Karen Stefano was a sophomore at UC Berkeley, working as a uniformed campus security aide, when she made a decision that would change her life. After her shift ended late one night, she put on her street clothes and walked home alone, heading for her apartment, but was viciously attacked before reaching her door. She survived, and went on to become a criminal defense attorney, but the physical and emotional trauma (and obsession with her assailant) took a toll. What A Body Remembers: A Memoir of Sexual Assault and Its Aftermath is the gripping story of how a young woman persevered, ultimately regaining her confidence and the sense of freedom she thought had vanished forever.
WHAT A BODY REMEMBERS
Berkeley, California—July 19, 1984
I have no particular skills or qualities that make me a good police aide. I’m five two, one hundred and ten pounds, and afraid of guns. I’m not especially graceful under pressure and am ill-equipped to handle any kind of emergency, a fact I’ve demonstrated more than once. Two months out of training, I witnessed a small grass fire next to Sather Gate in Sproul Plaza. I ran toward it, screaming the code for Fire! into my radio, clueless as to what I might do when I reached it. A crowd was gathered, people standing, arms folded across their chests like they were watching a show. Only after I pushed my way through did I finally see the Berkeley Fire Department’s fire prevention officer. It was Earthquake Awareness Month and he was making a safety presentation, demonstrating the proper way to use a fire extinguisher: shoot from the base of the fire and move up. The crowd laughed as I called in “10-22,” cop code equivalent for Never Mind. Within the hour, the head of the UCPD aide program radioed me with instructions to come to her office. She politely reminded me of the directive to use a calm, steady voice at all times. My screeches over the radio had caused everyone in the department to jump out of their skin.
My working-class parents always made it clear that if I wanted money I had to earn it, so I have held jobs since I was twelve: cleaning houses, babysitting, then graduating in my teens to work retail at the mall, hostess at a fish restaurant, answer phones at a law firm. Working for the University of California Police Department is my first post carrying any real responsibility. Located in the basement of Sproul Hall, UCPD has primary law enforcement jurisdiction for the university. It’s a full-service state police agency and officers receive the same training as city and county peace officers throughout the state, plus additional training to meet the needs of a campus environment. It’s an agency I joined with pride. I wanted this position because making friends at Berkeley had proven difficult and I needed to connect with something bigger than myself.
As an incoming freshman, I had endured rush to join a sorority, chattering with hundreds of young women, tolerating skits and songs, a smile plastered on my face to prove how worthy I was, how much I belonged. It had been explained that during rush, would-be pledges gradually cut sororities from their list of choices, while sororities simultaneously cut prospects from their own lists. On the final day, this process would leave each girl with the names of two sororities who sought them as a pledge, then the applicant would choose which of those two sororities she wished to join.
On the final day of rush, I tore open the envelope containing my computer-generated form, the all-important piece of paper that would reveal the Greek letters of the sorority where I would join a house full of new sisters. Around me, girls jumped up and down, hands covering their faces, some of them screaming with joy. But as my eyes scanned the page, my mind steeped with confusion. My form was blank.
I walked across the creaking floors of Hearst Gymnasium, showed the empty page to one of the young women administering rush, and told her I didn’t understand.
“Oh,” she said with a flash of embarrassment. “Wait here.”
She moved quickly for help while I stood alone, shifting my weight from side to side. The head of rush walked toward me, her face serious. She took my paper, then ushered me to a pair of brown metal folding chairs at the side of the room and suggested we sit down.
“This almost never happens,” she said, voice sympathetic, “but you didn’t get in.”
When I didn’t say anything, she added, “No one picked you.” The look on her face said she was prepared for tears, for sobbing histrionics over this devastating event. And it’s true I was stunned, that I felt waves of humiliation coursing through my body. But I was raised to keep quiet and I wanted to play the good sport, the easygoing woman who wasn’t flustered by minor events like wholesale rejection. “Oh,” is all I said, “okay.” I was too dumbfounded to say anything else.
I slipped away, returning to my Stern Hall dorm, the rooms still deserted because I had arrived early for rush and the semester hadn’t yet begun. I didn’t know it yet, but that event would mark the beginning of my separateness, my sense of isolation. It reinforced my belief that I didn’t belong on this campus, that I wasn’t smart enough, wasn’t pretty enough, that I was inherently flawed and unlikable. But becoming a UCPD aide had changed that. By joining the police department, in putting on that police uniform, I was seeking to reinvent myself: lonely young woman lost in sea of thirty thousand students converted into member of a powerful tribe. Weakness morphed into strength. Powerless transformed into powerful. Sure, the badge might belong in some cheap dress-up costume purchased at a drugstore for a kid who wants to play cops and robbers, but for me it was an emblem of coolness, of belonging, and I needed to belong somewhere.
