After night of terror, years of anguish, she finds meaning
There’s no getting away from what happened to her, no matter how remarkable her recovery.
Michelle Bowdler, 54 now, feels happy — lucky, even. She is married to someone she loves, with two amazing teenagers, a house somewhere nice, and a career she is passionate about.
But every so often, the heart-stopping memories intrude, the paralyzing terror of 30 summers ago flooding back. Maybe she’d feel better, she has often thought, if she knew what became of the men who attacked her that night. Did they hurt anyone else? Are they in jail or dead? Or are they still out there?
It was June 1984. Bowdler was 23, two years out of Brandeis, sharing an apartment with friends in Allston, working as an editor. She’d come home from a concert, where a friend had handed her a flier about a spate of home invasions and rapes in the neighborhood. She put it on a table for her roommates to read when they got home, and she went to bed.
She woke when the men came into her bedroom, but never saw their faces. She saw only the knife in the instant before they blindfolded her. They cut the phone cord and tied her up with it. She begged them not to kill her, promised she hadn’t seen them, swore she wouldn’t call the police.
“We don’t kill people; we just need the money,” they told her.
She remembers the relief she felt in that moment.
“I thought, ‘Oh, good, they’re not going to kill me,’” she said, shaking her head at the memory.
They alternated between ransacking the apartment and raping her. When she was sure they were gone, she untied herself, gathered up some clothes, and ran to a neighbor’s house to call the police.
This was a long time ago. If navigating police stations and hospital exams is tough for rape victims now, it was a horror show back then. The world was full of oafs who didn’t take sexual assault seriously, and some of them were police officers. Boston’s sexual assault unit, which coordinated investigations across the city, was yet to be formed (It came into being partly because of that summer’s attacks; Bowdler’s had been the seventh).
She went to the hospital to have a rape kit done. A detective interviewed her. Then, nothing.
“From that moment, I felt like there was nothing [police] could do because I didn’t see [the attackers],” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘This isn’t going to get solved. They don’t think it’s serious.’”
There was no DNA testing back then, no online system to help different police stations coordinate efforts. She never heard from the detective again. She wasn’t happy with the investigation, but at the time, Bowdler didn’t really care if the crime was solved. It wouldn’t undo what they did to her. She was in pieces, her life in limbo. She couldn’t work a proper job for years. She saw her friends move on to grad school and careers.
With therapy and time, she eventually got there, too, earning a degree in public health at Harvard. Gradually, she built back a life, and a family. Now she’s senior director of health and wellness at Tufts University, where part of her job is overseeing sexual assault education and prevention efforts. The job she loves comes with plenty of triggers that shunt her back to that June night.
“You never really put it behind you,” she said.
When she read a 2007 article about delays in processing rape kits in Massachusetts, some of which had been sitting untested since the mid-1980s, she was transported back again. And intrigued.
“A light bulb went off and I thought, ‘Maybe my kit is in there,’” she recalled, sitting in her office at Tufts last Thursday afternoon.
She learned about backlogs across the country, where thousands of kits languished for years, waiting for tests that might have identified attackers and kept them from harming others.
That backlog has become a national cause in recent years. Houston just finished clearing 6,600 rape kits, some of which had sat untested for 30 years. The tests yielded 850 matches in the federal DNA database and, so far, charges in 29 sexual assault cases. Last week, Vice President Joe Biden announced $41 million in federal funding to help test the estimated 400,000 rape kits languishing all over the country. (Massachusetts, which had a backlog of 2,000 or so a couple of years ago, has cleared it: Currently, fewer than 200 kits await testing, and they’ll be turned around within 90 days, according to State Police. Boston police say there is no backlog in the city).
Bowdler became an activist. After she joined a national advocacy group to push for better testing policies, she met women who told of the relief of finally learning who had raped them, years after their kits had been collected. Their stories made her hungry for justice for herself, more determined than ever to find out what had happened to her rape kit. She knew the statute of limitations had passed on her attack. She didn’t want to sue anybody. She wanted a validation the police didn’t give her all those years ago.
The Boston Police Department she approached a couple of years ago is very different from the one she dealt with in 1984 and eager to make up for the mistakes of 31 years ago. Lieutenant George Juliano, head of the sexual assault unit, was deeply invested in Bowdler’s cause from the start. He looked at her file. “Rape kit in locker,” it read. What locker was anybody’s guess.
After months of investigating, and plenty of sleepless nights at the thought of Bowdler living with the crime as long as she has, Juliano couldn’t tell her if her case had been transferred to the new Sexual Assault Unit in 1984. He couldn’t tell her if her rape kit had been kept or destroyed. But he vowed to keep looking.
In the meantime, the department ran tests for DNA on the sheet and phone cord that were still in her case file. Nothing. They helped her get the items tested at a state-of-the-art lab in Virginia, in the hopes it might find something Boston missed.
Last week, around the time Biden was giving thousands of rape survivors renewed hope, Bowdler learned the lab had found nothing. Also last week, Juliano told Bowdler the rape kit could not be found. On Friday, Boston Police spokesman Lieutenant Michael McCarthy said the kit was probably destroyed in the late 1990s, because the statute of limitations had long passed and because the method of testing in the 1980s may have destroyed the DNA.
“It’s a big thing to feel like, OK, now you really have to close that door,” Bowdler said. “You have this . . . experience of surviving a horrifically violent, unimaginable crime, but you won’t ever have that information that would finally give you that bit of closure.”
There are thousands of women like her, victims of crimes that were minimized, or forgotten. They submitted themselves to examinations in the hours after their rapes because they wanted to help police find their attackers. Their investigations went nowhere, sometimes because their rape kits were allowed to languish for lack of will or funding. It’s still happening.
“Even if I can’t get justice in my case, I want people to understand the importance of rape kit testing,” Bowdler said. No woman whose attacker might be found should have to endure delays that stretch on for months and years.
That is Bowdler’s mission now. Not just for those women, but for her own sake, too.
“The older I’ve gotten, the more I realize this is going to be with me forever,” she said. “So I have to make meaning out of it. Because otherwise, it’s intolerable.”