Reporting Rape is sometimes perilous: With an excerpt from “Above Suspicion”

Nestled among the usual sinecured twaddlers who occupy the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times sometimes are freelance essays by people who actually say something worth considering.  For example, today’s paper has an important column on reporting rape, written by two ProPublica reporters, Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller and headlined: “First Raped, Then Prosecuted.” It’s based on their forthcoming book, “A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America.”

The column offers several examples of women who were prosecuted for allegedly falsely reporting that they had been raped, but their stories were subsequently found to be true. “There are many reasons for women to think twice about reporting sexual assault,” they write. “But one potential consequence looms especially large: They may also be prosecuted.”

Of course, those cases are unusual, but they do underscore the natural reluctance rape victims have in going to the police, submitting to intense questioning and exposing themselves to the necessary skepticism of legal proceedings.  Armstrong and Miller add that “some law enforcement agencies have begun to explore ways to be more responsive to rape victims.”

Here’s a link to their column.

Reading it this morning, I recalled several long conversations with Kathy Putnam, the late wife of former FBI agent Mark Putnam, when I was researching my true-crime book “Above Suspicion” almost 25 years ago. At the time, her husband was in prison for having killed Susan Smith, a coal-miners daughter who was his main criminal informant during his rookie years as an FBI crime fighter in the benighted hills of eastern Kentucky in the late 1980s.

It’s a truly sad story. Putnam, knowing his action would destroy his picture-perfect family life, confessed to a crime that no one — his wife included — knew he had committed. As the tragedy gradually unfolded, Kathy Putnam had befriended her husband’s informant, urging Susan to make choices that would help her get her life together.

Susan is played in the movie version of “Above Suspicion” by Emilia Clarke and Kathy, in a lesser role, by Sophie Lowe. The movie, directed by Phillip Noyce, is set for release in 2018.

In real life, Kathy was miserable as an outsider in Pikeville, Kentucky. Susan, though she was hopelessly in love with Mark, became her friend. Kathy never knew till the night before he confessed that Mark had had an affair with Susan before he killed her in a fit of passion, dumped the body (which wasn’t found till he confessed a year later) and went on with his career — now in Miami — till he resolved to face the truth.

The two women spoke frequently by phone in long nighttime conversations. Kathy habitually took notes, seeing herself as Mark’s assistant in a two-person FBI operation in the coal-country outpost. The detailed account of some of those conversations in my book came directly from Kathy, who died suddenly in 1998, still loyal to her husband in prison.

Kathy was always forthcoming in her many conversations with me. She openly discussed with me her troubled teenage years, and the time she was raped before she was married, she always regretted having gone to the police.

Here is an excerpt from “Above Suspicion” (the book):

***

Susan was persistent. Soon after she started working as an informant, she began showing up at the courthouse nearly every day looking for Mark. Since he was often out, Susan would pass the time bantering with courthouse employees, especially the officers in the probation and marshal’s divisions, where she managed to establish the impression that she and Mark had a close working relationship, and leave behind suspicions that it was a close personal one, too.

Mark’s take on Susan was less complicated than his wife’s. He had noticed, for example, that Susan tended to boast about sexual relations with men at the courthouse, men he was quite sure had never been involved with her. “She has a big mouth, Kat,” he warned his wife. “Watch out.”

Susan’s dependence on Kathy grew as the friendship deepened. They sometimes spoke for hours, Susan’s troubles spilling out one after the other to a receptive ear. The dead-end relationships, money problems, despair, abysmal self-esteem, half-baked aspirations, and chronic ineptitude—Kathy readily recognized these afflictions because she had overcome them herself. She believed that in time she might be able to help Susan do the same.

susan.jpg
Susan Smith

Patiently, she would say, “Listen, Susan. I have been there. Believe me, I know where you are coming from. You can get yourself together.”

To look at her then, poised and by all appearances self-confident, ensconced in what seemed to be a solid marriage with a spouse who loved her deeply and a bright-eyed young daughter who would be a delight to any parent, it would have been difficult to imagine what similarities in their lives Kathy was alluding to. But they were there under the surface and they were striking.

