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The Lost Hours of Melissa Lorraine

Two years ago, the Theatre Y cofounder survived a sexual assault in a car she thought was her Uber. With the perpetrator still out there, she had to find a different kind of closure.

On September 8, 2017, Melissa Lorraine walked into the emergency room at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Streeterville, accompanied by her friend Katie Stimpson and Stimpson’s boyfriend. Lorraine was shaken and confused, so Stimpson had agreed to do the talking. But she lost her nerve when they reached the reception desk. Intimidated by the mostly male staffers gathered there, Stimpson couldn’t think of anything discreet enough to say when a nurse asked what the problem was.

“And then she said something so metaphysical,” Lorraine recalls. Nodding toward Lorraine, Stimpson told the nurse, “She lost some time.”

Lorraine and Stimpson laugh ruefully now when they tell that story. It’s just the kind of bleak joke they both enjoy. Because although it mystified the nurse and failed to communicate the ugly reason for their visit to the ER, Stimpson’s answer was perfectly accurate. Lorraine had, in fact, lost some time during the early hours of that Friday morning — along with a good many other things.

Melissa Lorraine

Slight and introspective, Melissa Lorraine, 40, is an actor and a director who cofounded Theatre Y, a resolutely edgy company with a taste for avant-garde texts and intense ensemble work. This spring, it staged Self-Accusation, a play by Austrian provocateur Peter Handke consisting of deceptively mundane statements (“I was able to do something. I was able to fail to do something”) that underline the tensions between the individual and the social order. Parts of the highly ritualized production unfolded in front of the performance space. “I love work that creates a riot inside the individual watching it,” she told the Chicago Reader in 2013.

The months leading up to her visit to the ER were actually pretty good for Lorraine. She and her husband, Evan Hill, had spent the summer with colleagues and friends, walking the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route that stretches for hundreds of miles through Europe and culminates at a cathedral in northwest Spain. The trip was a kind of extreme organizational retreat for Theatre Y as well as an artwork in itself, featuring performances on the road and activities that will form part of an upcoming piece called The Camino Project.

Afterward, at the end of August 2017, Lorraine moved into an architecturally significant building on a leafy side street in Old Town. True, her apartment was small and subterranean (she called it “the servants’ quarters”), and she was likely to be alone in it most of the time, as Hill would be pursuing his doctorate in dramaturgy at Yale. But it was convenient to the florist shop where she worked. More important, it was located in what Lorraine thought of as the poshest, safest Chicago neighborhood she’d ever lived in. “Here we go,” she told herself. “You’re about to be spoiled, pampered.”

Theatre Y moved into new digs, too. Partnering with Red Tape Theatre, it took over a storefront space at 4546 North Western Avenue, dubbing it the Ready (a portmanteau of “Red” and “Y”). Like Theatre Y, Red Tape favors convention-subverting ensemble work, and both companies are part of the free theater movement, which Theatre Y’s mission statement defines as a commitment to removing “all financial barriers” to seeing its work — meaning, basically, that it doesn’t charge for tickets.

Some logistical problems needed to be hashed out as a result of the new arrangement, so Lorraine and Red Tape’s artistic director, Max Truax, set a meeting for September 7. Since Truax was directing the companies’ production of Federico García Lorca’s Yerma at the time and Lorraine was a member of the cast, the meeting had to wait until after rehearsal, about 10:30 that night.

“We both thought it would be nice to have a drink while we had this difficult conversation,” says Lorraine. Her first idea was that they go to a bar. But Truax suggested that they buy a bottle of whiskey and hang out at the new theater space instead. “Melissa and I are friends, and like many theatre meetings, [this one] evolved into a social meeting,” Truax said via email. “I don’t recall much in terms of the specifics of our conversation, though I do remember discussing the challenges she faced having her husband away at grad school and feeling the added strain of flying solo while starting up a new theatre venue.”

Lorraine and Truax talked and drank for several hours before deciding it was time to break up the meeting. “I didn’t want her to have to take multiple trains home,” Truax wrote. “I hailed a Lyft for her. I put her in the Lyft and then drove home.” A Chicago Police Department incident report filed later shows that the Lyft request was made at 1:50 a.m. According to Truax, Lorraine “seemed buzzed as we were leaving — acting silly and such — but was not stumbling or slurring her words.”

