Note: This interview originally appeared in the April 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. Later that year, the convictions of those charged in the attack were overturned based on DNA evidence.
On April 19, 1989, a 28-year-old investment banker left her office for a jog through Central Park. Before she headed out, she invited a coworker to drop by her apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side later that night. "I'm going for a run," she told him. "I'll be back by ten."
But when he arrived, she wasn't home—nor would she come home for months. Just before ten that night, as she was passing through a remote section of the park, she was brutally assaulted. A pack of at least six teenage boys raped her, beat her unconscious, dragged her body to a ravine, and pummeled her with rocks and pipes. At 1:30 in the morning, two passersby found her with her mouth gagged, her hands tethered with a long-sleeve shirt, and wearing only a bra. Her body temperature had plummeted to about 80 degrees and she had lost nearly three quarters of her blood.
Within days the case of the Central Park jogger (the media generally withholds the names of rape victims) had ignited a fiery racial controversy. The six boys who were indicted for rape, assault, and attempted murder were minorities, while the jogger was Caucasian. Five of them were under age 16, and all were from middle-class families and had no previous police records. The boys who were under 16 were sentenced to five to ten years in jail, the maximum for juveniles, while the sole defendant who was over 16 received 5 to 15 years. But since none of the DNA evidence placed the teenagers at the crime scene, some people believed the victim's then-boyfriend was responsible. Both sides saw the attack as a symbol of the violence and racial tension that pervaded New York City.
As the jogger lay in a coma for 12 days, barely hanging on to life, the world followed the headlines charting her prognosis, and people around the country joined in prayer. "She was battered and bruised on every part of her body except for the soles of her feet," recalls Elizabeth Lederer, the prosecutor who handled the case and visited the jogger in the hospital. "Her head was in a bandage turban. Her face was swollen. She had tubes in her mouth and nose. To see someone so gratuitously injured just broke your heart."
But four months after receiving last rites, she was actually running again. And although her head injuries left her with no memory of the attack, she decided she had to face the defendants in court. "I didn't want her to go through anything more," says Lederer, who confirms that all six have completed their sentences and have been released from prison. "But I felt it was important for the jury to hear from her about the injuries she'd suffered. And there was a lot of spin out there—some people portrayed her as this icy and impersonal investment banker. Others were suggesting she was dealing drugs in the park. Some said she had rough sex with her boyfriend in the park. In the end it was an empowering experience for her to testify and participate in the process that would hold people responsible for what they did to her. She made me appreciate the power of survival and the belief and hope of recovery. She's a very determined woman."
In 1995 the jogger marked her ultimate triumph by running in the New York City Marathon. Now 41, she lives in a suburb of Connecticut and works for a nonprofit organization; she has been married for five years, with no children. On the day we met, the only visible sign of her ordeal was a jagged scar near her eye. First she jogged with me near the site where she had been left for dead. Then she broke her long-standing silence with the media and told me her story.
Start reading Oprah's interview with the Central Park Jogger
Oprah: What do you remember about the hours leading up to the attack?
Central Park Jogger: I remember a conversation I'd had at about five that evening. I'd planned dinner with a friend, but I just had too much work and I said, "You know what? I just can't do it."
Oprah: So you don't remember suiting up to go to the park or putting on your shoes?
Central Park Jogger: Nothing. I was probably in the office for another three hours and I don't remember any of it. I guess later that evening a friend from work who was sitting at the next cubicle told me he was interested in buying a new stereo. I'd just bought one, so I said, "Why don't you come by my apartment and look at mine?" I don't remember this—I was just told about it. When he didn't find me at home, he called. Months later, after I was in recovery, I got his message on my answering machine. He said something like "You know, people just keep standing me up! I hope you're okay." The next morning at work when he noticed I wasn't there, he knew something was wrong.
Oprah: When I first heard about you, I thought, "Why were you running alone in Central Park at night?"
Central Park Jogger: You're not the first person to say that. For me, running was a release at the end of the day, and I had this feeling that, "Hey, I have every right to run where I want, when I want." I'd been running in the park for two years. It was not a smart thing to do. And yet that is absolutely no justification for what happened to me.
