Overcoming intended harm to help others

Diana Oakley, the author of “Intended Harm,” poses with staff from the Fulton County Domestic Violence Program before an event presented by the program at FMCC on Friday. Oakley shared the story of how she recovered after being kidnapped and sexually assaulted at 17. (Photo submitted)

JOHNSTOWN — At age 17, Diana Oakley was kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a stranger. Now nearly 27 years later, Oakley is an author who dedicates her time to sharing the story of that day and her road to recovery in hopes of inspiring other survivors to seek the help that they need.

“Every time we speak out, we speak directly to a survivor who needs our help. It’s very important that we expand our circle and reach every victim,” Oakley said.

In her book, “Intended Harm,” Oakley tells her story of survival and that of the woman who was married to her attacker before turning him into authorities after a police sketch led her to suspect her husband.

Oakley shared her story at FMCC on Friday in an event presented by the Fulton County Domestic Violence Program for students in the criminal justice program during National Crime Victim’s Rights Week.

“As people who will be working closely with victims, you could very well be the one person that makes a difference in the life of someone like me,” Oakley said. “Who knows maybe some day someone will be standing on stage, telling their story about how much of an impact you had on their lives.”

On April 28, 1991, Oakley went for a 15-mile bike ride near her home in upstate New York and was on her way home when she was suddenly struck from behind by a pickup truck. The impact sent her skidding 30 feet across the pavement.

When she looked up she saw the pickup truck parked at the side of the road and a man rushing towards her. The man told her how sorry he was for the accident and offered to take her to the hospital. In a time before cellphones, Oakley said she felt she had no choice but to go with the man knowing she needed medical attention.

It wasn’t until after she got into the truck that she realized the man who seemed so genuine had lied to her.

“The actual abduction only took a few minutes. Minutes for him to hit me with his car, park it on the side of the road, convince me it was an accident and that he wanted to help me and put me and my bicycle in his car and drive away in the middle of the day on a state road,” Oakley said. “Once I was in his truck I was trapped.”

The man took her to a field, threatening her with a hatchet while he tied her hands behind her back. Then they got back in the truck, where he made her sit with her head between her knees while he drove another 10 minutes. When the truck stopped they were deep in the woods where he sexually assaulted her over the course of hours.

Later, he covered her head with her shorts instructing her not to look at him or the truck. Unobserved, she pushed up her shorts and saw him reaching for something on the floor of the truck before going to the truck bed for something else.

Oakley knew that the only thing on the floor had been shotgun shells and realizing that the man was looking for a gun, she considered running away before deciding to wait for the man’s return.

“If I ran the wrong way I would have run deeper into the woods,” Oakley said. “I had completely given up, shut down. I was mentally exhausted and I was tired of fighting.”

Suddenly, she heard a voice clearly telling her to stand up, turn around and run. She thought someone had come to her rescue before realizing there was no one there.

“Whatever it was, it was that voice that gave me the courage to keep fighting,” Oakley said.

She ran as fast as she could while the man chased after her until she broke through the treeline. She ran to the only house in sight, 200 yards away where an elderly couple ran out to meet her.

Police and paramedics came, transporting her to the hospital, she gave a statement, spoke briefly with a rape counselor and met with an investigator who made a composite sketch of her attacker that was featured in local newspapers and news stations.

The sketch and information caught the attention of the attacker’s wife, leading her to call police. According to Oakley, police had her attacker in custody by May 1, 1991, and he was ultimately sentenced to prison.

After that day, Oakley tried unsuccessfully to return to her normal life. As a minor police could not release her name and she thought that no one would know she had been assaulted.

When she returned to school she said she heard a collective gasp. Most students didn’t talk to her, which she was relieved about as she hoped to pretend that nothing ever happened.

“On the outside I looked confident and strong, but on the inside I was angry and broken. I was so angry at everyone. Anyone I saw laughing, anyone I saw smiling, anyone who looked normal. I was angry with my family and friends for not being more comforting and supportive, but at the same time I was angry with them when they tried to be,” Oakley said.

She graduated from high school, going on to attend community college before dropping out. She enrolled again before dropping out once more. Oakley began self-medicating first with alcohol, later with drugs.

“For many years after that I thought of myself and I thought everyone around me saw me as the girl who was raped, the girl who was damaged, broken, the girl who had a gaping, bleeding, festering, open wound in her soul that was never going to be normal again,” Oakley said. “I stopped seeing me and I only saw a victim.”

Over the years, Oakley said people around her would encourage her to seek counseling, but she didn’t know what to do or where to go. Her small hometown didn’t have a rape crisis center until two years after her assault. By the time it was established and they contacted her it was too late.

“I had worked so hard to push the memory and the pain of my assault to the back of my mind that it had become comfortable there, I’d learned to live with it. But I knew that I wasn’t going to get any better unless I started dealing with this trauma,” Oakley said.

Oakley made small steps towards recovery after meeting her future husband at age 21 and later becoming pregnant with their first child. It wasn’t until years later when she read Alice Sebold’s memoir, “Lucky,” about her sexual assault and how it shaped her life that Oakley felt empowered to take an active role in her recovery.

“It was the first time I’d heard someone else explain how being raped made them feel and it was the first time in 16 years that I did not feel completely alone,” Oakley said. “That was when I decided I wasn’t going to remain silent any longer, I was going to tell my story the way Alice told her’s in hopes that I could inspire another survivor.”

Oakley began writing her story out on paper, before abandoning that format for an online journal, hoping she would be spurred on if at least one person was reading her story. People began following her blog and writing her to thank her for her courage, sometimes sharing their own stories of survival.

“It felt like family, it felt like it was no longer our pain to bear alone. The moment I found out how many people were out there that thought of themselves as abnormal and broken, just like I did, was the moment I stopped looking at myself as unfixable and started fixing,” Oakley said.

Gradually she worked towards her recovery, publishing her book in 2012. Now Oakley is a member of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network speakers bureau, chairman of the Victim Service Center of Central Florida’s Speakers Bureau, runs a faith based support group for sexual assault survivors and has returned to school to become a sexual assault nurse examiner.

“For years I believed the lie that talking about my assault gave it power,” Oakley said. “I want you to know how important it is to not let the things that we think break us control us and define us and stop us from becoming people we’re intended to be.”

Fulton County Domestic Violence Program Chenda Beers said that she has seen Oakley’s story connecting with people and especially survivors through other programs they have partnered on.

“It’s wonderful, there has never been a time that someone has not come forward stating that they’re a survivor and seeking counseling services,” Beers said. “She is the epitome of taking pain and turning it into a powerful message of hope.”

As a graduate of FMCC’s justice program, Beers said she thought the event would be a good fit for the school during a time when the MeToo movement has raised the collective awareness around sexual assault.

While providing an educational experience for students, Beers also hoped the presentation would make students and community members aware of the services available to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence through the Family Counseling Center of Fulton County and the Domestic Violence Program.

Services include a safe shelter, victim’s advocates, transportation, counseling, support groups, transitional housing and a 24-hour crisis hotline.

“Sharing my story has helped me so much, whether it’s with one person or with the whole world or in a group like this, I believe you have to let it out so you can let yourself be free,” Oakley said. “I want other survivors to know that they’re not alone. I want them to get help and support, because I didn’t have that back then.”

By Kerry Minor

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