Be that as it may, Lorraine believes she was significantly impaired by then, although she didn’t recognize it at first. “I don’t drink whiskey,” she says, “so I didn’t know my tolerance. I didn’t know my limit.”

Much of what happened after Lorraine got into that Lyft — and even some of what happened before — falls into the realm of her lost time. The little she retains of the next several hours comes down to four discontinuous, profoundly disturbing flashes.

One: “I remember realizing I’m in a car and trying to understand who I’m with and thinking that I must be with Max because he’s the last person I remember being with.” But the man driving the car was a stranger. “And he didn’t look at me. The weirdest thing was that this person was trying to be invisible, staring straight ahead, hoping that I would not remember any of what I was seeing.”

Two: “I remember trying to get out of the car and realizing I can’t because I’m not wearing anything on my lower half.”

Three: “I remember sitting in the car and having all of my clothes on and being handed my underwear by the driver.”

Four: “And then the next thing I remember is walking. Just walking down the street. Panicking. Not knowing where I am and looking at my phone and not knowing how it’s 5:30.”

 

The youngest of four daughters, Lorraine was born near Paris, where her parents did missionary work, helping to establish churches on behalf of the Evangelical Alliance Mission. When the family returned to Illinois, she was 9 years old and feeling doubly alienated: not only a stranger in her parents’ native country but an outsider in her own family.

“My parents were very precise about their life, and I’m the one mistake,” she recalls thinking. “They wanted three children three years apart, and that’s exactly what they did. And then they had me six years after all the rest and thought that I would be their one and only boy, and I wasn’t even that. I spent my childhood expecting them to leave me. I think I read between the lines, somewhere along the way, that I was unnecessary.”

In adolescence, that fear of abandonment morphed into a conviction that she’d better do the abandoning first. By her count, she ran away from home three times, starting at age 13. The first time, she tried hitchhiking with another girl. “That situation went very, very bad and I called my sister to come rescue me.” The second time, when she was about 16, her parents found her and had her institutionalized, which only upped the ante. “Once I was in the hospital, it became, ‘Well then, I’m gonna start dating one of the most delinquent people I can find in here.’ ” After she was released, she and the boy she’d gotten involved with at the hospital stole a neighbor’s car and headed for Canada — a misadventure that included outrunning the Canadian police, crashing the car, camping by a river for two weeks, and spending a night in a Minnesota jail when they tried to reenter the United States.

Lorraine moved out of her parents’ home the day she turned 18, but she was lured back by their offer to help her buy a car so she could attend Northern Illinois University. Her decision to study acting amounted to a strange amalgam of submission and defiance. “The theater was some kind of answer to my parents’ worldview,” she says. “They hated the theater. The theater was dangerous and far too human, far too worldly. My mantra when I was in college was, ‘I believe every word of the Bible and I want nothing to do with God and I can only conclude that that means I’m going to hell and so be it.’ I just came to this acceptance that hell was a better fit.”

A similar dynamic seems to have played out in her first marriage, to a man she characterizes as “broken.” Lorraine endured the dysfunctional relationship for seven years, sticking with it even after she was convinced that doing so might kill her — a decision she attributes partly to her family’s religious stance against divorce and partly to her own “savior complex.” As Lorraine’s sister Karen puts it, “If you’re the child of a doctor, then you’ve been taught the value of healing. If you’re the child of a missionary, you’ve been taught the value of rescuing.”

Lorraine married Hill, a former divinity student, in 2012. She phoned him in the moments after the assault, although he was 900 miles away, at Yale. “I said something like, ‘I don’t understand what time it is, and I don’t know where I am.’ He was so confused. And I couldn’t bring myself to say what I remembered.”

