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Sonoma County survivors of sexual assault share their stories in new documentary

“In sharing my truth, there are other women who come forward and say, ‘That happened to me, too.’”|

IF YOU GO

What: “Survivors” documentary premiere and a night of conversation with the four survivors in the film

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 22

Where: Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa

Tickets: $20

Contact: lutherburbankcenter.org

Watch the trailer: lutherburbankcenter.org/event/survivors-doc

Details: The 30-minute documentary, directed by John Beck, was funded by Verity, Kaiser Permanente, the Town of Windsor, Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women, Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce, Soroptimist International Sonoma Valley and Wine Road.

Editor’s note: The following story contains descriptions of sexual abuse and assault that may be upsetting for some readers.

Usually, when I get an email the night before a film shoot, it means there’s a problem. Maybe someone needs to postpone or maybe there’s an equipment issue.

Not this time. When my phone buzzed just after 10 p.m., I opened my email to read:

“I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot, and I wanted to give you a heads up that I plan on sharing — if appropriate in our conversation — that I am a survivor of sexual assault,” Peter Rumble wrote. “It will be the first time I’ve talked about it in a public way, and I don’t know how articulate I’ll be. But I think this could be my most valuable contribution to the video, and I believe it will be good for me personally to finally talk about it openly.”

Up to this point, we’d never met in person. I only knew of Rumble as the CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber. As a filmmaker and journalist, I had just started working with Verity, the Sonoma County rape crisis and trauma center, on a short documentary about survivors of sexual assault.

This was June of 2021, not long after three Sonoma County politicians were caught up in various stages of sexual assault investigations. In April, former Sonoma Mayor David Cook pleaded no contest to a felony count of lewd and lascivious acts on a child. That same month, former Sebastopol Mayor Robert Jacob was arrested and accused of multiple sexual assaults that allegedly occurred between December 2019 and March 2021. Also in April, Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli was accused by multiple women of sexual assaults over a period dating back to 2003. He would later resign.

The goal of the film with Verity was to take the focus off perpetrators and shine a light on survivors. Four Sonoma County survivors, unrelated to the cases mentioned above, reveal in the documentary how they came to share their stories, to get past the shame and guilt they carried and to help other survivors. The word we kept returning to was “resilience.”

Before Rumble’s email, I already had done pre-interviews with several survivors. With Verity Executive Director Chris Castillo, I compiled a supporting cast of therapists, advocates, nonprofit and community leaders and a police officer. I thought Rumble would serve as a civic leader in the film, to talk about how a community comes together to support its own.

“When I sent that email, I was basically thinking that 30-plus years of not saying anything hasn’t really worked well,” Rumble said nearly a year later, sitting in his office on Courthouse Square. “So it has to be time to try something different.”

From left, Sarah Reidenbach, Megan Berger, Peter Rumble and Lisa Diaz, all who told their personal experiences of sexual assault in the documentary, “Survivors,” a film directed by John Beck and produced by Verity which explores how survivors of sexual assault regain their voice. Photo by: © Erik Castro
From left, Sarah Reidenbach, Megan Berger, Peter Rumble and Lisa Diaz, all who told their personal experiences of sexual assault in the documentary, “Survivors,” a film directed by John Beck and produced by Verity which explores how survivors of sexual assault regain their voice. Photo by: © Erik Castro

Up to this point, he had only told his wife and his sister, who is also a victim of sexual assault by a different abuser. When he showed up the next morning for a raw, emotional interview, Rumble had no idea where it might lead or how he would forge a bond with three fellow survivors he’d never met — Sarah Reidenbach, Lisa Diaz and Megan Berger.

Their life-changing journey culminates Friday, April 22, with the premiere of the half-hour documentary “Survivors.” They’ll meet onstage to share their stories in a night of conversation commemorating April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa.

One in five women

“What’s interesting with the other survivors in the film is I had never met them, but I had seen their interviews in the film,” said Reidenbach, a Sebastopol veterinarian and mother of three teens, about an early cut of the film she watched. “Then when we came together, before we even said hello, I just wanted to hug all of them.

“For me, our whole world has these superficial forms of knowing each other. We see each other on social media. We say, ‘We’re fine.’ It’s all kind of fake and superficial. But with us four, we cut straight through that, to the deepest part of our wounded souls.”

At its core, the film is about the power of storytelling. For sexual assault survivors, it’s a story that may have taken decades to finally say out loud, becoming both a personal healing experience and inspiration for others.

“I think that’s what we’ve done, right? We’ve told a story about the way that telling your story brings you to the other side, where you can give back, where you can move on, where you can rise and be joyful again,” Reidenbach said.

