When survivors become heroes

Rape survivor Brenda Tracy to open Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Editor’s Note: This article discusses a survivor’s account of sexual assault and violence that may be triggering to some readers. Portland State’s Women’s Resource Center provides support and information for members of the PSU community affected by sexual assault and violence.   

Brenda Tracy—rape survivor, public speaker, and political advocate—will speak at 5:30 p.m. on April 5 in Portland State’s Smith Memorial Student Union Ballroom to kick off the university’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month speaker series. Tracy will also be presented with an award by Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.

Tracy’s visit to PSU will be her latest of over 20 campus speeches and occurs less than three years after she first came forward with her rape survival story. After 16 years of being trapped in a self-described “prison of silence,” she quickly turned her nursing career into one of political advocacy and public speaking.

In June 1998, Tracy was gang-raped by four men for seven hours at a weekend house party near the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis. Tracy was also force-fed alcohol, sodomized, and robbed before she left the apartment the next morning. Tracy initially called the police for advice, then agreed to a rape kit. However, after pressure from her best friend and boyfriend at the time, Tracy decided not to press charges. Authorities had enough evidence to convict the four suspects, but without Tracy’s input, none of the men served their estimated 16 years each of prison time.

Two of Tracy’s alleged rapists, Calvin Carlyle and Jason Dandridge, were OSU football players under now-University of Nebraska football coach Mike Riley. When both players were arrested then released, Riley suspended them from one game without due process. However, without pursuing the details of their arrest, he told the press, “These are really good guys who made a bad choice.”

Tracy never forgot this phrase.

In 2014, after four therapy sessions in which Tracy began talking about the rape again, she decided her healing “needed to start somewhere.” Tracy thought she would write Riley a letter. After Googling the coach for up-to-date information, she was shocked to find a 2011 article which criticized Riley for lifting a one-game suspension on a player charged with domestic violence.

“In the middle of the night,” Tracy said, “I was angry about this article, and I clicked on the reporter.”

Tracy shared with John Canzano, the reporter from the Oregonian/OregonLive, that Riley had also served her rapists a mere one-game suspension. Having a daughter on the OSU campus, Tracy said, “He should be ashamed of himself.”

Two minutes later, Tracy recounted, Canzano emailed her back: “I’m proud of you. Do you want to talk?”

Tracy began telling her story to Canzano before she knew he was an award-winning sports journalist. After his series of stories on Tracy ran, Canzano won the 2016 Jane Velez-Mitchell Journalism Award presented by the National Women’s Coalition Against Violence & Exploitation. “I never would have ever gone to him on my own,” Tracy said. “It totally happened serendipitously.”

When Canzano first reached out to Riley for comment, he expected the coach to deflect questions. Instead, Riley called Canzano and admitted he might have handled the situation differently if he had known the details of his players’ case.

Riley told the Vanguard, “I’ve been doing this a long time, but I don’t ever want to stop learning how to do it better.” At the end of his 2014 phone call with Canzano, Riley suggested Tracy come speak to his team in Nebraska. Referencing Tracy’s June 2016 visit to the team and with Riley one-on-one, Riley said, “It was one of the best things I’ve ever done with the team. And it was one of the best things I’ve ever done for me.”

While Tracy counts her coming forward as “an act of desperation” while looking for healing beyond her few therapy sessions, Canzano credits her for her courage.

“In the course of being a journalist, you encounter people who have had misfortune or have been victimized,” Canzano said. “I think a lot of people would have blamed what happened to them and how they were victimized on their circumstance, but instead here’s this person who went off and decided she was going to be successful in spite of it.”

In Tracy’s visit to PSU, she plans to recount the grim details of her rape just like she has in every other speech. For Tracy, this is still not easy.

“I think that the thing that has changed is that I’m just feeling more confident about it,” Tracy explained. “I still feel the shame, I feel the embarrassment, I feel the disgust, I cry every time I talk about those graphic details, because it’s still very real and very painful for me.”

What has Canzano and Riley calling her speeches “grabbing,” however, is that Tracy has little regard for her audiences’ comfort. “It’s only when we’re uncomfortable that we’re mobilized to do something,” Tracy said.

Tracy will also talk about how PSU community members can get involved with sexual assault advocacy. Tracy works with sexual assault victim advocate and lawyer Jacqueline Swanson to affect change in Oregon law. One recent success, “Melissa’s Law,” increased Oregon’s statute of limitations from six years to twelve. Tracy’s oldest son, Darius Adams, has begun his own advocacy work with a change.org petition to keep violent athletes out of the NCAA.

Canzano hopes more than just those involved with the Women’s Resource Center and PSU athletes will show up to Tracy’s talk. “I’d like to see people read this and go, ‘We’re the biology department, but let’s have a night where we bring her in and just let her talk,’” Canzano said. “Because it shouldn’t just be limited to women and sports teams, and that’s what’s happening right now.”

Tracy’s visit is sponsored not just by the WRC and PSU Athletics, but by the PSU Office of Global Diversity and Inclusion, PSU Illuminate, the Oregonian, and the American Association of University Women. Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum will also present Tracy with the 2017 Visionary Voice Award from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Free-to-the-public tickets can be reserved on the WRC events page.