Memoir of a Brief Time in Hell


The current hit film The Accused shocks audiences with its graphic depiction of a gang rape. The movie is based loosely on the 1983 rape of a young woman by four men in a New Bedford, Mass., bar while bystanders watched and allegedly cheered. In the film, Kelly McGillis, 31, the striking blond star of Witness and Top Gun, plays the assistant district attorney who prosecutes those who stood by. Though she was given the choice of playing the victim—a role that eventually went to Jodie Foster—McGillis declined, she says, “because I have been a victim in real life and had no need to re-create it on screen.” In 1982 McGillis was herself raped by two men. Until now, she has never publicly told the whole story of what happened. With the release of the film, she decided to come forward, hoping to help other victims. She is also eager to make people aware that every six minutes a woman is sexually assaulted in the U.S., and that one out of every four victims is attacked by two or more assailants. McGillis spoke with Senior Writer Kristin McMurran about her experience. This is her story.

A lot of people will see The Accused and think it’s just a movie, but to any victim it is much more. I want people to understand that this kind of crime happens in real life. It happened to me. Before it did, I really had no understanding that rape takes something away from you that you can never, ever replace: your right to say no.

I was 21 when I moved to New York to study acting at the Juilliard School. I had grown up in Newport Beach, Calif., a place that is very, very safe, so I was terribly naive about the ways of the world. I didn’t know about ugliness and violence. Nothing bad had ever happened to me until I came to New York in 1979. Two years later, when I got mugged at gunpoint near Lincoln Center, I wasn’t really frightened. It seemed that everyone in New York got mugged. I felt I had been initiated. The next year I was raped. So much time has passed, yet it’s still so hard to talk about. It happened on one of those very windy, wintry days in February. I had been at school rehearsing a play that was going to open the following night and had come home earlier than usual. I took a shower, put on a robe and was reading a letter when I heard someone at the door. I thought it was my roommate coming home, but when I looked up I saw these two guys forcing the door open. They were both black. One was very tall, the other was short, and they were both physically strong. I’ll never forget the way they smelled—like alcohol and old sweat. I felt panic. It was as if time had stopped, and I was desperately trying to assimilate what was happening. I screamed and ran to the telephone, but the tall one grabbed my arm and pulled the phone line out of the wall. I kept screaming—hoping, praying someone would hear me and call the police.

It was clear that one of the intruders had come to rob and the other had come to rape. Almost immediately the taller one undid his trousers and crudely demanded oral sex. I refused. He tried to hit me on the head with a beer bottle but caught my shoulder instead. I kept screaming, and they yelled, “Shut up!” Then they stuck a knife in my face and forced me into the bedroom. The shorter one demanded money and jewelry. I kept thinking, Be rational, you can talk your way out of this. So I kept saying, “You can have my money and anything in the apartment, just leave when you’re done.”

I felt especially vulnerable because all I was wearing was a bathrobe. They had me backed up against a wall in the bedroom. One guy started looking through my things. All I had was some jewelry and about $10. He ran into the kitchen and grabbed a second knife, while the other one demanded that I get on the bed. When I refused he stuck me with his knife on my arms and chest. They called me a “white bitch” and asked if I had a bat, because they were going to beat the s— out of me just to teach me a lesson. They kept saying terrible things to me, awful racial slurs. I was arguing with them, “Please, I don’t have a bat. Leave.”

I knew I’d rather die than get on that bed, but they were going to rape me whether I was alive or not—one of them was that psychotic—and it was foolish to keep resisting. While one watched, the taller one got on top of me and held the knife at my right eye. The whole time he was sexually assaulting me he was saying things that I just can’t repeat. He sodomized me and spit on me. I just lay there thinking, This is not happening. Then he tried to touch my face with his mouth. His breath smelled like he hadn’t brushed his teeth for a year. I threw up all over, and he started hitting me. Then the other one got on top of me. They kept switching and telling me they were going to beat me until I was dead. At that point I thought I would die, and I had resigned myself.

That 20 minutes of my life seemed to last 20 years. In a moment of crisis there is a part of your brain that takes over and you become unemotional and detached. I felt like I could lie on that bed and watch those guys doing those things, but it was really happening to somebody else. Then there was a loud banging on the front door, and they both fled out the window. I’ve never known who called the police, but I thank God every day that they did because it saved my life. I was naked and filthy when I ran to open the front door, and I could not stop screaming. One policeman chased the two men on foot, but they got away.

The police drove me to St. Luke’s Hospital in Harlem and left me there. I had no money to get home. At the hospital I had to take off my clothes, and they photographed me. Then they gave me a pelvic exam and shots for gonorrhea and syphilis. They also took sperm samples and combed me for stray hairs that might identify the assailants. At that point I was catatonic. A woman from some rape crisis center came in with some clothes. It was like, “Hi, here’s some underwear and a toothbrush. I know what you’re feeling. If you’d like to talk, here’s my number.” I was pretty abusive to her, I have to admit. I shouted, “How could you know? Have you ever been raped?” and told her to get out.

I called my parents from the hospital, and they flew to New York the next day. One of the worst things was to see my father cry. I think he was hurt most of all because he thought of me as his little girl. Up until that time my family had discouraged my desire to be an actress. But I had never wanted to be anything else. To my parents, being an actress meant being a waitress. I think they were frightened for me and demonstrated it by discouraging me. After my incident, they became much more supportive. When they saw that I wanted to stay in New York and continue my studies, they began to accept my commitment. They helped me financially so that I could move to a better neighborhood.

I only went back to that apartment once, but I couldn’t touch anything. The intruders had gone through all my clothing. I left it all behind and never went back. I had to get rid of everything that reminded me of them.

