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What Happened to Me
By Cristen Coker Hemmins
I was abducted, raped, and shot twice by two teenagers on October 25, 1991 in my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi.
This is what happened.
I had just come from aerobics, it was about seven o’clock—the sun was just going down. I remember noticing a pretty sunset—the clouds were pink and peach, the sky a deep purplish-blue. As I drove my two-door Accord through the gates onto the campus of Millsaps College, where I was attending school, I could hear the band, mostly the drums, pounding out a rhythm in the stadium at Bailey Junior High across the street. It was Friday night, and I thought they must be having a football game. I pictured the inside of the stadium at the all-black junior high school, which everyone said looked like a prison. Some of my friends had been scared to visit there—I was a little bit leery myself.
I drove into the parking lot. I didn’t want to have to walk far in the dark, especially by myself, and was glad to find a space right next to the stairs that led up to the front of my dorm—about the best spot in the entire lot. I stopped the car, opened the door, and turned around to gather some clothes I had piled in the back. I glanced around and saw two shadowy figures emerge from the bushes at the back of the dorm. My mind did not register danger until it was too late. I got out of the car, my arms loaded with clothes, and when I turned around they were already to me—the two dark figures and something hard and cold at the back of my neck. I was still standing inside the open car door, cornered.
“Get back in the car!” the one with the gun said, grabbing my shoulder and shoving me, with the gun at my neck, back into the car. I sat down in the driver’s seat in shock.
“Move over!” he said, pushing me toward the passenger’s seat. I climbed over to the other side, already talking to them.
“Oh god, oh god. Just let me out,” I said, “you can have the car and everything else, just let me out. Please.”
“Shut up! Get down over there.” He was pushing the driver’s seat forward and the other one was getting in the back seat. He was in the car trying to start it. The other one was holding the gun on my neck. He got the car started; the interior lights and the radio came on.
“Get down!” My eyes were level with the dash, but I was looking over at him. I reached over and turned off the radio. It didn’t seem right for there to be music. I was thinking, “This is happening to me. This is happening. This is real. I can’t believe this is happening to me.” I felt like I was playing a role in a movie; it all seemed unreal.
“Just let me out, please.” I was trying to look up at him, to make eye contact. My mother had made me watch an episode of Oprah that discussed ways to negotiate with an abductor. The little one, the one driving, who I could already tell was in charge, grabbed the back of my neck and pushed my head onto my knees.
“Keep your head down! Get down lower!” Then he yelled at the guy in the back: “Keep that gun on her!”
We had only just backed out of the parking space.
“Is anyone waiting on you?” the little one said. I couldn’t figure out what the best answer would be; I thought as hard as I could, but couldn’t figure out what the right answer, the safest answer, was.
“Uh, yeah, my roommate…and my boyfriend is going to call me any minute.” He started driving out of the parking lot.
“Where are the damn lights! How do they—” I reached over and turned them on. As I looked up, I could see a group of five or six people standing in the middle of the parking lot, under a streetlight, about twenty feet away. They didn’t notice us. I hoped there would be someone in the guardhouse as we went out the gates—I hoped and prayed for the five seconds it took us to get there. There was no one.
We got up to the stoplight leaving campus and turned right. The gun was still at my back.
“What are we gonna do, Ronnie?” the guy in the backseat holding the gun asked. He sounded worried, maybe even scared.
“Shut up!” Ronnie said. “We’re gonna keep her, ‘cause she’s white. Show her what it’s like.” It was as if he were reading a script, saying what he thought the person playing his role, the gangster, should say. We were just pulling onto State Street. I could hear the drums.
“Please, I went to Chastain—I have lots of black friends. I probably know some of your friends. Just let me go.”
“Shut up!” he said, and shoved my head into my lap.
“Why are you doing this to me?” I asked.
“You’re white, and it’s your fault,” Ronnie said.
“But I have black friends,” I said. “I probably know some of your friends.”
“You’ve never been in my place!” he said, looking at me with more hatred than I’d ever seen. “You don’t know what it’s like! If you were in my situation, you’d do the same thing.”
“But what about Martin Luther King, and peace?” I asked.
“If he had been in my situation, he would have done the same thing.”
“No, he wouldn’t have,” I said.
“Just keep your fuckin’ head down!” he said, and grabbed my neck, pushing my face back to my knees.
“Do you have any money?” he asked after a minute.
“No, I don’t think so,” I said.
“Here, look in her purse,” Ronnie said, throwing it to the one in the back.
“Nope, nothing,” the other one said.
