Graduation day is usually a day for celebration. But for Deborah Copaken, behind the smile she wore in her graduation photos was a dark secret.
Copaken, then 22, was hiding the pain of sexual assault.
“I kept saying, ‘No, no, no,’ and he went ahead with it anyway,” Copaken told ABC News’ “Nightline” co-anchor Juju Chang. “I did not tell my parents until 13 years later. Why? Because I was graduating the next morning. This man had already stolen a giant piece of my soul. I was not going to let him steal my graduation day as well.”
She shouldered the burden for three decades, but just last week — triggered by the tumult of the Kavanaugh accusations — she felt compelled to confront her rapist and got an unexpected answer: an apology.
“Since that day, which was Wednesday of last week, I felt a lightness of spirit and a lightness of being that I haven’t experienced — I was 22 years old, and I’m 52. That’s 30 years,” Copaken said, crying.
For Copaken, her trauma happened the night before her Harvard graduation.
“The kids went to a graduation party, and at that graduation party, I met that man who would, that night, rape me,” she said.
Copaken said she had a sprained ankle and the young man offered to drive her home.
“Now I hadn’t realized how drunk he was. I should have,” she said. “I mean, I was drinking that night. We’re all drinking. That was the night before graduation.”
She said she invited him up to her apartment after he asked to see photos from her senior photography thesis. But there was one particular photo that stood out to him.
“He said, ‘Oh, I bet you liked it when like I did that.’ Now there's a man who was flashing me. It's a photo of a flasher. And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And then from there he basically attacked me and he was so drunk that afterwards he passed out in my bed.
“He was a big guy and I tried moving and I was screaming at him I said, ‘Get out of my bed, get out of my bed. What are you doing here?’” Copaken said. “And I ended up the night before my graduation literally sitting on the floor of my bed in front of the bed sort of like rocking back and forth.”
That morning, she said she reported the rape to the campus health clinic.
“I was told, ‘You can wait around for another year and not get your life started. You can hire a lawyer to help you with your prosecution. You can go on the witness stand and have your sex life be put on trial, not your rapist, or you can stay silent.’ What choice would you have made?” Copaken said.
Copaken went on to become a successful photojournalist, covering war zones and conflicts around the world. For a time, she also worked at ABC News as a producer. She wrote about the rape in her best-selling memoir, “Shutterbabe.” But she continued to carry the scars of that night with her.
“The choices that I made of career were absolutely affected by one night in 1988 that I was sexually assaulted,” Copaken said. “The plight of women and what they experience as women in the world was what I became interested in and wanted to cover as a journalist.”
But after Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh denied allegations of sexual misconduct as “false accusations,” it all hit too close to home for Copaken.
“It’s retraumatizing all over again. I can’t imagine what Christine Blasey Ford is going through right now. Copaken said.
But it was a tweet from President Donald Trump, in part, that she said led her to take a bold step.
In the tweet, Trump responded to Ford’s allegation against Kavanaugh, saying in part, “I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents.”
I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents. I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 21, 2018
“I sat down on my computer, and it was like a mad rage came out. I could not believe we’re still talking about this. We are not in 1982 anymore. We’re in 2018,” said Copaken.
Blaming victims for their silence, she said, fueled her rage, so she penned an email to the man she calls simply, “my rapist.”
“What I said to him was I have borne the weight of this shame for 30 years on my own, and now it’s time to share this burden in so many words,” Copaken said. “I was shaking as I hit send, but I sent it out into the ether. And I thought, ‘Well, either he won’t answer, or he’ll deny it or ... ‘ I had no idea what to expect. And the most incredible — he called within 20 minutes.”
As she answered, he told her it was him and said, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“His voice was shaking, and I just immediately started crying,” Copaken said. “What he did, which I found profound — and I hope we can move forward as a society and learn from this — is he said, ‘Tell me from your own words what happened, and I’m here to listen.’”
Copaken said her rapist told her had no idea and that he was blackout drunk. She said this acting of listening, truly hearing and then apologizing, was transformative. She wrote about it in the Atlantic.
Copaken said she is not naming her rapist.
“I don’t believe in public shaming. I don’t want revenge. I want apology. And I think that’s what restorative justice is all about,” Copaken said. “He has two children and I think as a father he just kept thinking, ‘I’m horrified by what I’ve done. I’m horrified by this idea, and I’m horrified by thinking of anyone doing this to my children.’ And what he said in that moment was, ‘I promise I will pay this forward in some way. I don’t know how, but I’ll pay it forward.’”
She said the outpouring of support has been overwhelming.
“If this moment of forgiveness and apology and grace can lead to other moments of forgiveness and apology and grace, he’s already paying it forward,” Copaken said.
“I have absolutely forgiven him. And it’s the most beautiful thing in the world.”