After a horrific rape and murder happened in the downtown neighborhood last summer much of Dubuque was upset. A particular news outlet reported a portion of the horrific event as “had sex with” instead denoting it as sexual assault or rape.
I am a feminist and a writer. I live downtown. My first response was to write a poem. My second response was to write an editorial and send it to the Telegraph Herald. (I must note here that the TH was not the local news outlet that used the questionable phrase that had many people upset). However, I and a handful of other women decided to write the TH and tell the community about how the use of this phrase was wrong. I felt it important to set the record straight that you cannot have sex with someone who is incapacitated or dead or with someone who is unable to provide consent. That is more accurately known as rape.
“I felt it important to set the record straight that you cannot have sex with someone who is incapacitated or dead or with someone who is unable to provide consent. That is more accurately known as rape.”
I wrote a paragraph discussing the intersection of the issues in the early covering of the articles. When I submitted my editorial to the TH it asked for my name and address. I knew they would print my name. I was okay with that. I stand behind my values. But, I was afraid of possible backlash.
A week went by and I forgot about the editorial and didn’t take notice of when it was printed. I received a strange note in the mail about a week later. At first, I thought it was something political because it started off “Dear Voter.” I thought it was a crazy person running for local office. There was no return address and some weird photocopied picture of a happy, male, older person glued to the left hand side. It was handwritten. It stated, “If I am elected, I promise to fight for America. Whoa! In conjunction to that, I will see to it, that all women will be made to only buy clothes that fit them right.” I was confused and needed to find out what this was. I immediately posted it to social media asking people to help me figure it out.
The first responses were that it could be someone playing a joke. Then my friend let me know that it was dated the same date our editorials’ were printed in the TH and that our full addresses were printed too. Additional responses told me I should report it but I questioned if I should. It didn’t seem very threatening. I told myself that this was probably just a onetime occurrence and I wasn’t going to worry about it. I told myself that if it escalated then I would report it to the police. The other women who wrote into the TH also received the exact same messages. That same night someone pounded on my door waking me up in the middle of the night. I was frightened and believed that it might have something to do with that postcard. I couldn’t sleep. But it didn’t end there.
“That same night someone pounded on my door waking me up in the middle of the night. I was frightened and believed that it might have something to do with that postcard. I couldn’t sleep. But it didn’t end there.”
The next day I received another white, handwritten postcard in the mail. No return address, except for “Gov. Twat Walker/ Has Felonized/ “Upskirting” Vagina/ Photos in Wisconsin.” He then decides to call me Heinie, addressing me directly (which was even scarier because this is a family nickname), “Let’s come to terms. We at the institute here have dropped using the word “rape” in favor of the more politically correct term, ‘voracious violation of the vagina hole.’ It helps clear up what is going on down there in the midst of her nether regions beyond the usual conditions of genital yeast and the cursed moderate to severe vaginal itch that is ever present.” It continues on with the same vaginal focus. I posted this again to social media.
Now it was personal. It was threatening. It was continuing. I was afraid that the personalization of the postcard meant that this person was stalking me especially because of the random pounding on our door the evening before. I was afraid this person was going to show up at my house or stalk me or harm me in some way. I didn’t know who this person was, what they were like or why they were doing this or where this would escalate to. I was really upset and in tears because I was afraid. At my core I was experiencing what millions of women experience when they speak up and are then are forced into silence through harassment and violence. I took the afternoon off and begged my partner to come home. We went to the police station to report it.
“At my core I was experiencing what millions of women experience when they speak up and are then are forced into silence through harassment and violence.”
I was taken seriously and the postcards were copied and a report was made. However, I was surprised to find out that this person was known throughout Dubuque and to the police. He had been doing this for years to several people and organizations. This persons was in his 70s and was not mentally stable but had never physically harmed anyone. They asked me if I wanted to press charges. I said of course. Nothing happened from my request since the district attorney wouldn’t pursue it. I was relieved. But also upset at the idea that his behavior is so proliferate that had become infamous and known by name and that nothing could be done. I had no idea. I felt defeated.
My response to that was more words. I decided to write another editorial to the TH telling them that their policy to publish full addresses was dangerous and absurd. They told me that the policy was old but they would take time to review it. They were also aware of the infamous mail harassment. They didn’t publish my address again with the second editorial piece, but the damage had already been done. The harassment didn’t end.
I had a few quiet weeks where I thought that the coast was clear. I was very wrong. It got even more personal.
The next postcard I received had a picture of me on it from HER magazine and the return address referenced “I wear what I want when I want, period or not.” It was glued pieces of an advertisement. The other side with my picture glued on “Don’t let this pest turn.” Also glued. The handwritten question, “Do you prefer stout or obese?” The collage like content of the pieces added to the disturbing nature of the handwritten text. Eliciting images of ransom notes and horror movies. Especially since he now knew what I looked like. I wanted to not care. To not to be hurt. I knew I shouldn’t waste my time with someone in this state. I went again to social media and my friends were there to support me. They told me to continue to report it, but I was disillusioned. I had been told that this was not officially harassment and that nothing was going to legally happen. My next response was to write another poem entitled “Return to Sender”.
“A shared experience upon a community can be alleviated by the shared action of its people. I sincerely believe that and social media helped facilitate that. It wasn’t just me. It was everyone that connected to this experience and took action. And it worked!”
About a week later I received my last postcard. The return address stated “Call today! Donut Maker,” glued on from an advertisement. The other side was a picture of the Iowa State governor, in color and glued on. The handwritten message stated, ‘Harry Vagina is seriously thinking about changing his first name … seriously.” I shared my last postcard on social media, even though I think many of my friends might have been tired of it.
Yet, the amazing outcome of using social media is that I connected with lots of other people that had gone through the same experience or wanted to help. Strangers wanted to share their stories with me. I received private messages keeping me up to date on the TH policy change discussion. People asking if they should write the TH and they did. I received emails of harassment examples sent to organizations in town. I had friends share this with their friends. I had people provide my numbers to others who were writing in and getting similar messages so we could discuss our experiences. A shared experience upon a community can be alleviated by the shared action of its people. I sincerely believe that and social media helped facilitate that. It wasn’t just me. It was everyone that connected to this experience and took action. And it worked! Just recently the TH changed their policy and full addresses will no longer be printed with editorials.
You can still access any of the editorial pieces that I wrote at the TH website.
About The Author:
Heidi Zull loves living in beautiful downtown Dubuque, Iowa where she teaches as an adjunct professor at the University of Dubuque and works as a marketing specialist for Prudential Retirement. She is also co-moderator of the Dubuque Area Writers Guild. When Zull is not writing or working, she enjoys gardening, playing nerf, and spending time with her partner Rich and their two cats.