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Dori Hartley Headshot

Rape, Rage and Rocky Horror

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Only a few short days before my high school prom, I underwent a life-changing experience: I was repeatedly raped and beaten by someone I knew.

My parents, who were self-involved at the time, had split up and moved into separate apartments that didn't have enough room for "the kids." So, my brother and I scrambled for lodging wherever we could get it. My brother ended up in the spare room at my father's girlfriend's house, and I ended up rooming with a young man who turned out to be much more than just someone to live with.

It was an ordinary day, and I was getting myself ready for school. My roommate woke in an uncharacteristically aggressive mood, and out of nowhere, he seemed to focus all of that mood's terrible attention on me. In one moment he was the "guy I knew" and in the next, he was the blurred shape on the other side of a swift fist to my face. I was caught off guard -- what was going on? What just happened? Did my roommate just punch me in the face?

After that, he pulled me by the hair into the bathroom where he shoved my head into the toilet bowl for several flushes, dragged me back out and stomped on my face while I lay on the tiled floor. He then wrapped a phone cord (it was the '70s) around my throat until I went temporarily blind, and as I finally found my way back to consciousness in the living room -- I remember hearing words in my head: "Survive, Dori. No matter what, survive. Survive."

It was almost as if my mind had become a separate thing from my body. I was now a witness to my own beating. Whatever my body was going through was something I would have to endure, and simply because of one reason alone: He was bigger and stronger than me. He had the brawn therefore he had the power.

He knelt over me, filled with sudden guilt. He took me in his arms and started weeping. That's when he decided the only way to handle this was by raping it better. So, he raped me. Again and again, all while crying and saying he was sorry.

I fought him. I dug my nails into his chest and screamed -- I drew blood. When he saw the scratches, he went insane and started tearing my hair out, shouting, "Look what you've done to me!" Look what I'd done to him -- that's what was on his mind.

The new beating was followed by another guilt-enflamed rape. And me, lying there, chanting my mantra: survive, survive, survive...

I never made it to the prom.

But I did get out and I lived to tell, which afforded me little to no comfort. Oddly, whenever I would recant the story to other men, they would focus in on the sexual aspect more than the violent beating I endured. Because I knew the person, I was told that it wasn't rape. Because there was sex, the beating part sort of took a backseat in the story. Men's reaction to my rape and beating went from, "Oh, but you lived with him, so it wasn't rape," to "You must have done something to provoke it," to "Obviously, you created this situation somehow." I found myself explaining that -- no -- I wasn't in a sexual relationship with this person, as if that made my rape more valid. Pfft.

No one ever paid any attention to the violence of it. It's like the word "rape" was so titillating to men that they couldn't even hear anything else. To question the motive of the one I called "rapist" was beyond their capacity. I "knew" him, so no matter how badly beaten I was, I was not considered "raped" by their standards.

So, during the summer of 1977, right before I entered college, I had this act of violence to process in my mind. And in the same way that the word, "survive" came to me, so did the phrase, "men have the power." How else could someone get over on me like that? Brute strength could conquer bodies, and brute minds would ensure that words like, "I was raped and beaten by someone I know" would not be taken seriously.

I was alone and I knew one thing was for sure: I didn't want to be weak. I wanted to be one of the strong ones. No one was ever going to hurt me like that ever again. Whatever I was going to do next was going to be in direct reaction to what had happened to me. I unconsciously planned my invulnerability.

It was during this summer that a friend suggested I come out and see a midnight movie with her. The film was, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and at the time, there was nothing much going on with it. It was just a kinky, cheap little British musical that played to a miniscule audience at the Waverly Theater in Greenwich Village, where I ended up living, after the beating.

I don't know what happened to me that night, but whatever it was that took place in my mind -- it caused a revolution. I was so overwhelmed by Tim Curry's performance that it literally transformed me into a new person, and that person became the first person to dress up like his character and perform in front of the movie screen. It had never been done before, and yet... I was compelled to do it. I could not separate myself from him. He had the power I wanted. He was what I wanted to be. In him, I would not be weak. His character, "Frank-N-Furter" was the magic in my life, and I was going to use this magic to protect myself from the evil world of rapists and beaters.

The irony of course was that my involvement in the Rocky Horror Picture Show's cult following would turn me a teenage sex symbol. At 18 years old, the emotional outrage that I'd been left to grapple with was met by the most unexpected outlet in which I could express myself: a theater, filled with people who seemed to adore everything I did. And what did I do? I dressed as the "Sweet Transvestite" -- I was a woman who dressed as a man who dressed as a woman. And believe it or not, I wasn't confused at all. I knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted what everyone else on Planet Earth wants: to be loved.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show helped people like me. It's "Don't Dream it, Be it" slogan rang true to so many people in so many ways. It not only instilled in me an ungodly amount of courage, it unearthed a lifetime of creativity. I owe my life to Rocky Horror. And I'm not the only one who feels this way. Ask anyone who was -- and is -- truly involved: Rocky Horror is more than a defining chapter in one's life; it's what saved their life.

I'm so glad that I was part of the spark that ignited this eternal flame. I'm so glad I was there when it all began. It will forever prove to me that we can indeed rise like Phoenixes from the ashes of our own devastating personal events.

From lemons I made lemonade. Or rather... tea. Sweet, sweet T.