The Effect of Her Past

This is an excerpt from Elle magazine on one woman’s personal journey to see the effect a father’s and teacher’s abuse had on her. To read the article in its entirety, please click here.

“Then, when my memoir, Blue Plate Special, came out in July 2013, I got booked—to my amazement and excitement—on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air.

“They like to go into the dark stuff,” my publicist pointedly warned me. “So be prepared for that.”

“It’s a book about food,” I said, laughing. “What could they possibly find to talk about that I have to be prepared for?”

I sat down in the small NPR affiliate station in Portland, Maine, where I live, put on the headphones in the dark studio, bellied up to the mike, and there was Dave Davies’ famous voice in my ear, asking me to read a section from my book: the part in which my father attacked my mother, punching her and pulling her hair, when I was a toddler, over a breakfast of soft-boiled eggs.

With a strange sense of dislocated dread, I read the scene aloud, trying not to let my voice shake from the remembered scariness. Davies asked me how witnessing something as traumatic as that had affected me throughout my life.

“I didn’t want to be my mother; I didn’t want to be the person who got beaten up,” I said. “So I identified with the person who was doing the beating—my father.”

It was true: I had always adored my father, even after, at nine years old, I had to call the cops on him while he beat my mother and watched him being led away in handcuffs and pretty much out of my life forever. In a family of all girls, I was always the “boy” in my mind—the protector, the masculine one. No one would ever have to worry about me.

But it didn’t make it any less hard to talk about. I kept waiting for Davies to change the subject, and he finally did.

“Your high school teacher molested you,” he said. “You were a victim.”

You were a victim: The words reverberated in my head, and I could hear his certainty, his insistence, like a bloodhound on the scent of good radio.

“Was I?” I said. “I don’t really identify that way.”

The rest of the interview passed in a weird blur. When it was over, I stumbled outside, where my boyfriend was waiting.

“How did you do?” Brendan asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “He kept insisting that I was a victim. I didn’t know what to say.”

I had been determined, all my life, not to fall victim to anything: not my father’s physical abuse of my mother and total abandonment of my sisters and me, nor my math teacher’s ongoing molestation of me in high school, nor my many adult years of severe alcohol abuse and bad choices. Anyway, none of it could hurt me, now that I’d found a good relationship, a stable professional life, a strong, warm community of friends and family.

I was also sure my self-destructive behavior was unconnected to anything that had happened to me: I was a survivor, dammit. And it could have been so much worse. My father hit and punched my mother, not me. He left us, but we still had our mother, the heroine. And my math teacher didn’t actually have sex with me; he had sex with other girls. And he wasn’t the only teacher at that school who did it—there was a whole circle of abuse. I had gotten off easy and had no right, no cause, to view my prior adult life as anything but my own damn fault, my own doing.

Telling myself this made me feel powerful and invincible, gave me a comforting sense of agency and free will. If I fell into one relationship after another with men who were either emotionally tuned out and unavailable or hotheaded and controlling, or both, it was because I was lacking in good sense about men. If I was chronically in debt, always drunk or hungover, unable to jump-start my writing career, then I was incapable of making good decisions. No more, no less. And it was no one’s fault but mine.”

And Kristin Cunnane tells her own similar story in an excerpt of this article, originally posted at CBS News.

“I think coming forward has been the hardest thing that I’ve ever faced,” Kristen Cunnane said. “It’s always been about telling the truth.”

“Kristen changed everything,” her husband, Scott Cunnane said, “because if she hadn’t come forward– there would have been no investigation.”

Once Kristen made that difficult decision to go public, she told her story first to reporters Matthias Gafni and Malaika Fraley of the Bay Area News Group.

“She felt a responsibility because she is a role model to young people. She wanted to let other people know that it’s OK to stand up for yourself,” said Fraley.

Acting on a tip from Kristen, the reporters fought to unearth secret documents the Moraga School District had long kept hidden.

“With the hundred or so documents we received,” Gafni explained, “we realized there was really a big cover-up that had gone on there.”

