiful.”
It was then she decided that she will live. And she will live on as a nurse, just like Jenny. She picked Jenny’s brain for that seven hours as she performed the rape kit. Tracy asked where she went to school, what it cost, what she had to learn—everything and anything she needed to know to become a nurse that could one day help people.
“By the time we were done I had a reason to live,” she said. “I had a purpose and I knew what I needed to do.”
Two months later, she enrolled in school and started working towards her goal to become a nurse. She reached that goal, and has been a registered nurse for 13 years. She also earned an MBA. She admitted to us that she felt she had to spend the next decade “adding letters behind her name” to prove her worth to the world.
“On the outside I looked pretty good,” she said. “But on the other side I was suffering from PTSD and depression.”
After completing her rape kit, her mom took her to the police department and OSU to report the crime. She felt the school should be told of their students’ conduct. Tracy immediately felt something was wrong.
“The problem was two of them were football players so it became a media circus,” she said. “I lost some friends and family. I was blamed.”
The articles she read, the comments she heard, contained victim-blaming. Somehow it was her fault, she put herself in that position, and she was ruining the lives of these young men. In one article she recalled Coach Mike Riley quoted as saying, “These are really good guys who made a bad choice.”
Brenda told us that his words stung her more than the actions of her rapists.
“Those words hurt. They crushed me,” she said. “I couldn’t rationalize how a good person doesn’t do the right thing.”
Meanwhile her communication with OSU representatives was slowly cut off, one department at a time told her they were “taking care of it.” They offered no details, but she recalled “they promised” they were taking it seriously.
At the same time, the district attorney told her she had a “he said, she said” case and her chances of winning were slim. She had found out her best friend was going to testify against her in order to protect her boyfriend’s brother, one of the rapists facing 20 years behind bars.
“So, I’m a young mother on welfare. I’m traumatized. My community has turned against me and I was told I don’t have a case,” she said. “So I gave up.”
For the next 16 years she raised her two boys, lived with the pain of her attack, the burn of her betrayal, and the shame of her circumstance.
“I used to pray to get cancer or some kind of illness so I could die a hero and not a coward,” she said. “But, unfortunately for me, I woke up healthy every day.”
On her 40th birthday she decided she was going to own her story. In all the past media coverage of her attack, her name was not mentioned, her face was not attached. She had been hiding from her story and she was done living in the shadows.
She worked with a therapist to face her demons. In one session she was asked if she wanted to call OSU and find out what happened to her rapists. At that point she still had no idea of their punishment. When she mustered up the strength to call, she found the same unfriendly welcome as she had so many years before. Department after department, no one wanted to talk.
What she eventually found out was that none of the men were prosecuted. In fact, their punishment, promised by OSU to be taken seriously, was a one game suspension and 25 hours of community service. But for Tracy, she lived with the memory of monsters for almost two decades.
Now an adult with a fresh pair of eyes and a renewed mission to find justice, she knew something was amiss with the response she got from OSU and the authorities back in 1998. Why had everyone convinced her she had no case? Why were her calls going unanswered? Why weren’t her rapists punished?
That’s when her activism began.
She began Google-research of everything she could find out about Coach Riley, the man whose words had crushed her 16 years before. After many, many hours she came across a story that another women posted about her rape by an OSU football player and his subsequent one game suspension. Tracy reached out to her by leaving a comment on the story.
Her comment was answered by the man who would eventually bring her story to light, John Canzano. She agreed to meet Canzano and as she told him her story he asked if she was ready to tell the world. She said she was, under one condition. She wanted her name and face attached to it.
“When the story went up I was terrified,” she said. “I was prepared for people to call me a liar. I was prepared for death threats. I was prepared for it. But it didn’t happen. Oregonians embraced me. ”
Tracy told us that while Canzano was researching her story, requesting public records and digging into school and police files, he too felt something was wrong with the way her case was handled. He started to wonder what was happening at the school at the time of her attack.
As it turns out, the school stadium, then Parker Stadium, was outdated from its 1953 build. In 1998, the school was actively raising money and support for the remodel that would give them over 44,000 seats, boosting ticket sales and status. At the time, they were $1 million in debt, Tracy told us.
“A rape story was not going to help them,” she said. “So I was dealt with. I was ignored. I didn’t exist.”
In 1999, the new stadium was built.
“Everybody’s got a dollar their life is worth,” she told us with tears in her eyes. “I know the exact price of mine. It’s the price of Reser Stadium.”
Realizing she had fallen through many cracks that led to her injustice, she was going to make a difference. Her first mission was changing the statute of limitations on rape.
“Five men in my lifetime got off because of the statute of limitations in Oregon,” she said. “I was going to do something about it.”
With no lobbying or political experience whatsoever, she got in her car and drove to Salem to talk to Senator Peter Courtney. Senator Courtney, she said, had made a comment about her case in response to the Canzano article, so she figured he would at least recognize her name.
Tracy walked into the state capitol unannounced and found Senator Courtney’s office. She then found his secretary and told her that she would like her to tell the senator that Brenda Tracy is here to talk about the statute of limitations. To her surprise, he came out almost immediately.
With his help, they were able to change the Oregon statute of limitations for rape to 12 years. After 12 years a clause was also added that if new evidence appears the victim can press charges. If that law would have been around when she was 9 years old, there may have been justice for Tracy.
She has continued to change laws since 2014, including Melissa’s Law, named after Melissa Bittler, 14, who was raped and murdered in 2001 by a man whose DNA appeared in untested rape kits prior to her murder. The new law requires all rape kits to have a mandatory testing date, eliminating the backlog of some 5,000 untested kits at the time of its passing in 2016. If Melissa’s Law had been in effect when Melissa was alive, her murder may have never happened.
Tracy has another three bills on her agenda for 2017.
“The worst feeling is knowing your rights were violated, but you only know that after they’ve been violated,” she said. “I’m going to do my damndest to make sure to do my best to protect all Oregonians and our neighbors.”
As part of her healing process, Tracy felt that it was time to confront Coach Riley. He had invited her to come talk to the OSU football team when the Canzano story broke in 2014, but shortly thereafter he left for Nebraska.
“This summer I finally got up the courage to get on a plane and go to Nebraska,” she told us. “I sat down with Coach Riley and I told him how much I hated him and how much his words hurt me.”
He took her words to heart, she said, and treated her with the utmost respect. He apologized, years too late, and asked if she would like to talk to his 144 Cornhuskers. She obliged.
“I told them that I hated their coach more than I hated my rapists,” she said. “Because I can rationalize a rapist but I can’t rationalize a one game suspension.”
The team listened to her every word, and she hopes her plight resonated with them. Today, she continues on her lifelong journey to educate, protect, and advocate for others by speaking around the country.
“Really, all it takes is belief that you can,” she said. “Those that change the world are the ones who believe.”
There are 25 million survivors of sexual assault and rape in the United States, according to national statistics. Tracy now knows she’s not alone.
“All of us know someone that is affected by domestic assault and violence, but you don’t know because we don’t talk about it,” she told us. “All it takes is one person to touch one person who touches one person, and that’s how we start a movement.”
Story by Allison Lamplugh
Photos by Elliot Pond