By Charlie Norris
Charlie Norris is a 59-year-old white male attorney living outside of New York City. In the summer of 1974, at 15, he met and fell in love with “a beautiful 14-year-old girl, Annie.” Together ever since, they were married in 1985, and eventually settled in White Plains, New York, where they raised two children, Nicole and Ben. Other than the typical hardships of a job loss, and the deaths of close members of the family, “our marriage and home life were wonderful, and for a long time we felt that luck was on our side,” Norris says. All of that changed at 6 am on August 28, 2009, when he received a phone call from his daughter. It was the Friday of Labor Day weekend. Two days before, Nicole had driven up to the University of Buffalo, looking forward to her senior year of college, living in an off-campus house with four other young women in downtown Buffalo.
Before I had a moment to consider the timing of Nicole’s early morning call, she calmly reported, “Some guy broke into our house in the middle of the night and stole my jewelry. He had a gun and raped me. I’m in the hospital, do you think you and Mom can come up?” She also asked us to bring her boyfriend Michael. For a few milliseconds Nicole’s words had no impact; then they tore into every fiber of my being. It felt like my life, and all that I had known, exploded. I was on an unexpected journey into a new world.
With Nicole still on the phone, I ran upstairs to tell Annie. While she spoke to Nicole I tried to book a flight to Buffalo but air travel had been canceled because of bad weather. Before heading out on the six-hour drive upstate, I had to tell her younger brother Ben. The two of them are number one in each other’s fan club. This was going to be a painful conversation.
Still in a daze, I walked into Ben’s dark bedroom and pulled his desk chair up to the bed. I woke him gently. I told Ben that his sister had been attacked—I couldn’t bring myself to say raped—and that she was in the hospital and had sounded calm. I told him that his mother and I were leaving to pick up Michael before heading to Buffalo.
We hugged and decided Ben would make arrangements to spend time with other family members while we went to Buffalo. On a summer day, nearly nine years after Nicole was attacked, Annie and I were out walking. While waiting for the light to change and chatting about how Nicole and Michael were celebrating their third wedding anniversary, and how we would soon be celebrating her 30th birthday, a tall white man walked up and stopped next to us. His head was shaved, and his arms were heavily tattooed. He was wearing a blue work shirt and denim shorts. He turned, looked down at me, put his huge left hand on my right shoulder, and said, “You saved my life.” I looked up into his eyes and asked, “How did I do that?” He reminded me that he was in prison when I came in as a speaker as part of a victims’ impact program. After my own trauma counseling ended eight years ago, I was invited to become a volunteer speaker. It was among the most meaningful work I have ever done; I have been doing it ever since.
The burly man said that he remembered every word of my story. He remembered me recounting the phone call from Nicole, and how my wife, Michael and I had driven up to Buffalo. He remembered me sharing about our pain, how we had gotten counseling and how we focused on healing. What had made the greatest impact on him, though, was that Annie and I had chosen love over hate. He said that he had learned from my story that people really do have choices about how they respond to life and, most importantly, that people can change.
I asked him how he had been doing since getting out of jail. He said he was working on himself—that he was getting counseling for a variety of psychological issues he faced. “God bless you,” he said, and we hugged. Then he blessed Annie, too. As he walked away, Annie said, “I’m proud of you. You did that.”
In the days that have followed that random meeting, I have thought a lot about the long journey that began with that terrible phone call so many years ago—a call that had filled me with anger and doubt, and with an overwhelming fear that Nicole’s life (and our lives) would forever be derailed. I didn’t know where she would end up or what the future would hold. I have also thought about how lucky I am. Nicole was not taken from us. We had the opportunity to choose what we were going to do. Annie and I had a choice: we could spend our lives filled with anger and seeking retribution, essentially suffering from a cancer that would prevent us—including Nicole—from moving forward and healing. Or, we could decide there was nothing to be ashamed of. Through counseling, an ocean of tears, and a tidal wave of love, our family would heal. I was fiercely committed to that notion. There was nothing they could do to the rapist that would undo what had been done. If I wasted my time on him he would have won, and he was not going to win. We were going to be better than that, and Nicole was going to have a wonderful life. (Even the fact that the police never found the perpetrator was not going to undermine our path to healing.)
When I became a father, I committed to forming a trusting, loving relationship with Nicole that could withstand anything (even though I have to admit I hadn’t considered the “anything” being something as terrible as rape). I was determined from her first breath to coparent Nicole with Annie, who fully supported my decision. I was going to figure out how to talk about sex and periods and everything else. I don’t think I really understood that I was preparing—we were preparing—for anything that might come along but, apparently, we had been. When the shit did hit the fan, I was not on the sidelines. I was prepared to jump in with Annie and do whatever it took to help our daughter—and our family—find peace.
Our unexpected journey following the rape was certainly not without heartache and pain, and in subtle ways the trauma still lives on inside me; it probably always will. When I speak about what happened, I always start by saying, this is not something I would have volunteered for and I always wish that it had never happened. But it did. The choices that we made led not only to healing and peace, but also to experiences and opportunities that were unexpected. My life has been enriched in ways that I could never have imagined. To be able to sit with convicted violent offenders as part of an effective victims’ impact program for the last eight years—one that reduces the rate of recidivism—and to be able to discuss humanity with inmates; to be able to speak with others who have had their own tragic experiences and help them find their way; and to show the world that life still offers wonderful possibilities even after tragedy strikes, are unique gifts and opportunities that sometimes I still cannot believe came my way. I will always be glad for them.