On the Record: Heather Marlowe, Playwright

Artist and activist Heather Marlowe came to campus Tuesday to perform her solo play, The Haze, and hold a discussion on the treatment of sexual assault survivors by the criminal justice system.

Photo courtesy of Heather Marlowe

Artist and activist Heather Marlowe came to campus Tuesday to perform her solo play, The Haze, and hold a discussion on the treatment of sexual assault survivors by the criminal justice system.

Victoria Garber, Arts Editor

Editor’s note: This article discusses sexual assault.

Playwright, actor and activist Heather Marlowe graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2009 with a degree in art history before moving to San Francisco, where she dedicated much of her time to theater classes. Motivated by her own experiences with the criminal justice system after being raped, Marlowe has worked with the survivor-advocacy organization People for the Enforcement of Rape Laws and produced a solo show, The Haze, which she performed at Oberlin this week. Speaking with The Review, Marlow reflects on art as a healing mechanism and the realities of rape culture in the United States.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You described the “haze” your play is named for as a kind of dissociative state that helped you through childhood trauma. How would you characterize the role it’s played in your life, and what significance does it hold as the name of your play?

As a child, I wasn’t aware that I was going into those states — I think when children experience trauma, that sort of response is more automatic — and it’s not something I became aware of until I was an adult because [at that point] it starts to interfere with your life. It played a really positive role in my life as a young child because it’s a protective mechanism, and as an adult I have come to understand that if I’m triggered or if I get in places where I’m under a lot of stress — or [after] what happened with the rape — I’ve found myself going back into that state again. I’ve had to learn to be accepting [of the fact] that that’s how I was conditioned to cope, but [I’ve] also done a lot of personal therapy work to make it so that I can bring myself out of that state a little bit better.

I decided to call [the play The Haze] because it has a dual meaning I think. One is just about what I call this dissociative state, but I [also] felt like this whole experience … going through the criminal justice system … is almost like they put you through [a hazing experience]. More often than not, I read about this kind of treatment — this kind of indifference — and you’re put through all of these barriers in an attempt to reach an end goal.

Your play pretty explicitly detailed your own assault several years ago, as well as the incredibly impersonal way that you and your case were treated by authorities. Can you go into some of what happened, and how your case was handled?

I was a victim of being drugged and raped by … a stranger or somebody I’d known for all of five, 10 minutes and had barely interacted with. I feel in retrospect that I was targeted. When I reported, I surrendered my body to have a sexual assault kit done, which is where the State takes the evidence from your body to … test for a [DNA] match for the suspect. I was told that that evidence taken from my body would be tested within 14 to 60 days, and I didn’t hear back from law enforcement despite continuing to follow up. I got no answers … and to this day, I’m not really sure of the details of the evidence that I had taken from me [or] whether it was properly tested.

In addition to my evidence not being tested, the San Francisco Police Department also mishandled my investigation by [basically] putting me in charge of the investigation myself. There was a potential suspect, [and] in order for me to be considered a “credible victim,” they put me in a lot of dangerous situations. They made me go inside the house of a potential suspect without a warrant and with no assistance. I had to go in by myself to see if I could properly identify the house [where] this happened to me. They [made] me contact the potential suspect myself. I had to pretend to flirt with him. I had to make him think that I wanted to get together for “more fun,” and then they wanted me to go out on a date with him so I could ID him in person, all because they felt that that would strengthen their case. Those are just some of the myriad [reasons] I ended up filing a complaint with our city’s watchdog program after this happened.

You employ a lot of pretty dark humor to underscore the absurdity of the responses you got from police and the people around you. Would you characterize that as more of a coping mechanism or a way to better convey how ridiculous and broken the system is?

I think it’s always been both. At this point in my life, enough time has passed that I feel like it’s more of a way to enhance the absurdity of how this was dealt with. Also, as an artist [I know] that if you’re an audience member, it would be really intense to sit through something like this. I would need some levity. People just don’t want to think that this kind of thing is going on, so I use humor to give the audience a break, as an artistic choice. Also, as someone who’s been performing it over and over, it gives myself a break, and when the audience laughs it’s really helpful for me too. It helps convey the absurdity of the whole thing if you look at it in a meta way.

From studies you’ve seen and from what other women have told you, how common are these sorts of experiences and responses to women who’ve been raped?

So common. My story is “unique” in that it happened to me and I have my own response to it, but when I started performing about this and researching, getting more familiar with the [facts and] hearing from other women [about] this issue of police indifference to this crime, [I found it to be very] common. There’s nothing special about what happened to me. Even in terms of the standard operating practice of making the victim be in touch with [a known] perpetrator or a potential suspect, I’ve heard from victims in San Francisco that had to do the exact same thing. There’s got to be a better way to do this.

You’ve indicated that institutions work to minimize the number of assaults they have to report because those numbers look bad as part of the public record. Can you elaborate on that?

