As far as people go, they are unassuming. Their house, perched up on a hill, has the look of something you’d see in New England ― white and spacious with a front porch set at stark contrast with a deep blue sky ― but we are way too far south of the Mason Dixon line to be anywhere close to northern territory.
Once inside, the quiet trappings of normal family life flood your eyes, although you expect something, some clue, to belie the national attention on what has happened here. And then a stenciling on the wall of a Dr. Seuss quote says all you need to know: ‘A person is a person no matter how small’.
Jeff, the husband and father, is in his early forties, friendly, with a quick sense of humor and an infectious smile, and works in the automotive supply industry. His wife, Jennifer, also in her early forties is strikingly beautiful ― with marble-colored blue eyes, fiery red hair, and a delightful flair for the artistic ― and is a highly sought out nationally-certified sign language interpreter whose abilities have put her in front of the likes of Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, and Bernie Sanders.
Their two teenagers, Spencer and Mackenzie, are rambunctious but courteous and polite, banging about the house as boys are wont to do, getting into trouble often but never very deep. Their parents roll their eyes at their boys’ antics, but the pair are dutiful and devoted to the littlest member of the clan: a 2-year-old with jet black hair and the same jewel-tone eyes as his mother.
I have never met them before - formally, in person - but I feel immediately welcome. Spencer invites us in, speaking to us as if he has known us for a long time, and their baby hands my baby a jar of peanut butter and his mother’s hula hoop. To say that Jen’s children are sweet sounds hopelessly sanguine, but the truth is this: they express a kindness, warmth, and genuineness that is uncommon in this world. They display none of the cool aloofness typical of most teenagers.
Jennifer sits Indian-style on a couch, a ready storyteller and uses words like ‘schmaltzy’ and ‘happenstance’ in everyday conversation. Her tales involve excursions to other countries and famous comedians she observed in smoky comedy clubs as a child whist along with her father, also a comic. She laughs easily and is at turns poetic, free-spirited, a spitfire, a gypsy, and above all, a mother. She sports colorful tattoos that surely have stories behind them, but I have yet to ask what those are. She thinks I will judge her for her tattoos and seems insecure about showing them to me. She does not know that I have no bias against them.
Jennifer is the obvious muse of this household, as everyone is fixed upon her in one fashion or another, and the reason is twofold ― she is vibrant and draws others to her naturally, and the other is because her men are vigilant over her health. She sometimes has seizures due to the traumatic head injury she sustained as a result of the rape. She also endured PTSD and anxiety attacks.
In 2014, Jennifer was out of town on business, hired to provide sign language interpretation at a conference, and throughout the event, she noticed that a certain man was there, presumably among the crowd for a reason.
Afterward, when at her hotel room door on that brisk January day and trying to enter while holding armfuls of bags containing her belongings, she saw this man’s face yet again. He was young, good-looking, and not immediately threatening. Jennifer had had to turn her face to even see him, as she was wearing a hood and a thick winter coat.
He punched her in the face.
The details are hazy, as Jennifer lost consciousness, but the evidence left behind is clear. He took her inside her hotel room and raped her. He then preceded to take her almost completely naked body to a remote location, but something stopped him. He heard the sound of people, housekeepers and staff, and he was unable to complete his task and left her, instead, in a stairwell.
Unconscious, in the near-freezing cold, Jennifer lay until somebody found her and called for help.
Doctors would later tell Jennifer that the freezing temperatures had helped to keep her brain from swelling. She had a brain bleed and several other injuries, and she would need several surgeries, including reparations to her colon and, later on, a hysterectomy.
The results of her STI results all came back negative, an outcome she credits God for, and the report states that she was given the plan B pill, although she does not remember this.
Her husband Jeff recalls the difficult emotions he experienced: regret over not having made a surprise visit to her where she was staying, regrets over not having made sure her hotel room was located closer to the front desk, anger at the assailant, and unbearable anguish for his wife.
Weeks later, Jennifer and Jeff labored over whether she should complete an assignment on a cruise ship that had been booked months in advance, and she decided not to cancel. Both she and Jeff believed a change of scenery would do her good. And so, she went.
Out on the ocean, she began to feel ill and reported this to the cruise staff, and per their protocol, they quarantined her. A nurse asked if there was any chance she was pregnant -- she responded that there was not. And then she remembered. She told them that she had been assaulted several weeks prior.
A pregnancy test was administered.
When the faint blue lines confirmed a pregnancy, Jennifer was in shock. She called her husband, who was aware that she had been feeling ill, as she had emailed him over the course of her illness. She asked him if he was sitting down.
An infinitesimal pause.
'Sweetheart, this is a gift.'
