Last Tuesday, Brenda Tracy came to tell her story at TU and encourage discussion and action in the community. Since revealing herself as the “Jane Doe” in the 1998 Oregon State University rape case, Tracy has begun activist work, including speaking at different venues.
Held in Lorton Performance Center, about 350 to 400 students attended her talk, mostly athletes with some Greek life and various other students. Dr. Derrick Gragg, the Vice President and Director of Athletes, was the original proponent of bringing Tracy to campus, and the event was moderated by Violence Prevention Program Director Kelsey Hancock.
Tracy began the night with a challenge. As the single mom of two sons, ages 23 and 24, she asked the audience “to think about what it would be like if you were my son or daughter and you were sitting there and I was up here, telling my story.”
In 1998, right before the incident occurred, Tracy was a single mom, after recently divorcing her children’s father, and had just started dating an OSU football player.
Her best friend, Karmen McFadden, was also dating an OSU player, and one night, asked Tracy to attend a house party with her. The party was attended by McFadden’s boyfriend, her boyfriend’s brother, his friend and another player. At the party, Tracy was offered a drink, but said she initially refused, because she “grew up in an alcoholic home and because of my children’s father. I didn’t like alcohol and I needed to be in control of my surroundings at all times.”
But as the night persisted, the others insisted she drink, saying she would be safe and could crash on the couch.
About 20 minutes after sipping some of her drink, Tracy said, “I started feeling warm inside, like hot from the inside out. I remember thinking, ‘Am I getting drunk already? Is it happening this fast?’ I didn’t have a point of reference. I’d never been drunk before.”
Soon after, she began feeling dizzy, which is when, she said, McFadden’s boyfriend stood up, looking straight at her and walked McFadden to the back bedroom of the apartment. This left Tracy in the living room with the other four men: the two OSU football players, Calvin Carlyle and Jason Dandridge, and the other two men, Michael Ainsworth and Nakia Ware.
Tracy then passed out on the couch.
Upon regaining consciousness, “I realized I was laying on my back, on the floor, and I wasn’t able to move my arms or legs. I was able to move my head, and I looked [right] and the first man was trying to force his penis into my mouth, so I turned away and I looked [left] and the second man was trying to force his penis into my mouth, so I looked up, and the third man was raping me and the fourth man was stroking himself, waiting for his turn,” Tracy said.
“I remember feeling like I was trying to say, ‘Stop, what are you doing? Why can’t I move?’ but I don’t know that I was able to make any noise.”
Before she passed out again, she noticed the men congratulating each other on their performance and high-fiving each other.
The next time she regained consciousness, one of the men was pouring alcohol down her throat, till she gagged and choked on it. Still unable to speak, Tracy passed out again. When she woke up again, she felt as if she was going to vomit, so one of the men carried her to the bathroom and laid her over the bathroom counter. “As I was vomiting on myself in the sink,” she said, “he was raping me from behind.”
Her attack lasted about six hours, only ending, she said, because the men couldn’t penetrate her anymore, as she was “so swollen and dry.” They tried to ice her vagina to stop the swelling, and when that didn’t help, her attack stopped. While she knows they also used an alcohol bottle and flashlight on her, Tracy doesn’t know what else they did to her, as she was unconscious, but doesn’t want to know.
The next morning, fully conscious, Tracy woke up naked on the living room floor, with dried vomit and gum in her hair, and a condom on her stomach.
“I just remember in that moment feeling like a piece of trash. I didn’t even feel like a human, I felt like a piece of garbage they’d just forgotten on the living room floor.” Even now, “it remains the most disgusting moment of my life…I can still feel the condom on my stomach.” She told the audience, “That’s the thing about this sort of trauma. It doesn’t ever really go away. You learn to live in spite of it, but it’s always there. I can always go back to that moment, even almost 20 years later.”
She and McFadden left the apartment, and Tracy immediately began to blame herself, thinking “did I say something? Did I do something? What made them think I wanted this to happen?” When they got in the car, McFadden told her, “Brenda, it’s going to be okay, we just got in over our heads,” causing Tracy to suspect that McFadden knew what had transpired, and didn’t help. In that moment, Tracy said “my best friend became dead to me…in that moment, I didn’t know that person.”
