Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A life etched with courage

This column was published in the Tri-Valley Herald on July 24, 2007.

She awoke to the rush of night air and a drop of water falling to her face from the wooden awning above the back door. That’s when she realized she was being carried. That’s when, at six years old, Sandra Kay looked up into a man’s face obscured by a light-colored bandana.

"He came in through the back door,” said Kay, 41, whose green eyes flickered as she told her story sitting outside a coffee shop in Pleasanton. “He walked right past my brother sleeping in the living room, past my parents’ bedroom, down the hall to my room where a friend was sleeping over, and lifted me from my bed.”

The man carried Kay’s little body out the back and into the garage. There, he told her to shut up. There, he violated her.

Later that night, after she was let go, Kay stood pounding on her parents’ bedroom door.

The Hayward police investigated, dusted for fingerprints, and identified the man. He turned out to be the nephew of either a friend or neighbor, Kay said. He was on parole, and knew the back door lock was broken because he’d helped move furniture in the house.

But before police could make an arrest, the man’s roommate--a former cellmate--accused him of stealing tools or some other personal items. The roommate drove to the man’s place of work and shot him to death.

Because of her young age and the certainty this man would never bother her again, Kay recovered emotionally from the assault. Yet some years later when Polly Klaas was kidnapped from her bedroom as a friend was sleeping over, Kay’s wounds re-opened. “So many things were similar,” Kay said. “I've always felt a spiritual connection to that beautiful girl.”

Ten years after the assault, when Kay was 16, she went to San Francisco with an older girlfriend to a dance club that welcomed minors 18 and older. Kay had a false identification, and soon found herself dancing with a charming young man named Pierre.

“As a chubby high school girl,” Kay said, “I usually danced alone or with female friends. I was so glad for the male attention.”

After a few dances, Pierre invited Kay to step outside to talk. She was surprised at how much they had in common. When he asked what books and movies she liked, he’d respond, “Me too!”

“It's painfully clear to me now, his strategy,” she said.

After more dancing and after her girlfriend called it a night, Kay accompanied Pierre to a payphone to call around to see if other nightclubs would welcome minors. Expressing frustration with the payphone, Pierre suggested they use the phone in his nearby apartment.

“I thought I’d met someone pretty special, so I went to his apartment,” Kay said. “In an instant, this man went from a dance partner and friend to an angry, mad-looking, violent and evil man. He used physical force, intimidation, and threats to take out his rage by violating my body.”

Eventually, Kay was let go. “He took me back to my car and gave me a rose, if you can stand that,” she said.

On her way home, Kay pulled over to call the friend she’d gone out with: “She told me I’d been raped and not to take a shower. She came and got me.”

Kay and her friend went to the police and identified the man from a folder of photos. He was wanted for raping two other girls. Everything he'd told her was a lie: his age, his occupation, his name.

In court, the defense questioned her clothing that evening, suggested her culpability since she was out after hours, magnified the crime of using a fake ID, and delved into whether or not she was a virgin.

“None of it worked,” Kay said. “He was sentenced to twenty years and deported to his country, which I think was Armenia.”

Fast forward a year. It's October and Sandra Kay is now 17 and she's walking to her boyfriend’s apartment. She hears someone behind her and thinks it's her boyfriend about to surprise her, so she quickly turns to surprise him first. But it's not her boyfriend.

“Some guy in a hood with a gun jams it against my head and tells me to stay quiet.”

Kay was forced into her car and ordered to drive, ending up behind San Leandro High School. The hooded man covered her head and dragged her out of the car.

“And here we go again,” she said, “the rage, the anger, the rape. Only this time, my soul popped out of my body and hovered over to the left. And somehow I knew that this man was taking out his rage on this body, but not on me.”

Then ordered back into the car, Kay drove as the man held the gun to her temple, his hand shaking as he y
elled and debated over and over whether he should kill her.

Near train tracks, he had her pull over. “I thought this is it. I'm dead.” But he flipped up the rearview mirror so it pointed to the sky, opened the passenger door, and fled down the tracks into darkness, leaving her with threats that he knew where she lived, knew her boyfriend, would be back if she contacted police.

“And so my post trauma began,” Kay said, “living in a fear so paralyzing I would not move from a sitting position on the couch.”

Kay had to start over to learn how to talk, how to move, how to trust. “It’s a debilitating, chronic, and inescapable fear all the time for a long, long time,” she said. "With post trauma, because it's a neurological and spiritual injury, not a physical one, you can't see it like you can see broken bones, but the same process needs to take place, only internally. It's like being paralyzed physically from the neck down, like being dropped on cement from an airplane."

The lengthy healing process after trauma also involves calming the automatic startle response, dealing with the hypervigilance triggered by any number of stimuli. Kay remembers while working at a Togos being stricken with fear as a man's hand reached for change, a hand that slightly resembled the hand of the hooded rapist.

Today she credits her return to health with realizing that post trauma is a neurological disorder that needs to be treated medically. “Talk therapy can only go so far,” Kay said. She also makes sure to get sufficient sleep with over-the-counter medication, when needed. “Healing cannot take place without proper sleep,” she said.

The mother of two beautiful children, Kay is a courageous survivor who writes a blog at
www.shesayswithasmile.blogspot.com. She’s also a published poet and a volunteer with Tri-Valley Haven where she gives her time to assist women in the immediate aftermath of sexual assault.

And just over a year ago, on her cheek, probably somewhere near the spot where that tiny drop of water awakened her when she was six, she walked into a tattoo parlor and celebrated her survival by having a small Japanese character etched onto her cheek.

The tattoo reads courage.

To honor Sandra Kay and join her in making a difference, visit www.trivalleyhaven.org.



she said...

i can hardly breathe jim...

what an outstanding job you've done with my life experiences

this is no easy task..

when i think of the volume of information

when you consider how sensitive that information is; how potentially exploitable

i can't imagine trusting anyone else to accomplish so perfectly what you have accomplished here

the validation adds to my healing.
the ability to share and reach out to others; this also adds to my healing
your friendship -adds to my healing

your writing... adds so much to my life

thank you jim! i knew you would do an awesome job

love, ~s.

Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt said...

Jim, I am so fortunate to have had Sandra run across me via the net so we blog together....and now to have read her story here! She (not to talk about her as if she isn't "here" LOL) has been an amazing inspiration to me via the electronic highway. Thank you for writing her story so compassionately.

Jim Ott said...


It's my pleasure to recount your amazing story. Thanks for your willingness to share it.


Yes, Sandra is quite inspiring. Thanks for reading and for your comment.

singleton said...

I feel blessed, I can't remember how or when or why we stumbled upon each other, but since the very moment, I have felt a kindred, family connection to our beautiful friend, and until now, I thought that tattoo summed it all up, bigger than any words could ever fathom....but you did it. You told the story. "She" lived it. Survived it. Her courage rocks, it breathes, and most importantly, shares.... and her arms are open......wide.....

tine b said...

Hi Jim. Came across your blog through Kay's blog, didn't know her story untill reading it here. I write too, and have written several stories about rape and abuse. You do it very touching and respectfully here, thank you for the reading experience.
Real life stories are so difficult, but also so important. Good job, compliments to you and her for the process, I imagine this has been a great thing to do for Kay personally. When I've told real people's stories, I am always grateful for their sharing, and they're grateful for the time and careful attention. It's such a rewarding thing, especially when done as well as you do here. My compassion to Kay and credit to you for this, thanks :)