We've all seen the crime shows. A pair of detectives meet a sexual assault victim at the hospital where they take her statement and encourage her to submit to a rape kit in the hopes that the perpetrator left traces of his DNA behind. If he has and if she agrees to be invaded again, they're able to identify the asshole and the whole ordeal is wrapped up in 43 minutes.
For many women, though, this scenario is more than mere primetime fiction, and worse still, that rape kit is never tested. Instead, it's boxed up and tossed on some shelf in some storage room or police warehouse to collect dust and rodent urine – for years, if not forever.
It's estimated that hundreds of thousands of these kits remain untested, according to End the Backlog, an initiative of Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization whose mission is to "transform society's response to sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse, support survivors' healing, and end this violence forever." Joyful Heart was started in 2004 by actress and advocate Mariska Hargitay, best known for her role as Olivia Benson on NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims' Unit.
Hargitay is the producer of a documentary set to premier on HBO on April 16. It's called I Am Evidence and it tells the stories of four rape survivors whose kits went untested for years, in an effort to expose the disturbing pattern and the need for nationwide reform. It's already won the audience awards for Best Documentary Film at both the Traverse City and Provincetown International film festivals.
One of the survivors featured is Detroit native Ericka Murria. She'll be hosting a viewing of the film and subsequent panel discussion at The Carr Center Gallery during the HBO premier. She was raped on her 21st birthday and went over a decade before sharing her story. It was nearly four years ago while training to host a workshop at the SASHA (Sexual Assault Services for Holistic Healing and Awareness) Center that started the ball rolling for Murria. She and the other trainees were going through introductions when someone asked her to explain the meaning behind the T-shirt she was wearing, which was emblazoned with "I Am Evidence."
The T-shirt was a fundraiser for her nonprofit Supreme Transitions – an organization committed to educating the community on social justice issues – and was a decree of sorts that even though Murria had been a single, teenaged mom and homeless for a spell, she had persevered, but it had nothing to do with sexual assault. Up to this point, only her father and sister knew that she'd been a victim. But for whatever reason, on this day, at this time, the inquiry into the phrase's meaning caused Murria to break down and succumb to all she'd been through – and with that, share her experience. "I had this epiphany moment and I just started crying," Murria says.
Afterwards, a friend from the center told her about the documentary film crew in town from New York looking for "survivors from the backlog to share their stories." Her immediate reaction? Emphatically, "Hell nah." She didn't think she was ready. "I had so much shame associated with it. And, you know, you get accustomed to being this type of person that's the helper and the healer and the servant." Murria had been an advocate for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors for years. She asks, "How dare I ever tell somebody that I had a testimony in that area. How do I admit that this happened to me? It was just so embarrassing. I couldn't even think it, let alone say it out loud."
She called her dad, a post-traumatic stress disorder counselor. She says, "He said, 'baby, you've got to deal with it. I have watched you suffer in silence.'" A suffering that's manifested itself, in part, in poor decisions and unhealthy relationships. So, "I put on my shirt and I went and did it." She sat down with director Trish Adlesic with a let's-get-this-over-with attitude. "It was really, really hard. And I shared in detail for the first time since it happened to me," Murria says, and that by the time she had finished, everybody in the room was crying, including the audio guys.
The producers called her later saying that they were so inspired by her story that not only did they want to feature her in the film, but they wanted to change the name – Shelved – to I Am Evidence. Murria pushed through filming for two-plus years, saying, "It was hard. I was still a single mom of two girls" – now ages 11 and 17 – "regular working hours. I mean, it was really hard, and I pushed myself to my limit." Along the way, Kym Worthy stepped up and wanted to help Murria – the only woman in the film whose rape kit, at the time, was still untested – pursue justice.
Filming wrapped early last year around the same time as a verdict was finally handed down in Murria's case. She says she had a breakdown shortly after, called Hargitay's people and said, "look, I need help." She says the whole cast and crew has become like family, with Hargitay playing the role of "extended auntie." Murria's now in therapy and on medication and doing much better.
"Originally, my viewing party was supposed to be just for my family, but my family turned into 700 people," she says. Attendees can expect surprise guests, swag bags filled with goodies from local entrepreneurs and a panel discussion surrounding the pitfalls of victim blaming and what constitutes sexual assault, led by Debi Cain, executive director of Michigan Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention and Treatment Board. Murria says, "She was one of the pioneers – with Kym Worthy – to champion getting our kits tested locally."
End the Backlog offers several reasons why the backlog exists, including: lack of policies and protocols for rape kit testing, knowledge gaps and lack of training, and lack of resources. Both they and Murria cite victim blaming, as well as law enforcement's – and society's – tendency to shame women and make excuses for a man "like he's a wild animal with no control," Murria observes, as a large part of the problem.
"We have to be accountable, and we have to stand up for what is right (and) not go along with other narratives because it's somebody we like or somebody we care about," Murria says. "Your brother might be a rapist. Your husband might be a rapist. Your son might be a rapist."
She says she's not looking for pity or praise, adding, "I want people to learn and grow from this film. I want our country to be better; I want Detroit to be better."
Community Viewing and Panel Discussion for I Am Evidence
April 16, 7-11 p.m.
The Carr Center Gallery, 311 E. Grand River Ave., Detroit