Unheard

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Alaska has the highest rate of sexual assault in the nation, nearly four times the national average. About one third of women in Alaska have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. Yet it is a secret so steeped into everyday life that to discuss it is to disrupt the norm.

These 29 women and men did not choose to be violated, but they now are choosing to speak about what happened to them.

Last year, the Anchorage Daily News partnered with ProPublica to investigate sexual violence in Alaska, and explore why the situation isn’t getting better. We continue that work this year.

The profiles below reflect the urgent and everyday wounds borne by people all over the state. Many have parents and grandparents who are also survivors. Many have been repeatedly abused, often by different perpetrators. Some have chosen careers at the front lines of sexual assault response.

Most of the people included here responded to our joint callout. The more than 300 responses we received inspired a collaborative approach to storytelling.

Some told us that giving words to what happened is a form of justice. Some said they chose to speak so others might feel less alone. They recalled moments of brutality and callousness, but also transformation, rebellion and renewal.

Each person spoke to their individual experience, but taken together, their words reflect common themes found throughout our reporting.

It was important that each person sharing their story had input on how to tell it. This project is not only about what has happened to them, but also who they are today. Each chose how to be publicly identified and how their experiences — related and unrelated to abuse — would be represented.

They worked with Daily News photographers to make portraits that are true to them. They chose to be photographed in meaningful locations, alongside the people they love or dressed to represent a source of strength. Read more about the portrait-making process here.

We understand that not everyone is ready to share their story. We’ve made space for you, too, here and in the pages of the newspaper. For those ready to share their story, you can do so here.

We welcome your thoughts and feedback at [email protected].

Read more about our reporting process, fact-checking and collaborative process in our methodology. If you’re looking for resources, we’ve put together this guide.

(Some of the quotations below have been condensed for clarity.)


LINDA REXFORD, 23, Iñupiaq, accounts receivable clerk. Lives in Anchorage.

Rexford had just turned 21 in June 2018 when she went out to a bar with friends in Anchorage. That night, she was sexually assaulted by an older man she did not know. After she drove herself to the emergency room, police were called to help her file a report and to take her for a forensic examination. In the aftermath of the assault, Rexford quit her job in Anchorage and moved back to Fairbanks for a few months. There, she said, she unsuccessfully tried to get help from several agencies. She was devastated to learn there was a one-year wait to see a therapist through a local clinic, and ultimately did not add her name to the waitlist. When she told her friends and family what had happened, many of them shared stories of their own assaults. Rexford said that as a result of a backlog in processing rape kits, her forensic exam was not tested until the end of 2019. The Anchorage Police Department said its investigation remains open.

ON INTERGENERATIONAL TRAUMA

It makes me really sad because all three generations of my family have been raped or sexually assaulted in some way. And I was like, ‘Why does this affect so many people? So many of my friends and family?’ At the same time, it helps, because I know that I can talk to them if I need to.”

Linda Rexford says she comes to the Anchorage coastal trail as often as she can because it is always peaceful and everyone along the trail is always smiling. She recently had her fingers tattooed to celebrate her accomplishment after sharing her story publicly. She says, “The spruce on my thumbs represents resilience and it’s an everyday reminder that I can continue to succeed even in hard times.” She wears her traditional Iñupiaq regalia. (Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News)

KAYLA ARTHOFER, 29, Yup’ik, heavy equipment operator and psychology student. Lives in Fairbanks.

Arthofer was so young when she was abused by an older man, she didn’t understand what he was doing when he would hold her in his lap. She recognized it as molestation only years later, when she learned about sex for the first time. In her mid-20s, she began seeing a psychologist and started to share what happened with people close to her. By talking about it, she said, she learned the abuse was not her fault. She then decided to make a report to Alaska State Troopers. Arthofer said making that report was the single most important step she took to change her life. The investigation of her case stalled when investigators asked her to obtain a recorded confession from the perpetrator. Arthofer did not feel ready to confront him, and did not attempt to make the recording. Instead she began a dialogue about the abuse with her family. Still, Arthofer said, until she filed the report, she had been “a prisoner” of her mind. She continues to work on reframing her past trauma in order to be stronger in the present.

ON GROWING UP

I was a little girl, around 5 years old. I would get brought to a family friend’s house with my elders and would be very bored waiting around for the visit to be over. While my relatives chatted, an old man asked me if I wanted to watch Disney movies in his room. Being so young, I loved Disney movies. … He would let me choose from his collection and I remember every movie I ever watched in there, because I can no longer watch them again. … As I watched the movie he would molest me.”

Kayla Arthofer says studying psychology is her passion. She hopes to bring what she has learned in her classes about self-expression to enrich village life through conversation on difficult issues. She says, “I want to help others know that despite their circumstances in life, they can get up and keep going. The past is always going to be there but what matters is what you’re going to do about you right now.” (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)

META MENDENHALL, 27, pipeline security administrator. Lives in Valdez.

