Saturday, May 29, 2010

Chicago Gynecologist Charged With Rape: The Second Trauma of Not Being Believed

In August, 2002, a Chicago woman who was 8 months pregnant reported that her gynecologist had raped her.  Forensic evidence, including a rape kit, was gathered, but no comparison sample was ever taken from the doctor.  This wasn't the first allegation of sexual assault against this doctor nor, as it turns out, would it be the last.  His license was suspended for several months last year after four women made allegations.  On Thursday, the doctor was arrested in the 2002 case, almost 8 years after it happened, but less than two weeks after his DNA was finally tested against the rape kit.

Now, a few disclaimers.  I don't know the alleged victim or the alleged perpetrator in this case, and obviously I don't know what happened that day in 2002.  Everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and that holds for this case as much as for any.  However, for the sake of argument, I'm going to presume that this crime occurred exactly as described and the doctor is guilty.  Again, I don't know if that's true, but let's imagine it is.

When most people hear the word "rape" they imagine someone jumping out of the bushes or a dark alley and accosting a woman.  They imagine a weapon of some kind.  They imagine that the perpetrator and the victim don't know each other.  In fact, however, the rapist and victim are strangers to each other in only about 1 in 4 rapes.

Rape, regardless of the circumstance or relationship, is traumatic.  Rape violates the victim's sense that the world is a safe place and that they are in control of and can protect their own bodies.  Rape by someone you know and trust adds the extra violation of the victim's belief that they can judge character and that they are loved and cared for by those closest to them.  In this instance, there is the additional factor that the victim was pregnant.  While violence against pregnant women is certainly a known phenomenon, most of us hold the belief that pregnant women are sacrosanct, particularly towards the end of the pregnancy.  Here, a woman was raped while pregnant, not just by someone she knew but by someone she trusted to help her pregnancy be safe.  Obviously, that trust was violated in the worst way.

People who have experienced or been exposed to trauma often experience a sense of unreality, both during and after the incident.  It's very common to hear people say, "This can't be happening" or "It isn't true."  What they are actually saying, though, is that the fact that it is true is too much for them to bear.  They can't process it.  The only thing that helps that is time spent living with the notion that it did happen, and opportunities to process what that means for them.  But in this case, as in too many cases of sexual assault, the people who were supposed to help this woman either didn't believe her or didn't care enough to follow up, or maybe they had some other motive. 

Whether the victim was actually told this didn't happen, she certainly got the message that it didn't matter.  That is an especially difficult message to receive, because it directly interferes with processing the original incident and coming to terms with it.  People already worry that they are crazy for how upset they are and how a critical incident affects them.  If they're told it didn't happen, while they still know it did they have entered another phase of the incident and their own disbelief -- not only was this woman raped, and she felt it couldn't be happening, she wasn't believed, which again must have felt unreal.  If she was told it didn't matter, that just reinforced how crazy she was already feeling.

Reading about this case, I was reminded of an exam I had during my own pregnancy with my son.  My doctor, who is male, and his physician's assistant, who is female, entered the room.  I made some wise-crack about the PA being my bodyguard, and my doctor said very seriously, "She's not here to protect you, she's here to protect me."  In fact, she was there to protect us both, and to attest that nothing inappropriate happened during the exam.  I can only vaguely imagine what it would be like to be assaulted under those circumstances.  I can't begin to fathom what it would do to me, after that, to not be believed.

Photo copyright istockphoto/jenjen42


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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