Nationwide, sexual assault is a public health crisis. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), “every 68 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. And every nine minutes, that victim is a child.”

Numbers compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that nearly one in five women in the U.S. experiences a rape or attempted rape, and nearly 44% of women and about 25% of all men experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetimes.

Preyed on

Reflecting that range of experiences, the stories in “Survivors” are very different from each other.

Rumble, now 44, was in third and fourth grade, growing up in the blue-collar Navy port town of Bremerton, Washington, when he was molested by an older boy. His father was rarely around and his mother worked 12-hour graveyard shifts at the hospital, where Peter often slept in the staff lounge. His sister often slept at a friend’s house, where her abuse occurred.

Rumble can see now, looking back, “We were easy prey, easy targets.” When he recently texted the “Survivors” film trailer and screening details to his sister, she replied 10 minutes later with her flight info and said, “I’ll see you there.”

Reidenbach’s story started as a mysterious illness. Nearly a decade ago, after doctors couldn’t explain her years of physical pain, she discovered an ex-partner had been repeatedly drugging her without her consent, sexually assaulting her and recording it on video. She went to court, but as she says in the film, “I never got justice.”

A still from the upcoming Sonoma County documentary “Survivors” featuring sexual assault and labor trafficking survivor Megan Berger with her dog. (John Beck)
A still from the upcoming Sonoma County documentary “Survivors” featuring sexual assault and labor trafficking survivor Megan Berger with her dog. (John Beck)

Berger, now 31, was molested by a babysitter when she was young and then sexually assaulted and labor trafficked as a 19-year-old. She was forced to work as a domestic servant on a marijuana farm. She met her abuser at a nightclub where she was working.

“He came in and tipped a lot of money and took me out to dinner and he had a really nice car,” she says in the film. “I was impressed because I was struggling financially and I’d never been in a real relationship.”

At the time, “I thought he was my boyfriend, but he never identified me as his girlfriend. I thought this guy liked me and we were dating, but that wasn’t the case and he told me that. He said, ‘You are here and you’re earning a roof over your head. Don’t get it confused.’”

Her servitude included helping cultivate and process marijuana. For a brief time, her trafficker leased her out to someone he owed money to. This went on for more than five years.

“I left one time and he threatened my family, so I came back,” Berger said.

Growing up near the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, Diaz was sexually abused beginning at age 8 and later sex trafficked by men she thought were her boyfriends but in reality were her pimps.

In “Survivors,” she says, “I remember reaching out when I was a kid to try to let my mom know what was happening to me, and I was ignored and I wasn’t believed. So being able to be that adult in somebody’s life or just to be that person in somebody’s life who’s there to support them and to listen and believe their story, that helps me, because I’m able to do something for someone that nobody was able to do for me.”

Healing process

At this point, each survivor is at a different stage of healing.

Diaz and Berger already have shared their stories publicly. Diaz first came forward at a 2018 panel on human trafficking awareness at Santa Rosa Junior College.

“I was very nervous at first, but the more I share, the more I’ve gotten comfortable with that’s who I am. It’s helped me lessen the guilt and the shame I’ve carried for all these years. In sharing my truth, there are other women who come forward and say, ‘That happened to me, too.’ It builds this camaraderie or sisterhood among survivors. It’s a reminder that you’re not alone.”

In sharing my truth, there are other women who come forward and say, ‘That happened to me, too,’” Lisa Diaz said.

Berger’s first time publicly sharing her assault was on social media in 2019 after filing a police report. The first time she “told a roomful of strangers” was at a 2021 human trafficking seminar she conducted for Rohnert Park police department staff. Berger works for a private investigation firm, often helping track down fugitives who skip bail and fail to appear in court. She wants to become a police officer.

But Reidenbach and Rumble never have shared their stories publicly.

“I will admit I’m terrified,” Reidenbach said. “I think we all have a fear of the movie coming and going and then we’re left alone with the consequences of sharing our story. At least I do.”

She got involved with “Survivors” while serving on the Voices Committee at the Family Justice Center Sonoma County. In the fallout after last year’s political sexual assault scandals, “we were trying to figure out, what can we do? Should we have a support group where survivors can come and talk about it and vent how they’re feeling? And then the idea of participating in this film came up.”

In the months leading up to the premiere, she’s talked candidly with a Family Justice Center mentor, who describes what she’s going through as “a vulnerability hangover.”

“She said, ‘You don’t have to do this. Just because you already did the interview, you can say, I’m not ready to share my story and you can back out.’ She gave me permission, which was lovely. And I did a hard swallow and said, ‘Nope, this is bigger than my fear. Get over it.’ I consciously made a decision that if this can help a survivor, if this can help a future victim or if this can open the eyes of anybody in the mental health or in the judicial system, then it’s worth it.”