Oprah: And believe me, I'm not sitting here trying to justify it. But the idea of running alone in Central Park is a foreign concept to me. You had to be the kind of person who either thought you were invincible or who was just nuts.
Central Park Jogger: I wouldn't say I was nuts, but maybe I thought I was invincible.
Oprah: So you aren't the kind of woman who always looks over your shoulder in a dark parking lot?
Central Park Jogger: I wasn't that kind of woman. I'm more that way now. After what happened, I would see people running in Central Park at night with their headphones on, and I'd want to shake them and say, "What are you doing?"
Oprah: God is gracious in that you don't have any memory of the boys who attacked you or the brutal assault.
Central Park Jogger: Right. I'm also thankful I don't have any memory of the six weeks after the attack.
Oprah: Weren't you conscious after 12 days?
Central Park Jogger: Yes, but with a coma you come out gradually. It's not like you suddenly wake up and start having articulate conversations.
Oprah: I've read that you suffered two skull fractures. What was your prognosis?
Central Park Jogger: Very bad. I've heard that one doctor said that because it was likely I'd be a vegetable, it might have been better if I had died. Once I started to remember things, I didn't feel that way—but I didn't feel normal either. My head hurt. I couldn't walk.
Oprah: Could you speak?
Central Park Jogger: Yes, but not coherently. The neurologists were asking me a million questions, trying to see what level I was at.
Oprah: Like who is the president of the United States?
Central Park Jogger: And who is the mayor? What day is it? That sort of thing. One neuropsychologist said to me, "I want you to draw the face of a clock." Though my manual dexterity wasn't great, I drew a circle with numbers around it and was proud of myself. Then she said, "Draw two o'clock." I thought, "Gosh, which hand is longer—the hour hand or the minute hand?" I was embarrassed, so I made the hands the same length. A couple of years later when I saw the reports from that neuropsychologist, there was a little note that read "Couldn't tell the hour hand from the minute hand."
Oprah: She saw through it!
Central Park Jogger: Yes. I thought, "Aw, shoot."
Oprah: Did you know why you were in the hospital?
Central Park Jogger: I don't think so. I've been told that the prosecutor, Elizabeth Lederer, had asked my family, friends, and doctors not to say anything to me about the attack so she could determine whether I had any recollection. She said, "We don't want her repeating things she has heard other people say."
Oprah: When did you know the rest of the country was praying for you?
Central Park Jogger: When I got a dozen roses from Frank Sinatra! I thought, "Wow—this is big!" I jokingly said to one of the doctors, "Frank is a good friend of mine."
Oprah: Excuse me, but was it just one dozen roses—from Frank Sinatra?
Central Park Jogger: One dozen. Then on my birthday, a colleague gave me two dozen roses and said, "Frank only gave you a dozen, so I'll give you two!"
Oprah: Let's talk about your recovery. When you arrived at the rehab hospital, you couldn't walk, right?
Central Park Jogger: Right. I was still in a wheelchair when I got to Gaylord Rehabilitation Hospital. I arrived in the beginning of June and didn't walk until mid-July.
Oprah: Did you wonder whether you'd ever walk again?
Central Park Jogger: What amazes me about my whole recovery process is that my body naturally took over—and that kept me focused on the present moment. I wasn't thinking, "Why did I go running that night? Why didn't I just go out to dinner with my friend?" I was like, "Look, this happened to me and I have to deal with my reality. It's not great, but I'm going to work hard." Sometime in June I did ask the nurse, "Will I ever walk again?" She said, "You'll be fine—give it two weeks." And because it was three weeks before I was walking, I remember being disappointed. But fortunately, I kept seeing progress, which was a huge motivator, though my progress often came in little ways.
Central Park Jogger: Like grabbing nails with tweezers and moving them from one hole to another.
Oprah: That was part of your rehab?