Before calling her husband, she had tried and failed to get through to her friend Stimpson. Now, as Lorraine struggled to explain to her husband what had happened, Stimpson returned her call and Lorraine answered. “I said, ‘I just woke up in a stranger’s car with nothing on below the waist.’ She said, ‘OK, where are you?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know where I am.’ And then I said, ‘I have to call Evan back.’ And I got back on the phone with Evan and I finally said the words. And he said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me this in the first place?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know. I was scared. I wanted it not to be true.’ ”

Lorraine requested an Uber to take her home, but “I couldn’t get my legs to stop walking,” she says, and she left the pickup location. As it happened, her compulsive walking was taking her south, toward Old Town, from the still-unknown spot where the stranger had dropped her off. She eventually caught sight of the Lincoln Hotel, a neighborhood landmark near her apartment, and made it home on foot. Stimpson and her boyfriend joined Lorraine there. “She kept wanting to know what happened,” Stimpson recalls. “And finally I said, ‘If you want to know more, you’re going to have to go to the hospital and we’re going to have to get you checked out.’ ” Realizing that they needed to preserve evidence, Stimpson told her not to wash. They put the clothes she’d been wearing in a bag and headed for the ER.

 

Filling in the blanks from that night has yielded a picture of a convoluted odyssey. Based on Lyft’s logs, video from surveillance cameras in her neighborhood, and other evidence, it was established that the ride Truax hailed for Lorraine did drop her off, without incident, a short distance from her Old Town apartment. She was unharmed and almost home at this point. But apparently her impairment from the whiskey, combined with the fact that she’d only just moved in, rendered her incapable of finding the right address. Her solution was to call for another ride to take her to where she didn’t realize she already was. Rather than wait in place, she walked to Wells Street, Old Town’s busy bar- and restaurant-lined main drag. According to the police report, surveillance footage showed that she “appeared to be intoxicated and was having trouble maintaining her balance.”

On Wells, Lorraine got into a car she took to be her Uber. Only it wasn’t. She’d fallen victim to an increasingly common crime of opportunity: A predator — who may be a ride-share driver gone “off app” or just a guy with a car — cruises a heavily trafficked party district, counting on the likelihood that somebody who’s been out drinking won’t bother to check whether the car’s license plate number corresponds to the one the app shows.

Other than her four flashes of consciousness, Lorraine retains only an impression of having been subjected to unwanted genital contact and the sense that her assailant was “trying to be a ghost.” The various police and hospital documents Lorraine has obtained offer little additional information. “Victim …stated she does not feel bruised or like any penetration had occurred,” the police report stated, and a doctor’s exam found no genital or anal tears or bruising and no discharge or bleeding — though that in itself proves nothing about whether or not intercourse took place. Only evidence collected from Lorraine’s rape kit examination — which she describes as a “huge, extensive, invasive procedure where they take every bit of DNA they can find off your body, from inside and outside” — might shed light on what the assault actually entailed, but nearly two years later, she still hasn’t received the results.

The only things she has to go on for reconstructing the crime are tears in her underwear and the crotch of her pants, the recollection of the smell of semen on her left hand, and a broken left thumbnail with blood that wasn’t hers under the nail bed — a detail she finds reassuring because it suggests that, whatever happened, she resisted.

In the absence of a license plate number, a record of the ride during which the assault occurred, and anything but the vaguest physical description (police report: “male, unknown, not white, light skin African American, no facial hair, bald”), no one has been caught. Her awareness that there’s a stranger out there who knows more about a crucial moment in her life than she does contributes to the anguish Lorraine feels. “Unless he’s committed another crime and his DNA is in the system,” she says, “we’ll never find him.”

As the police investigation wound down, Lorraine found herself subjected to the rigorous procedures applied to survivors of sexual assault, from intensive counseling to multiple courses of anti-STD drugs. She felt ashamed of having been so easily duped and wary of her family’s response to the assault, sure they’d tell her she got exactly what she deserved for getting drunk. And, in fact, her sister Karen was so judgmental at first that Lorraine made her swear not to tell their parents any of the particulars of what had happened. (Karen now says she’s “learned a lot from … seeing all the ways that my responses weren’t helpful.”) Still, Karen and another sister, Nancy, were sympathetic enough to keep Lorraine company on the night following the assault (Hill came in that weekend, but had to fly back to Yale on Monday); they got together with her regularly after that. Theatre Y colleagues helped out, too, making up a schedule so that Lorraine would have a companion with her, day and night, for about two weeks.