“I consciously made a decision that if this can help a survivor, if this can help a future victim or if this can open the eyes of anybody in the mental health or in the judicial system, then it’s worth it,” said sexual assault survivor Sarah Reidenbach said.

Likewise, Rumble is grappling with unease and anticipation before the film premiere, unsure how to tell people before the event. It’s an anxious time when people he knows are driving by the Luther Burbank Center on Highway 101, past the larger-than-life photo of all four survivors flashing every few minutes on the digital billboard advertising the night of conversation: “Survivors: Living Beyond Sexual Assault.”

“In a lot of ways, it was easier to sit in front of a camera and do this than it is to find the right time to go around and tell people. I’m struggling with that right now,” he said. “I don’t know how to have that conversation. I told my really close inner circle of friends. But I did it via text. Sending that text was harder than sitting in front of the camera, honestly.”

The self-doubt and trauma that has tortured him for 36 years is still a daily presence. But he’s also resolute in his conviction to come forward, something his wife encouraged him to do for at least a decade.

As he says in the film, “I think my life has always been defined by this. My assault happened in elementary school, and there aren’t a lot of memories that were (from before that), to be honest. So I think my life has always been influenced as somebody who’s gone through sexual assault. And I’m hoping my life will be more defined by before I was able to talk about it and after I was able to talk about it.”

Knowing how rare it is for a man to come forward and share such a vulnerable story, Rumble is “hopeful that I can serve as some kind of touchstone for people who want to also come to the same decision and start talking about their own abuse.”

From trauma to support

To further her mission of reaching out to sex trafficking victims, Diaz cofounded Redemption House with fellow survivor and mentor Elizabeth Quiroz. Berger works with them and serves on the board. They offer bimonthly support meetings for sex trafficking survivors and hold a monthly outreach program where they hand out donated supplies and information to sex trafficking victims on the streets of Santa Rosa.

To further raise awareness about human trafficking, Berger is putting together a series of seminars based on her personal experience to educate police departments and other organizations.

“I just want people to know that you can come out of this. It’s never easy. It’s taken me seven years to get to where I am today,” she said. “It was baby steps. You’re not going to turn around your entire life overnight, which can seem really daunting to people, so they stay in the situation that they’re in.

“I want people to know you deserve so much better than the position that you are in, no matter what anybody has told you. And there are people out there who will listen to you.”

Reidenbach recently left her job as director of Sonoma Community Animal Response Team to work full-time for Ruthless Kindness, the nonprofit she cofounded in 2017 with her wife Kate Kuzminksi. In their mobile ambulance unit, they tend to the animals of victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and the homeless in shelters and clinics around Sonoma County. Reidenbach was inspired after reading that “up to 48% of victims of domestic violence will not leave their abusive situation if doing so means leaving their pets behind.”

In all the interviews and writing she’s done about Ruthless Kindness, Reidenbach has never revealed she is also a survivor, until now.

“There’s something very powerful about telling the story in all its horrific glory, out loud, unapologetically, and for the benefit of others, that I have never done,” she said. “So on the night of the (”Survivors“ screening) event, I think watching the film and knowing that other people are watching the film, I think I’m going to feel like I’m owning my story for the first time myself. It was so scary that I detached from my own story. I’ve talked about it as if it was somebody else.”

In her role at as executive director at Verity, Castillo has worked closely with all the survivors in the film every step of the way. As a survivor herself, she knows exactly what they’re going through as they take the leap and go public.

“Every time I share my story, that I’m a survivor, people say, ‘I’m sorry.’ And I don’t want them to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ I want them to see me as a functioning being in this world,” she said. “This is a film about finding that safe space. It’s about someone saying, ‘I want people to know. I want people to believe my story. I want people to know that I can go on.’

“It’s about believing that you have something to say and that you’re so tired of holding it and carrying it. It’s just so important to put it out there and know that there is support there. The result may not always be what you want, but at least you told your truth. And that’s the most courageous thing in the world.”

IF YOU GO

What: “Survivors” documentary premiere and a night of conversation with the four survivors in the film

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 22

Where: Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa

Tickets: $20

Contact: lutherburbankcenter.org

Watch the trailer: lutherburbankcenter.org/event/survivors-doc

Details: The 30-minute documentary, directed by John Beck, was funded by Verity, Kaiser Permanente, the Town of Windsor, Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women, Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce, Soroptimist International Sonoma Valley and Wine Road.

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