Central Park Jogger: That was one of many exercises I did for six to eight hours a day for about six months. I was eventually able to do more—like moving along on parallel bars. I am so thankful for what my body did for me. It instinctively knew what it needed to do. I had tremendous trauma care, and I am not denying that it was necessary to keep me alive. Yet we all have a deep resource, or power, within us to heal. The love and caring I received helped to unleash that resource. I still see it happening.
Oprah: When you got out of the wheelchair, was your first thought, "I'm going to run again"?
Central Park Jogger: I don't think so. I felt that in time it would happen. I'm not quite sure how I knew that.
Oprah: Are you a religious person?
Central Park Jogger: No. Not formally.
Oprah: It's clear that you're determined and persistent. Where do those qualities come from?
Central Park Jogger: Part of it comes from having had to stand up to my older brothers. I am the youngest of three and the only girl. My parents never gave me the impression that because I was a girl, I couldn't do whatever I wanted. They had high expectations that I internalized.
Oprah: Did you become more spiritually connected as a result of what happened to you?
Central Park Jogger: Yes. I saw myself transformed.
Oprah: And when you were living in the present moment during rehab, you were about as spiritually connected as you could get.
Central Park Jogger: After reflecting on how amazing my recovery was, I thought, "There's got to be something else going on here." Another thing that may have helped my healing was that I didn't harbor resentment toward the boys who attacked me.
Oprah: That seems impossible to me. I harbor resentment—and I just read about it in the paper.
Central Park Jogger: I focused on all the positives. And I realized I had seen both the best and the worst of humanity.
Oprah: After you were raped, sodomized, beaten with a pipe, dragged, and left for dead, you can honestly say you looked at those boys in the courtroom and harbored no resentment?
Central Park Jogger: Right. Perhaps I've been able to do this because I have no memory of the attack. But I'll tell you what—I didn't feel wonderful about the boys' defense attorneys, especially the one who cross-examined me. He was right in front of my face and, in essence, calling me a slut by asking questions like "When's the last time you had sex with your boyfriend?"
Oprah: You've said your family didn't want you to testify. Why?
Central Park Jogger: They were afraid of what the experience would be like for me—they were very protective. They thought, "You can't identify these people. Why should you have to testify?"
Oprah: Since you didn't remember details of the attack, why did you want to testify?
Central Park Jogger: I felt angry about what had happened; I wanted to see justice done and wanted to participate in the process. I also know that juries like to see the plaintiff. I wanted to walk into that room on my own and say to those boys, "You can't conquer me. I'm still standing."
Oprah: Were you nervous?
Central Park Jogger: Very.
Oprah: Did you think seeing the boys would trigger your memory?
Central Park Jogger: I didn't know for sure, but I wasn't going to sit there and stare at them the whole time because that wouldn't have felt comfortable. I did look at them at first. It was a bit like going back to that place in the park—I just needed to do it. When I was standing outside the courtroom, I thought, "Everybody is going to be looking at me, trying to find something wrong, and I want to stand strong." I don't have the steadiest walk anymore, and I was nervous about that.
Oprah: How did you feel about the people who turned this into a major racial confrontation?
Central Park Jogger: I focused all my attention on my healing.
Oprah: Glory hallelujah for you!
Central Park Jogger: They had to take care of themselves, and I had to take care of me. It's not that I ignored what was happening, but I was also protected from some of it.
Oprah: What do you feel toward those boys today, now that they're all out of jail?
Central Park Jogger: I sincerely hope they've turned their lives around. I think they were troubled boys.
Oprah: So at no time have you ever been resentful?
Central Park Jogger: I wasn't resentful of the boys, but I did want them to admit they had made a mistake.
Oprah: Did you want an apology?
Central Park Jogger: Yes, a sincere apology. It would have made me feel better to know they realized what they had done was wrong.
Oprah: Did you want them to apologize to you directly, or would it have been enough to know they felt remorse in their heart?
Central Park Jogger: At the time I wanted a personal apology.
Oprah: Did you ever want to ask them why you were the person they chose?
Central Park Jogger: No. I just felt I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. If it hadn't been me, it would have been someone else.
Oprah: But did you ever wonder, "How could they have done that to me?"
Central Park Jogger: I have wondered that.
Oprah: You need to get mad! You're way too balanced.
