Daisy Coleman is a hero

October 24, 2013

The teenage victim of a terrible crime in Missouri is speaking out--and speaking for the growing numbers who want to challenge sexual assault, as Rachel Cohen explains.

DAISY COLEMAN'S name has bounced through the national media as a victim of rape in a Missouri town, who was dumped on her own front porch one January night in 2012, passed out and dressed in a t-shirt and sweatpants.

But Coleman is courageously speaking out to make her own voice heard, too. The 16-year-old Coleman has published a statement recounting the torment she survived nearly two years ago. Her story is painful to read on the page, but her voice is clear and resolute.

She describes how she and a friend were encouraged to drink heavily by a group of older teenage boys. "I guess I didn't know how badly it would mess me up," Coleman writes. "But the boys who gave it to me did."

The next thing she knew, she had been found in her own front yard. "Waking up was a complete blur. I had to be carried into my mother's bedroom, in complete and total confusion. I was freezing and sick and bruised, my hair in icy chunks weighted against me."

A rape kit confirmed what Coleman could not remember. Later, she learned her friend Paige Parkhurst, 13 years old at the time, had also been assaulted that night. Charges were filed against Matthew Barnett, the football player whose house Coleman and Parkhurst had visited.

Daisy Coleman
Daisy Coleman

But Coleman and her family were the object of a campaign of abuse from members of their community, who heaped the blame on the then-14-year-old survivor. Bullying destroyed Coleman's confidence not only in herself, but in the world around her, and it took a toll on her entire family:

I watched my brother get bullied and my mom lose her job. Ultimately, our house burned to the ground...I couldn't go out in public, let alone school. I sat alone in my room, most days, pondering the worth of my life. I quit praying because if God were real, why would he do this?

I was suspended from the cheerleading squad, and people told me that I was "asking for it" and would "get what was coming."...On Twitter and Facebook, I was called a skank and a liar and people encouraged me to kill myself. Twice, I did try to take my own life.

As the small town of Maryville closed ranks around a popular boy from a prominent family, county officials effectively decided the case by refusing to send it to trial. Without explanation, Nodaway County prosecutor Robert Rice dropped all charges against Barnett. A cell phone video of Coleman's rape which had been passed around her high school was then sealed among the records of the officially closed case.

BUT COLEMAN has not let the story stop there--and her statement reveals her stunning defiance: "I'm different now," she writes. "And I can't ever go back to the person I once was. That one night took it all away from me. I'm nothing more than just human, but I also refuse to be a victim of cruelty any longer. This is why I am saying my name. This is why I am not shutting up."

Coleman's courage is making a difference. This week, a state court assigned Special Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker to consider reopening the case. But her words have had a broader impact--and a very important one.

From Steubenville, Ohio, to Maryville, Missouri, and beyond, reports of sexual violence have been met with collective outrage and hostility--directed against the victim. Media accounts reflect and repeat the concerns voiced by local residents that center on the affect a rape accusation will have on the accused--not the devastating consequences of the attack for the victim.

Most recently, criminal defense lawyer Joseph DiBenedetto took to Fox News to call Coleman a liar, demanding to know, "What did she expect to happen at 1 a.m. after sneaking out?" But a few years ago, it was the liberal New York Times that defended reporter James C. McKinley's victim-blaming coverage of the brutal gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Cleveland, Texas.

Supported by her mother, Melinda Coleman, Daisy's willingness to speak out has redirected the media away from its concerns about Barnett's "bright future" and toward some sympathy for Coleman herself.

Coleman's anguish and her bravery also reflect out the jarring polarization that exists today about the issue of sexual violence in the U.S.

There are two parallel worlds that seem to exist side by side. In one world, it is perfectly acceptable for young men to get sex through coercion and intoxication--and victims of sexual assault are presumed to be destructive, malicious liars.

But at the same time, there is a growing sentiment for taking action against sexual violence and victim-blaming. Thousands have begun to march, write and speak out to demand respect for consent and to challenge the sexism at the heart of rape apologism. That resistance no doubt helped make it possible for a high school student from a town of 12,000 to reach an international audience with her message--that what happened to her wasn't her fault.

The Internet-based group Anonymous has played a prominent role in bringing to light cases like Coleman's, including the assault of Jane Doe in Steubenville and of Reteah Parsons in Nova Scotia. The evidence Anonymous publishes in these cases makes an impact because it strikes a raw nerve among millions of people. On Tuesday, hundreds of people rallied in Maryville--including many who had traveled from out of state to be there--to demand Justice for Daisy.

Coleman knows she isn't alone. She closes her statement with unexpected optimism, saying, "I not only survived, I didn't give up. I've been told that a special prosecutor is going to reopen the case now. This is a victory, not just for me, but for every girl."

Further Reading

From the archives