'We love babies.'
'This is something wonderful from something terrible.
'It's going to be okay'.
'We can do this.'
'Yes', she said, her hand travelling down to her flat belly. 'We love babies. We can do this.' She immediately felt protective over the little life inside her.
She hung up the phone. She turned to the onlookers of staff and medical professionals and said, 'if you ever think about me again, please know I was delivered of a beautiful baby in the fall of 2014'.
They were floored. Among the people was a doctor who had pushed abortion -- she had tears in her eyes. The process of keeping her baby was not some quixotic, happily-ever-after tale where nothing dreadful ever happens. It was difficult. She had preeclampsia, elevated blood pressure, and seizures.
Later, she was placed on strict bed rest, because the doctors feared she would be delivered of her baby boy ahead of schedule.
Despite the medical issues, she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy whom Jeff calls his son and whom the family claims entirely as their own. Jeff will jokingly say that this one is their favorite. He lights up the room, his smile and bubbly personality speaking for themselves.
When I met him, he asked for hugs, and I willingly obliged. He and my baby play together, and my little one bosses him about. He does not seem to mind. I wonder if we'll overstay our welcome, but the conversation flows freely. I am worried we will forget to do our interview, and I remind everyone to not let me forget, as I also have trouble remembering things.
We finally go upstairs to Spencer's room to do our interview, and Jennifer brings a fidget spinner. I ask if I can use it, and Jeff brings Jennifer another one. I was too embarrassed to bring my own fidget spinner on this trip, as I use it while doing telephone interviews for my radio show. This family has an entire box, some with different shapes and some that light up.
I am slightly envious.
We set up the computer and microphone near a love seat beside an XBox that hums a little too loudly for my comfort. Joe assures me the microphone won't pick it up. We begin our 45-minute interview that will air to our audience of over 50 counties in WV and parts of Ohio and Kentucky.
It goes well, and I am pleased. I can tell it will take minimal editing. Some of our interviews have needed nightmare editing jobs to be radio ready, but that is not the case here. Jennifer is well-spoken and articulate.
The reaction to her rape, pregnancy, and subsequent decision to keep her baby did not go unnoticed by the world. Her story was picked up by Rebecca Kiessling of the Save the 1 organization that specializes in the so-called hard cases of rape and incest. Kiessling herself was conceived in rape and is an attorney advocate for the unborn.
Jennifer's story was reported by Live Action news and others, and it was shared over a million times on social media. I remember reading the story late one night, amazed at the reaction of the Christie family toward their newest member. Not all reactions, however, were positive. People called her names, accused her of being judgmental, and claimed that she was lying. Others said that it was unfair to bring a rapist's baby into the world.
I asked Jennifer to read a response she wrote on the recording for our interview, and I am reprinting it here:
“The ‘rapist's baby’?
How about MY baby?
Because that is what he is. He's part of me. In my blue eyes that have every old lady in town stopping us in the grocery store and giving him little treats and kisses, because he looks "just like an angel!"
But not only mine.
He's part of the father who is raising him and loving him and takes him to the library and the park and vanquishes bedtime monsters with silly songs and sock puppet shows.
He's part of his big brothers who put together toddler bikes and tirelessly toss the ball outside with enthusiasm and his sister who insists he dress like a Ralph Lauren ad, so she can parade him around her friends at work and tell customers he's hers (I don't love this.)
He's his grandparents' and godparents' and aunts' and uncles' and our friends' and church family and people around the world who love him yet have never laid eyes on him.
That's who he is, and that's who he'll be. Fearfully and wonderfully made and created in the image of God. We've no fear of what the future holds for him. We know who holds the future."
Before Jennifer's assault, there was no DNA on the man who had assailed her on record in the F.B.I.'s criminal database. Months after the attack, she received a phone call from the agency stating that they found another victim -- a young redheaded woman who had been raped and then killed.
Some time later, another phone call: redheaded woman, again, raped and killed.
It made her sick to her stomach. She suffered survivor's guilt. Why them and not her? Still, she knew that because of her there was a DNA trail and that maybe one day he would be caught. The thought of facing him in a court of law, however, made her skin crawl, and she didn't know if she could do it.
It comes time for us to say goodbye, and the day has flown by. It appears that we have developed more than a journalistic relationship through this visit, as we have quickly become friends. I wonder why we couldn't have met some other way, perhaps at a grocery store or online group for admirers of vintage clothing. She hugs my neck and tells me that she loves me, and the feeling is the same. She invites us back to stay for a weekend.
A few days later, I get a phone call in the evening, and her voice sounds urgent. She has something to tell me.