I went to the police station and identified the attackers in photographs. When two guys are on top of you, you never forget their faces. I wanted those guys caught. I hated them. I wanted to hurt them as much as they hurt me. [Both men whom McGillis identified were arrested within a month of the incident. The taller, more vicious of the two alleged assailants was 15 years old and lived two blocks from the scene of the crime. Pleading guilty to charges of first-degree rape, sodomy, burglary and robbery, as well as incidental weapons charges, he served more than three years in a New York prison. Charges against the second alleged attacker, age 20, were dismissed after fingerprints and evidence left at the scene failed to incriminate him.]

The first few weeks after the incident I couldn’t eat or sleep. I twitched incessantly. I would gasp suddenly without being able to control it. I finally went to a hospital emergency room, in Brooklyn, where I was staying with friends, and was given Thorazine, a drug that is often prescribed for mental patients. Now I know what it’s like to go mad. It makes you feel like your brain is in a vise.

For a long time I wanted to withdraw from the world. I continued to go to school, but I became much more of a loner and much more alone. I couldn’t go down into the subway without getting nauseous and gagging because the smell reminded me of the men who had raped me. I didn’t want to leave my little apartment. I would become so overwhelmed with anxiety and grief that I would just start crying. I gained about 30 lbs. I had nightmares. Because I was so afraid to go to sleep at night, I would drink, and it got progressively worse. It was like having a little demon inside eating me up. The deceptive thing about alcohol is that you think it allows you to forget—and then you wake up in the morning. If it had not been for the understanding of my friends and teachers at Juilliard, I probably would have killed myself.

I had been divorced at the time of the incident, after being married for about two years. When I tried to talk to my former husband about it, it was hard for him to understand. I remember sitting in a bar with him, and he said he was glad it happened. I think he was angry and hurt over the divorce. We are close now, but at the time I said, “Thank you” and threw a glass at him. That’s when I decided to stop talking about it.

The experience didn’t make me hate men, but for a long time I could not allow myself to trust a man. It took a very long time for me to be sexually active again. I was not able to have a consistent relationship with anybody. I was difficult. I would constantly test people. There would be very brief encounters and short, destructive relationships. I felt I needed to be with somebody because I was so frightened of the world, but I didn’t care about myself enough to demand respect. I would put myself in demeaning relationships with men. It made me feel horrible, but it seemed to be what I deserved. I was also very angry, and I hurt a lot of people I love because of it.

I really went over the edge in punishing myself. Like many victims, I was convinced that I had done something to deserve what had happened. The fear, hatred and anxiety that you feel is so irrational. But I didn’t go for therapy right away because I believed that no one could understand what I was feeling. I did not yet realize that somebody could understand if I would just open up and allow it. Finally in 1984 I went into therapy for a year because I was tired of beating myself up for something I didn’t do, and I realized I would have no future if I didn’t stop.

Filming The Accused last year brought back a lot of the old nightmares, but I was very enthusiastic about an issue that so deeply affected my life. When the project was finished, it was like a demon had been put to rest, but still I was struggling with publicly telling my story because I was afraid. I felt so bad that I couldn’t tell the truth. Then in September I went to a fund-raising brunch at a Los Angeles rape treatment center and heard two victims talking about being raped on campus. As I listened, I thought that my not talking about my own experience was the most cowardly act of my life.

I wanted to help the people who haven’t talked about their experiences. Most rape victims don’t come forward. But that’s like saying, “Go ahead, assault me, because nothing is going to happen to you.” The only way to stop it is to talk about it. The thing I feel most passionate about is that victims talk and seek help. By not coming forward and trying to prosecute, you are making yourself a victim forever. You are allowing someone to change the rest of your life with one awful, ugly, horrifying deed.

My incident has colored the way I view the finality of life. It made me realize that you can’t sit around and say, “Oh, I’ll get to that next year.” I live each day to do what I want as long as it doesn’t hurt other people. And my feelings about fame have changed too. When people see you in movies, they often think that you are like the characters you play. Some people get confused and believe that movie stars are demigods. That’s what scared me, the notion that I had it more together than anyone else, when I’m only a human being. I’ve learned that I have to live my life the best way that I know how and not try to be all things to all people.

The pain doesn’t go away, but you learn to make it constructive. I’m working to help raise money for a series of halfway houses for teenage runaways. I’m writing a documentary that will show the real ugliness, filth, disease and sexual abuse of the street—a film that will scare young people.

I’m still afraid and will be for the rest of my life. It took me until last year to really learn to be alone. I never drive my car with the doors unlocked. There is always a feeling of terror when I have to get out of my car in an empty parking lot or walk into an empty house. And the first thing I do in a hotel room is check every closet. I have so many alarms and locks at my home in New York that anyone who got in could never get out. And there are two special locks on my bedroom door. Every night I lock them all.

I bought a dog—an Australian Blue Heeler—that is supposed to be ferocious, and I have a big boyfriend, Don Yesso [who played Shorty La Roux on Frank’s Place]. We met last January at Culver Studios, where I was shooting a movie and he was filming his show. I was in the commissary when I heard this person say, “Do you want me to buy you that egg sandwich?” I gave him a drop-dead look and walked off. When he grabbed the check from the cashier, I said, in a very nasty tone, “I guess this means we’re eating together.” He talked to me all through breakfast, and I sort of looked everywhere but at him. But he came back for more, and he turned out to be hilarious. We really do make each other laugh.

I have a good life now. I have very, very close friends. I’m happy. I don’t drink anymore. I’m not destructive. I take better care of myself than I ever have in my life. But it took me years because two people made me hate myself so much. I don’t think I’m going to change the world, but if I can make the difference in one person’s life, then telling my own story has been worth it.

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