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Writing About Rape

In the bizarre case of convicted rapist Alan Wyman there are endless angles, most of them likely to offend somebody.

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Alan Wyman was a handyman with an apparent knack for getting to know men who lived conventional lives and women who didn't. He lived in an apartment building in the 4300 block of North Western, and achieved sudden notoriety in October 2006, when a story about what went on there splashed across an inside page of the Chicago Sun-Times. The writer, Stefano Esposito, began on a breathless note: "The middle-aged woman is blindfolded and handcuffed. Her kidnapper has already raped her, choked her and threatened to kill her if she struggles. Then Alan Donald Wyman removes the steel cables he's used to pin her to his bed. He leads the woman, who still cannot see, along a narrow hallway to a wooden trap door at the base of a specially built closet, Cook County prosecutors say. . . . He opens the trap door and forces the woman to crawl into a tiny, soundless black chamber. The woman loses all sense of time. And then the 53-year-old Wyman rapes her again, prosecutors say. Wyman's occasional acts of mercy: spoonfuls of brown sugar and glasses of water."

At the time, the paper's editor, Michael Cooke, explained the story to me as a "somewhat successful" attempt by a writer with a "wonderful style" to convey the "absolute horror of what allegedly had taken place." But a lot of readers considered the story a disaster. Some read it as an invitation to lynch Wyman at sundown, but one group, led by Julie Peterson, who runs a community Web site in the Lincoln Square area, had a different reaction. "Many people felt the Sun-Times was giving him some kind of mystique, as some dark James Bond," Peterson told me when I wrote about it back then. "He was a sick, sick person who kidnapped and tortured a person. It's so important not to give him this Silence of the Lambs treatment as if he was some kind of intellectual. Let's focus on the crime. I can't imagine him being more thrilled with the article the way it was written."

Peterson led a group downtown to meet with Cooke. Annie Sweeney, who'd done a lot of the street reporting and shared the byline, sat in. By coincidence, an update she'd written on Wyman ran in the Sun-Times the same day. She reported that Wyman had been charged with sexual assault in another, earlier incident and was now being held without bond. There were no flourishes to this story, only facts.

The wheels of justice turn slowly. Wyman wound up being charged with sexually assaulting three women—first a woman he'd allegedly held an hour, then the woman Sweeney wrote about, whom he'd allegedly held in his home ten days, and finally the woman in Esposito's story, who said Wyman released her after four days, when she told him a visitor had come by while he was out and was going to call the police.

This May, Wyman finally went on trial, facing his accuser from Esposito's story. His defense was that she'd consented to whatever happened between them. By now Sweeney had changed jobs, and when the woman testified on May 16 she covered it for the Tribune. The woman held a "steady, even gaze" as she identified Wyman in court, Sweeney wrote, and "through tears, swatted back repeated questions from Wyman's attorney, who asked whether the sex during the attack was consensual and whether she'd agreed to be paid to engage in 'bondage' with Wyman."

At the end of the four-day trial, a jury found Wyman guilty of aggravated criminal sexual assault and aggravated kidnapping; again a male colleague of Sweeney's wrote a story that rubbed some women the wrong way. According to Tribune courts reporter Matthew Walberg, Wyman was convicted of the "rape and imprisonment of a homeless and drug-addicted woman."

"How many of these articles refer to the woman as a prostitute, homeless, or drug-addicted?" Julie Peterson asked me. "How do they choose these terms? How do they choose what to call us? What court decides to sentence us to these labels?" Peterson told me she'd gotten to know "Michelle" (she wouldn't give her full name), and Walberg's thumbnail description of her fell far short.

By e-mail, Peterson elaborated: "Michelle did have a very difficult time in her life when she used drugs before the attack, but she was already in recovery when this happened. I question whether the newspapers label everyone who has ever used drugs as drug addicts, or if that's special treatment for rape victims."