Kathy Ponticelli and her younger sister, Christine, were daughters of an autocratic but devoted second-generation Italian-American father and a mother who offered quiet, unassuming encouragement to her girls. The household had strict rules: no chatter at the dinner table, help out around the house, be home by curfew and not a minute later, get good grades, go to Mass on Sunday, and don’t get in trouble with the nuns.

A smart and perceptive girl who felt that there was probably more to life than the tedium of Manchester, Connecticut, a small town aspiring mightily to become nothing more ambitions than a suburb, Kathy managed to break all of the rules except the one about good grades. Kathy coasted through St. James parish school and then East Catholic High School, sullen and bored. Unable, she thought, to do anything right other than study, she compensated for her lack of self-confidence with a brashness that some would misconstrue as effrontery. Her high school misdeeds, still painful for her to recall even after she’d grown into a well-adjusted young woman, had begun innocently enough, with hemline-length violations and back talk. If social acceptance meant dating the loutish captain of the football team, opening a purse to brandish a stash of joints, talking street-tough, copping cigarettes in the girls’ bathroom, flouting the rules—in general, courting the fires of hell in the next life, and detention, threats of expulsion, and inclusion on lists of suspected school troublemakers in this one—then so be it. On the other hand, not many of her female classmates pointedly carried, as she did, a well-worn paperback of Catcher in the Rye. At East Catholic High, such an attitude led right down the slippery slope to what her devout parents saw as the worst of all ignominies: public school, to which Kathy was banished in her junior year, and from which she dropped out a few months later, days after she turned eighteen.

She was one of those skinny, fresh-faced girls who would grow up to become a winsome beauty, yet never quite appreciate the fact that the transformation had actually occurred. Nearly two decades later, she continued to see herself through a murky lens as a gawky, self-conscious kid holding back tears of rage as she was mocked for her appearance. “Ponticelli, your ears are sticking out! Look at her ears! Look at her ears!”

After Kathy dropped out of high school, the similarities to Susan’s life became more pronounced. She had a boyfriend who in retrospect reminded her of Kenneth. She horrified her parents by moving into an apartment in a run-down, crime-ridden part of East Hartford with that boyfriend who drank heavily and had a propensity to punch any man who glanced more than casually at his girlfriend. The young man’s mother tended bar in a club that featured go-go dancers, where Kathy took a job as a waitress and bartender. Keeping her shirt on didn’t make her feel any more virtuous than her friends who danced with their shirts off, some of them young mothers trapped in the gritty economy of divorce on the fringe of postindustrial America.

“There are ways to get better tips than tending bar,” one of the girls told her. “You know about the massage parlors, right?”

Things got worse for her. The boyfriend was thrown into jail after a fight with a man who had flirted with Kathy in another bar. Then a man who followed her home and forced his way into the apartment.

In one of those long late-night phone conversations, she told Susan about this.

“I’m no blushing maiden, but I really didn’t know what was going on in those massage parlors, and I was too embarrassed to ask questions. I thought you put on makeup and dressed sexy and you go rub these guys’ backs and you get tips for that.”

Susan inhaled a cigarette loudly and said skeptically, “Really?”

“Really, Susan. I talked to a couple of different people who told me you could make really good money. I was busting my ass bartending till two in the morning, and then waitressing for breakfast at the Holiday Inn. I was living in a housing project and basically just getting through the week. So I went and got a job at this massage parlor, and the manager guy who hired me had a quick look and said, ‘OK, talk to Erin. But you know the drill.’”

“Did you?”

“Hell no!”

“Who’s Erin?”

“The boss of the girls, I guess. She kept the schedule, anyway.”

“She told you what was going on?”

“Not really, because I was too naïve to get what Erin was saying. ‘Basically, what goes on in there—’ she pointed down a little hallway where there were some little private rooms with dim lighting and a single bed for the back rubs.”

Susan snorted.

Kathy went on, “‘—What goes on in there is between you and the client.’ I remember that she used the word ‘client.’ Now that I think of it, I wonder if she was being indirect because they were worried about cops, and maybe there was a worry about an undercover cop with a tape recorder. I have no idea. This place was basically a storefront with rooms in the back, definitely seedy, but really, Susan, I thought prostitution was illegal.”

