By Betsy Rothstein - 04/23/07 08:45 PM EDT
Over Orange Pekoe tea at the Four Seasons in Georgetown last week, Debbie Smith still reaches for her husband’s hand when things get rough.
She came to Washington last week to link up with actress Lea Thompson to promote the new Lifetime movie “A Life Interrupted,” the true story of her rape 18 years ago. Thompson plays Smith in the 80-minute movie, which aired on Lifetime last night. It re-airs next Saturday at 9 p.m., and again on Sunday at 2 p.m.
We’re here at the hotel with Smith, her husband Rob, and Thompson to discuss the movie, the legislation she helped pass with the help of Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Mark Green (R-Wis.) and how a woman learns to live through the ordeal of rape.
Sometimes Smith herself doesn’t know how she gets through it. But this is how she puts it into words: “With sexual assault there is no real sense of closure because it changes your life forever,” she says. She compares the moment to when Adam and Eve tasted the fruit and knew what evil was like. “You can never go back to that innocence.”
Smith, sweet and soft-spoken, does not seem as though her life has been interrupted. She looks worn from the day’s events on Capitol Hill and the movie premiere in the Ronald Reagan Building the night before. But she’s relaxed in the presence of Thompson, and soon it’s understandable why.
“I need her because I think she totally understands me,” says Smith, 52, looking gratefully toward Thompson.
For Thompson it’s also personal. “I’ve got a knot in my stomach right now,” she says. “I think I need to go home and cry.”
The two women had never met prior to filming the movie, so Thompson never had a sense of the woman she was to portray. But both believe that in an inexplicable act of coincidence, casting got it right. “I can see some of me in her in some of the scenes,” Smith says. “They didn’t want her to imitate me. They wanted her to get the spirit of me.”
There is both a fragility and strength about Smith. She still has occasional nightmares, and the smell of damp leaves can upset her. She still has trouble recounting the day in 1989 when the rapist came into her home and dragged her out into the woods.
She reaches for her husband’s hand. “Yes, it’s difficult,” she says, explaining what it is like to come to Washington and reopen old wounds. “But I think the rewards are well worth any painful memories it may bring for me.”
Six months after Smith’s rape, her rapist was caught and sent to prison for life on a “three strikes, you’re out” sentence. DNA evidence collected from her rape kit in 1989 proved his identity.
In 2004, the Debbie Smith Act (renamed the Justice for All Act) was signed into law. The bill helped eliminate the nationwide backlog of untested DNA kits.
Lifetime doesn’t always allow people to approve movie scripts, but Smith was allowed. “We did not want anything sugarcoated,” she says, her soft voice getting louder. “We wanted it to be true.”
The movie begins as many on Lifetime do. There’s a beautiful tree-lined neighborhood with impossibly happy, laughing families that look like they’re leading magically perfect lives. An attractive couple (played by Thompson and the Canadian actor Anthony Lempke) are getting on with the business of living, raising their son and daughter, and clearly, they’re in love.
In one violent act, the bubble shatters.
Smith’s husband, Rob, a police officer, was sleeping upstairs at the time. He had worked the night shift and hadn’t heard a thing. His wife, meanwhile, was in the kitchen listening to Christian radio, taking out the trash and doing daily chores, when an intruder entered their home.
She had noticed a stranger in the neighbor’s yard earlier that day, but thought little of it since her neighbor had told her a landscaper would be coming to look at a damaged tree.
“My hardest problem with all this was making it make sense in my life,” she says, sipping on her tea. A devout Christian, Smith struggled to understand what God’s purpose was, and what her purpose was in all this. Six and half years after the rape, she held a gun to her head and seriously contemplated pulling the trigger when a friend called from out of the blue.
“I just couldn’t understand,” she says in explanation. “I thought there was something wrong with me.”
Today, Smith is an advocate for rape victims. She speaks publicly nationwide about her own rape and in June 1999 appeared on “60 Minutes” in an interview with Mike Wallace. She spoke before House and Senate subcommittees on the legislation leading up to the passage of the bill named for her.
For the past year and a half, she has been exchanging letters with her incarcerated rapist. He denies the crime and insists he was framed. She wants to face him, forgive him and heal.
“I don’t resent the rape anymore,” she says. “What I think is that the worst day of my life has brought about the most precious moments. I never would have met Lea. I had a strength I had no clue was there.”
As long as she can make a difference, that’s all that matters, she says. “I thought my importance in this world was going to be my children,” she explains. “The Lord had other plans.”
Visiting the Canadian movie set was emotional for both Smith and Thompson. Thompson recalls Smith walking across the set toward her. “I was really nervous,” the actress says, explaining that the script was not just about memorizing lines but saying someone else’s words and doing Smith’s story justice.
Thompson, not traditionally religious, says she prayed before getting into character. “It got to be that I knew what was right for the character,” Thompson says. “She’s a strong, deep person.”
But making the movie was not entirely comfortable for her or the other actors. Thompson recalls having to pat the actor playing the rapist on the back because he was so upset by the part he was playing. She also had a hard time with it and had nightmares after shooting the rape scenes.
After the rapist took Smith to the woods, he told her he had a gun. He also told her other things — that he knew where she lived, and that he would come back and kill her if she said anything. Even after the rape he did things that, to this day, still baffle and disturb her. Helping her dress and brushing leaves from her back, he apologized for touching her inappropriately, all the while acting as though the rape had disappeared from his memory.
He told her he was letting her go and gave her directions back to her house just in case she was disoriented. She was. He told her not to scream, that he wanted people to think she was out for a walk. As she walked away, he called to her twice. Both times, she thought: This was it. He was going to kill her.
In one of those instances he said, “Hey lady.”
She turned and he advised, “Lock your doors.”