Melissa Lorraine doing her exercises
Theater movement exercises became central to Lorraine’s recovery. Twenty months after her assault, she started teaching them to Cook County Jail detainees, on the theory that emotionally healthy men might be less likely to do what was done to her.

Even so, she started curling up within herself. “Part of it was this feeling that I had been wrong about people all these years. So I would ride the train and look at the city and just sob. It was like I’d lost my city. And I didn’t want to forget, because I felt like the whole reason the assault had happened in the first place was because I didn’t understand human nature and so I got bit. So it wasn’t just, ‘Well, give it time; your fears will subside.’ No. That wasn’t the solution. I apparently had to nurture my fear, maintain my fear, absorb my fear, and engage with the city differently now. This is what I was telling myself.”

Meanwhile, she was suffering some of the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: panicking when she had to go anywhere she hadn’t been before, blanking on the identities of people she knew, maintaining hypervigilance, losing memories that didn’t relate directly to the assault, and feeling estranged from her body — a hardship for anybody, but uniquely so for an actor.

Estrangement “makes perfect sense,” says Bessel van der Kolk, the Boston-based psychiatrist who wrote The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, a 2014 bestseller about PTSD. “People shut their bodies down because the memories of the trauma consist in physical sensations. They shut them down unconsciously to not feel all screwed up all the time.”

 

As Lorraine started shutting down, it became evident to others that she needed to get away from Old Town, the scene of the crime. She still lived in her little apartment there and worked at the nearby florist shop. “We could tell, every time we were getting together, that she was getting wearier and wearier,” Karen says.

Lorraine has spent a lot of time in Central and Eastern Europe, starting with a year in Hungary, straight out of college, working under avant-garde actor-director Tamas Fodor. Perhaps the closest thing to a guru in her life is the Romanian playwright Andras Visky, whose Juliet is a staple of her repertoire and whose aesthetic she praises as “deeply heretical.” (It was Visky she went to for “permission” to divorce her first husband.) And then there are Heni Varga and Denes Dobrei, married dancer-choreographers based in Serbia. They come to Theatre Y periodically, and Lorraine has studied with them at their house near Serbia’s border with Hungary. They participated in the Camino de Santiago trek in 2017.

In January 2018, using money Karen and her family had donated to Theatre Y specifically for “Melissa’s healing,” Lorraine traveled to Serbia to spend a month working with Varga and Dobrei. “The goal as we stated it to ourselves was to find a way for me to come home,” Lorraine says. “To feel my limbs, whatever that meant. To be here again and not somewhere else. And to be OK with being here.”

Varga became Lorraine’s therapeutic mentor. The two women would spend the first hour of every morning walking silently in the woods near the house. Then they would perform exercises based on physical performance disciplines. Some backfired with a vengeance — especially one described by Lorraine as a Japanese-inspired “sequence of crazy manipulations of the limp body that opens up all these spaces in between all your joints.” It had been fundamental to previous collaborations between Lorraine and Varga. But that was before the assault. This time Varga’s handling of Lorraine’s limp body triggered such intense associations that it was “maybe the worst possible exercise in the world.” Lorraine was sobbing after 15 minutes. “It was like mourning.”

Other practices, however, turned out to be revelatory, including a partner exercise in which, as Lorraine puts it, “you close your eyes and … what you’re doing is quite simply trying to find what feels good. The only thread you’re following is like, ‘Oh, it feels better to drop my right shoulder,’ and it grows to whatever it grows to. Part of what I was working with was that my body knew things that I didn’t know about what happened, and I was terrified to let it lead.” And indeed, she remembers, her first time doing this exercise was “as frightening as I was worried it would be.” Yet it was the beginning of a rebellion against the creeping paralysis that had been plaguing her — the beginning of a return to personal volition.

Similarly, in another exercise, she simply moved as slowly as she could without coming to a complete halt. The extreme dialing down of her accustomed pace allowed several things to happen. “In order to move that slowly,” Lorraine explains, “you have to breathe deeply, and the moment you breathe, you feel your emotions, which were exactly what I’d been working tirelessly to avoid. Suddenly your breath drops and you start to feel. And then, because you’re caught in the slow tempo, you hear your will. You hear yourself say that you’d really like to raise your arm. And [after living] in a state where you would really like nothing, to want to raise your arm is an achievement.”

