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Rape evidence kits

Rape kits stored in the Montana Department of Criminal Investigations building in Helena. Prompted by the case of a convicted sex offender charged with rape, the state set out to analyze about 1,200 previously untested sexual assault evidence kits that were being held by local law enforcement agencies.

Most stories about female inventors simply congratulate women for being as capable as men. But Pagan Kennedy, author, podcast producer and New York Times columnist, thinks we need to move beyond this storyline. When she set out to write her latest work, “The Rape Kit’s Secret History,” published on June 17, 2020, in the New York Times, she asked a different question: What are the things designed by women that truly changed life for women?

In the 8,000 word story, Kennedy recounts the invention of the rape kit — the forensic collection device for people who are sexually assaulted. The invention marked a powerful turning point for women in the late 1970s, whose rape accusations were typically dismissed.

The idea came to her when reading news reports about a backlog of thousands of unprocessed rape kits that were piling up in warehouses across the country. Some of the kits dated back 30 years and held evidence that was never used to bring perpetrators to justice. Kennedy was outraged, of course, but was also struck with awe at the mere existence of such an important tool. “I was just thinking, isn’t it amazing this exists at all!?” she told me. “Not many other technologies are so designed from a female point of view that in a way that empowers women like this.”

Author, journalist and podcaster Pagan Kennedy

Pagan Kennedy

Formerly the New York Times Magazine’s “Who Made That?” columnist, Kennedy has chronicled the history of inventors who changed the world with their ideas. She considers herself an expert in finding people. But, when she set out to find the inventor of the rape kit she kept running into walls. First, there were conflicting accounts for whom to credit. Some reports cited the Chicago police sergeant, Louis Vitullo, who had died years before. And others cited activist Martha Goddard, who had seemingly vanished from existence. Kennedy set out on a quest was to find the truth.

She spent hours collecting little clues on Goddard’s whereabouts, talking to her friends, listening to oral histories, tracking down family members, reading obituaries, marriage certificates and birth certificates, and systematically calling people in the yellow pages. The research was so time-consuming that Kennedy hired two research assistants to help her scour records and make phone calls. She became “obsessed” and “completely fell down the rabbit hole” during the six months she spent following the twists and turns of the rape kit’s history. Eventually, Kennedy would find out that Vitullo, the domineering police sergeant, had taken credit for Goddard’s idea. Goddard herself had slipped into obscurity, living in a trailer park in Arizona, battling alcoholism and depression and eventually dying alone, after alienating most friends and family.

Stringing together details from oral histories that Goddard recorded, interviews with friends and family, and a pile of research taken from newspapers and criminal justice textbooks, Kennedy takes us on a journey deep into the world before and after the rape kit. The story also echoes timely themes like police negligence, discrimination and abuse.  The story caught the attention of TV producers; Kennedy is the process of negotiating it as a TV series.

Neiman Storyboard reached out to Kennedy to learn more about her process. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The details of the story are so vivid. One really gets a sense of how assault against women was downplayed in the 1970s. You quote cases where police threw out evidence and textbooks that declare incest was most commonly initiated by daughters with their fathers. How did you find all these little details?
Actually, very little had been written about it. So, I began just going through the Chicago papers. I have a archive and I search in these specific years 1972-74 for any mention of rape in Chicago, and that’s how I hit upon all these news stories that had been totally forgotten. And then I was able to kind of reconstruct day-by-day what was happening.

The article is remarkably timely considering the debates we are having about police abuse of power. How did you manage this?
It was ready to go in March and then the COVID shutdown happened. My editors wanted to hold it and I agreed. And then the George Floyd protests started. It got held for a very long time but I feel like they ran it at just the right moment as people were really having discussions about the role of police.

I did a little bit of rewriting on the article before it went out because I always feel like you don’t want to be too obvious. You want the reader to feel like they’re connecting the dots instead of you, so I alluded to the controversy about the police. This story was relevant because it told a story of how deeply out of touch the police were with actual crime-fighting.

Were you ever tempted to tell this story from the point of view of the victims?
This is not just a personal story but the story of what we want criminal justice to look like, and what happens when you bring the female gaze to criminal justice. I didn’t want to tell a victim story, but the story of how the criminal justice system ended up being so biased and failing to serve so many people. What I am fascinated with is how people who suffer from a problem are uniquely positioned to solve it. And how other people who are in power are very bad at solving problems because they don’t have skin in the game. If you’re an able-bodied person, for example, and you look at a pair of stairs, you don’t see a problem there. But if you are in a wheelchair your view of how the designed environment should be is completely different. And if you’re somebody who is vulnerable to sexual assault, as many people are, then your view of how things should be is very different.

What kind of feedback have you gotten about the piece?
In the reader’s comments that people were making the connection to today’s events and saying, you know, “I can’t believe my police force just bought a helicopter for a million dollars that they can’t process rape kits.” It got people to think about the values reflected in the way that policing happens not just from a race angle, but also from a gender angle.

There is a lot of suspense and build up around the whereabouts of the main character Martha Goddard, which you reveal at the very end of the piece. How did you decide to put this “big reveal” at the end?
I have an MFA and studied under novelist John Barth at Johns Hopkins. As a young writer, I was fascinated with the type of book that was super readable and would sweep readers up. And so, I read screenplays and screenplay books and looked at the mechanics of film writing for inspiration. Writing in screenplay mode you can only convey something as visual images and dialog, actions and characters. Everything has to be shown; nothing can be told. You’re trying to create a movie inside of virtual reality for the reader. So then instead of telling them things, you’re making them go through the world and see the clues. You want the reader to be a kind of detective.

How do you work this suspense into the story?
You need to advertise it. You have to give the reader some kind of foreshadowing and let them know this is going to be something so you better stick around. I have taught writing a ton and one mistake I see people do over and over again is frontload or do an info dump because they are afraid the reader won’t know enough.

How did you finally track Marty Goddard down?
I called all the places that Marty Goddard had lived. I hired someone to help me with the phone calls. But then, the thing that cracked it for me was that two people I interviewed had mentioned Marty’s brother died in a freak scuba diving accident in the 1980s. She had been close to his kids, including her nephew, Scott Goddard. I spent so long searching for the brother’s obituary, but couldn’t find it. By the way, obituaries are a really incredible tool for finding people and histories and tracking things down. I hired a researcher also who searched birth and marriage certificates. And I found a marriage certificate that lined up with Marty Goddard and had her father’s name on it. So, I began searching for that name and found a bunch of obituaries, including the man who died in the scuba accident. That’s when everything fell into place. I tracked the location of the family down and found the right Scott Goddard. He was able to tell me about Marty’s later years.

What was the biggest challenge in this search?
People were not super excited to call me back and talk about a family connection to the rape kit. It’s not like you’re telling them they are connected with the inventor of penicillin or something like that.

You are in the process of selling the rights of this article for a TV show, how did you negotiate that with the New York Times?
My contract with the New York Times was very murky about film and TV rights. Before I submitted this article, I thought it might have TV potential, and I said to my editor, “I really need to maintain the dramatic rights.” And they put a clause in the contract about that. Then, I reached out to a TV agent and the offers came in.

Monique Brouillette is a freelance journalist based in Boston who covers science, health and tech. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Technology Review, Quanta, Science and several other publications.

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