The amazing Brenda Tracy

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Brenda Tracy, the last and most riveting of our guest speakers in Media Ethics, an undergraduate course at Portland State University.

If you don’t know Brenda Tracy’s story, you should.

Few, if any, of my Media Ethics students had even heard of her until Brenda spoke to them in class two weeks ago. After listening to Brenda describe her journey from gang-rape survivor with no self-esteem to self-confident public speaker on sexual abuse and rape culture, I doubt they will ever forget her.

I already knew Brenda’s compelling story, having read it two years ago when it landed on the front page of The Sunday Oregonian. But as I listened to her retell it that Thursday morning, I knew I had made the right choice inviting her to be our final guest speaker for the fall term.

My students had already learned a lot from previous speakers — a variety of journalists and public relations professionals — about how to do journalism ethically and responsibly. How to report accurately while also practicing discretion about unnecessary details. How to show empathy without losing one’s objectivity. How to interview a vulnerable subject about sensitive issues and help that person brace for the resulting public exposure and reader reaction.

But the students hadn’t heard directly from anyone who could tell them what it’s like to entrust the telling of your story — including invasive, humiliating facts — to a reporter. For an hour, they listened and learned as this remarkable woman reflected on her experiences and credited a principled and highly skilled journalist for restoring her dignity and bringing her out of the shadows. .

***

In 1998, Brenda Tracy was a waitress, a 24-year-old single mother of two boys, when she was gang-raped by four men, two college football players and two recruits, in an off-campus apartment near Oregon State University.

She’d been sexually abused as a child and had been in abusive relationships as a young woman. After the attack, Brenda said, she felt suicidal, her self-esteem in shreds.

The four men were charged but never brought to trial. The local district attorney needed Brenda’s cooperation to get convictions but she wavered, feeling lack of support from people closest to her and believing herself not strong enough to go through the process.

She didn’t know the prosecutor had taped confessions from the suspects. She didn’t know the police had tossed out her rape kit without even testing it.

She only knew that two Oregon State players were suspended for one game and ordered to give 25 hours of community service for what their coach, Mike Riley, called “a bad choice.” The other two suspects went unpunished.

Brenda said she hated Riley for years, hated him even more than her rapists. But she finally met with him this year, after he said he regretted making the “bad choice” remark, and changed her opinion of the man.

After Riley left Oregon last year to become head coach at the University of Nebraska, he invited Brenda to speak to all 144 members of his football team this summer and formally apologized to her.

“We talked about consent and we brainstormed ideas about how they could get involved individually and as a team to change the culture that valued winning over human lives,” Brenda wrote following her June 22 visit with the team. “We covered a lot of ground in that one hour and when it was over many of them came up to me and shook my hand or gave me a hug and thanked me for being there.”

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Brenda Tracy with Coach Mike Riley following their meeting in Lincoln, Nebraska on June 22, 2016. (Photograph by Brenda Tracy)

***

Today, at 43, Brenda Tracy is more than a rape survivor. Brenda is a registered nurse and a paid consultant working with Oregon State officials to prevent sexual violence, especially involving college athletes. She’s also a citizen activist who’s lobbied for changes in Oregon’s rape laws, providing more time to bring charges in the most serious cases.

She worked with a Portland attorney on 2015 legislation that extended Oregon’s statute of limitations for first-degree sex crimes from six to 12 years, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported. A law passed the following year provides that if new evidence emerges — such as a previously untested rape kit, or new testimony from witnesses or other victims — a case can be reconsidered at any time.

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Brenda Tracy is the featured speaker at a conference planned in Vancouver, Washington, early next year.

Since sports columnist John Canzano told her story in November 2014, Brenda has been interviewed by local and national media, appeared on television, spoken at college campuses, and testified before Oregon lawmakers.

None of these efforts to help other rape survivors would have been possible without the publication of a story that allowed her to heal emotionally. To see herself once again as a person worthy of respect. And to challenge the notion that victims are responsible for what happened to them.

“John absolutely changed my life,” Brenda said. “He transformed my entire life.”

***

Until she spoke to my class, I hadn’t met Brenda Tracy. We’d exchanged emails and spoken by phone this summer when I was setting up a Skype interview with her for two high school students I mentored during a journalism camp at Oregon State.

I was impressed that she made time to speak to the two teenagers, considering it was the day before she was scheduled to fly to Lincoln, Nebraska, to speak to Riley’s football team. A real sign of her character, I thought.

In person, Brenda was warm and gracious.She spoke without notes and patiently answered students’ questions. It was clear that her tale of personal redemption and her testament to the power of ethical journalism resonated with both men and women in my class. .

“If you write these stories, you have to understand this is a life,” she told them. “It’s not about you — it’s about the victim, it’s about the survivor.”

When the hour was up, she gave me a hug in front of the class and offered to come speak again.

We often toss around the words “hero” and “amazing” to describe people who’ve displayed uncommon courage or done extraordinary things. In my mind, there is no doubt both words apply to Brenda Tracy.

***

Read John Canzano’s 2014 story here.

Read continuing coverage of Brenda Tracy here.

Follow Brenda Tracy on Facebook here.

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3 thoughts on “The amazing Brenda Tracy

  1. What a courageous woman. If your students came away with 1/10 of the understanding of the art of caring and heartfelt engagement to the degree John Canzano was able to, what an impact you will have. There are many Brenda’s who need their story told.

    • Thanks, Compa. You seized on the two takeaways I had in mind for my students: to understand and appreciate Brenda’s ordeal and transformation; to understand and appreciate the meticulous reporting and empathy John displaced. John, by the way, grew up in Gilroy, attended Gavilan College with former 49ers QB Jeff Garcia, and went on to work for the San Jose Mercury News before we hired him at The Oregonian. He’s not just a fabulous journalist but a great guy.

  2. After working with so many rape and abuse victims throughout the years, I have to say she is a hero beyond words – to come out with her story and to continue to educate the masses. Love this!

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