For more than four decades, Kris Pedretti stayed silent about being raped by Joseph DeAngelo, the so-called Golden State Killer, in 1976.
But when DeAngelo’s case resurfaced in the news a few years ago, it brought up feelings of panic and anger that she hadn’t experienced in years. So in March 2018, Pedretti finally decided to sit down with her sister and husband and tell them the entire story.
“That was the day I began finding my way back to me,” she said. “I truly thought I would have been more than happy to live my life in denial, but... I didn't realize the toll that that takes.”
The experience of telling her story was so cathartic, Pedretti created a space at her Elk Grove home for other survivors of sexual assault to share theirs, too.
Since June, she has been hosting monthly in-person events in her back yard for a small group of survivors. They share a meal, listen to one another, and if the time is right, a survivor may take the microphone.
“You need a safe place” in order to feel ready to talk about a traumatic event, Pedretti said.
“Then you find out that all those terrible things that you thought were going to happen when you told your story, don't happen.”
Sexual assault survivors say there’s a stigma around this crime that makes people blame themselves, and keeps them from seeking help. Only about a quarter of U.S. rapes are reported to police, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
“I didn't realize how much shame I carry,” Pedretti said about coping with her trauma alone for all those years.
After Pedretti attended DeAngelo’s hearings last year, and befriended his other victims, she was inspired to create a support group on Facebook for survivors all over the world. Over the past year, the group has drawn nearly 600 members.
Kerri Angell, of Folsom, was raped 26 years ago and says she went most of her adult life without connecting to other survivors, until she came across Pedretti’s Facebook page. She’s been to both of the gatherings Pedretti has hosted since June.
“I’m in a group of people, and we’re not freaks,” she said. “This happens to so many people, and they’re afraid to say it, and why?”
Angell says she hasn’t shared her story with the group yet, but attending makes her feel less alone.
For Nichole, a survivor in the midwest who asked to go by her first name only, finding Pedretti’s online group was the first step in pulling herself out of depression, flashbacks and anxiety.
“I was in such a deep hole,” she said.
She says during the pandemic, with more time at home, the feelings she’d been burying about two assaults that happened 17 years ago began to catch up with her. When she started looking for other survivors online, she found Pedretti.
“I messaged her and told her my story,” Nichole said. “I thought she’d say ‘leave me alone’, but she said ‘you are so brave, can I call you?’”
They talked on the phone, and two months later Nichole flew out to California for a visit. Nichole said they connected instantly, and she felt comfortable talking about her sexual trauma for the first time.
After that, Nichole said she had fewer hard days.
“Before I was a car stuck in the mud, tires covered,” she said. “Now, I’m in the mud still, but there’s all these women pushing me.”
But she still hasn’t told her husband about her assault.
“The hardest part was flying back home to where nobody knows … it felt like a double life,” she said. “And that’s something I’m still working through.”
Other survivors who are not connected to Pedretti’s group say there’s not enough of a support network for people who’ve experienced sexual violence, the way there is for people living with addiction or chronic disease.
“[For] cancer, there's a lot of support groups ... you'll see multiple fliers, it'll be at different churches,” said Monica, a survivor who asked that we use only her first name. “I want to brainstorm how that could be done for sexual assault victims, having that support without the shame?”
In Sacramento County, a nonprofit rape crisis center called WEAVE offers free individual and group therapy for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.
Pedretti’s group isn’t therapy in the technical sense, but she says it is part of the long healing journey for many survivors.
She’s made her backyard into a haven for friends and storytellers, equipped with fountains, wind chimes, a large patio, and a grassy sitting area.
In the back corner, there’s a small, purple shed. It’s covered in illustrations and inspirational quotes that Pedretti and other sexual assault survivors have painted over the past year. One drawing depicts a bird flying out of a cage with a key in its beak.
For Pedretti, the bird’s escape represents her own freedom from silence.
“However you feel like sharing is how you share,” she said about the process of releasing the emotions around a traumatic event. “Maybe you write music or write poetry or you paint sheds ... But you have to find a way to express it.”
Gatherings will continue through the fall, and then restart in the spring.
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