Tuesday, September 2, 2014
'Haze' looks at the limbo of waiting for rape kit to be tested
As Heather Marlowe recollects in her autobiographical one-woman play "The Haze," she was excitedly moving into her first apartment in San Francisco the weekend of May 16, 2010, when she heard about a must-see "running race/street party thing."
Bay to Breakers was on. So she and a friend headed out for a race pre-party.
And the next thing Marlowe remembers is waking up the next morning, bruised and disoriented, in an unfamiliar apartment in the Inner Richmond. Her cell phone and wallet were gone, and a man she didn't recognize was yelling at her to leave the building.
At San Francisco General the horrible truth sank in that she had been drugged and raped. During the forensic exam, doctors assembled a sexual assault evidence collection kit. Commonly called a rape kit, it contains biological evidence that could include DNA left by an attacker.
A police inspector told Marlowe she should expect the results from the evidence being tested against a criminal database "any day now." Yet after more than two years - including dozens of phone calls to the San Francisco Police Department and Marlowe's own amateur sleuthing in person and online to try to identify her rapist - she was still waiting.
"All. That. Time. Do you know how hard it is to move on when you're sitting inside that limbo?" she asks in the emotionally potent monologue of "The Haze," which has an upcoming 12-night run at The Costume Shop at ACT.
"I'd been through this painful experience, and then it's pretty unbearable to think that DNA evidence could just be disintegrating, untested, in some lab," Marlowe, 32, said during a recent morning interview at a coffee shop in San Rafael.
She "was freaked out living in the city where it happened" and moved to Marin after the attack, using a relocation stipend from the San Francisco District Attorney Victim Services Division.
"I had such an absurd and compelling story to tell, about a total mishandling of how I thought our justice system worked," Marlowe says. "And so I started writing."
She began developing "The Haze" as part of comedian W. Kamau Bell's Solo Performance Workshop in 2012.
"At first there were moments when I'd think, 'Oh my God, did I really just talk about my rape onstage?' " she says. "But I did my first 20 minutes, gained a lot of confidence and realized I could turn it into a full performance."
She has since workshopped the play for San Francisco and New York audiences. Marlowe says she has been inspired by "master storytellers Spalding Gray and Mike Daisy." Daisy's wife Jean-Michele Gregory directs the play at ACT.
In person, as in her play, Marlowe is thoughtful and also able to find some absurd humor embedded in her painful experiences. She says she has worked with Gregory to "strike the right balance between the dark stuff that is just real, and my sardonic slant on it."
Although the working title of the play was "Any Day Now," she decided to call it "The Haze" for the "dissociative and dreamlike" state she says she experienced as a girl growing up in Olympia, Wash., with a "Filipino Tiger Mom" and an abusive father.
Marlowe says she "felt so alone" when she started writing "The Haze." "I wondered if other people were hitting this same wall of not getting their kits processed."
She has no idea that her plight was unfortunately all too common among victims of rape locally and nationally.
The Joyful Heart Foundation, which works with victims of sexual assault, says experts have estimated that well over 100,000 kits are awaiting analysis across the country.
The issue has been drawing considerable press attention this year. Politicians, editorial boards and nonprofit advocacy groups (such as endthebacklog.org, founded by actress Mariska Hargitay) have been urging action - namely funding - to alleviate the vast backlog.
President Obama recently proposed a $41 million federal grant program to support comprehensive testing.
At the state level, Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley introduced measure AB1517 in January to push law enforcement agencies to test kits more promptly.
The bill has unanimously passed both legislative houses and awaits Assembly confirmation and the governor's signature, according to O'Malley.
"It's a travesty that victims are not able to find closure, and rapists are not getting caught, because our system for processing the kits is broken," says former California State Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Fiona Ma. "Heather is so brave to tell her story; and when people hear it, they start to understand what a huge problem this is."
Ma co-sponsored with Patricia Lurie a San Francisco benefit performance of excerpts of "The Haze" in July for guests including city police officers.
Marlowe says the rape has made her "way more cautious than I ever used to be. I don't like having this hyper-vigilance. I don't want women to feel they have to go out with an app that can detect roofies in a drink and always be on the defensive. And yet when that part of your brain is turned on to be super careful you can't really turn it off."
Marlowe has testified on the issue of the rape kit backlog before the San Francisco Police Commission and the state Legislature and been interviewed on numerous TV news programs. Yet she calls herself a "reluctant activist. I never thought I'd be the public face of this issue."
"I don't want to be pigeonholed as this 'issue playwright,' " she says. "And at the same time I do care deeply. I've had women come up to me after the show, all across the age range, who have had this happen to them. Audiences have been shocked and want to know how we can right this wrong."
The Haze: Thursday-Saturday, Thursday-Sept. 27. (Thursdays at 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.) Tickets: $20 online or at the door (cash only). http://bit.ly/thehazeplayACT.
Jessica Zack is a freelance writer. E-mail: email@example.com