“Well it is, honey. Did you do it?”

“I worked there a couple of days, a week or so maybe, I wasn’t catching on. OK, I took my shirt off—”

“Come on! That’s it?”

“I got the idea. I had this black nightgown? So, yeah, I would put on this nightgown and rub these guys’ backs, and they’d then ask for, you know, a hand-job, but I told them ‘You need to do that yourself.’ I was shaking so bad I actually scared the clients. They were probably afraid to complain, but the word got around that I was absolutely no good at that shit. There were things I drew the line at, is all.”

Kathy had been sipping wine through this long conversation, which occurred when Mark was out of town on a case. It was now after one o’clock in the morning.

“I turned a trick or two when I was down on my luck,” Susan said. “No big deal, really.”

“And?”

“Between you and me and the hitchin’ post?”

“Absolutely.”

“Up in Chicago a few years ago, I was introduced to this gentleman who ran an escort service for businessmen in town at hotels near the airport.”

“Not high class, then.”

“Well, all of them had folding money, let’s call it that.”

“What did you have to do?”

“What was necessary.”

“Was it ever any fun?” Kathy asked, giggling inquisitively.

“Hardly never.”

“But sometimes?”

Kathy could almost hear Susan shrug.

The nighttime phone conversations between the two women orbiting around Mark Putnam became regular occurrences. There was another story that Kathy had vowed never to tell, which came spilling out one night, lubricated by wine.

“When I was working at that place—”

“The massage parlor?”

“Yeah. I had gone shopping in Hartford one day and I bought myself a pair of jeans, and a man followed me home and pushed his way into my apartment. I recognized the guy from work, and I even knew his first name and that he was from the neighborhood. So I thought I could handle it.”

“Big mistake, honey.”

“Yeah, tell me about it.”

“He raped me.”

“Shit.”

“I went to work and told them what happened and they were like, ‘Whoa!’ The guy was a regular. They were worried about the cops. And I’m just crouched in the corner, crying. And the manager goes to me, ‘You can just get your ass out of here!’”

“Scum,” Susan said.

“So I went to the police station and told them what happened, and they went and picked the guy up. I had lied to them that the guy had had a knife, because I didn’t know how I was going to explain how he got into my apartment without me screaming. Then they said they had the guy and they wanted me to testify—”

“’Course they did,” Susan interjected.

“And I said, these are rough people. I’m going to get hurt if I testify against them. They kept asking me all these questions about the massage parlor, about the things that went on there, and I said, ‘I don’t know!’ The only thing I know is they have red lights in the rooms, and if a cop would come in, the manager at the desk flips the thing and the lights come on and then you’re supposed to quick get your clothes back on. I told them everything I knew about the place, but I hadn’t been working there that long. I couldn’t stop crying. There were two cops at a desk facing me, firing questions. And then the door opened and I turned my head and the guy who raped me was there with another cop, and he wasn’t even handcuffed, and the cop said, ‘It’s your word against him, Miss. I just wanted to see your reaction.’ All I could say was, ‘Get him out of here, and get me out of here!’”

“Don’t cry, it’s in the past,” Susan said.

“Nothing is ever in the past, Susan,” Kathy said softly and went on, “so what they did was they put me in protective custody in a hotel for a week while they worked on closing the massage parlor and issuing a citation. And that night, the guy did come back to my apartment with three or four other guys and they trashed the whole place. Which is when they got arrested.”

“Guy wasn’t charged with rape?”

“No. I was too afraid to press it. I knew I would get hurt. All they cared about was busting the massage parlor. They didn’t care about me in the least. It really left a sour taste in my mouth about the police.”

“But you married an agent of the law.”

“That’s different, Susan. I am a different person now.”

 

 

This is an excerpt from “Above Suspicion” (c) 2017 by Joe Sharkey. New edition published in ebook and print by Open Road Integrated Media (2017); original hardcover edition published by Simon & Schuster (1993).                                                                     ###

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