Mendenhall was raised in Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. When she was 15 and visiting her father in Wasilla, she said, a boy she met through friends raped her, causing extreme pain and ignoring her pleas to stop. She had never had sex before. Mendenhall says she told a few friends the next day, but never reported it to law enforcement because she feared getting in trouble for underage drinking. After the rape, she felt like sex could never be special, and for several years, she said, she behaved “promiscuously.” She said realizing that the assault was not her fault allowed her to encourage others to report rape.

ON LOSING YOUR VIRGINITY TO RAPE

When you tell someone that you’ve been raped it’s always, ‘Oh wow, I’m sorry to hear that.’ When you tell them that you lost your virginity to rape, it’s a whole new level. … I think it’s just the innocence. … It’s the fact that you were saving something for someone special, and someone heinous just took it away from you. And you can literally never get that back. And that’s just so absolutely devastating. It’s so frickin’ selfish.”

Meta Mendenhall chose to be photographed in Valdez’s old town, a place where she often comes to reflect and where she says her family has taken all of their family photos. (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)

DAVID FISHER, 35, business consultant. Lives in Portland, Oregon.

Fisher moved to Alaska from Washington state in 1993, at 7 years old. In Bethel that first year, he said, he was befriended and then sexually abused by an older boy over the course of several months. Saddled with feelings of guilt and confusion, he never told anyone until he was a young adult. Now a business professional and a devout Christian, Fisher makes a point of sharing his story with others. “It’s tough to admit, as a man, that you were a victim,” he said. “I hope that my openness can be a sign to others that healing is possible, but I don’t want to give the wrong impression that my healing is complete.”

ON THE POWER OF SPEAKING UP

I didn’t talk to anybody about this … until I was an adult. It was, in part, because I felt personal shame about it, I felt like I was partially responsible. And in part because I had a chaotic upbringing in terms of family environment. … But since then I’ve learned that it’s not only appropriate to talk about it, and that I was not responsible for what happened … it’s actually important for me to include it as part of my story. … There are so many people who do not feel at liberty to talk publicly about abuse that they’ve endured. … Abuse depends on silence to continue.”

David Fisher chose to be photographed with his family. He is raising his three children with abuse prevention in mind. He plans to enroll them in martial arts lessons in the future, for self-defense. (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)

MARIE R. SAKAR, 48, Yup’ik, elementary school teacher and mother. Lives in Chuathbaluk.

The first boy to sexually abuse Sakar during her childhood in the Western Alaska village of Chuathbaluk issued a frightening warning: If she told, her parents would hate her and blame her. She believed him. Sakar went on to be abused by other boys and men in her village, abuse that followed her into adulthood. She became a mother and earned a college degree, but drank heavily to cope with the abuse. A turning point came when she heard someone say silence only served to protect abusers. She began to confront men who she said had abused her, got sober and began telling her story openly. A few years ago, she moved back to Chuathbaluk — her home as well as a place freighted with memories of childhood abuse. Now, as a teacher at the village school, she wants to be a trusted adult for children to confide in.

ON THE FIRST LIE HER ABUSER TOLD HER

For many years, I thought this was my first memory as a child: Holding my perpetrator’s hands, walking back on the hill in the tundra, by the trees. Looking up at the blue sky, and being told, ‘If you tell your mom or dad, your mom and dad will hate you. If you tell your mom and dad, they’ll say it’s your fault.’ Due to those two lies, I endured years and years of childhood sexual abuse.”

Marie R. Sakar dances to the healing song “Tarvarnauramken” during a yuraq, or Yup’ik dance, at the Alaska Native Medical Center. She says she was inspired by her maternal grandmother, with whom she shares her English name, who also loved to dance. (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)

B.B., 28, mother. Lives in Southcentral Alaska.

In March 2013, B.B. reported to police that she had been raped by a man she met online. A grand jury handed up 11 felony charges against the alleged perpetrator: four counts of first-degree sexual assault, five counts of second-degree sexual assault, and one count each of third-degree assault and theft. Everything except the theft charge was dropped as part of a plea deal. The defendant was required by the court to write a letter of apology to B.B. In it, he said, “In closing I would like to note the remorse I feel in being a contributor to a situation where sexual boundaries may have been pushed. Any wishes you had that were not respected is not ok- I apologize for any part I may have played in that.” In December 2017, the same defendant pleaded guilty to an attempted sexual assault charge in the second degree, after another victim reported him. He is now serving eight years in prison.

ON ACCEPTING A PLEA DEAL

The deal he got was pled down to a single theft charge. Everything else was dropped. I didn’t want to agree to the plea deal, but I was so broken from everything that happened that I agreed. I was told that if he ever did this again, that [my report] would come up. I knew that it would probably happen again — and it did. A year later, he raped a homeless person.”

B.B. wanted to be photographed with her husband. When he appeared in her life she had been feeling “broken and lost,” she said. “He came in like a freight train and showed me what real love looks and feels like and has been there through all the ups and downs of the mental struggles I still have from my past. … He’s most definitely my rock.” She requested anonymity out of concern for her safety. (Anne Raup/Anchorage Daily News)

SUE ROYSTON, 73, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. Retired. Lives in Fairbanks.

