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Taking Back The Night

Gail Abarbanel has changed the way rape is viewed—and how victims are treated—in L.A. and across the nation. Her secret: demanding we do better

Each fall the tony brunch on the grounds of Green-acres, a 50,000-square-foot mansion in Beverly Hills, never fails to draw major stars. Past hosts have included actors Gwyneth Paltrow, Viola Davis, Ben Stiller, and the cast of Mad Men. Male guests shun the jeans-and-T-shirt dress code favored by the Hollywood elite, opting for sober suits and ties; women show up in fancy day dresses, their designer handbags at the ready. The 800 or so who attend could be at any Westside charity event, but this one is different. There will be no fashion show, no musical interlude, no gift bag. Instead there will be stories—stories about rape.

When a woman named Gail Abarbanel stands up and takes the microphone, those who’ve been at previous brunches instinctively clench their cloth napkins. They know from experience that Abarbanel—the president of the Santa Monica-based Rape Foundation, which serves sexually abused adults and children—is about to quietly and dispassionately break their hearts. With her close-cropped hair, crisp suit, and patent leather flats, Abarbanel is the antithesis of flashy. She doesn’t do drama. As she talks about the girls and boys who come to Stuart House, the Santa Monica satellite of her flagship Rape Treatment Center that serves victims under the age of 18, she doesn’t stutter with emotion. She takes a deep breath and says something like this:

Marleny didn’t meet her father until she was ten. When she was 13, he moved into the family’s small L.A. apartment. Marleny slept in a closet that held just her single bed. There was no blanket for her. When she turned 14, her father started coming into the closet at night to sexually assault her. She tried knotting the drawstring on her pajama pants, but he untied it. Each night, for almost three years, Marleny’s father raped her in that closet. She planned to leave when she turned 18, but as her 17th birthday approached, she couldn’t take it anymore. Marleny told a school counselor everything and was brought to Stuart House. I would like you to meet her.

As Marleny—or Katrina or Irene or any of the survivors of abuse whom Abarbanel has introduced at 34 brunches over 34 years—speaks, the crowd falls apart. “When my father was sexually abusing me, I couldn’t physically escape,” Marleny tells the crowd. “Sometimes when he was touching me, I would imagine that I was at the beach, in the water, swimming away.” Some couples sob and hold hands; women shake their heads and swipe at the mascara tracks on their cheeks. All of them will drive home thinking about the little girl desperately knotting the drawstring of her pajama pants and trying to swim away. Of that Abarbanel is sure. But many will do more than think about Marleny—they’ll donate their time and money because Abarbanel asks them to. In a town that never lacks for high-profile causes, this slight, unassuming woman has commanded not only attention but also commitment.

Translating stories into action—that’s what Abarbanel, 69, has devoted more than half her life to doing. Those who’ve worked (or tangled) with her describe her as a tireless reformer. Relentless even. “I like to say I’m determined. Or a noodge,” she acknowledges. Because of that persistence, victims of sexual assault in Los Angeles are receiving better care. They are being better served by the legal system. And more rapists are being arrested, prosecuted, and convicted.

Not that Abarbanel would tell you so. Ask her a question about herself—this is the first profile she’s ever agreed to be interviewed for—and she unfailingly steers the subject to her preferred topic: the victims she is trying to help. “My strategy has always been to share what moves me with other people,” she says. “Everything comes from work with victims. Through their experiences they tell us what we need to do next.”

The statistics are bracing. One in every five American women will be raped in her lifetime. Every two minutes someone in the United States is sexually assaulted; each month there are 40 to 50 new rape victims in Los Angeles alone. By some estimates, one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before they are 18. But 97 percent of rapists do not go to jail.

What’s more, until this year the uniform definition of rape used by the FBI did not include many acts most people think of as rape, such as sodomy and forced oral copulation. Which means that for years national rape statistics have not reflected the full scope of the problem. (Only 54 percent of sexual assaults are reported to the police.) Many sexual assaults on children are not even tallied. “Whenever something as serious and prevalent as sexual abuse of children isn’t officially counted,” says Abarbanel, “it feeds into making the problem invisible.”

Add to that the fact that for years there was a backlog of 12,000-plus rape kits in Los Angeles County’s two big crime labs—those run by the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. These kits, which typically contain samples of bodily secretions such as semen as well as clothing and other physical evidence, had been collected from victims’ bodies but then left untested. Because rapists tend to be repeat offenders, Abarbanel says, “if you solve one case, you’re preventing other women from being raped.” That opportunity, she says, was being squandered. “It was a huge betrayal of trust.”