The documents revealed that former school administrators knew that science teacher Dan Witters was sexually abusing middle school girls for two years before he drove his car off a cliff in 1996. In 1994, a former student of Witters wrote the school a detailed letter outlining the abuse.

“…she basically says … Dan Witters drove me home from a school event and sexually molested me,” said Matthias.

That letter was only the first written warning the school received about Witters. In 1995, there was another memo, which gave clear examples of Witters’ criminal behavior. The memo was written by Julie Correa who, incredibly, would begin her own abuse of Kristen a year later.

“Many people think that– that Julie was testing the waters with the administration– by reporting Dan Witters,” said Fraley.

“To see if they would do anything?” Smith asked.

“Right. And when they didn’t — many people think that that gave Julie a license to ramp up this — inappropriate relationship that she had with Kristen,” Fraley replied.

California law – even then — required that teachers and school officials tell police if they suspected a minor was being abused. Despite that law, neither Correa nor the school principal reported Witters to authorities.

On May 28, 2012, reporters Gafni and Fraley exposed the cover-up in a devastating story.

“My first reaction — absolute outrage,” lawyer Dave Ring said of reading the article. “They concealed everything they knew about Dan Witters.”

“I just couldn’t believe … that all of these people knew for so long what he was doing … and just chose to do nothing,” said Jane Doe.

“And they could have stopped it,” Smith commented.

“I think they absolutely could have stopped it,” said Jane.

Jane Doe, who had attempted suicide twice after being abused by Dan Witters, hired lawyer Dave Ring. And in February 2013, Ring and his legal team filed a civil lawsuit against the school district.

“If Moraga and the administrators had followed the law … Dan Witters would have been fired … and most likely would have been arrested and imprisoned. And Jane Doe and those other girls that came after him would never have been exposed to him,” said Ring.

“What did they do to you by not reporting Mr. Witters?” Smith asked Jane.

“They made me live my life like this, faking relationships [pauses] and acting like everything is OK,” she replied.

“When in reality?” Smith asked.

“Nothing is OK,” Jane replied. “…this is something that will probably be with me forever.”

Jane Doe was one of three women who came forward saying they had been abused by Witters in the mid-90s.

“Do you believe that if the school district would have stopped Mr. Witters, this whole thing might not have happened to you with Julie?” Smith asked Kristen.

“I 100-percent believe that,” she replied.

Current administrators at the Moraga School District apologized to the women who were abused and gave “48 Hours” a statement noting that it has learned from past mistakes and is fostering a “new culture.”

But the sins of the past came to a head in December 2011. Nine months had passed since a judge had ruled there was enough evidence to hold Julie Correa over for trial.

“What was it like being in court with Julie and Kristen both there?” Smith asked Fraley.

“It was intense … I mean, the courtroom was stuffed with people,” she said. “And Julie faced over a hundred years in prison.”

Facing life in prison, Julie Correa instead worked out a plea deal with prosecutors. She pleaded “no contest” to four felony counts, including one charge of rape. In her remarks to the court, Correa told Kristen, “It was never, never my intention to hurt you. I cared deeply for you.”

“What she did to me is unforgivable and I’m not — I have no plans on forgiving her,” Kristen said. “That’s just not who I am.”

In December 2011, Julie Correa — the former P.E. teacher and coach who had never been charged with sexually abusing any other children — was sentenced to eight years in prison. Correa did not respond to “48 Hours”‘ repeated requests for an interview.

“I mean, there will still be scars for the rest of my life, but I think I’m learning to live with my scars,” said Kristen.

The truth is that Correa’s crimes continue to impact Kristen and her family.

“She has nightmares of being in this house. She cannot go be on the stairs or up into her bedroom,” said Kristen’s mother, Jeanne Lewis.

For years now, Kristen has been unable to visit the house where she grew up.

“There’s millions of good memories of growing up there, but the hundreds of bad memories of what she did to me there, just is like overwhelming,” she said.”


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