Conquering fear: How her rapist influenced her life

By Michelle Duff

Joanna Connors tells Michelle Duff why she tracked down her rapist after 20 years to find out what had driven him to attack her.
Joanna Connors says that although her attacker was a victim too, that does not excuse his actions.
Joanna Connors says that although her attacker was a victim too, that does not excuse his actions.

When Joanna Connors stopped to think about the three most influential people in her life, the list was short. Her mum, her dad, and the man who raped her.

It was twilight when, as a carefree cub reporter, Connors pulled up to a theatre at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. She was running late, and there was no sign of the actors' group she was set to interview, the theatre abandoned but for a lone man. "They said to wait a few minutes. They'll be back," he said, leaning on a wall and smoking a cigarette. "I'm working on the lights. Do you want to see what I've been doing?"

In the dark theatre, alarm bells rang too late. Connors was raped for an hour. The man - easily identifiable later by the crude tattoo, "DAVE", etched on his arm - then kissed her on the lips, walking away with: "If I have to go to prison, I'll miss you. And when I get out, I will find you." Stumbling into a nearby parking lot, Connors told the attendant she had been raped.

She went to the hospital emergency department. She reported it to the police. She spoke to rape crisis. She went through the motions and Dave was caught. He was sentenced to 75 years in jail.

It was only much later, when Connors' own daughter was about to start university, that the mother-of-two realised she had been going through the motions for two decades. The woman she was before the rape was gone; in her place, someone whose life was laced with fear.

"It dictated what kind of mother I was, what kind of friend I was, how I decided to spend my time. I worked at home alone and there would be days I didn't talk to anybody but my family, and I wasn't like that before," Connors, now 62, says. "That's when I realised he was right up there with my parents in terms of influencers."

Connors was 30 when she was raped, and she had not spoken of the trauma since - despite suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, agoraphobia, panic attacks and trichotillomania (where the sufferer pulls out their own hair) - in the ensuing years. But the Cleveland reporter had written in journals, always with the idea of one day sharing her story. The words remained unspoken until 2005, when her daughter, Zoe, was moving out of home.

On a tour of Zoe's university campus, Connors suffered a debilitating panic attack and realised she had to warn her daughter that she was prey. In finally telling Zoe, and her son Dan, about the rape, she began to think more about how it had shaped her life.

Her book I Will Find You began as a series of articles for The Plain Dealer, the newspaper where Connors still works. She chronicled her assault at knifepoint, the aftermath and how she responds to it, years later, by investigating the life of the man who raped her. Using her skills as a journalist, Connors began to dig into the life of the man she knew only as Dave. She sifted through court records, revisited the physical evidence, and tracked down his friends and family to find out what kind of a man would feel compelled to attack and rape a stranger.

Police arrested David Francis on July 10, 1984, the day after the rape. The gold cross he was wearing during the attack was in his pocket.
Police arrested David Francis on July 10, 1984, the day after the rape. The gold cross he was wearing during the attack was in his pocket.

"I decided to do it after the experience with my daughter, thinking, 'This has to come out. This has to be done,'" Connors says. "I didn't think my story alone was very interesting. As a writer, what interested me was him. Who was he, why did he do this and what put him on this path? I sensed at the time that he had been a victim of some kind, I suspected he had been raped in prison. I sensed there was something to learn there." She pauses. "I thought this might be the way for me to stop being afraid."

The result is a book both brutal in its honesty and beautifully told. In describing her rape, Connors is unflinching, objective, reporting the details. Her rape is horrifically mundane, the blow-by-blow record leaving an imprint far more realistic than the fast flashes of flesh on crime shows like Law and Order, where rape is simply a plot device.

"I wanted to tell it in a matter-of-fact way, because in popular culture rape is often made out to be dramatic and exciting and thrilling, when that was not my experience," Connors says. "I know some people will be put off by the detail, but I wanted to really show what that experience was for me." This, Connors admits, was terrifying; when her first article was published in The Plain Dealer, she couldn't check emails or phone messages. "Then when I did, I was floored. I got literally hundreds of emails, and that's one of the reasons I wanted to do the book. There are so many women who feel like they can't talk about it, who have never talked about it, who may have reported it to the police but nothing happened, who may have told a family member but no one believed, who weren't able to tell their story for one reason or another."

The unexpected foil to the book's brutality comes during Connors' search for and interviews with family members of the man who raped her, David Francis. Near the beginning of her research, Connors discovered Francis had died from cancer aged 43 at the Corrections Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio. While she initially thought this was a setback, she now feels that it allowed her to discover who he really was.

"Even though it was disheartening and I thought it was the end of the story before it started, I think it was good that I couldn't talk to him, because then I was forced to go to find his family - and I think confronting him would have been fruitless."

Instead, she tracked down and spoke to his sisters, Charlene and Laura, who told of a broken, abusive childhood with a father who was a pimp and an alcoholic, who beat his wife while the children watched and who hung up the boys on hooks for kicks. Both women had suffered child abuse, battled drug addictions, had worked as prostitutes, and themselves been raped. Connors began to feel compassion for them and, eventually, for Francis.

"He was a monster, he turned into a violent person who really had no feelings for other people. But monsters are created, so I have compassion for him too, he was made into that by the circumstances of his family and their situation and lives."

Though he was a victim, that does not excuse his actions, Connors says. "That doesn't make somebody violent. His sisters didn't become violent, his other brother didn't become violent.

"People say this is a courageous thing I've done and I appreciate that, but I think the heroes of the book are Charlene and Laura, not me. They grew up in such terrible circumstances with all the disadvantages America has to offer its citizens, and to fall into drug addiction and prison but then to save themselves - I was and still am awed by them."

Connors and her first husband divorced in the years following the rape and she has now remarried, to the author James Robenalt, and still lives in Cleveland. She works with her local rape crisis centre and hopes the book will prompt more women to come forward. While confronting her fears has helped, she still suffers anxiety and panic attacks. "I did think maybe I could conquer it and become fearless, but now I know that's not going to happen."

But now, at least, she has some equilibrium. "My husband and I were talking about forgiveness, and do I forgive him. I think forgiveness is a process, and it's a mixture of understanding and compassion and really understanding why the person did what they did to you, but it's not letting them off the hook, if that makes sense. I'm trying to forgive him, and it's something that I'll be doing my whole life."

- Canvas

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