“What about in your bank account?” Ronnie asked me, driving on and looking around the whole time as if he were afraid someone would see him.
“I think I have about forty dollars.”
“Shit,” he said. I remember being glad I had just written a check for seventy dollars the day before—they wouldn’t get much from me.
I was looking at him, turning my head to the left while keeping my cheek pressed to my knee, hoping he wouldn’t notice, and also trying to keep track of every turn we made. I had to be able to describe him perfectly, once this was over, I told myself. It never occurred to me that I might not be able to tell all of this. His name was Ronnie—I was trying to drill this into my head, but it was like my brain was not working, not holding what I told it to. He was young: I guessed he and the other one were both under twenty. I found out afterwards that he was eighteen and the other one was sixteen. He was small—about an inch shorter than me, and very dark skinned. He wore overalls and tennis shoes, nothing else. And the best thing—I was so glad to see it—on his forearm closest to me, his right forearm, was a scar, about four inches long, straight up his arm.
He realized I was staring at him.
“Keep your head down. Stop looking at me. Don’t look at me again.”
We came to a stoplight, and by looking up to the right I could tell it was the one before the Baptist Church, and there was another church on the left-hand side. This was the same stoplight where a woman had been carjacked the year before in the middle of the day. My mother had drilled this scary story into my head too. Every time I had to drive through it, I got scared and made sure my doors were locked. And here we were.
“Hold the gun up here,” Number One, Ronnie, said to Number Two. The gun came up between the two seats and was rested on the parking brake.
“See, it’s a real gun,” Number One said. “Look at it. Feel it.”
“I believe you,” I said.
“Feel it!” He grabbed my hand and rubbed it on the gun. My hand felt as if it weren’t connected to my body. The gun was old; it looked almost antique. It had a big round part that held the bullets and a long barrel, and it looked rusty—a dark reddish-brown.
“Let’s shoot it a couple of times to show her it’s real,” Number One said.
“No! Don’t do that! Someone’ll hear!” said Number Two.
The light turned green and we started moving again. Now I was trying to get a look at Number Two in the backseat. Even though I was still partially doubled over, by twisting my head around I could see him: he was about six feet tall, and lighter skinned. He was wearing a jogging-suit jacket—royal blue and navy and white—with navy pants, and on his head was a black baseball cap with what looked like a white “A” on it. When I told the police this at the hospital, one of them told me it must have been an “X,” for Malcolm X—all the black boys were wearing them, they said.
Number One realized what I was doing and yelled, “Get down on the floor!” He shoved the gun against my neck, pushing me with it onto the floorboard. I curled up there as best I could.
We kept driving. I had lost track of exactly where we were, but I knew we were still heading toward downtown. We had left State Street and were making several quick turns, driving slower.
“Get up here now,” Number One said. I eased myself back onto the seat, looking around and trying to figure out where we were.
“Take off your shirt,” he said, still driving. I sat there, as if I hadn’t heard him. I was shocked. This had not occurred to me, that this might happen. Rape had not crossed my mind. I guess my mind was trying to protect itself.
“Take it off now!” he said, and put the gun back against my neck. Now I had no control. Somehow, I felt as if I’d had a distinct advantage, some power, in being smarter than them. Even if I had been a hundred times smarter than both of them put together, once that gun was back at my neck, I realized I had no power whatsoever. I pulled off my shirt.
“Now the bra—take it all off.” I started undressing. As I sat upright in the seat, Number Two reached around from the backseat and touched my breasts. I will never forget this image: two black hands coming from behind me to grab my breasts as I sat there with my hands at my sides. I say “image” because I no longer felt as it were in my own body. I think I began to shake.
We were driving through a run-down neighborhood—little beat-up houses lined the streets on both sides. There were lights on front porches and in living rooms.
“What are we going to do Ronnie? Where are we going?” Number Two asked.
“Maybe we’ll just drop her off right here with no clothes,” Number One said.
I realized they really had no clear idea what they were doing, or what they were going to do.
“Oh, please don’t do that,” I said, trying to make it sound like that would be an awful thing, when really I was hoping they would do just that.
“No, I think we’ll keep her,” Number One said. I quickly convinced myself this would be best—I had imagined myself coming up to some wonderful old woman’s house, but then realized I could just as easily stumble into a poker game and be gang-raped.
We came to a stop sign. He turned off the headlights. We had just passed two little houses on the right; on the left was an open field. On the immediate right was an empty lot, overgrown with weeds. We turned right, and then right again into the lot. The car pulled up beside a pile of brush. In front of us, about thirty yards away, was a house, well lit, separated from the lot by a cyclone fence. To the left was another house, rather dark. The deserted lot would’ve held about three little houses.