When she got home, her mom comforted her and convinced her to go to the hospital, so they could make sure Tracy hadn’t gotten pregnant or contracted an STI. As they drove to the hospital, her mom silently cried.
“When my mom cries, it hurts in a different place in my heart,” Tracy said “I remember looking at my mom, thinking, ‘I did that to her.’” It was then Tracy began to think about suicide.
In that moment, Tracy said, “I remember thinking, ‘What is the point? What is the point of even being alive if my only purpose on this planet is to be abused and beaten and raped? Why should I even be here?’” This wasn’t the first time Tracy had been sexually assaulted. As a young child, she’d been assaulted by a grandfather, and then by the drug-addicted boyfriend of her babysitter. Her marriage to her sons’ father had become a domestic violence situation as well.
Trying to think rationally, Tracy looked to who would miss her. Her parents, she decided, would be fine. Then, she thought about her children, whose father was in and out of jail at the time.
They would need her, she thought, until she realized, “those little boys are going to be men…how are they going to feel when they find out what happened to me. Once they know how could they ever love me? How could they ever not be ashamed of me? How could they ever not be disgusted by me?”
Once she rationalized her sons would be fine without her, she decided to commit suicide, which felt “like a really great decision…there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I’ll go to the hospital and get this exam done and then I’ll go home and kill myself.”
“But,” she continued, “they tell you sometimes God has a different plan for your life than you do.” At the hospital, her nurse, Jenny, changed her mind.
While she expected Jenny to do her job, but “find me disgusting as I felt,” Jenny was full of “overwhelming compassion, not anything contrite or anything.” She felt God direct her to become a nurse and take care of herself.
“I always thought I was going to go to college, play volleyball or basketball and be a personal trainer,” she elaborated, but “I just knew in that moment that was what I was supposed to do.”
The rape kit examination took about five hours. During that time, Tracy peppered Jenny with questions. She provided examples: “Jenny would say things like, ‘Brenda we need to do he vagina exam,’ and I would say, ‘How did you become a nurse?’ And she would say, ‘Brenda we have to pluck 10 pubic hairs and 10 head hairs,’ and I’d say, ‘Jenny what school did you go to?’ She would say, ‘Brenda we have to swab your anus and underneath your nails,’ and I’d say, ‘What about financial aid?’”
“We just ping-ponged back and forth for hours until I was done with my rape exam and also knew what I needed to do to become a nurse.”
Two months later, Tracy enrolled in community college, and over the years, ended up getting her RN, a Bachelor’s in nursing and a Master’s in business and healthcare management. She pointed out this story because “you really don’t know what someone else is going through….if it’s your smile or kind gesture from you that seems really small to you that could mean a lot to another person.”
Tracy then decided to prosecute her rapists, and soon the four were arrested. With their arrests, Tracy felt that “the wheels of justice had started turning. I really thought it was going to be like an episode of Law and Order.”
But with two of the accused being football players, the arrests immediately made the news. And while Tracy was listed as Jane Doe in the complaint, word spread who she was. First, people started questioning her, asking “Why was she lying, why was she trying to ruin these young mens’ promising football careers, what was in it for her. And this is the same thing we still see today.”
Those close to her also began to distance themselves. Her boyfriend broke up with her, and about a week and a half later, McFadden turned up. But their reunion wasn’t pleasant; Tracy said “I believe in an effort to protect her boyfriend and his brother, she said if you go to court, I will testify against you. That was probably the hardest hit for me.”
The other thing that happened was the DA told her she didn’t have a good case — it was a “he said, she said” trial, there would be four separate trials that would take years, her rape kit would be make public and she probably wouldn’t win. With all of these compounded and that she “was still traumatized and somewhat suicidal and just wanted to go to school,” she dropped the prosecution.
In 2014, when her story finally went public, she learned the truth. The DA had taped confessions from all of them, and the police did not end up testing the rape kit, but threw it away before the statute of limitations on the case ran out. During the investigation almost 20 years later, the DA from the time said getting convictions against the men with the convictions and physical evidence available, even without Tracy’s cooperation. The athletic department at the time was in debt over $1 million and trying to renovate the stadium, asking for donations — a rape scandal wouldn’t help with donations.