The FBI Unified Crime Report [is] a glimpse into every city’s crime statistics, and you want to keep your numbers low across the board, but rape … for whatever reason … is somehow perceived in our culture as kind of the worst of the crimes that can happen [to you], so it’s advantageous for cities to keep that number low. There’s a great legal scholar, Corey Rayburn Yung, who has done some excellent work going in and looking at the number of rapes reported in a city and then comparing that with the city’s population and creating a statistical model that essentially proves that police are underreporting this crime.

Can you describe the conditions that have led to the hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits nationwide?

Testing a rape kit can cost anywhere from $500 to $1,500. Untested rape kits don’t just happen in a vacuum. They are a symptom of this larger problem of police and law enforcement disappearing this crime. It really has a lot to do with this culture of not believing women who come forward. In the ’70s … there were laws passed so that criminals would be held accountable. That’s great, but then something has to be done about [enforcement], and when we [compare] the number of women who report all the way through the criminal justice system to the number of women whose rapists see a day in jail, it’s a funnel.

I would argue that where the most change needs to happen is actually at the very beginning, which is a thorough [preliminary] investigation. Almost 40 years after [better rape laws were] passed, [a 2016 federal investigation concluded] that the [Baltimore] sex crimes unit unfound a large proportion of complaining victims, meaning they [ignored the case because they] didn’t believe the victims. From there, even if a woman has gone through the procedures of getting a rape kit done, the rape kit is in some cases thrown away [or] put in a warehouse, and resources are never spent on testing the kit. You can think of this as a public-safety crisis, because every time they unfound, the person who committed this crime is free, so they’re going out and — as the data is starting to show — recommitting these crimes.

You also spoke against proposed legislation and efforts to crowdfund the processing of rape kits. Why?

[People for the Enforcement of Rape Laws], the organization I’m a part of [and I] … believe that [crowdfunding] sends a message [to] the criminal justice system, which includes law enforcement, and also to perpetrators, that our tax dollars, which we already pay … are not put toward prioritizing equal protection under the law for women [by taking the basic steps of] investigating their case and testing their kits. Crowdfunding sends a message that in the future we don’t ever really need to put resources toward this because, “Look, all of these people are coming together with good intentions, and we can just get people to come together again … when necessary, and we’re off the hook.” … Do we crowdfund for murder? Are we crowdfunding for [other crimes]? No, we’re not, so it begs the questions of, “OK, is this really a crime, or a para-criminal offense?”

Since it seems that a lot of these issues stem at least in part from a fear of the negative PR rape statistics generate, would you say that a potential way to turn that around would be to ensure worse PR for unfounding or mishandling sexual assault cases?

There was a time — even as early as ten years ago — where the investigative journalism around this issue really did create a PR crisis for these law enforcement agencies, and it didn’t give law enforcement much … of an out for what they’d done. There are nonprofits that have [since] gotten involved, and [many of] these nonprofits are hiring people who work in crisis management. What I’ve seen happen is, law enforcement has come forward with numbers, and then these nonprofits that are [ostensibly survivor advocacy organizations] have come in … in Detroit, in Memphis, in Cleveland and more, and [they’ve worked] with law enforcement to create a way for them to apologize … in a way that neutralizes the crisis that they’re in. These groups will be quoted in articles [saying things like], “It looks like Detroit is now going to be really focused on testing every kit,” and “In the past they were unable to do this is because of a lack of resources.” That is the number one reason [that is] cited for all of these cities. [These organizations] act like they’re survivor-focused, but they are apologizing for law enforcement failing survivors. It allows [law enforcement] to come forward with their numbers and not ever have to be that accountable … and [makes] the public think that if they just had more money, then this problem would have been solved. The funding thing is a total lie. The federal government, under the Violence Against Women Act, has an act within that called the Debbie Smith Act. They have created these block grants to the tune of a billion dollars and money has been flowing to law enforcement for the past ten years for the very purpose of testing DNA evidence … from these kits, and here we are, ten years later, and we’re still at [hundreds of thousands] of untested kits. Funding is a really appalling excuse, … and the issue of untested kits is … cultural indifference, but that’s the state of where PR is on this issue.

Is there evidence that the money intended for investigating sex crimes and testing these backlogs is being used for things like the war on drugs or traffic enforcement that generate more revenue for these agencies?

I have yet to see investigative journalism that can [compare] how much they got [to] where it flowed to. [There’s] an overall lack of accountability and transparency about how the money was used in these grants. There was no tracking of how it was being used … and that just opens another can of worms, and you start to think, “Then what was it used for?” I don’t want to jump to any conclusions, but when you don’t track things, you do leave yourself open to [people] wondering what the funding was actually used for.

It’s actually one of these crisis groups that is managing the funding, and I have yet to see this group require any transparency and accountability in how that money is being spent. It’s a rinse and repeat with the block grants under the Debbie Smith Act. A decade later, why do we still have this volume of untested kits? We’re doing it again.