Number One turned off the car and faced me.
“Give me your jewelry.” I took off my four rings. He took them all—but gave my high school ring to Number Two. He put my initial ring—CCC—on one of his pinkies, and the two bands on his other hand.
“Give me the necklace.” I unhooked the clasp and handed it to him. He opened his door and got out, then let out Number Two.
“You keep the gun and stand guard outside while I’m in here,” he said, climbing back into the car. I realized what was going to happen. I can’t remember if I said anything. He got in the passenger seat with me, got over me, and unzipped his overalls.
“Put your feet on the ceiling,” he said.
“Kiss me,” he said, sticking his tongue into my mouth. I gagged. He stank.
“How you feel about having a black baby?” he said, going so deep it hurt.
“I don’t have a problem with miscegenation,” I said between tears. Not knowing what this meant, he was furious. He reared back and hit me hard across my face, then suddenly he sodomized me. I screamed. I’d always wondered what a true scream out of my mouth would sound like. It was deep and throaty and loud and animalistic—not a high-pitched, roller-coaster-ride girl scream. It surprised him. After that one deep push he stopped. He went back to raping me the other way.
“Scream again,” he said. I knew what he was doing—he wanted to see if I had screamed loud enough for anyone nearby to have heard. I yelled again, but not as loud.
“Louder,” he said. I kept on. He kept on. Finally he stopped and pulled out, coming on my stomach. “You see, I’m smart. They’re not gonna catch me. I’m gonna wipe every bit off you and they’ll never know.” He opened the passenger-side door and climbed out, pulling me out after him. He grabbed my t-shirt from the car and started wiping me off. I stood there.
“Did you hear her?” he asked Number Two.
“Yeah,” Number Two said.
“Do you think anyone else did?”
“I don’t know.”
After he thought he’d gotten all of the evidence off, he turned to his friend.
“Your turn,” he said.
Number One had the gun now and he pointed it at me.
“Go on,” he said, to both of us.
I got back in the car. Number Two got in with me. He got over me and unzipped his pants. He was not hard. He stuffed himself inside me and tried. He made me kiss him. His big tongue filled up my mouth. He also stank. He worked over me for a while. I cried; it seemed like the thing to do, although I felt like I was forcing myself to do it. He stopped finally, opened the door, and got up out of the car. Number One came over.
“Did he come in you?” he asked me.
“I, I don’t think so,” I said, hoping this was the right answer. It wasn’t. He turned back to Number Two.
“Get back in the car then,” he said to both of us. We did.
As Number Two worked, suddenly the door opened and Number One stuck in his head. He was holding the gun in one hand, my gold chain in the other, trying to put it on himself. “How does this thing work?” he asked me.
“It’s a clasp,” I said.
“How’s it work?” he asked again, sticking it out towards me. Like I was the one in charge of things. Like I was his sister, not someone he’d just raped. Number Two stopped while I reached out and unhooked the clasp.
“Like this,” I said. “You pull this back.”
“Oh,” he said, taking it back and closing the door.
A few minutes later, Number Two got out.
“Did he?” Number One asked me.
“Yes,” I said.
Number One reached back in the car and gathered up some of my clothes. “Get dressed,” he told me.
I stood underneath a scraggly tree and pulled on my clothes. My tennis shoes had remained on throughout it all. I wondered if there were footprints on the ceiling of my car. It had only been about an hour since I had first felt that gun at my neck.
I was told to get in the backseat. Number One drove, with Number Two in the passenger seat.
“Lay down back there,” Number One said. When I did, I saw the other weapons they’d brought along—a screwdriver and a knife in a sheath—on the floor board. I pushed them partially up underneath the driver’s seat, hoping they’d leave them behind as evidence, but also hoping they wouldn’t notice me trying to trick them.
Soon we were at a drive-through ATM: I gave Number One directions on how to use my card, but he couldn’t get it right, and two cars were soon behind us waiting to get to the machine. He took out the card and we left, circling around to a nearby parking lot.
In the dark, empty lot Number One turned around to face me and said, “You’re gonna drive and do it.” We traded places. Once in the driver’s seat, I felt the barrel pressed against my side.
“Just drive through and withdraw the money,” he said.
I drove around back to the automatic teller and tried to withdraw the cash, but was so nervous I couldn’t do it either. Once again a car pulled up behind us.
“Just go!” Number One said, and we circled around again to the deserted parking lot.
“Okay, get out. I’m driving now,” he said.