I am confused, but I think I know who she means. The F.B.I. has called, and the man who raped her has been killed. Ten years ago, he raped a thirteen year old girl who, tragically, took her own life after the ordeal. Her brother vowed to himself that he would not rest until he found her assailant.
He stabbed him to death.
End of story.
No court date, no trial, and no staring into the eyes of a serial killer.
The nightmare is over.
The radio show airs, and Jennifer's story is covered again in online news outlets to acclaim and shares and comments of joy and some of disdain. She is interested in doing speaking engagements.
Her story is partly contested so much, because the 1% of abortions that happen because of rape or incest are often hotly debated as a reason that all abortion should be legal. Her baby boy is proof that the baby is a separate individual from the one who committed the crime and that a blessing can come from something tragic.
Her husband and children's acceptance of this little one show that the future can hold bright things, and the story has turned others away from considering death already. A woman was emailed her story while waiting in an abortion clinic, and she decided that she could not go through with the procedure. She now also has a beautiful baby of her own.
Jennifer did not come onto the scene with an agenda. In her own words, she used to be 'wishy-washy' on the subject. She told me
“I used to be one of those women. I considered myself pro-life BUT.. COME ON... I mean.. RAPE!?? I didn't ever think I could have an abortion myself, but I felt like there should be an exception. I'm so ashamed of that now. I think that's one of the reasons I'm so compelled to speak out. There IS no pro-life, BUT. There just isn't. My son is a life that deserves to be protected or he isn't. There can be no gray area here. Not when it's life or death. I know rape is an uncomfortable subject. I know that better than most. But there are lies, LIES, told to women about how we're going to feel and supposed to feel about our babies conceived in violence. As long as one person is willing to listen, I'm going to speak the truth.
We visit the Christies again. Our baby recognizes her friend again -- a baby who is now quite famous. Her oldest boy volunteers to let us use his room and has prepared it beautifully, even adding a vase with fresh-cut flowers. The family has been cleaning for weeks. I am a bit embarrassed over all the fuss, but it feels like we have known each other for years.
Jennifer will have seizures that weekend and forget entire episodes of time. I watch Jeff take her to her room before she collapses, seizing on the steps. He shields her head from banging against the wooden steps. Her foot convulses, and I feel anger toward the person that did this to her.
She will have seizures again the next day while Jeff is at work. She makes it up the steps by herself and goes to lay down. I go to the room adjacent to her room, as I want to give her privacy but also be close by, and my baby follows me upstairs. I was exhausted, because my baby had kept me up the night before, and Jennifer's little one also followed us up the steps. The two babies are a lot for me, so I lay down and watch them play. Mackenzie comes up the steps, and it is a welcome relief, as he will play with the babies and take the burden off of me.
He tells me stories about his mom that break my heart. He wants to buy her a dog and has been saving up the money. He is just fourteen, and he worries about his mom. The rape and the physical devastation have touched their family in many ways, and her boys watch out for her. They seem at once playful but wise beyond their years.
Spencer comes up to bring his mother a sandwich, as she lays in bed, and he asks if I can check on her every so often. I say that I can. Before long, she is asleep. Her baby cuddles up with her, and they are a comfort to one another.
Her children and I watch many episodes of the Big Bang Theory together, seeking to find a distraction, and after several hours, Jennifer comes back downstairs. She is upset that she missed out on so much of our time together, but I was glad to be there to help if her kids should have needed us to. We laugh over shared jokes, and after her husband returns from work, we pack and get ready to go.
Our goodbyes are bittersweet. We are an old soul friendship that is still brand new. She texts me jokes that make me laugh all the way home and wants to know when we make it back safe. It will be almost 5 hours.
Our friendship with the Christies has flourished, and Jennifer is becoming a speaker who is in demand. In September she traveled to Ireland to share her story with others. She is later scheduled to sojourn to Malta and is on-track to film a spot for a television show, a mini-documentary and has been asked to contribute to a book.
Jennifer is down-to-earth and warm, and her story is not a club to beat others over the head with. She has shown me what it looks like to be accepting of all humanity and has put into action the love of God that says, 'Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.' (Matthew 11:28).
And as I come to the end of telling her story, I realize this: that the story for Jennifer -- and her little one -- is only just beginning.
You can find her here online: https://www.facebook.com/RapevictimMom/
Rosa Hopkins is a writer of words, a singer of songs, and a dreamer of dreams. Her radio program, Mountain Heartbeat, airs on WEMM 107.9 in Huntington, WV, and her work has been featured in the Huffington Post and in print newspapers. She is also a recording artist, and her songs have been played on radio stations across the country. She lives in the woods of Appalachia with her husband, miracle baby, Jack Russell, and a shapeless hound named Lou.