Not Easy Reading: A Rape Victim Recovers Her Life

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Not Easy Reading: A Rape Victim Recovers Her Life

Post by Ralph » Wed Jun 07, 2006 10:44 pm

From The New York Times:
June 8, 2006
A Central Park Victim Recalls 'When I Was Hurt,' and Her Healing

On an album of bittersweet children's songs that she wrote more than a decade ago, the woman who came to be known only as "the piano teacher" offered what, in hindsight, seems like an eerie glimpse of her own future.

"I'm moving away today to a place so far away, where nobody knows my name," she wrote in the lyrics of a song called "Moving."

When she wrote that song, she was young and vivacious, a piano teacher and freelance music writer who loved Beethoven and jazz, sunsets and river sounds, long walks and everything about New York.

On one of those beloved walks, through Central Park in the bright sun of a June day in 1996, a homeless drifter beat her and tried to rape her, leaving her clinging to life. After the attack, the words to her song came true. She "moved away," out of New York City, out of her old life, and all but her closest friends did not know her name. To the rest of the world, she was — like the more famous jogger attacked in Central Park seven years earlier — an anonymous symbol of an urban nightmare. She was "the piano teacher."

Now, on the 10th anniversary of the attack, she is celebrating what seems to be her full recovery from brain trauma. She is 42, married, with a small child. She is Kyle Kevorkian McCann, the piano teacher, and she wants to tell her story, her way.

Her doctor told her it would take 10 years to recover, and Sunday was that talismanic anniversary. "I feel my life has been redefined by Central Park," she said several days ago, her voice soft and hopeful. "Before park; after park. Will there ever be a time when I don't think, 'Oh, this is the 10th anniversary, the 11th anniversary'?"

She spoke in her modest ranch house in a wooded subdivision in a New York suburb. She sat in a dining room strewn with toys, surrounded by photographs of her cherubic, dark-haired 2-year-old daughter. A Steinway grand filled half the room, and at one point she sat down and played. Her playing was forceful, but she seemed embarrassed to play more than a few bars, and shrugged, rather than answering, when asked the name of the piece. She asked that her daughter and her town not be named.

She calls that day, June 4, 1996, the day "when I was hurt."

Hers was the first in a string of attacks by the same man on four women over eight days. The last victim, Evelyn Alvarez, 65, was beaten to death as she opened her Park Avenue dry-cleaning shop, and ultimately, the assailant, John J. Royster, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Yet the attack on the piano teacher is the one people seem to remember the most. Part of the fascination has to do with echoes of the 1989 attack on the Central Park jogger. But it also frightened people in a way the attack on the jogger did not because its circumstances were so mundane.

It did not take place in a remote part of the park late at night, but near a popular playground at 3 in the afternoon. It could have happened to anyone. The tension was heightened by the mystery of the piano teacher's identity.

For three days, as police and doctors tried to find out who she was, she lay in a coma in her hospital bed, anonymous. Her parents were on vacation and her boyfriend, also a musician, was in Europe, on tour. Finally, one of her students recognized a police sketch and was able to identify her in the hospital by her fingers, because her face was swollen beyond recognition. The police did not release her name.

The last thing she remembers about June 4, 1996, is giving a lesson in her studio apartment on West 57th Street, then putting her long hair in a ponytail and going out for a walk. She does not remember the attack, although she has heard the accounts of the police and prosecutors.

"To me it's like a fact I learned and memorized," she said. "As if I were a student in school studying history."

She does not think about the man who did it. "I might have been angry for a moment, but not much longer than that," she said. "How could I be angry at John Royster? He was declared not insane, but I guess by our standards he was."

Dr. Jamshid Ghajar, her doctor at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, as it was known in 1996, told reporters that she had a 10 percent chance of survival. Doctors had to remove her forehead bone, which was later replaced, to make room for her swelling brain. When her mother made a public appeal to "pray for my daughter," thousands did.