Central Park Jogger: But I do get angry. And I never really saw how badly I'd been hurt, when I was at my worst.
Oprah: You didn't see the photographs taken as evidence?
Central Park Jogger: No, though there have been times when I've wanted to see them because it's unusual to have no memory of an important point in my life. When I was with the prosecutor, I even asked her, "Do you have the photos?" I was wondering if I wanted to see them. But then I decided I didn't. I'm not denying what happened. I have to live with the consequences of it every day. But I thought, "You know what? I don't need to see them."
Oprah: If I were you, I'd want to see them.
Central Park Jogger: Really?
Oprah: In so many ways that would be a declaration of how far you've come.
Central Park Jogger: I already know how far I've come. And maybe it's just that I don't want to see how bad it was.
Oprah: You didn't look in a mirror after the attack?
Central Park Jogger: Oh yes, I did. After six weeks it wasn't like, "My God, I'm beautiful"—but it wasn't that bad either.
Oprah: Today if you see a group of boys while you're walking down the street alone, what do you feel?
Central Park Jogger: Several years ago when I was running with a friend in the park, this group of teenage guys suddenly came running up, and I got really scared. My friend, who had seen them approaching, started running back toward me just to make sure I was okay.
Oprah: Weren't you running soon after the attack?
Central Park Jogger: I was, but in no way like I had been. The head of the physical therapy department told me there was an Achilles Track Club for disabled runners who met at the hospital. When he asked whether I wanted to join, I said, "Do you think I can?" I hadn't even been walking that long. Just seeing a community of others with disabilities gave me strength. So I went around a parking lot for about a quarter of a mile, running very slowly. It felt so good to complete that loop. I thought, "This is nothing like what I did before, but look what I can do!"
Oprah: You were once an eight-minute miler?
Central Park Jogger: Yes, and I used to run long distances.
Oprah: Six or seven miles a day?
Central Park Jogger: About that much.
Oprah: But at that point, a quarter of a mile was a huge accomplishment.
Central Park Jogger: I realized I was taking back something that had been taken away from me.
Oprah: Were you eventually able to run by the spot in Central Park where you were attacked?
Central Park Jogger: Yes. I was pretty sure it wouldn't bring up any memories, but I wanted to see. I went with a friend and I saw what I call the memorial [notes, flowers, and keepsakes from people who'd heard about the attack]. To see that just touched me, knowing that people had taken the time to show they cared.
Oprah: How soon was it before you went back to your job?
Central Park Jogger: Seven or eight months—and I stayed there until 1998.
Oprah: When you went back to work, did you feel awkward?
Central Park Jogger: My first day back was a half-day, and they had a little party for me. I was nervous because there were a lot of people in the office who I hadn't worked with, and I didn't know whether they'd be looking at me. But it was fine—I felt welcomed.
Oprah: Do only people who knew you before the attack know you're the Central Park jogger?
Central Park Jogger: Others know, too. It's not that I'm hiding something. But I want people to get to know me before they know my history and all the associations around it.
Oprah: Right, because that becomes a label.
Central Park Jogger: For me a lot of not telling also has to do with the head injury. When I was in the hospital, I heard a lot about what I wasn't going to be able to do. I read that I was permanently damaged.
Oprah: When you were dating your husband, how did you tell him you were the Central Park jogger?
Central Park Jogger: We met on a blind date six years ago, but before that we'd had several good talks on the phone. In one conversation I told him I had gone to Yale for business school, and he said, "I have a couple of friends from there." Apparently, he saw one of those friends later and asked her about me. She said, "Do you know who she is? She's the Central Park jogger." I was a little disappointed that she'd told him before I met him. I'd even asked the friend who set us up not to say anything about it. So on our date that evening when I told him who I was, he already knew.
Oprah: Earlier you said you've been transformed, yet I know the attack didn't suddenly turn you into an achiever—you graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Wellesley. So how, exactly, were you changed?
