In 1984, Joanna Connors was the victim of a brutal rape. For the next 25 years, she suppressed the mental and physical trauma. When she discovered Pilates, she regained autonomy of her mind, body and spirit.
by Joanna Connors
Until it happened to me, I didn’t believe out-of-body stories were true. But on a hot July day in 1984, I floated, high and higher, until I was looking down at myself. I was 30 and kneeling on the stage of a small theater on a university campus in Cleveland. A man stood above me, pushing my head to his crotch, while holding a long, pointed blade to my neck.
“Suck on it,” he ordered. I watched from above, detached, the connection between my mind and my body broken.
I was a reporter for the Plain Dealer, Cleveland’s only daily newspaper, and Ohio’s largest, and I was new to the city. Just a few months before, my husband and I had moved there from Minneapolis.
10 minutes late
That day, I had gone to the theater to interview a playwright, who had come to Cleveland from Peru to oversee a production of his play. I was running late. Ten minutes late. In the years that followed, I blamed myself for everything that was about to unfold.
When I rushed into the lobby, the theater was quiet and empty. “Oh, no, they’re gone,” I said aloud, adding a swearword for emphasis. I hadn’t noticed that one guy was still there, leaning against the wall across the tiny lobby, smoking a Kool.
“They said to wait a few minutes,” he said, as cool as the smoke curling from his cigarette. “They’ll be back.”
I waited from my spot across the lobby. A minute passed. Two. Three. I turned to the stairs to leave.
“I’m working on the lights,” he said, his voice casual. “Do you want to see what I’m doing while you wait?” he asked.
Ignoring My Instincts
I ignored a flash of caution—he was a stranger—and walked into the theater. I climbed the two steps to the stage, with the guy right behind me. The theater was dim; the only illumination came from the house lights. As we stood there, the guy gestured vaguely to the stage lights in the fly space above us. “I should turn them on,” he said. He didn’t move.
At once, I knew two things: He was clueless about lighting, and I had to get out of there.
“I think I’ll wait outside,” I said. Too late. He grabbed me from behind, covered my mouth. A knife appeared, from where I didn’t know. He put it to my throat. “Now, I can kill you,” he said. “But I won’t kill you if you do what I say.”
I touched my neck and felt something warm and sticky. My hand came away smeared with blood. My blood.
In that moment, I knew I would die that day. I knew that the last face I would see on this earth was the face of the man who poked the point of the knife at me when he ordered me to take off my clothes. For the next hour, I watched from above as the man raped me.
The Name I’ll Never Forget
When he took me outside—knife at my back—I saw for the first time that he had a name tattooed on his arm. “DAVE,” in all capital letters.
“DAVE” let me go with a kiss and a warning: If I went to the cops, maybe he’d go to jail. But when he got out, he would find me.
I did go to the cops, right away, and they took me to the nearest emergency room.
The next day, they caught him. He had returned to the same part of the campus, wearing the same clothes. Three months later, a jury convicted him, and because he was a repeat offender, the judge sentenced him to 30 to 75 years. He had raped me one week after he’d been let out of prison on parole.
With “DAVE” locked up, I told myself it was all over. My inner voice spoke to me like a particularly severe Marine drill sergeant: “You survived. You’re fine. Don’t think about it, don’t play the victim, don’t be a baby. Just get on with it.”
Refusing to Play the Victim
So I did. I stopped talking about the rape, and so did my husband and family. I stopped going to therapy after three sessions. I went back to work, and a year after the trial ended, I gave birth to my first child, a son. Two years later, I had my second baby, a girl. With the endless to-do list of a working mother, it was easy to never have to truly deal with the rape.
But here’s what I discovered: I might have buried the horror, but it was not dead. I had buried it alive, and it grew in that deep place I put it, like a vine from some mutant weed, all twisted and ugly and tenacious as kudzu. As it grew, it strangled a lot of other stuff in me that should have been growing: It killed my courage and joy. It killed my trust in the world. It made panic attacks a regular occurrence. Worse, the vine reached out to entangle my children. They lived in its twisted grip with me.
I was always waiting for something terrible to happen to them: Kidnappers. Pedophiles. Murderers. Car accidents. Freak playground accidents. Drowning. They filled my brain like the inventory of a torture chamber.
I hovered over them. But I was far, far more vigilant than the average helicopter parent. I was a Black Hawk chopper parent, on constant surveillance. When I finally told my children about the rape, 20 years later, my daughter said, “So that’s why I’ve always felt like you’re stalking me.”
A Sudden Flashback
I told my daughter after taking her on one of her college visits, the ones where you follow a student walking backwards through a lovely campus, thinking only about the college’s tuition fees. The blue light jolted me out of my financial calculations.
“This is the blue emergency light,” the guide said. “If you ever feel you’re in danger, find one of these lights and use the phone to call. Help will be there in five minutes.”