This feature originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine

So in 2008, she began pressing the LAPD to start processing its 7,000-plus neglected kits. Next Abarbanel took her concerns to the sheriff’s department, and she enlisted the help of L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky to make sure she was heard. To keep the pressure on, she demanded that a running tally be kept of the untested kits and held the supervisors accountable. It took years, but in the end the sheriff’s department’s 5,635 untested rape kits were found and processed. At least 1,000 matches of DNA profiles were found between the newly processed kits and those stored in law enforcement databases. And while no official tally was kept, at one point LAPD chief Charlie Beck estimated that “dozens” of new identifications and arrests had been made because of the backlog testing. “Gail is dogged. You can’t ignore her. She doesn’t give up until she gets what she wants—and what she always wants is to make sure that justice is done for victims,” says Yaroslavsky, who worked with Sheriff Lee Baca to earmark funding to process the backlog. “If not for Gail, those rape kits would still be sitting in a freezer in a lab.”

David Schwimmer, who got the idea for his 2010 drama Trust—about the seduction and rape of a teenage girl—from touring Stuart House and working with Abarbanel for more than a decade, agrees. (The actor-director serves as one of the directors of the Rape Foundation board.) He even named a main character, a social worker played by Viola Davis, Gail. “It’s almost impossible to say no to Gail,” he says, “when you see what she has selflessly done for others.”

That irresistibility is proving especially handy these days, as Abarbanel campaigns to raise money to increase the size and double the capacity of Stuart House. This past July, Davis and philanthropist Cheryl Saban announced they are cochairing a $15 million capital campaign to fund construction of larger facilities and a unit for training first responders to better evaluate and help sexual abuse victims. Already they’ve collected nearly $9 million needed to break ground next spring on the three-story center, which will go up about half a block from the RTC on land provided by UCLA. But they need $6 million more. Is Abarbanel worried? That’s not her way.

Standing in front of the parking lot where the new Stuart House will rise, she nods twice and says, “It will happen.”

For such a fierce advocate, Abarbanel—who stands five feet four—doesn’t attract attention. She favors straight black skirts below the knee with tailored jackets and flats. Her nails are manicured but usually in buff polish, not pink or red. Her jewelry is minimal: a thin gold watch and a simple wedding band. She moves like a feline, quickly and quietly. If it weren’t for the dozen or so keys that she carries on her waist like a custodian, you would never hear her coming. “I have to open a lot of doors,” she says with a laugh that brightens her usually determined-looking face.

“My first impression of Gail was that she looked meek. She was like a feather,” says Sandra Moss, a director of the Rape Foundation board, who met Abarbanel in the late ’70s. “But she’s a feather with double dynamite in her.” Not that she’s explosive. Colleagues and bureaucrats alike credit Abarbanel with keeping her cool when others get angry. She just pushes and pushes—always pleasant but firm, never yielding. “If you call Gail at nine at night on a Saturday, she picks up right away,” Moss says. “I am always telling her to get a facial or lie down somewhere.” Adds Yaroslavsky: “She’s not a fist pounder. She’s like a stern teacher who says, ‘You can do better than this.’ You don’t want Gail to be disappointed in you.”

Abarbanel’s first interaction with a rape victim set the course for her professional life. It was 1974, and Abarbanel, then 30, had just started a new job as a social worker at Santa Monica Hospital when she was called to the ER to counsel a young woman who had attempted suicide. When Abarbanel asked questions, the patient revealed that she had been raped about a week before. She also said she couldn’t tell anyone she knew. “I was so moved because there was no place for her to go for help,” Abarbanel recalls. “No crisis center. Nothing.” Back then police departments would typically funnel rape victims to hospital ERs, she says. “When I looked for information on rape trauma, I couldn’t find anything.”

That’s because Rape: Victims of Crisis, the first major book on the topic, wouldn’t be published until later that year. Still, Abarbanel, who received her master’s in social work at USC after graduating from UCLA, wanted to do something to improve the experience of rape victims who came forward. She had grown up in West L.A., raised by parents who taught her to give back to the community. Her mother was a secretary who volunteered at a Jewish orphanage known as Vista Del Mar in Cheviot Hills (it’s now a center for abused and developmentally challenged children). “I remember the kids coming to our house for holidays or me going to the orphanage with my mom during the summer,” she says. Her father was a studio publicist and founding member of the Publicists Guild. “We weren’t wealthy. But even on the level of their means, both of my parents always had a commitment to helping other people.”

Abarbanel saw that addressing the needs of rape victims was a round-the-clock job. Most of the sexual assault cases were admitted to the hospital on weekends or at night when she wasn’t there. “I didn’t want another victim to have nowhere to turn,” she says one recent afternoon over a take-out Caesar salad in her sparsely decorated office at the RTC. “So I put myself on call.” (During lunch, the black pager clipped to her waist beeps a few times. Abarbanel no longer sees patients as a social worker, but she’s alerted in crisis situations or when someone has a question that only she can answer.)