To those who thought the story sounded unbelievable, she said, “I’m not just telling you these things because people think they found them out. The only person who wasn’t able to comment was the university president of the time, because he’s dead. But everyone else commented on my story. They all verified all of this happened. Sometimes I think if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t believe it myself.”
Her giving up prosecution caused another media story, except this time people called her a liar. “No one took the time to see I was trying to make the best informed decision for my life and for my children. Instead,” she said, “everyone just decided I really was a liar.”
But she still didn’t want what had happened to her happening to others. So she went to OSU’s sexual assault counselor and discussed what could happened. After her discussion, she “assumed they would take care of it. I left there and just kinda wiped my hands of it.”
One more news story came out, however. The coach of the OSU team at the time, Coach Riley, said, “these are really good guys who made a bad choice,” and gave his two players a one game suspension.
He then said they took the suspension well, which Tracy rebutted, saying, “Of course they’re taking it well, they were facing 20 years in prison…and really good guys who made a bad choice? That’s what gang rape is?…I didn’t understand what I was going through was the product of someone just making a bad choice.”
While the words stuck with her, she believed the school was doing something to punish her rapists or educate students. The later investigation would find the two students had been put on school probation, participated in an educational program and told to perform 25 hours community service.
After all of this, Tracy said she hoped time would help her to move on. But it didn’t; she struggled with depression, PTSD, a borderline eating disorder, not being able to sleep and suicidal thoughts.
She felt “ruined from the inside. Like they were inside of me and there weren’t any amount of hot showers that I could scrub them off of me.” Every day, she said, she would consider suicide but couldn’t because of her sons. Eventually, that led to her resenting them — “they were the reasons I had to live. They were the reason I couldn’t die. Any my resentment for them looked like me being angry, me yelling a lot, me not being patient with them.”
“My rapists stole those years from me and my children and I can’t ever get them back,” she continued.
When she turned 40, in 2014, Tracy questioned her life — or lives. She was living two lives; “on one side, I’d finished school, I’d got off welfare, I had a great job, I was taking care of my sons, was making a good amount of money….everybody thought we were doing really well. On the other side I was this hurt, broken person.”
Living two lives was exhausting, so she decided to go to counseling.
A few sessions in, she opened up to her counselor about the rape, and the counselor questioned her long-standing belief that the school had done something.
“That was the one little thing I held on to all those years,” she mentioned. So she began to contact the school to dig into the case. Because the school made it difficult to get information, she decided to look into other avenues, which turned out to be Coach Riley.
But she wasn’t sure how that would turn out.
She “wanted to write the letter in a way that he wouldn’t get defensive, so he could see how his words affected me, how his actions affected my life.”
In searching him, she learned he was seen as the “best guy in football. Everybody loves him, he doesn’t cuss, he goes to church every Sunday…I’m thinking in my mind, am I the only person that hates this guy?”
An article from 2009 highlighted another decision he made — giving a player a two game suspension for a domestic violence conviction. She decided to send an email to the reporter — John Canzano.
Canzano and her met in August of 2014, and he gave her an offer: he could set up a meeting with Coach Riley or he could tell her story. With the latter option, she thought “Tell my story, who cares? Nobody cared 16 years ago, why would they care now? Literally in my head I was just thinking, what do I have to lose…I kinda had this fuck it moment.”
In November 2014, her story went public. “That was a really intense moment and transformational moment for me…I was two people until that moment. When my story went up, I became Brenda Tracy, Registered Nurse, single mom, rape survivor,” she said.
This time, she didn’t get any backlash; “this time people loved on me, people believed in me, but they had questions about back then.”
The then president of OSU issued an apology and started an internal investigation, and Canzano also did an investigation, which revealed what had happened in 1998 as discussed earlier. After learning the truth, Tracy “was pretty angry, because my rapist should’ve just been getting out of prison. But now, because the statute of limitations was up, they’d never go to prison.”
She discussed her options with a lawyer, who told her, “if you want help changing a law I will help you do that.”
Since then, Tracy has helped change seven laws in her state. These involve extending the statute of limitations, mandating police test rape kits and creating other laws that help protect students on campuses. She also sits on an NCAA commission to combat sexual violence. This initiative was partly done by her son, who, after seeing how upset she was about the Baylor sexual assault scandal, offered to contact them.