In 1973, a year after Royston moved to Alaska, she was attacked at knifepoint by a stranger who broke in through her bathroom window. Nearly half a century before #MeToo, in an era before rape kits were developed, Royston decided to fight for justice. She said her prosecutor warned her that her name would be all over the papers, that she’d lose her job, and that her daughter, entering second grade in the fall, would be bullied at school. Over the next two years, Royston said, she faced doubt and dismissal from the police, the prosecutor, and a neighbor whom she had looked to for support. Ultimately Royston’s assailant faced charges and pleaded guilty, but the hurtful exchanges still affect her to this day.

ON PERSEVERANCE

[It] was important to me to be a strong mother, to be a strong person for myself. And I just said, ‘I don’t care what anybody else says, I’m doing what I think is right and I’m going to see it through.’”

Sue Royston at her home in Fairbanks. She lives in a log cabin, which was her childhood dream. Her daughter and grandson come over often, and before winter each year they help her stock up on firewood. (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)

JESSICA WILSON, 34, Koyukon Athabascan and Iñupiaq, enrollment specialist. Lives in Fairbanks.

When Wilson was 17 years old, she reported being raped by multiple young men at a house party while heavily intoxicated. At first, Wilson said, she felt reluctant to speak to law enforcement. But when her mother — who said she is also a survivor of sexual assault — found out what had happened several days later, she insisted on driving Wilson to the police station. Alaska State Troopers investigated. One of the men admitted that he had sex with Wilson, but said it was consensual. As an Alaska Native teenager faced with the prospect of being cross-examined before a jury, Wilson ultimately decided not to participate in a criminal case. Today, Wilson works at the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a Native nonprofit serving Alaska’s vast interior. She has been sober for more than eight years. Wilson first shared her story on Facebook, and since then, she’s spoken publicly about sexual assault and trauma to audiences in Alaska and New York.

ON NOT PRESSING CHARGES

My mom brought me to the police station and I told them what happened, what I could remember, which wasn’t much. It was too late for a rape kit. And they told me that I was going to get torn down in court if it went to trial, and could I handle that? I am Alaska Native. I’m an alcoholic with a criminal record (no felonies). … Who in Alaska is going to listen to me? That’s what I asked myself. And honestly, they wouldn’t have. … So I didn’t do it. I let those men walk free, because I was not strong enough to endure what had happened to me over again.”

Jessica Wilson stands on a hillside overlooking the Tanana River, where she used to play with her cousin as a child. That cousin took her own life at 20 years old. Wilson said, “We’d say we would marry our respective husbands [at this spot] some day. I actually did legally marry my husband there, over 12 years ago.” (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)

BARBARA BEATUS, 64, Koyukon Athabascan and Iñupiaq, accountant. Lives in Fairbanks.

When Beatus heard that several men had sexually assaulted her daughter Jessica Wilson at a house party, she wanted them brought to justice. She drove her daughter to the police station to report the rape. That had not been an option for Beatus when she was a teenager in the 1970s. She had grown up in the village of Allakaket, an “idyllic” childhood, she said, until she moved to Fairbanks at 14 to attend high school. During the summer when she was 16 and back home in the village, Beatus and a female relative were out walking one night when a local man invited them into his home for a drink. Beatus said she had only a sip of the drink he gave her and quickly lost consciousness; she believes they were drugged. She woke up the next morning without her clothes. At the time, the only option seemed to be to run away and try to forget.

ON SOLIDARITY WITH HER DAUGHTER

It took me years before I finally talked with a counselor. … Then, all of a sudden, I felt like there was like a big ball coming out of my chest, coming out of me, and it was, like, choking me and I couldn’t, I couldn’t breathe. And I was just gasping. Then it finally came out. And then … then I cried, after years. That’s the reason why I’m doing this. I want to be open [talking about sexual assault] like Jessica, too, even though it’s not easy. I want the other young girls to know if something happened to them that they should let someone know, and that what happened was not their fault.”

Barbara Beatus at her home in Fairbanks, where she lives with her daughter Jessica Wilson, who is also a survivor of sexual assault. Beatus bought the house last year for her daughter and her family because she wanted them to have a home that they could live in for years to come. (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)

DESI BOND, 35, Yup’ik and Blackfeet, legal advocate and SART coordinator. Lives in Dillingham.

Bond said she is the victim of multiple sexual assaults. In the aftermath, she struggled with substance abuse. In November 2016, Bond joined Alcoholics Anonymous and has collected an AA coin commemorating her sobriety each year since. The second anniversary gave her renewed motivation to remain clean. She said of her eldest daughter, “My baby told me how scary I was. … She told me how proud she is of me [now] and how she’s not scared of me anymore. That she feels safe, loved and protected.” In addition to AA, getting back to her Native culture helped her heal and “be present,” Bond said. Sobriety also led her to work with survivors of sexual assault at a Dillingham agency. She now coordinates a Sexual Assault Response Team (SART), a group of first responders who help victims make reports and collect evidence.