FOREST GROVE, Ore. (Forest Grove News Times) — When Forest Grove Police Chief Janie Schutz was 14 years old, a trusted family member shoved her against a wall in the back storage room of his business and raped her.
That’s the story Schutz, now 58, told publicly for the first time last week when she spoke about sexual assault during a talk at the Hillsboro Main Library.
She says she still hasn’t even shared the whole story with her own children. And of the 35 staff members under her command at the police department, only a handful know.
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“I think the only way to recover is to talk about it, because otherwise it burns a hole in you,” Schutz said in an interview after the library event. Talking about the experience makes her feel “freer,” she said.
And it has an impact on those listening.
“I was shocked, but I should not have been,” said Martha Rampton, a Pacific professor who helped organize Schutz’s Nov. 10 Hillsboro talk for the American Association of University Women (AAUW). “When we hear the statistic that one in four women is sexually assaulted, it’s upsetting, but I think we seldom look around us and realize that the victims being referenced are in the room, the class, the workplace beside us.”
Rampton, an AAUW member, said she was grateful for Schutz’s openness. “I think that hearing this strong, professional, accomplished woman sharing this story brought home that one in four women are walking around with their own stories of sexual assault, and that it is possible to come to terms with the experience and turn it to the good, as Janie has done.”
“We all have stories,” Schutz said. “And those that are so influential to who you are, usually have some pretty tough parts. When you’re telling people about a good thing, it’s easy. I’ve gotten brave enough to tell the bad things.”
‘I hope victims can get to the point where I am. You can’t change it but I don’t dwell on it. Maybe the good Lord knew someday I’d be strong enough to share and make something good out of bad. I have nothing to hide about it anymore or be ashamed of.’ — Janie Schutz
Crying alone at night
According to Schutz, the bad things happened in the early 1970s.
She grew up on the East Coast but when she was 14, her mother and stepfather sent her off for the summer to “have fun visiting with family” in the Midwest, she said.
Answering her male relative’s numerous questions about her love life and boyfriends, Schutz said, she never sensed anything “off” about the conversations. She didn’t recognize them as predatory behavior.
But she says the man raped her twice that summer — both times in a storage room where he worked.
Later, she says, when he drove her out to a trailer sitting in an open field, she opened the door and saw only a mattress on the trailer floor. She looked at him and said, “No,” she says. He backed off, but told her not to let anyone know what had happened because no one would understand, she says.
So she stayed quiet.
“I knew it would kill my mother,” Schutz said — not only that her daughter had been raped, but that a beloved relative had done such a thing.
Schutz finished out the summer crying by herself at night in her sleeping bag.
For a long time, Schutz says, she felt guilty for keeping the rapes a secret, not understanding back then that her relative was likely a predator and likely harmed other children.
“I share this story now because it’s partly my fault, because I never told and I feel that he must have victimized other people,” Schutz said at the library talk.
She’s since been able to give herself a break, knowing her 14-year-old self just wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. “It’s not my parents’ fault. It’s not my fault. This is on him.”
‘Don’t ever come home again’
Going back home and finishing high school, “I put it totally out of my head. I blamed myself. I pretended like it didn’t happen,” Schutz says.
But when she was 21 years old and away at college, she learned the man was moving in with her stepfather, mother and older sister, who was developmentally disabled. She says she decided to break the silence of her adolescence, believing her relative would prey on her sister, who had the intellectual capacity of a 5-year-old.
At that point, Schutz says, the only person she’d told about the rapes was her high school sweetheart, who later became her husband.
She called her stepfather first, told him her story and says he believed her, was supportive and assured her he would not let the man move in with them or have contact with her sister.
After hanging up with her stepfather, she called her mother, who said, “I don’t believe you. Don’t ever come home again.”
Schutz was devastated by her mother’s reaction but was determined to protect her sister, who later in life called Schutz her “big cop” and loved listening to police scanners.
“I knew I saved (my sister) from something awful — something she couldn’t have endured,” Schutz said.
Schutz says the man is still alive and has never been charged with a crime related to the rapes she recently revealed. She declined to provide his name, saying she feared he would cause problems for her family back home if contacted for this story.
Eventually, Schutz went home again and saw her mother. “I’m 58 years old and I’m pretty sure my mother believes now that it happened,” she said, but her mother has never apologized or even talked about the rapes.
Schutz got married, had six children and went into the police force, partially motivated by her childhood experience, which made her want to fight for justice, she says.
Now, 44 years after the rapes and after decades as a cop dealing with sexual assaults, “I hope victims can get to the point where I am,” she said. “You can’t change it but I don’t dwell on it. Maybe the good Lord knew someday I’d be strong enough to share and make something good out of bad. I have nothing to hide about it anymore or be ashamed of.”
A wave of disclosures
Schutz isn’t alone in her recent revelation. With sexual assault in the spotlight this past campaign season, many women have decided to speak out about their own assaults or rapes.
Shortly after a recording surfaced of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump talking about sexually assaulting women, a writer named Kelly Oxford started a Twitter feed that drew thousands of revelations of sexual assault, including some first-time admissions.
A day after she wrote “Women: tweet me your first assaults,” Oxford was getting 50 responses a minute, according to a New York Times story about the phenomenon.
Locally, in a large post-election gathering at Pacific University Nov. 9, audiology professor Amanda Stead revealed for the first time that she, too, was a sexual assault survivor.
And during a gubernatorial debate in September, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown revealed she had been a victim of unspecified “domestic violence,” later making a vague reference to understanding victims of sexual assault as well.
Schutz says she started thinking more seriously about telling her story when she spoke at a statewide policing conference a few years ago and spontaneously threw in details about a tense time during her tenure as a police chief in North Carolina when she received death threats from drug lords and slept with a pistol by her nightstand. Fielding comments afterward, Schutz realized that her personal story “hit the hearts of people,” and she decided to open up more.
By that time, too, she says, she’d had years to continue healing from the rapes.
Her recent decision to tell her story at the AAUW meeting was also off the cuff, she said, although she plans to tell it again in March at a statewide leadership conference.
Rampton thinks Schutz’s public revelation “was somewhat healing for her, and it made her remarks so much more meaningful and authentic to those of us listening.
“I think when women (or men) are able to tell their stories, it helps others who may feel shame or think that nobody understands the burden they live with,” Rampton said. “Janie’s willingness to make herself vulnerable was a great gift she gave us that night.”
Schutz hopes her example will serve as a “motivator for people to believe in themselves and push on. You don’t have to remain a victim. Just because someone is the victim of a crime doesn’t mean they can’t be whole again.”