August 16, 1993 12:00 PM

Last April, Elizabeth Ashley appeared at the Metro Courthouse in Nashville to testify at the sentencing of the man convicted of raping her longtime friend, music industry executive Mary Martin, 53. As she told the judge how the assault had changed Martin from a fiercely independent woman to a fearful one, Ashley made a startling disclosure: She too had been raped. She went on to reveal, for the first time publicly, that in 1977 she had been attacked by three men at a shuttered gas station along a lonely stretch of Interstate 5 near Bakersfield, Calif.

For Ashley, 53, going public has been both gratifying and traumatic. After hearing the actress’ story, the judge sentenced Martin’s attacker to 40 years in prison. But in the months since her admission, Ashley has come to realize that her own demons can no longer be silenced. “Talking about Mary’s rape brought back to me what I had—through an act of will—banished from my life, “Ashley told correspondent Doris Bacon recently at the Evening Shade star’s home overlooking the San Fernando Valley. “It made me viscerally recall the attack on me, which I had not dealt with for 16 years.”

IN THE SPRING OF 1977, I HAD JUST moved back to Los Angeles from New York City, where I had appeared in Caesar and Cleopatra with Rex Harrison. Nobody with a brain has a car in New York, so I hadn’t been in a driving mode for several years. To escape the pressures of L.A., two or three limes a month I’d get in my Mercedes around midnight on Thursday or Friday and drive north all night to see friends near San Francisco.

The weekend it happened, I was running late and neglected to fill my car with gas. At about 3 a.m. Saturday, the light on the dash came on, indicating that I was now on the reserve tank. I was in a deserted rural area. Finally, I saw a sign that said, Gas, Next Exit. Usually the gas station is just off the freeway, but this one wasn’t. I considered turning back, but the reserve light was on and—stupid, stupid!—I felt I had to find a gas station.

About two miles down the road, I found one, but it was self-serve, which was new to me, and I didn’t know how to work the gas pump. There didn’t seem to be anybody there. But I thought I could get gas with my credit card. I left my bag in the car, but took my gas card and about $40 in cash. The .357 Magnum I carried when I did distance driving was in the pocket of the door on the driver’s side. I was trying to read the instructions on the pump when three men came out of the darkness. They were very drunk. One of the men came toward me, and I thought, “Oh, he’ll know how to work this thing.”

They became menacing and started making disgusting sexual overtures and gestures. I knew my gun was six feet away, but I thought, “Don’t go for the gun. They’ll kill you with it.” They kicked me, pinning me to the ground. Then they dragged me over gravel to behind some bushes, and all three raped me over and over again. Finally, after about an hour, they took my cash and walked off down a back road.

I was in a great deal of pain, but I crawled back into my car and drove back onto the freeway. I still needed gas. I made it to a truck stop and tried to clean up in the ladies’ room. My eye was swollen and my body scraped raw. I got directions to an emergency clinic nearby, where I told them I’d run my car off the road. I just let them clean my surface wounds. Then I got back on the road and drove to San Francisco. I pulled in at 8 a.m., a couple of hours later than I usually did. And that’s when I fell apart.

All I wanted to do was wash. I got in the bathtub and then into the shower and then back into the bathtub. I was shaking and crying and taking baths for about two hours. I didn’t want to leave the house. When one of my friends asked me, “What are you going to do about this? I said, “No one is going to know.” That was the first time my being a public person came into play. Once it is known you’ve been raped, that becomes your public identity forever. My entire life I have had an almost irrational response to being viewed as a victim.

I stayed with my friends for five days. One offered to go back to L.A. with me. I was grateful but insisted that I do the driving. I still had bruises when I got home, but I didn’t know how to explain them to my son, Christian, who was 9 at the time. When he asked, I said, “Yeah, I ran into a tree at a rest stop.” I just wanted to pretend it never happened. It was over, finished, done.

That was the first time in my life I began to doubt my mothering ability. I’d always been up front with my kid, but now I found myself mouthing clichés at him. About 10 months after the rape, I sold everything I could, sent Christian to live with his father [George Peppard] and moved to St. Barthélemy, an island in the Caribbean. Christian visited me during holidays. And I came to see him three times a year.

I lived on St. Bart’s for three years, and in all that time I never, never allowed myself to connect dropping out of my life with the rape. Now, I’m a woman who hasn’t missed much in life. Before the rape, I had been a night-stalking, rock-and-roll hippie savage. I devoted my life to getting on the cutting edge of whatever was happening. I fell in love a lot.

Yet when I left L.A. I wanted no connections, no relationships. I wanted to be alone on the planet, without any support system. I came to believe I had lobotomized the rape. But after I’d been on the island a while, I met this extraordinary, very beautiful and kind of marvelous man. He took me out to dinner. We went sailing. Things progressed—and I ran. It was very un-me. The man kissed me, and I started to cry, “I’m sorry. I can’t explain. I can’t do this.”

In 1981, I returned to the States. My mother had cancer. I was broke. I had to go back to work. I hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live and, from 1982 to 1984, appeared on Broadway and on the road in Agnes of God. I went crazy during that play. I played the psychiatrist. You have to call upon your emotions to do the part, and my emotions were buried. The play involved sex. It involved rape. It involved fear. It involved God. It involved love. For the first time in my life, work became torment.

But only when Mary was attacked last year did it really all come back. Talking about what happened to me has been cathartic because it has made me accept the brutal truth that I too am vulnerable. Still, I’m uncomfortable. I want it to go away.

When I played Maggie the Cat in Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1974, Tennessee became my friend. I owe much to him. He believed there is damage in anything you keep hidden. As Maggie said. “When something is festering in your memory…laws of silence don’t work…. Silence about a thing just magnifies it. It grows and festers in silence, becomes malignant….” By breaking my silence, I can finally begin to make peace with the rage in my soul.

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