Central Park Jogger: What I mean is that I watched my body transform. I went from sitting in a wheelchair to running a marathon. The week before I left Gaylord hospital, a guy I didn't know FedExed his 1989 New York City Marathon medal to me. He said he had run the marathon a couple of times and had been injured, but he had run this one in my honor. I sat down and thought, "Holy cow—for a runner, that medal symbolizes so much hard work!" That medal still hangs in my house. So when I was able to run the marathon in 1995, I decided to pass on the medal I won.
Oprah: In the same spirit in which it was given to you.
Central Park Jogger: Yes.
Oprah: Do you remember what you felt when you crossed the finish line?
Central Park Jogger: I almost wanted to kiss the ground!
Oprah: It's a huge accomplishment. Do you have any physical limitations today?
Central Park Jogger: I still have some balance issues. And my vision is impaired and I've lost my sense of smell.
Oprah: Did you lose your sense of taste along with your sense of smell? That would kill me!
Central Park Jogger: I can still taste, just not as well as before. I used to be a Diet Coke fan, and I could tell the difference between it and Diet Pepsi. But now I can't tell the difference.
And some things have changed for me cognitively. I can't absorb things as quickly as I used to, and I'm not as focused. But you know what? I'm okay with that, because I've grown in other ways that are different from and better than the ways I might have grown had I not experienced this.
Oprah: Have your values changed?
Central Park Jogger: I'm more accepting of differences because of what I've gone through.
Oprah: Why do you think this happened to you?
Central Park Jogger: To be honest, I don't know. I don't feel comfortable saying "There was a purpose in this."
Oprah: Things happen to all of us that completely change the direction of our lives—so for you, this attack served that purpose.
Central Park Jogger: You're absolutely right. That's not to say my life was bad before. But you know what? Right now I am so very happy. I often tell people that my life is richer than it was before. And I've learned about myself and about other people's generosity of spirit.
Oprah: Do you still feel invincible?
Central Park Jogger: No.
Oprah: Do you lock your doors at night?
Central Park Jogger: I do.
Oprah: When you're walking alone in a parking lot, do you have the tips of your keys pointing outward?
Central Park Jogger: Yes, yes, yes, yes! I am more cautious, but there's still a certain freedom I feel.
Oprah: People who have been raped or attacked are often too afraid to even go outside, and they relive the trauma over and over again. That hasn't happened to you?
Central Park Jogger: It hasn't. In some ways I have the feeling I can recover from anything.
Oprah: Your recovery is certainly a sign of your resilience, isn't it?
Central Park Jogger: I'm a persistent little pain in the neck sometimes!
Oprah: You keep fighting.
Central Park Jogger: But I haven't done it alone. I gained strength from all the support, loving, and caring I received.
Oprah: Has it been a long road back?
Central Park Jogger: When you stay in the moment, the road back doesn't seem quite as long, especially when you have unconditional love from your family. I've been surrounded by that love, which has given me a lot of strength.
Oprah: Does it bother you to be referred to as the Central Park jogger?
Central Park Jogger: I'm more than the Central Park jogger—that's just a name. But I understand that's how people know me, and that's okay with me.
Oprah: Why have you decided to come forward and tell your story now?
Central Park Jogger: For a long time I've been thinking about how I can use my recovery to help others. I have recently started to talk to some groups, and the response has been rewarding. I was talking at a rehab hospital to some clinicians and former and current head-injured patients about the power of mindfulness and my recovery. At the end of my talk, a gentleman in a wheelchair raised his hand and said, "I was in a coma for three and a half months, and the doctors didn't think I was ever going to walk again—but seeing you has been so inspiring. Were you ever in a wheelchair?" I said, "Yes." Then he said, "I'm going to get out of this wheelchair." That made me feel so good.
Oprah: It squeezes your heart. Though you've spoken to various groups, you still don't want to fully reveal your identity, right?
Central Park Jogger: I'm just not ready for that. It doesn't feel right.
Oprah: So you're taking little baby steps.
Central Park Jogger: That's it—baby steps.
Oprah: I'm so grateful you've taken the first step with me. Thank you for your trust.
Central Park Jogger: Thank you, Oprah.
Printed from Oprah.com on Tuesday, March 11, 2014
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