After eight days, she came out of a coma, first in a vegetative state, then in a childlike state. As she recovered, she slept little and talked constantly, sometimes in gibberish. "I was getting mad at people when they didn't respond to these words," she said.

Like an Alzheimer's patient, she had little short-term memory and would forget visitors as soon as they left the room.

Over several months, she had to relearn how to walk, dress, read and write. Her boyfriend, Tony Scherr, visited every day to play guitar for her. He encouraged her to play the piano, against the advice of her physical therapists, who thought she would be frustrated by her inability to play the way she once had. Mr. Scherr played Beatles duets with her, playing the left-hand part while she played the right.

"That was my best therapy," she said.

In August, she moved back home to New Jersey, with her father, an engineer, and mother, a schoolteacher. She visited old haunts and called friends, trying to restore her shattered memory. "I was very obsessed with remembering," she said. "Any memory loss was to me a sign of abnormality or deficit."

Her therapists thought her progress was terrific, but her two sisters protested that she was not the deep thinker she had been.

What bothered her most was that she had lost the ability to cry, as if a faucet inside her brain had been turned off. One night, nine months after she was hurt, she stayed up late to watch the John Grisham movie "A Time to Kill." Just after her father had gone to bed, she watched a courtroom scene of Samuel Jackson's character on trial for killing two men who had raped his young daughter.

The faucet opened, and the tears trickled down her cheeks. "I thought about my parents, my father, and what they went through," she said. "Little by little, my feeling returned, my depth of mind returned."

Urged by her sisters, she went back to school and got a master's degree in music education.

Not everything went well. She and Mr. Scherr split up five years after the attack, though they remain friends. She dated other men, but she always told them about the attack right away — she could not help it, she said — and they never called for a second date.

"We have to find you someone," her friend David Phelps, a guitar player, said four years ago, before introducing her to Liam McCann, a computer technician and amateur drummer. For once, she did not say anything about the attack until she got to know Mr. McCann, and then when she did, he admired her strength.

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who had often visited her at her bedside while she was in the hospital, married them in his Times Square office. She wore a blue dress and pearls. While she was pregnant, in a burst of creativity, she and her friends recorded "When We're Young," an album of children's songs that she had written before the attack, including the song "Moving." Her ex-boyfriend, Mr. Scherr, produced the CD. On it, her husband plays drums and she plays electric piano.

Is her life as it was? Not exactly, though she is reluctant to attribute the differences to her injuries. Her last two piano students left her, without calling to explain why, she said. She has resumed playing classical music, but simple pieces, because her daughter does not give her time to practice. As for jazz, "I don't even try," she said.

She would like to drive more, feeling stranded in the suburbs, but she is easily rattled. She tries to be content with staying home and caring for her daughter.

Dr. Ghajar, a clinical professor of neurological surgery at what is now called NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, who operated on Ms. Kevorkian McCann after the attack, said last week that her level of recovery was rare. "She's basically normal," he said.

Other experts, who are not personally familiar with Ms. Kevorkian McCann's case, are more cautious.

Regaining the ability to play the piano may involve an almost mechanical process, a semiautomatic recall of what the fingers need to do, said Dr. Yehuda Ben-Yishay, a professor of clinical rehabilitation medicine at New York University School of Medicine. "Once brain-injured, you are always brain-injured, for the rest of your life," Dr. Ben-Yishay said. "There is no cure, there is only intensive compensation."

The more telling part of a recovery, in his view, is psychological, and on that score he counts Ms. Kevorkian McCann's marriage and child as a significant victory.

For her part, the piano teacher knows she has changed, but she has made her peace with it. "I was sort of a hyper —— I don't know if I was a Type A, but I was ambitious," she says. "Why was I so ambitious? I was a piano teacher. I don't know what the ambition was about. I really did come back to the person I'm supposed to be."

"Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former."

Albert Einstein

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Post by Werner » Wed Jun 07, 2006 11:19 pm

A GOOD story, Ralph - thanks for posting it. More power to her.
Werner Isler


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