More than 20 years ago, Joanna Connors was raped.
It happened while she was on assignment for a Cleveland newspaper. She was running late for an interview with a playwright at a small theater on the Case Western Reserve University campus. When she arrived, the theater was empty.
Then a young man approached her: He said he was working on the lighting, and invited her to see his work.
She paused. She had a bad feeling. An alarm went off in her head, but "I overwrote it because I wanted to be polite," she told MPR News host Kerri Miller. She followed him to the stage, where he pulled out a knife and raped her. Connors wasn't sure if he would kill her or not; the assault lasted for an hour.
Her attacker was arrested the next day, but Connors' ordeal was not over.
When she first met with the prosecutor to go over the case, the prosecutor asked Connors' husband to leave the room. "Then he leveled his gaze at me and said: 'Why the hell did you go into that theater?'"
"[The question] is infuriating to me now. At the time, it was devastating. I was already blaming myself. I was late, it was all my fault — which is a very common response by rape survivors, taking the blame for it," Connors said. "I went home and I sobbed and sobbed, and people continued to tell me it wasn't my fault, but that just cemented in my mind that it was my fault."
In her memoir, "I Will Find You," Connors describes in honest and painstaking detail the aftermath of the rape and her life after the trial. Her rapist was convicted, but her life was forever altered.
"I've lost the illusion — the pretty dangerous illusion — that the world is safe," Connors writes.
"I think of my life then as a performance art act, because I performed as though everything was fine, but when I could, I became very reclusive," she said.
She buried the trauma for nearly two decades until her daughter began to tour college campuses. It all came back.
"I realized I had lived with this deep fear and daily anxiety ever since the rape, and it was almost 20 years of that. My daughter was going to college, and I had a massive panic attack when I took her to look at colleges. I realized I had stuffed this down, buried it, told myself I was better and over it, and I hadn't dealt with it. I was not over it," she said. "Then I had to think about how I would get over it."
Her answer was to write about it — to investigate the life of the man who raped her, and try to understand how it happened.
Other than a few biographical facts and his name — David Francis — she didn't know anything about him. As a witness during the trial, she had been sequestered.
Within a few days of beginning to dig, she learned that he had died in prison. She tracked down his family. He had a brother, also in jail for rape. And two sisters.
"Their father had been a pimp, and had three women living in the house who worked for him. He was abusive to his wife — their mother — and to his children. He was an alcoholic," Connors said. "It was the classic chaotic childhood, so it's no wonder that the children out of this chaos had lives with some of the same problems: drug addiction, alcoholism, child abuse and so on."
As she continued to investigate, she followed the path of his life, all the way back to the theater where the attack took place. Retracing his story helped her come to terms the trauma she'd been carrying for decades.
"You learn how to live with it," she said. "Not how to get beyond it."
For the full interview with Joanna Connors, use the audio player above.