This feature originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine

In 1974, she founded California’s first 24-hour facility for victims of rape, the Rape Treatment Center. Originally it was housed in Santa Monica Hospital, which funded it. But Abarbanel had bigger plans than the hospital could afford, so she started reaching out for private support. Soon she gained a reputation as the go-to person on the issue of rape. When Norman Lear decided to tackle sexual assault on his TV show All in the Family in 1977, he called Abarbanel, he says, because he wanted to frame the issue correctly. “We might not have thought about the negative reaction of some family members without Gail,” he says. “I got the message that she was very bright right away. Later I saw the frank conviction.” In the episode Edith Bunker fends off a sexual assault. It was the first time a hit TV series had addressed the topic so directly. “The show had a huge impact on the national consciousness and started a conversation about rape,” says Abarbanel, who used the episode as a platform for education and awareness. She persuaded Lear to make pamphlets and videos of the show available in crisis centers around the country. In the coming years she would consult on rape-related episodes of Lou Grant, NYPD Blue, and more recently The Closer.

Mention these accomplishments, however, and she becomes uncomfortable. Abarbanel rarely talks in the first person. It’s always “we.” She deflects personal questions with a quizzical smile, then changes the topic back to the cause. Even people who have worked with her for years don’t know the basics of her private life—whether she has children, for instance (she doesn’t). Her husband, Steve Klein, is a statistician and former research methodologist at the Rand Corporation and a staunch supporter of her mission. They have two cats (but talking about her pets makes her fidget, too). “Because of the work we do,” she says, unwavering in her certainty that she is not the point, “I think it’s really important to have good boundaries.”

But later she lowers her guard, telling me a story about the first time she spoke in public. It was 1975 or 1976 when she put together a conference on hospital-based treatment for rape victims. It took months to organize, and only at the last minute did she realize she had to stand up in front of people and make her case. “I was petrified,” she says. Luckily her husband knew what to do. The night before the event, he accompanied her to the conference site, at the downtown Bonaventure Hotel, and they walked into the empty ballroom together to face her fears. “I don’t recall if I did my whole speech, but I practiced and I felt more confident,” Abarbanel says. “My husband has been supportive of my work in so many meaningful ways.”

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Every year the RTC and the Stuart House together see about 1,800 victims, whose ages have ranged from eight weeks to 95 years. Each receives counseling, specialized medical care, forensic services with the most advanced equipment, and legal assistance. No one gets turned away because everything is free. An annual budget of $5.5 million operates solely from fund-raising.

At the RTC, which is now part of Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center just off Wilshire Boulevard, the environment is calm and soothing. White-noise machines whir softly in waiting areas, and therapy rooms are decorated with colorful art. The idea is to shut out the clamor and chaos of the outside world. On every table, it seems, there is a box of tissues. Victims spend about three to six hours here, and each step of the process—from filing a police report to being photographed to preserve evidence of bruises or bite marks—is explained along the way by a rotating team of more than 50 full- and part-time staff. Abarbanel’s office is located nearby, and it is not a sanctuary. Stacks upon stacks of folders cram her built-in desk, and scribbled-on yellow Post-it notes adorn the area around her computer. Shelves are filled with books on rape trauma, policy, and education.

Half a block away is Stuart House, which was established in the fall of 1988. At the press conference marking its opening, then-LAPD chief Daryl Gates noted that the way the legal system treated sexual assault cases had “been like a Frankenstein monster trying to deal out justice but ending up trampling on the victim.” Stuart House aimed to remedy that. The concept of housing prosecutors, child protection workers, law enforcement, and specialized counselors under one roof was revolutionary, and Stuart House has since become an international model. “We had been seeing child victims who were so traumatized by the criminal justice system,” says Aileen Adams, who served as legal counsel for the RTC for 15 years and cofounded Stuart House with Abarbanel. Adams remembers hearing about one little boy who was interviewed 13 times after being sodomized by a neighbor. That kind of needless suffering is exactly what she and Abarbanel have sought to erase.

Right now Abarbanel’s priority is to raise the money she needs to make Stuart House an even more effective refuge. If you have ever met Abarbanel, chances are she’s taken you on a tour of the two-story building. Viola Davis, who is the capital campaign cochair, recalls her tour vividly. It was when she met with Abarbanel to do research for her role in Schwimmer’s movie, and “in that first meeting, as she showed me around, I could tell that she was trying to shift my heart so that I would get involved.” Abarbanel got her wish once again, and it is a strategy she uses to recruit the actors who host the annual brunch. If they’ve visited Stuart House, she reasons, “they can speak from the heart—they’ve seen what we can do.”

When it’s time for my tour, what I notice most is Abarbanel’s unflagging energy. En route she sprints across streets as if she’s five minutes late for a meeting. This is the kind of woman who won’t wait more than 20 seconds for an elevator; she’d rather take the stairs. But once inside, I understand her enthusiasm. With its scattered toys, stuffed animals, and comfy, circular seating, Stuart House’s lobby feels more like a sunny upscale preschool than a crisis center for sexually abused children.

This is where 16-year-old Marleny, who had once thought no other girl could share her harrowing story, met teens in group therapy sessions. Now 20 and a sophomore at Marymount California University, she’s studying medical science and thinking of becoming an ob-gyn or a social worker like Abarbanel. “I don’t know how I would have gotten past what happened to me without Stuart House,” she says. “I got my life back in place.”


This feature originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine