In July 1984 Joanna Connors, a critic for the Cleveland (Ohio) paper the Plain Dealer, went to the city’s university theatre to interview a playwright. She arrived late, and he had gone. But there was somebody else waiting for her. David Francis, a lifelong offender who had just been released from prison, had let himself in. He put a makeshift knife to her throat, and for the next two hours he raped her every which way he could. When they at last stepped back out into the daylight he warned her not to go to the police. “If I have to go to prison, I will miss you,” he said. “And when I get out, I will find you.” Then he kissed her on the lips and walked away.
Connors started work on this brutally affecting book more than 20 years later. During that time she had buried the trauma and busied herself with the stuff of everyday life: working, home improvements, raising her son and daughter, who were both born in the years following the attack. She had experienced bouts of depression and agoraphobia, hovering anxiously over her children and rarely leaving the house. But it was only when she had a panic attack while taking her teenage daughter Zoe to look around a university campus that she confronted the depth of her trauma. Fear had, she realised, come to dominate her life and those of her children. To overcome it, she decided to turn Francis’s threat back on him: she would find him, and try to make sense of what he had done to her.
There are twin purposes to I Will Find You. The first is simply to convey how rape is experienced by a victim. I have never read an account of an attack in such detail – and the horror is all in the detail. The awkward fumbling as he forces her to remove her clothes, for example: “I almost topple over while I unbuckle my shoes. My underwear binds my ankles. The rapist still can’t get his zipper down.” He finally gets his trousers off, revealing grey boxers, and turns her around. But there is another problem: he can’t keep it up. After an eternity of fruitless thrusting, Connors realises that “the only way this will end is for him to come, so I try to excite him. I move my hips, I thrust back.”
There is nothing self-consciously literary about Connors’ writing, and it is all the more powerful for that. She has an everywoman quality: she could be you.
Her description of the attack’s aftermath is equally forensic. She is fortunate in that – unusually for a rape case – Francis is apprehended almost straight away, and there is enough evidence to convict. But although it is common knowledge that rape trials can be traumatic for the victim, it is still jaw-dropping to read about the process. At one point she is required by law to attend a parole hearing, which involves going into the prison where Francis is held and being cross‑questioned in front of him and dozens of other prisoners who drop by to watch. Her husband is not allowed to accompany her. This hearing, she writes, “breaks me into a million pieces I’m not sure I can put back together”.
The ripples spread out into all her relationships at home and at work. Shortly after the attack, still semi-catatonic with shock, she has to talk her traumatised husband and mother out of a crazed plan to hire a hit man to kill Francis. Her resentment over this episode festers for decades, and eventually contributes to destroying her marriage. When she goes back to work she has to deal with the awkward responses of her colleagues: she is sidelined by a “hard-boiled” male editor who can’t even bring himself to look at her.
Most poignant is Connors’ conviction that, despite her best efforts to move on, the trauma will have been unconsciously passed on to her children. Her desire to make sense of it for them brings her to the second purpose of the book: to come to some understanding of her attacker and why he did what he did. Francis died in prison, but she interviews his family and friends, who paint a picture of a chaotic childhood at the hands of a sadistic father. She forms a touching bond with Francis’s sisters, Charlene and Laura, both of whom are rape victims themselves. Philip, his brother, is in prison for child abuse. There could be no clearer illustration of Philip Larkin’s “coastal shelf” of misery – was Francis’s father “the one to blame for my rape, and whatever else David Francis did in his chaotic, violent life?” asks Connors. “Or did it go back to an earlier generation?”
Connors resists pinning the blame on society, although she is acute on how the treatment of rape victims is informed by race and poverty. But not once in all her interviews do the Francis family mention any state intervention or support, despite the long and glaring history of violence and every kind of abuse. I Will Find You may be a classic “personal journey”, but Connors’ story only illustrates how inextricably our lives – and those of our children – are entwined with the lives of others.