Survivor’s story of hope continues to echo

Some voices are hard to forget.

I saw a preview recently for a show on the Biography Channel called “I Survived.” The show features people who have survived near-death experiences such as a grizzly bear attack, kidnapping and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. The survivors tell their stories without the help of a narrator and against a black background, giving it an intimate one-on-one feel.

One of the women in the clip looked familiar. But I didn’t make the connection until I heard her voice: “I survived that night because I had to live for my daughter.”

I first met Penny in 2006 when I was a reporter for the Evansville Courier & Press, a midsize newspaper in southern Indiana. Normally, I would go out and find people to interview for stories, but Penny found me. When she contacted the newspaper, her call was forwarded to me because I was on the police beat.

Penny told me that she had been raped and left for dead. She was upset at the way the police had treated her during the early parts of the investigation, and she wanted to share her story with the public. It was rare for a victim of a sex crime to want to speak about their case, and our newspaper had a policy of not identifying rape victims to protect their privacy.

Penny, speaking on the show "I Survived."

But Penny was determined to tell her story. She hoped it would bring comfort to women who had suffered similar attacks, letting them know that they weren’t alone. We talked around a dozen times over the course of two months, and I traveled to her home to meet her family and chat in person.

Penny, 41, was a manager at a Chili’s restaurant in Evansville, and one evening while closing the store alone a man walked up behind her and raised a gun to her back.

The man led Penny to an office, where he tied a bag over her head so tight that she had trouble breathing. He bound her hands and feet, beat and raped her.  When the man left, Penny freed herself and called the police. She never saw his face, and the man was never caught.

Interviewing Penny about the details of the crime was difficult, but each time I hesitated she encouraged me to keep going. The only request she had was that I not publish the name of the town where she had relocated.

After the stories about Penny ran, I received an overwhelmingly positive response, mostly from other women and sex crime victim advocates. Some readers wrote letters to me with messages for Penny, asking that I forward them to her.

I stayed in touch with Penny, and she would occasionally call to tell me about a ministry she had started for women who had been abused or sexually assaulted. I wrote a follow-up story about her in 2009 when she came to Evansville to speak at a shelter for sex crime victims.

“I was nothing but a pile of burned ashes for so long,” Penny told me then. “I felt as if I had no joy. I had no life — that I had just been completely burned out. There’s Scripture in the Bible that says, ‘To give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.’ And that’s where I’m at right now. I do have beauty for ashes. And I don’t mean physical beauty.

“He’s given me a beautiful, joyful spirit to live. I want (to help) other women who are still trying to find their beauty and trying to find their joy. I want to be the one to help them crawl out of the ashes.”

When we spoke, Penny was amazed that I remembered the name of her great dane, Romeo, and told me that if a book was ever written about her life she’d like me to write it. That was the last time I talked to her.

After I saw the commercial for “I Survived,” I tried to contact Penny by email, but I wasn’t able to reach her. I wanted to tell her how proud I am of her for continuing to share her story, giving hope to other survivors in danger of losing it.

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