You may recall the story: In 1993, Donna Palomba was raped by a masked assailant in her home, and then spent more than a decade as “Jane Doe” trying not only to get the crime solved but fighting against a tight-knit Waterbury police department and a sometimes judgmental community that believed she had for some reason invented the attack.
Fortunately, one detective stayed committed to the case and, with DNA evidence, eventually tracked down and arrested the assailant—a close family friend who had committed other sexual assaults, as it turns out—finally providing long-sought justice and vindication for Palomba. Following the startling resolution of her case and the incarceration of the perpetrator, she stepped out from behind the protective anonymity of “Jane Doe,” first in the Waterbury Observer, and then on the national stage when she was the subject of an April 2007 NBC “Dateline” program. She’s gone on to become the public face of a national nonprofit organization dedicated to aiding victims of sexual assault.
Jane Doe No More: My 15-Year Fight to Reclaim My Identity—A True Story of Survival, Hope, and Redemption (Lyons Press) is Palomba’s account of her ordeal, written in collaboration with best-selling investigative journalist M. William Phelps. “Because the story is so complex and covers a long period, it seemed like a logical next step,” says Palomba, who had often been approached about writing a book while speaking at colleges, public events and law-enforcement conferences. “I chose to do it to give hope to other victims, survivors and family members of survivors, to let them know they can get through this and that they’re not alone. Through perseverance and love, support and nurturing, they can go on to heal, fulfill their dreams and do things that they didn’t even think were possible before.”
Still, the prospect of putting her story on paper was daunting, she says, with dozens of court transcripts, medical reports and depositions to organize, in addition to having to re-live the assault in vivid detail. “That part was really difficult,” she recalls. “At one point, I told [co-author Phelps], ‘This isn’t just really tough, it feels invasive.’ He said, ‘You know, it is, but your readers are going to want to know, and you need to embrace the process, and realize that you’ve made the decision to do this, so we have to do it right.’ I really relied on him and his past experiences, and he helped me to focus and embrace the process.”
Less difficult, although still challenging, has been Palomba’s efforts on behalf of Jane Doe No More. Founded in 2007 after her appearance on “Dateline,” her nonprofit organization is now based in Naugatuck and has only two full-time employees (an executive director and an administrative coordinator—Palomba takes no salary) as well as over 100 volunteers. Jane Doe No More’s mission includes counseling survivors and providing other unique services, including a “RAPE” (“Raising Awareness through Personal Experience”) outreach team, where other survivors are trained to speak publicly about their experiences.
“What’s amazing is that many victims over the past few years have come forward—it’s almost like you’re giving them permission,” she says. “They want to take the next step and say, ‘I am Jane Doe no more, and I want to do what you’re doing to be able to help others, I want to tell my story’.”
According to Palomba, a few groups have completed the RAPE program. “It’s been remarkable, she says. “These survivors feel so good and so empowered. The crime of rape is one of control over someone else. By these people speaking out, they’re taking back some of that control that they feel was lost. It’s great. It’s very cathartic, and we’ve established a great bond. It’s also become a large part of my own healing process.”
Also part of the process has been advocating on behalf of rape victims on the public stage. Her efforts in conjunction with state law enforcement officials such as Dr. Henry Lee (whose testimony on her behalf helped expose incompetence in the Waterbury police investigation) have led to the removal of the statute of limitations on sexual assault cases involving DNA evidence—too late in the case of her assailant, who pleaded guilty to lesser charges and is currently serving a 15-year sentence. And of course, she continues to speak out and share her story.
“Some people just don’t want to hear about it,” she says of sexual assault, noting that it was a culture of denial that allowed Jerry Sandusky to assault young boys at Penn State University for more than a decade. “Trust me, it’s not something that in a million years I thought I’d be talking about, but this mission—this cause—found me and I’ve learned.”
Palomba says that she’s also learned to keep pushing forward. “Your darkest hour can be your finest moment if you persevere,” she adds. “Think about what you can learn from it and how it maybe can help others and really create some meaningful change.”
For more info, visit janedoenomore.org.