In 2006 Wyman's accuser had been merely an abstraction to Peterson. But Michelle read my 2006 column about the Sun-Times coverage, and before Wyman's trial began she got in touch with Peterson. Peterson's friend Ann Breen-Greco then contacted Rape Victims Advocates, and every day of the trial Michelle had allies in the courtroom giving her moral support.

Peterson went on, "Michelle is a mother and was a wife for 23 years. She's told me about how she and her husband loved each other very much and tried to reconcile before and even after the attack but after the attack she couldn't be close to him because of the trauma of the assaults.

"She lives on the north side in a 1 bedroom apartment with a cat and a dog and has a really nice landlord. Yes, for a short period of time, due to financial hardship, she was without a stable home. This is happening to so many people nowadays, it should not be seen as a judgement of her character. When the newspapers call her a 'homeless, drug-addicted woman,' they are doing the job of the defense attorney, trying to undermine her character. I've never heard anyone refer to Wyman as sociopath, drug user, porn addict, or serial rapist.

"Michelle has told me that she thought she was walking into a potential relationship. They spent time talking and getting to know one another. It's so hard for people to imagine that rapists can seem decent until they rape. Sociopaths learn how to fool people into thinking they are nice."

By the time of his trial, Wyman was no longer an abstraction to the Reader. From jail he'd submitted an article here—a long reminiscence about a woman he considered a good friend, a prostitute living in a colony of outcasts in the shuttered Nortown Theater. Let's call her Melissa.

Reader editor Alison True turned down the article. Because he was locked up, True communicated with him through his friend Stephen Schmookler. An IT professional, Schmookler says he first met Wyman in 2005 at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Lakeview. "He has a very avid interest in Chicago architecture," Schmookler told me. "He was walking the neighborhood and wanted to take a look inside. I was and am a member."

Schmookler, in Germany on business, talked with me briefly by phone and then sent a lengthy e-mail. "In reading the latest stories about the trial," he wrote, "all I see is that it comes down to her word against his, and she has everything to gain . . . and nothing to lose by fingering him. . . . At the same time I know only what I was told by Alan and some friends and neighbors of his whom I met, what I know from my business and personal dealings with Alan, and what I saw when I was in his apartment shortly after his arrest. I saw no such padded room/closet large enough for a person (all that crap in the Sun-Times story some years back, which I just re-read—sounds like a huge concoction of crap an inventive reporter might come up with from a few sound bites)."

He said he and Wyman shared an interest in bicycling and architecture. "I can tell you what he's told me of his growing up and of his family—father left when Alan was young (in school, don't know exactly when), leaving his mother poor and left to raise Alan and his sister. Problems with alcohol I believe were common in the family . . .

"Not all accused are innocent, of course, so again, I restate that I know of this case primarily what Alan has told me, and I know him from personal and professional dealings. He did several repair and renovation projects at my house. I let him work there when I was away, let him make his own coffee while he worked, and invited him to stay for dinner when the work was done. Work was of excellent quality and workmanship, and he always showed up on time and stayed until it was finished."

Another friend calls Wyman a "brilliant story teller." Neighbors, they'd bike around Chicago together, eat, drink, and garden together; once they went bowling with a woman Wyman knew and the friend's wife, who thought Wyman was a creep. He remembers Wyman in love; he'd met a "crack whore in a broken-down theater and he was smitten because she was reciting Dostoyevsky. He'd found someone from the street just like him, an autodidact and pseudointellect. He was over the moon."

And suddenly Wyman was arrested. He needed cash and asked the friend to go into his apartment to collect stuff to sell. While he was there he spotted a space Wyman had built in the back of a closet, accessible only by crawling through a hole two and a half feet high. The walls were padded. When the friend saw him next, Wyman said he used the space to develop photographs.

"That's when his story started falling apart," says the friend.

The friend assumed the woman in the papers was Melissa. Not so, says Richard Paull, Wyman's public defender. Melissa was the second woman, the one they say Wyman held prisoner for ten days.   

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