Turning trauma into triumph
Alton's Pat Fuller opens up about assault, hopes to help others
|ALTON SELECTMAN PAT FULLER is going public with her ordeal as a victim of sexual assault in the hope of encouraging others who are in her position to come forward. Brendan Berube. (click for larger version)|
April 13, 2010ALTON — For Pat Fuller, the past six months have been not only an emotional roller coaster, but a physical and mental one, as well.
The nine-year veteran of Alton's Board of Selectmen, who suffered a horrendous assault at her home in November, has traveled a long and sometimes painful road to recovery, but has summoned the courage to come forward with her story in the hope of helping others.
With her husband, Greg, attending a budget committee meeting on the evening of Nov. 12, 2009, Fuller left the back door of their home on Youngtown Road unlocked for him, as usual.
That night would turn out to be anything but typical, however, when Fuller heard a suspicious noise, gathered up the couple's two dogs, and went to the back door to investigate — only to come face to face with a masked intruder.
"I looked up and had a gun in my face," she said during an interview Monday afternoon.
After ordering her to lock up the dogs, she explained, the intruder proceeded to physically and sexually assault her at gunpoint until the sound of a truck pulling into a neighbor's driveway scared him off.
Left alone after the perpetrator fled the scene, Fuller said she needed 15 or 20 minutes to compose herself enough to dial 911, knowing that as a town official, she would recognize the faces of the emergency personnel who were about to come to her aid.
Fortunately, she said, the police and fire departments are "very well-trained in handling these events," and dealt with the situation professionally and with genuine concern.
While she recovered from her physical injuries fairly quickly, Fuller said the emotional and psychological scars were much more difficult to overcome.
For months after the assault, she explained, she could not bring herself to stay home alone at night, and found herself obsessively checking the house from one end to the other for any signs of an intruder after returning from visits to her therapist or other outings.
Her anxieties also began to affect her performance as a selectman, she said, explaining that it took months for her to be able to attend public selectmen's meetings or other gatherings where only men were present (such as fire department meetings, which she had grown accustomed to attending on a regular basis as the board's liaison to the fire department).
"They understood why, though," she said, thanking the members of the fire department for bearing with her during her recovery.
Fuller also thanked her fellow selectmen for their patience and understanding.
"They're like brothers to me," she said, adding that her colleagues on the board were there for her throughout the ordeal, offering to do anything they could to help her through it.
The overwhelming support she received from the townspeople as she struggled to recover meant the world to her, she said, explaining that countless residents have walked up to her on the street or at Town Hall over the past few months, thrown their arms around her, and told her they were glad to see her doing so well.
"There's a big support system out there," she said. "I don't think I'd be doing as well as I am now without that."
Greg, she said, has also been "a huge support" along her road to recovery.
Although she intended to make the public aware of what she had been through all along, Fuller said she chose to wait until the time felt right.
A recent conversation she had with Police Chief Ryan Heath, during which he mentioned that 70 percent of sexual assaults throughout the country go unreported, finally persuaded her to come forward.
"I find that appalling," she said, stating her hope that by going public with her ordeal, she might help more victimized women or men summon up the courage to come forward.
As a victim of sexual assault herself, Fuller said she can understand why most women who suffer the indignity of rape are reluctant to come forward.
Oftentimes, she said, women are embarrassed or ashamed of what took place, or are left with so much guilt that they convince themselves they must have done something to deserve the attack.
What happens after a victim dials 911 can also be "very rough," she said, explaining that many victims are hesitant about the idea of being tested with a rape kit or questioned by police.
"It's a very difficult thing to go through," she said.
While feelings of guilt or shame are only natural, Fuller said no one who finds themselves in a situation where their life could be in danger should feel ashamed about doing whatever they need to do to survive.
Assault victims (male or female) should also not hesitate to call 911 given the caliber of the services available to them locally.
Fuller also recommended that all women consider enrolling in the National Rifleman's Association's Gun and Home Safety course, which she said helped her regain a sense of power over her life and taught her some self-defense techniques that might have changed the outcome of the attack at her home.
Although she still has no idea whether the attack at her home was random or pre-meditated, and has yet to see a suspect brought to justice, Fuller said she doesn't need that kind of closure to move on.
"He does not have that power over me," she said. "He's not going to ruin my life … I've got plenty of things I want to do, and I'm going to do them."
After pulling through the turmoil in her life over the past several months, Fuller is looking forward to an upcoming three-month sabbatical — her first vacation of any kind in nine years on the board of selectmen.
"I need a break," she said, adding that she plans to come roaring back "stronger than ever" in mid-July to serve out the remainder of her current term.
"And I'll probably run again next year," she said with a chuckle — an encouraging sign that life is finally starting to get back to normal.
Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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