Climbing the stairs, I ring the doorbell to be greeted by a rough, heavily-accented American voice. I explain that I am the journalist who has come to interview them. Having covered many human stories by now, I am no longer nervous when I meet people for the first time who I know will have to recall sometimes difficult stories.
This was different. I was meeting a woman who had been raped, beaten and left for dead. She subsequently discovered that she was pregnant and she and her husband decided to raise the baby as their own. How do you respond to something like that?
The gruff voice greeted me at the door. He was tall and bear-like, with an overgrown beard. Someone who could protect you I thought. Jeff, the husband, welcomed me into the apartment in which they were staying.
I caught sight of Jennifer, his wife, in the kitchen. As I sat down on the couch, still feeling uneasy, Jennifer asked Jeff to open a bottle for her. Jeff and Jennifer sit on the other end of the couch. The first thing you notice about Jennifer is her strikingly beautiful blue eyes which are like the ocean, so full of life yet so weary. The bright blue held her emotional currents and told a tale of ups and downs. Her pale skin was in stark contrast to her fiery red hair.
I could tell she was weary; perhaps she had seen too many journalists in front her, asking her the same questions, over and over again. Or perhaps she was just tired. I had been told that still suffers from seizures following the blows to her head during the rape. Jennifer sits cross-legged on the couch as we start discussing what had brought them to Malta and the long journey they had had to endure to get here. I spot a colourful tattoo on her leg and make a mental note to ask about it later.
They tell me about their five beautiful children and their life back in the United States. Apparently, Jennifer and Jeff had been visiting schools during their time here in Malta. I was surprised to hear that she was telling her story to school-age children but she informs me that here in Malta children are told about subjects such as abortion and rape.
She comments that she has experienced little resistance here when discussing abortion and says that people in Malta have been very ‘respectful’, even if they do not agree with her stance. Jennifer is a sign language interpreter which basically means she uses sign language to translate for deaf people. In 2014, in America, she was hired to provide her interpretation services at a conference a few hours’ journey away from her home.
Jennifer describes the January day as being snowy and cold, so she was wearing a hood and, as a result, did not notice that a man was following her. At the door to her hotel room, she put the armful of bags containing her belongings down on the floor and, sensing something, turned around to find a man standing behind her.
He was young, not much older than her oldest child, good-looking and not immediately threatening. She thought perhaps he needed help but he punched her in the face. She fought him, but he was a foot taller than her. Jennifer thought she was going to die so she stopped fighting. At that point, she describes that she just retreated back into her own mind and imagined crawling inside herself.
She eventually lost consciousness. The man proceeded to rape her and took her nearly naked body out to the place where the hotel rubbish was left for collection.
Laying in the snow, with just a piece of her bra on, Jennifer woke up to a woman yelling and trying to cover her with her coat. She was freezing and tried to lift herself up from the ground only to realise she could not because she was hurt. She put her hands up to her face and realised they were covered in blood.
Jennifer was taken to hospital where doctors told her that she had several injuries and a brain bleed. Since then she has needed six further operations. Weeks later, Jennifer had a work assignment on a cruise ship that had been booked months in advance. She was not doing well at home so, after discussing it with Jeff, they decided that she should not cancel the booking. They believed that she should get out and continue life: that the rapist had taken enough.
On the second day out at sea, Jennifer felt really sick so, in accordance with protocol, she was quarantined in the medical unit on board. Antibiotics were not working, so she was asked, as a precaution before giving her something stronger, if there was any chance she was pregnant. She immediately responded that there was not but then she stopped and did a quick count in her head and told them that she had been raped a month earlier.
It was the first time she had used the word ‘rape’ out loud. She had been so preoccupied about diseases, her injuries and the horrible incident, that pregnancy had not even crossed her mind. A pregnancy test was carried out and it was positive.
Jennifer sat there, holding the test result, in total shock. She knew she had to tell her husband. The nurse saw her visible shock and told she would have to wait before having an ultrasound because she had been sick. At the ship’s next port of call, in Colombia, Jennifer was taken to a hospital. She says it looked more like the basement of a building.
It was dark and no-one spoke English. She was all alone, surrounded by strangers, and at that point she felt that she did not recognise her life anymore. She was wheeled over an old ultrasound machine and flipped on the screen and although at that stage there was not much to see, she had had enough babies to recognise that dark ‘P’.
At that point, she just smiled. Something in her came to life again and she had a reason to keep going for the first time since the attack. At this point, Jennifer pauses. Jeff is visibly emotional. She tells me that he does not often hear her telling her story. He has been holding Jennifer’s shoulder all along, supporting her as she talks to me, but it is obvious that this is hard for him too.
Jennifer continues recalling how she rang Jeff and asked him if he was sitting down.
“I’m pregnant,” she told him. A small pause followed. “Ok,” Jeff replied. “Sweetheart, this is a gift. This is something beautiful from something terrible. We love babies. We can do this.”
Jennifer had never doubted that Jeff would react in that way. She knew the person she had married 20 years before. I ask Jeff how he felt, saying that once he found out Jennifer was pregnant: “That was it, we were having a baby.”
Having the baby was not easy, as she had a difficult pregnancy. She was put on strict bed rest which meant she could not work. As a result they lost their house and had to move in with Jeff’s parents. “We were just trying to survive,” Jennifer says.
At that point in the interview, the photographer interrupts us to take a few photographs outside. Jeff holds Jennifer from behind and hugs her tightly as they pose for a photograph. They joke and laugh and kiss and I cannot help but remark on the beauty of their relationship.
Despite all they have been through in their 20 plus years together, these two are clearly in love and are each other’s support system. Jennifer smiles and tells me that she would rather be with him than anyone else: he is her best friend.
I feel so much warmth from both of them that I do not want the interview to end. Although they have been interviewed many times, it is not about regurgitating the story. Jennifer does not tell the story, she recounts and relives the memory each time.
She gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, Joshua, who is very much part of the family. He scribbles on the wall like any other child, and fights and plays with his big brothers. His sister likes to take him out and pretend he is her own: Jennifer is not too amused about this.
The emotional and physical scars of the trauma are still visible. It has been a difficult trip here in Malta for Jennifer, as she has had several interviews. She has had to miss some of them due to illness. She still has seizures and with Christmas lights everywhere, which are a big trigger, it has been very difficult for her.
I ask how she feels emotionally and if her rapist was ever caught. She tells me he went on to rape and murder other women, all redheads like her. A couple of years later he was found and killed by the brother of one of his victims. And so he was dead. She could finally breathe again.
The interview draws to an end but we continue chatting about her children. Jennifer brings her telephone and shows me a lovely photograph of all of them joking and laughing on their porch. Then she shows me a picture of Joshua. His eyes are the same ocean blue as his mother’s and when I tell her he looks like her, she proudly smiles.
As I leave, Jennifer gives me a warm hug and I am just so amazed by this couple. They give me a business card with their email address so that I can send them the photographs. When I get back to my office I turn the card over and see a quote by Dr Seuss: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”
Jeff and Jennifer are in Malta on behalf of the LifeNetwork Foundation and will be speaking at today’s annual ‘March for Life’ in Valletta.