“There’s a lot of things that are NCAA violations but rape is not one of them. Accepting money and a hamburger are, but not rape,” she noted.
Her speaking career started with Coach Riley. He had invited her to Oregon State to talk, but then suddenly moved to Nebraska to coach football there. But he continued to reach out to her, and eventually she took him up on the offer. The two talked privately, and he allowed her to vent, holding himself accountable, she said.
She then talked to his team. “Think about that,” she told the athletes in the audience. “If that was your coach, and you were sitting in a room listening to me…I hated your coach more than I hated my rapist. But again, he didn’t flinch.”
A rapist she could rationalize, because they destroy lives. “I cannot rationalize good people doing nothing. I can’t rationalize a one game suspension for gang rape, I can’t rationalize the DA lying to me…all these people put in place to protect me didn’t,” she said.
“The other thing I can’t rationalize was why football was more important than my life. Literally,” she said, and then continued, “The other saying you hear is life is priceless. My life wasn’t priceless. I have a price tag. My price tag was the cost of Reser Stadium.” The stadium was “built off of my back and my pain and my children’s pain.”
The story of her talking to Coach Riley then went viral and launched her speaking career. Since then, she’s been to about forty schools, including the University of Florida, the University of Auburn and Texas A&M. She primarily works with athletes, and mostly men.
She rationalized this choice by saying, “if women could stop sexual violence we would’ve already done it. I know that. I know that well over 90 percent of sexual violence is committed by men against women, children and other men.”
She rationalized focusing on athletes by saying, “Sports is our country’s religion, especially men’s sports. There’s nothing in our country that we participate in more than athletics and sports.”
But not all men commit these crimes. To these men, she “wanted to ask you to be the 90 percent. I understand that you guys are thinking, ‘I don’t commit rape, I don’t beat on people, I was raised right.’”
But they need to be louder than the sexual assaulters, she said. “The media narrative would have you believe that if I was drunk and passed out right now, a bunch of men would line up to rape me. They make it like you’re all animals, and that’s not true. You’re just silent.”
“I need you guys to step up. See something, say something…you could literally save a life, I promise you,” Tracy continued. As a survivor, “I don’t want to see anyone else go through what I’ve been through.”
She asked the men on campus to “let the women on this campus know they can go to a party, they can drink, they can have fun, and if something happens they can be kept safe.”
“If I go to a party and I drink and I drink too much, do you know what I expect? I expect to have a raging headache and maybe a hangover and be a little sick. I don’t expect to get raped,” she said.
Then she asked the men to think about what it was like to be a woman on campus, and consider most victims knew who their attacker was.
“That means if I’m at a party and I drink, I have to wonder, which one of these guys might rape me…I knew some of my rapists,” she continued. Dandridge had seemed like the guy she should be dating before her assault. “Never in a million years would I have thought Jason would do that to me. I still have a hard time understanding how.”
To anyone who has been, or is in the future, sexually assaulted, Tracy offered these words: “It’s not your fault. Ever. It is never your fault. People like to talk about alcohol, kids going to college, hormones, there’s all these things that cause rape. No. Nothing causes rape but a rapist. Period. That person makes a conscious decision to violate another person’s body.”
At the end of her talk, she asked the audience for their responses to her beginning challenge: how would they respond if she was their mother. One man in the audience called out he’d like to kill them.
“Yeah, my sons do,” she responded. “We’ve talked about how they don’t get to go find them. It doesn’t do anybody any good.”
After sharing her life story with the audience, Tracy said “it’s not easy for me to stand up here and tell you what happened to me. It’s embarrassing and it’s gross…I do it because I need you to know. I need you to understand that I’m a real person. All of you can be a part of helping to end this.”
The night concluded with a bold statement from a TU student. After telling people to believe and offer help to anyone who tells them they’d been sexually assaulted, Mary Beth Sawyer said “if you don’t believe them, I don’t give a flying fuck if you don’t believe them. Shut your mouth.”
“It starts with small things people. Little things make a difference. You start off telling someone to shut up when bullying happens, next thing you know you’re telling someone, ‘Hey, what are you doing with that girl, I hope you’re taking her to her apartment.”
“Rape is a problem on this campus. It’s been a problem on every campus that she’s been to. We do not want our campus known for that, and it’s becoming a problem,” she finished.