I looked at my beloved daughter, my panic rising. “Five minutes?” I said to her. “In five minutes you could be dead.”
Not exactly Parenting 101. But the sweaty, shaking, dizzy panic attack that followed made me realize I would never make it through her college years, or her adulthood, if I did not deal with my rape. It had been lying in wait, all those years, buried in the core of my being.
Dealing With the Pain
My strategy was haphazard. My first thought was to write about the rape, and about the rapist, in order to understand what had brought us to that intersection of violence. I realized that if I made a list of the people who had most influenced my life, “DAVE” would
be near the top. Yet I knew almost nothing about him.
My employer, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, liked my idea and allowed me to write about it for the paper. After the story was published, I expanded it into a book, I Will Find You: A Reporter Investigates the Life of the Man Who Raped Her (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016).
But I needed more than that to come to terms with the rape. I saw a therapist who diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder and prescribed an antidepressant. I resisted both the medication and the diagnosis, which I thought should only apply to soldiers who had been in combat. But she persuaded me of both, and the antidepressant, along with talk therapy,
Restoring the Mind/Body Connection
Something was still missing in my healing, though. Everything I was doing worked on my mind. “DAVE” had also hit, cut, pushed, entered, violated and controlled my body for an hour. Yet my body was, in an odd way, an afterthought in all of the writing and therapy and medication.
The mind/body connection was broken when I dissociated—the formal term for what we call out-of-body experiences—and I felt, profoundly, that it had never reconnected. I realized I had dissociated for much of my children’s lives, observing from a distance. I detected extreme danger in the most ordinary activities, from sledding after a big snowstorm (they could get a head injury!) to watching my son play hockey (he could be paralyzed!).
A Method for the Madness
I discovered Pilates by chance, not knowing how much it would help me. I had always had a slight slump to my posture. I walked and sat with my shoulders curved forward and up, and my neck thrust into tension. I was also a swimmer, doing laps at least four days a week. The combination led to chronic neck and shoulder pain. I went to chiropractors and tried acupuncture, but nothing helped.
When I moved to Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, I noticed a Pilates studio, Inspiral Motion, just three blocks away. I’d heard Pilates could help with postural issues, but I was too shy to venture in until I saw that the owner, Lisa Lansing, offered a six-week Learn Pilates class. I figured everyone in the class would be a beginner like me, so I signed up.
Connecting Through Pilates
I was a convert from the very first Reformer class. I’m sure my form was terrible, and would continue to be for quite a while. But I immediately “got” the idea of working from my core, and I could feel my shoulder pain dissipating and my posture improving as my spine almost sighed in relief while I focused on lengthening and flexibility.
I loved it so much, I signed up to take a second Learn Pilates sequence during the same six-week period, so I could go to the studio twice a week. When I completed those classes, I signed up for group classes. When Lisa offered an unlimited-class package, I started going to the studio almost every day.
I found my perfect teacher there, Debbie Axelrod, and when she decided to open her own studio in her home, I followed her. My favorite move was Short Spine—it’s better than a massage! It always feels like the dessert after the workout. I also liked Pull-Ups on the Chair, and the Long Stretch Series and Elephant on the Reformer. Pilates made my body feel agile and strong.
Unburying the Past
It took a while for me to see that Pilates was doing something else for me. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when I spoke about how I had “buried” the rape inside, I always gestured to my core. The rape had resided there for two decades, taking up more and more space in my body’s powerhouse. No wonder I felt withdrawn and distant so much of the time.
I had done what so many people who have experienced trauma do. I had denied it and avoided dealing with it because I was afraid—afraid that if I actually took those feelings out from their burial place, and confronted them, they would be too powerful to bear. They would destroy me.
I learned from Debbie to face my fears; it took me a long time to master Tendon Stretch, but Debbie kept returning to it until I had the courage to keep my legs straight and go for it. When she became certified to teach AntiGravity Fitness two years ago, I had more fears to overcome, with the inversions and suspensions. But I did it, and I learned to say to myself, I can do this, when faced with a challenge.
When I decided to write a book about my rape, I was so scared I kept putting it off. I felt fearful of facing that past, and exposing to public view the intimate truths that are essential to memoirs. What would people think of me? Worse, what would critics say? Debbie encouraged me every step if the way, showing me that yes, “I can do this.”
Before I started Pilates, I felt so disconnected from my body that I didn’t truly have feeling in my core. I slouched as though I had to hide and protect my body and my soul. The phrase “I felt it to my core” never applied to me. But working hard in Pilates class, I felt my muscles grow stronger and my spine lengthen. I felt some of my muscles, like my serratus, for the first time ever. As my core grew stronger, I stood taller because I actually felt more courageous.
Pilates gave me a strong, stable core. But more than that, it gave me my sense of self back. My whole self: body, mind and spirit. I’ll never stop doing it. PS