I studied hard for my written police department test because the lexicon in a police department is different. We say “vehicle” instead of “car,” “affirmative” instead of “yes,” “negative” rather than “no.” And speaking in code feels good. It means we are special, different. There is Us and there is Them, and it feels so much better to be part of Us. I prioritized the test over my midterms, made flash cards, tested myself until I knew them all, the 10-codes, the 11-codes: 10-23, stand by; 10-97, arrived at scene; 11-99, officer needs help; Code 3—expedite cover. I learned military time, police alphabet: Adam, Boy, Charlie. David, Edward, Frank. King, Lincoln, Mary. Then the California Penal Code, Vehicle Code, Health & Safety Code, Welfare & Institutions Code: Battery, 242; Assault with a Deadly Weapon, 245; Armed Robbery, 211; Kidnapping, 207; Torture, 206; Rape, 261. In Berkeley, the codes floating over the radio most often were Penal Code 148, resisting arrest, and Welfare & Institutions Code 5150: crazy. I studied so hard because I longed to be like the officers and sergeants and the more senior aides, all so capable and self-assured, ready for anything, itching for a good call to sound out over their radios, preferably something bloody.
All night long I walk, on alert among the sly shadows, rescuing other women from the library, escorting them to the safety of dorm rooms, sororities, apartments. Elise at International House going to 2401 Bancroft Way; Caitlin at Alumni House going to Zellerbach Hall; Gina at Haviland Hall going to Oxford Street and University Avenue. I am savior only to women—no man has ever called for an escort home. My police uniform is a superpower and wearing it allows me to do what other women cannot: walk alone down a city street, roam the darkest corners of campus, tromp through the dirt alongside pitch-black Strawberry Creek leaving only boot prints behind me.
When I appear in uniform in public, I adopt the stance I have been told demonstrates authority, a pose that says I am to be obeyed, that I am not to be fucked with. Spine straight. Shoulders back. Head high. Feet apart. Face unsmiling. Eyes serious. If I am standing still and really want to make the message clear, I’ll cross my arms over my chest. Male aides and officers don’t need to think about “The Stance.” Their bodies naturally transmit a message of authority. Mine does not.
I learned that The Stance holds impact even when out of the costume of my uniform. I have adopted it on and off campus while wearing my regular university student clothes of jeans, sweatshirt, backpack. The Stance makes me feel strong, in control, almost powerful.
Patrolling the dark shadows of campus and surrounding urban crime-ridden neighborhoods, I am not afraid. I’ve been born into a new world. I know I am suspect, that many people at UCPD expect me to fail, that some even want me to. Most of the officers and sergeants remain distant and cool. I am new and they eye me with suspicion, or worse, they ignore me. I am naïve but want desperately not to be. I am determined to prove myself. Freshman year, dancing in the pit of the Greek Theatre I watched Annabella of Bow Wow Wow singing “I Want Candy,” stalking the stage in her mohawk, her savage confidence palpable. God, I wanted to be her. So I tried to grow more bold. It was an act. But sometimes we have to pretend until we become the person we’re pretending to be, right? I got a haircut. I kept my dirty blonde bob, but had my bangs cut into spikes I made stand straight up with hair gel. Part sorority girl, part punk rock chick. People weren’t sure what to make of me and I liked that, liked keeping them off-kilter. That was another motivation for becoming a police aide: defiance. You? people would think: You can’t do that job! You can’t protect women! You can’t walk home alone through the Berkeley streets after a shift!
Oh no? Just watch me, motherfuckers.
The shift is nearly over and I plant myself on one of the wooden benches in front of Dwinelle Hall, close to the station. If there are no more calls tonight, I will sneak inside, maybe get home early for once. Sitting while on patrol is strictly forbidden. Aides are not to contribute to the cliché of the lazy donut-eating cop. But I have easily walked nine miles tonight and my back is screaming, a blister is rising on the arch of my foot, and it is dark and no one is watching, and I can patrol just fine with my goddamn eyes.
My radio squawks and a voice speaks. “Dispatch to 155.”
My hand clicks the mic and I lean into it to speak. “155,” I say. Since the fire incident, I have learned to lower my voice an octave, to suppress my natural Valley-girlish OhMyGod! tone, to emulate the cool unflappable tones of Channel 1, the police radio
channel used by the real officers. “What’s your 10-20?”
“West side of Doe Library.”
“Check. You have an escort waiting, main entrance to Moffitt Library. Wearing jeans, red backpack. Name is Cyndi. Headed to Chi Omega.”
“10-4,” I say. “En route.”
It’s after eleven when I finally trudge back to the station. The halls are empty, everyone from the 3:00 to 11:00 p.m. swing shift has gone home, and graveyard lineup has finished and moved out on patrol. I walk past Dispatch, a dark cave twinkling with red and amber lights, emitting sounds of voices, UCPD officers in the field. Softer in the background comes the radio traffic of Berkeley PD and Oakland PD, both monitored by UCPD dispatch to notify UC officers if something big leaks into our jurisdiction. Sitting inside is the UC Police dispatcher, Rachel, a short, wide-hipped redhead with a reputation for fucking anything with a badge. Perched next to her is John, my boyfriend of four months, Badge Number 159, another UCPD aide.
“Hey,” he says when I stop outside the door of the booth. “Hey,” I echo, making sure to sound indifferent. I nod to Rachel, who gives me a smirk.
“I’m just hanging with Rachel for a while,” John says.
“Cool,” I say, voice still measured. Inside the station John and I maintain clipped, casual tones intended to minimize the risk of catching shit for sounding too lovey-dovey and not cop-like and hard. The razzing within a police department is unmerciful, even though it’s public knowledge we are a couple. John wouldn’t be caught dead calling me Puppy at the station, even though it’s our pet name for each other, a name that started as a joke until one day it wasn’t.
I’m not worried about Rachel. John sits nestled in the dark beside her tonight only because he wants to become a Certified Police Dispatcher and even though she’s not supposed to, Rachel will turn over her headset to John and it will be his voice over the radio, firm, calm, in control, directing officers out in the field. John is mine, of this I am certain, because our favorite pastime involves alternating between kissing and gazing into each other’s eyes, Phil Collins singing “Against All Odds” in the background.
John is one of the most senior aides, respected for his abilities, but equally admired and detested by the officers for his loud, cocky mouth. He lives in an apartment on Channing Way with two sarcastic chain-smoking seniors who divide their time evenly between studying and getting high.
I hated John when I first met him. And then I didn’t. He was caustically funny and viewed law enforcement as the noblest of careers. He spoke of becoming a cop, then a prosecutor. On his bedroom wall, he had a black-and-white poster of Ronald Reagan, positioned so the fortieth President of the United States looked down onto John’s narrow bed, observing whatever went on there. I met John within a week of becoming an aide. He caught my eye immediately, sauntering through the station, laughing with Gene King, another senior aide. He seemed wise, worldly, fearless. I wasn’t just attracted to him, I admired him.
He was my first real lover. John was smart, relentlessly ambitious, and this drive had rubbed off on me. He made me want to be a better aide, made me want to know what was going on in the world, to get my grades up, to go to law school and also become a prosecutor. John and I shared the department and similar blue-collar home environments growing up. But mostly what we had in common was a desire to abandon the people we had been and become something great.
“We were just talking about the McDonald’s thing,” John says. “Isn’t it awful?” Rachel says.
I nod a wordless yes. The day before, in San Ysidro, California, a neighborhood in the southern portion of my hometown of San Diego, forty-one-year-old James Oliver Huberty entered a McDonalds carrying a 9mm Uzi semi-automatic, a Winchester pump-action 12-gauge shotgun, and a 9mm Browning HP pistol. He fired 257 rounds of ammunition, killing 21 people, five of them children, and injuring 19 others, a massacre lasting 77 minutes before he was shot dead by a police sniper. It was the deadliest shooting rampage ever in the United States. As he left home the afternoon of the attack, his wife asked where he was going. He replied, “Hunting humans.”
I shuffle down the hall to the empty women’s locker room. There are only two other female aides in the department and only a handful of female officers and sergeants. One is away at UCLA to help staff the crowds expected for the 1984 Summer Olympics, one is out on patrol, and the others have enough sense to maneuver day shift assignments.
I remove my badge, placing it in the corner of my locker. I ease myself down to the bench, unlace black combat boots that make my feet look enormous, peel back thick-padded socks, examine my blister. My frame is compact in my khaki uniform, the military creases still crisp. Removing the utility belt, putting away the radio, the heavy flashlight, my body becomes unburdened. I am light again, free. I am no longer police. With the simple act of putting on my street clothes, turquoise pencil-legged pants, white sleeveless blouse, scuffed white flats, I have transformed back into a young woman, a nineteen-year-old undergrad who has a problem set due in Econ, who is alarmingly behind in her Anthropology reading.
I grab my lavender backpack, pull out the keys to my apartment, and I’m ready for the walk home. I feel exhaustion setting in. I have gone to class, then to Doe Library to study, then straight into my shift. Once I leave my apartment in the mornings, I rarely return home until the day is finished. All I want to do is crawl into bed and sleep, awaken refreshed.
I leave the locker room and pass the dispatch booth again. Rachel is running license plates for an officer on patrol. “Comes back to Reginald Wallace, 1845 Dwight Street. No warrants.”
Huddled next to Rachel in the darkness, John waves in my direction. “See you tomorrow.”
I say goodnight and push open the station doors to step out into the cool summer night.
I don’t know it yet, but this will be my last moment of calm, the last moments of before, the final moments of the first part of my life.
Featured with permission of the author and publisher, Rare Bird Books, Los Angeles
Karen Stefano is the author of What A Body Remembers: A Memoir of Sexual Assault and Its Aftermath (Rare Bird Books, 2019). She is also the author of the story collection, The Secret Games of Words, (1GlimpsePress, 2015) and the how-to business writing guide, Before Hitting Send, (Dearborn, 2011). Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, Psychology Today, The Rumpus, Epiphany, and elsewhere. She was nominated for the XXXVIII Pushcart Prize. Karen is also a JD/MBA with 20 years of complex litigation experience. She currently splits her time between San Diego, California, and Washington, D.C. To learn more about Karen, please visit: www.stefanokaren.com.