My friend Agatha has a message for women everywhere: if your electricity shuts down in the middle of the night, stay in and light a candle. Agatha was raped in her laundry room–and later in her own bedroom–by a man who tampered with her apartment’s fuse box. She hopes to identify him in a lineup today. The cops call it “another circuit-breaker crime.”

I’ve never known an Agatha. But I’ve promised the real woman hidden behind this pseudonym that I’d protect her identity. Agatha’s afraid her rapist could retaliate if he read about his crime, even though logic tells her this can’t happen. She’s also learned about the stigma of being a rape victim. Friends and relatives whom she expected to empathize with her don’t ask questions, or else change the subject.

Agatha could be 19 or 90; her skin could be pale pink or deep brown; she could live in a housing project or a lakeshore high rise. The fewer details I provide about her, the harder it will be for women to derive a false sense of security in the differences between themselves and her.

Agatha and I are at a police station in Chicago; I won’t tell you where. She’s taken a half day off from work to be here, although she’s terrified at the thought of seeing her assailant again. The detective assigned to her case tries to mitigate her fears, saying that today’s lineup will be “just like TV.”

Nothing of course is just like TV–especially when it comes to law enforcement. There’s no smart-mouthed cops interrogating wisecracking, handcuffed suspects; in fact the station itself is calm, almost empty. We sit in what’s called a “conference room”; it’s filled with other victims, accompanied by family and friends, who also wait to identify their assailants in lineups.

The room is windowless and gloomy and feels like punishment. The walls are painted concrete blocks, the ceilings are foam panel insulation, and the dozen or so chairs in the room all have people’s names written on them in laundry marker: Agatha is sitting in Joe’s chair. There’s a TV set high in one corner. Channel 50 blares out a commercial for an upcoming program: “Warning. Some scenes may not be suitable for younger viewers.” A banged-up conference table sits in the middle of the room; at it a nine-year-old girl is being fingerprinted–something about differentiating her prints from a felon’s. Two other women at the table–strangers until now –are conversing.

Woman A: “He wanted to do more, but I talked him out of it.”

Woman B: “How’d you do that?”

Woman A: “Said I wasn’t his type.” (She laughs.)

Woman B: “Well, I wish I hadn’t been.”

Later Agatha will tell me that there’s no “type” of woman rapists prefer. But right now she’s staring straight ahead, avoiding conversation with anyone. An officer enters our room and asks who wants to go first.

Agatha jumps up. “Me.”

I’m expecting a darkened room, but instead we’re standing in the huge, well-lit main office. Private offices, interview rooms, and conference rooms line its walls. Some of these offices have mini-blinds covering a large window.

Blinds are lifted. Four men stare at us, but not really, because they’re behind one-way glass. Muffled commands emerge from the room. “Look at the wall. Now look at me. Face the glass.”

Agatha does not look frightened but rather, deep in thought: here’s her chance to confront her assailant and perhaps put him someplace where he can’t hurt anyone.

“Number three looks awful familiar,” she says.

“Is that the one you like?” asks the officer.

“Yeah, him.”

“That’s not him. We’re looking at number two.”

“I don’t think so. His hair’s too long.”

“Don’t look at hair. Hair grows.”

“Not that much!”

“Look at his face.”

Number two has been positively identified by several women as their rapist. The other men in the lineup aren’t even suspects. But Agatha only caught a quick glimpse of her rapist’s face–both her laundry room and apartment were unlighted–and she just isn’t sure. So she has to do something called a voice ID.

“Is there anything,” asks the officer, “you’d like them to say?”

Agatha tells him; he writes it down.

I’m expecting microphones and speakers but instead Agatha turns her back, an officer opens the door a crack, and each man comes to the door, stands two feet behind her, and says, “Shut up. You’re lucky you’re not dead.” Each man says it twice. And each time Agatha shakes her head.

Except the last time.

“I like that voice,” she says, slipping into cop vernacular.

We’re surrounded by at least three armed officers, but each time the suspect repeats this statement, I become more upset. I can’t imagine what Agatha is feeling.

“Again!” barks the officer.

“Shut up. You’re lucky you’re not dead.”


He repeats himself. Again. And again.

We’re in another room now, a small office, joined by two detectives. They tell us there’s enough evidence to convict “number two,” but if Agatha could positively identify him another case would be wrapped up and she’d feel better too.

“Of course if you say it’s not him, it’s not him. The case stays open and we continue the investigation.”

Agatha is flustered. She remembers men dusting her apartment for fingerprints, talking excitedly about getting “good ones.” Now the detectives tell us that what appear to the naked eye as perfect fingerprints may prove defective at the crime lab. That’s probably why there’s no report in the file.

“They make it look so easy on TV,” they say.

“What about DNA testing?” she says.

The detectives tell us that this procedure is only used when necessary; it’s unbelievably expensive. But if it’s determined DNA testing is needed to convict “number two,” they’ll make sure Agatha’s clothes are included in the testing procedure.

The afternoon ends with Agatha and me driving too fast along the lakefront, trying to get to the south side before 2:45, when the building that’s been holding her blankets will close. The rapist threw the blankets off her bed before he raped her, but the detectives took them anyway. Agatha needs her blankets. She’s already filled out a Form 54 at the station, and has been told that their retrieval will be simple. We arrive at the building only seconds before the doors are locked; because I assume Agatha will be back shortly, I wait in the car. This is violent crime’s prosaic aftermath–the part that’s too boring to show on TV: it ends up taking another 45 minutes; while I wait, freezing, in the car, thinking how cold the concrete floor of that laundry room must have been, Agatha is battling her way through another bureaucratic quagmire, just so she can once more be warm enough to fall asleep at night.