This exercise also gave her “dominion over time,” she says. “Because time had become awful. I felt like I was serving time, and time was unbearably slow or too fast. It was never my friend; it was something to survive. [The exercise] was really reempowering for a person who was feeling very small and out of control.”

Lorraine wasn’t cured by her experience in Serbia — indeed, Van der Kolk emphasizes that trauma can’t be cured, only “laid to rest.” She still harbors what she calls, with an embarrassed laugh, “a little bit of rage.” But her period of hibernation was over. “The last three or four walks in the morning, I felt alive and grateful to be a person.”

 

Lorraine’s return to the land of the living came with some guilt. She knew from group therapy sessions she’d attended that Varga and Dobrei had given her help on a level most trauma survivors can never hope to receive. “So I felt burdened,” she says. “And then it felt like a charge: ‘OK, you clearly need to figure out how to offer this practice to others.’ ”

Helping to heal sexually assaulted women felt inadequate because it meant dealing with the aftermath of the crime rather than its cause — “a little bit like cleaning up the messes.” She realized that she should also be trying to heal the psyches of the responsible parties, on the theory that healthy men might be less likely to do what was done to her.

That thought led her to Dominica Kimberley Moe, who teaches at DePaul University’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange,  a version of the program started at Temple University that puts college students in classes with incarcerated people. Moe was set to teach an 11-week course at Cook County Jail, and the subject, restorative justice — the idea that the correctional system should be about healing rather than causing more harm — was ideal for what Lorraine had in mind.

And so, in January, just 20 months after the lost hours of September 8, 2017, with all their horror and consequent trauma, Lorraine started teaching the exercises she had done with Varga and Dobrei to detainees at Cook County Jail. Conditions were a far cry from the Serbian woods, what with the cramped quarters and the guards always around, their walkie-talkies blaring and their attitudes, according to Lorraine, less than encouraging.

There were other struggles, too, particularly when it came to the slow-tempo exercise Lorraine has come to regard as her “religion.” She had hoped that teaching the inmates to slow down their movement would help them get back two of the things most consistently denied them: control over time and control over their own bodies. It didn’t occur to her that they might resist it as a threat to other types of control they required just to survive.

“Truth be told, it didn’t go very well the first time,” Moe says. “Or the second time. Because we were in a space where the men never felt safe — not for a second, ever.” Lorraine adapted, though, focusing on different approaches while never giving up on the slow-tempo exercise, which some detainees ultimately embraced. “The feeling of each muscle and bone and joint working to move together was something I haven’t felt in a long time,” one wrote during the course. Another commented: “I felt calm, and to be that in jail in itself is amazing.” This fall, Lorraine and Moe will bring their collaboration to Stateville, the maximum-security prison outside Joliet.

When Lorraine told Varga and Dobrei that she planned to work in prisons, they were against it. Dobrei said Lorraine didn’t need that energy in her life. Why ignore the advice of the very people who’d done so much to make her feel human again? She answers with a kind of parable: “I heard a man speak once in Budapest. His wife was killed in Jordan. She was working in a women’s clinic, and a man came in and shot and killed her for offering women medical care. The husband got a phone call, rushed to the medical center, found his wife lying dead on the floor. The police grabbed him and held him, afraid of what he would do. And he just started screaming, ‘I forgive you! I forgive you! I forgive you!’ As he explained it, ‘In that instant, I knew if I didn’t forgive him right now, that the seed of hate would just take over my whole body.’ And that was a little bit like how I felt. I had gone so dark in my opinion of people and the world, and I didn’t want to be that person.”

Forgiveness is a virtue that Lorraine has been fortunate enough to find modeled in her family. Despite the stolen car and delinquent boyfriend, despite the unevangelical divorce and collegiate sympathy for the devil, and despite her parents’ moral qualms about the theater, her mother now sews costumes for Theatre Y and her father has served as the company’s treasurer for 13 years. “We actually have a beautiful relationship because I put them through hell and I tested their love in a way that my sisters never did,” Lorraine says.

Does this daughter of missionaries see the prison work as her own ministry?

“Undoubtedly.”

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