I turned to open the door. As I did, I surveyed where we were. I could see a Shell station about two hundred yards away, separated from us by another parking lot and a row of trees and bushes. It never occurred to me to try to run, until that moment. There was a dumpster about a hundred yards away that I thought I might be able to jump behind if they shot at me. I pulled the handle of the door, stepped out and turned around. I saw that Number One was in the back, and I thought he still had the gun. The driver’s seat was still upright. I turned around and ran.
I ran. I ran past the dumpster and was going through the hedge over a small retaining wall when I heard a shot. It hit me in the left leg—I felt it hit, a pressure, but it didn’t hurt, and I didn’t slow down a beat. I kept running. A shot—miss. Another shot—miss. Another—hit. In my back somewhere, I wasn’t sure where. But I didn’t slow down.
I came to the far side of the Shell station and rounded the corner. It looked closed. I was horrified. The windows were tinted and there were bars over all the windows. I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it to the station across the busy intersection—they would be after me already—so I went to the door. It was open. I burst in; there were two black men standing behind the counter.
“Call the police. I’ve been shot!” I said and ran straight behind the counter where they were. I was watching the door. They stood motionless, staring at me.
“Do you have a gun?” I asked. They stared.
“Do you have a gun?!” I yelled at the bigger one who was at the end of the counter. The smaller one had finally grabbed the phone and was talking into it. I was crouching behind the counter. There was a screech of tires, and I dropped to the floor as I saw my car drive up in front of the store.
“Gun!” the bigger one said, also dropping, and I was incredibly relieved to see the smaller one pull out a .357—the same as my dad’s. The big one peeked around the corner of the counter. From my car three shots were fired into the store. Then they sped off.
Not one minute later, the fire department and the police department arrived. A myriad flashing lights filled the lot of the station.
Those two hours or so that they had me seemed to stand still, just like everyone always says, as if the rest of the world ceased to exist while this happened to me.
I found out months later that in the car behind us at the bank were a man, his wife, and their baby—friends of a friend of mine actually—and they saw what was happening to me, saw me glance back at them pleadingly, saw two black figures and a gun pointed at me, and didn’t know what to do. I don’t blame them for anything. They pulled out directly after us and saw us pull into the other parking lot, they actually saw what ensued, saw the flashes and heard the gunshots. They went fast in the other direction and called the police, I’m told. How disturbing that must have been for them.
It was all over the news. I saw myself several times on the local tv news being wheeled out of the gas station on a stretcher. You couldn’t tell it was me really, which was good, I guess.
I received fifty-one floral arrangements and over two hundred letters. While in the hospital, I realized I was lucky, in a way, to have been shot. Everyone, men especially, could sympathize and identify with being shot—it was a physical injury that could be fixed. If I had just been raped, I would have had to go home from the hospital and quietly do my own emotional and mental recovering while everyone tiptoed around me as if I should be ashamed or embarrassed or something. Since I had been shot and physically injured, however, my pain was justified. It was two months and three surgeries later before I healed, and by then I had some distance on the event. My body had to be fixed before I could worry about anything else.
The next day they caught them. The police pulled over a white Cadillac that had been reported stolen, and the boy driving the car said he didn’t steal it, but could take them to the people who did. They found Number One and Number Two hiding in a closet, still wearing all of my jewelry. When the D.A. was interviewing people in the city jail about my case, she questioned a man who said the same thing the boy in the Cadillac had said: that he didn’t do it, but could take her to the two who did. They had been bragging about it while in jail for having stolen the Cadillac. When the police found my car abandoned in the parking lot of a bar, the boys had smashed out all of the windows and beat on the entire car with something hard and heavy—so it wouldn’t look like a get-away car, they told the police, whatever that means. I identified them easily from a stack of photographs. Within the next year, they had both plea-bargained for twenty years without parole. I never had to testify or see them again.
Just last year, Number One escaped, with a murderer, from Parchman Penitentiary in the Delta. They made it as far as Oklahoma before being caught by the FBI and brought back in. Number One’s stay will likely be lengthened—at the very least, he should be in maximum security for the rest of his sentence.
I had to laugh, by the way, when I found out his full name was Ronald McDonald.
I’ve only dreamed about the event twice.
So that’s the story. It matters a lot in my life, though less and less. I hate to say it was pivotal, that’s such a trite word, but it was—not the most important thing, but the thing that changed me the most. No one would guess I’ve been through this—except maybe young, lower-class black men, who I’m sure sense the fear, and sometimes the hatred, I exude. People are very surprised when I tell them this story. But you have to know, if you are going to know me at all.