The “will to live” and the sad case of Mary Ward

In the mid 1990’s, I was a young psychologist and I provided on-call coverage at three Southern California hospitals for issues relating to mental health problems. Little did I know, that one case would become such an international phenomena that I would be brought back to Los Angeles to testify as to what I thought had caused the death of a small, but feisty, apartment manager named Mary Ward. I was in internship in Boston when I got the call that I was needed in a case involving the death of Mary Ward.  Mary Ward was a 77-year old elderly woman living in Santa Ana, CA approximately 20 miles south of Los Angeles. Her name should bring to life the spirit of healthy aging. She was an active, independent widow who worked as an apartment complex manager. She was very active in her church. She had no children but plenty of friends and grew up in the South migrating to Los Angeles as many of us did. Mary was a small woman with wispy gray hair and a slight southern twang that was remnant to her distant past. Regrettably, I never really had a long conversation with Mary before she died as she was generally emotionally distant and anxious, but cooperative with her care. She stood just over 5 feet and weighed 140 pounds. My first meeting with Mary was in May 1992. I was the psychologist on-call at Martin Luther Medical Center in Santa Ana. Mary was brought to the emergency department after being sexually assaulted in her home by a 20-year old man who was swimming in the pool at the complex she managed. The man was caught in the act and sent to jail.
“The question of what makes the human heart break, or what makes the human spirit either resilient enough to bounce back even stronger or break, is not something the criminal law was designed to answer,” said Santa Ana defense attorney William J. Kopeny. Renee Lynch Los Angeles Times January 24, 1994
The call came in at 4 AM it was near Memorial Day, I remember because we were planning our son’s late-May birthday party. The nurse at the ICU told me that an elderly woman had been sexually attacked and raped at knife point. She was alert and was cleared for me to interview. She had undergone the demoralizing evidentiary examination in the hours that I selfishly lay sleeping – on-call. This is the process to which rape victims must consent in order to salvage DNA evidence that the police need to track down potential suspects in the aftermath of cases of sexual assault. In the times I have been present in the aftermath of these evidentiary exams, I have come to bear witness to the impact they have on victims. When some women realize what is involved in the hospital examination, many will forgo prosecution to avoid the stigma, demoralizing, and re-victimization of the evidentiary examination.   In this case, Mary Ward was attacked in her kitchen while on the telephone with 911 operators. The perpetrator was intoxicated, three times the legal limit. He could be heard on 911 recordings threatening Mary. So too, could operators hear the distraught, sobbing of Mary Ward. He was taken into custody at gun point while committing his sexual attack on Mrs Ward. Jose Alonso Garcia and Mary Ward did not know each other. Garcia was 20-years old. He had no criminal record. Mary heard him swimming in the darkened pool of the small apartment complex. At 2:00 AM, she left the apartment where she had been sleeping and asked Garcia to leave the pool. He did not live in any of the 18 apartments in the small urban enclave. Immediately he came at Mary, forcing her to retreat to her kitchen where she could call police. She believed she was safe. But while talking to 911 operators, Garcia broke through the kitchen door of her small, one bedroom apartment. Police were dispatched with urgency because there was a crime in progress and the victim could be heard begging her assailant to stop his attack. “You’re choking me” according to 911 transcripts. Were it not for the police response, Mary may have been murdered that night in May.  The psychological trauma associated with gross sexual assault while being held at knifepoint is insurmountable for many. Mary would never recover from the attack that left her in an acute psychogenic crisis.  Following my initial assessment, Mary voiced the wish that she had died with her husband years earlier. Mary was consumed by a fear that her attacker would come back. The fear she experienced far exceeded anything that had ever happened to her in her life. She was perplexed as to why a man would want sex with a woman her age? She never realized that rape was not about sex but more about punishment and rage. Garcia was angry that Mrs. Ward had banished him from the pool and reacted in kind. Mary saw herself as a kind person who liked helping people. She did many good things. But the emotional recovery from sexual violence such as this would take years. Unfortunately, even if this has not occurred Mrs. Ward was sick and would not live long. She had cancer in her body but the thought of the cancer spreading in her body frightened her less than the fear brought about by her assailant or his words or the smell of his breath that night. Instead, Mary Ward died alone. A victim whose ordeal she could never comprehend. “Why would anyone want to take advantage of an old lady?” Police arrived to find Garcia in midst of the sexual assault of Mary Ward. At gunpoint, Garcia was ordered to stop the attack and submit to arrest. He was taken into custody that night and within 30 days he would be charged with the murder of Mary Ward. The assault on Mary would result in an acute stress reaction from which Mary Ward would not recover. The consummate result of her attack resulted in her will to live being traumatically exsiccated. In doing so, it “hastened her death” just 30 days after the attack. Physician and concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl believed that once gone, the purpose of life and the will to live cannot be restored. It was my responsibility on this night to conduct a mental status examination on Mary Ward. On many levels it felt wrong to ask the frail Mrs. Ward to chronicle the events she had experienced and measure, to the extent that it was possible, if she could go home again. Given that her home was the location at which the rape had taken place, she had powerful feelings that it was unsafe to return there. She had no family. After 2 nights in the ICU, I asked that she be transferred to a psychiatric unit for crisis support due to the powerful, on-going reaction she was experiencing. Her capacity to cope was eroded and she bemoaned her wish to have died before this had happened. “I wish I would have died” barely audible. She was apathetic and exhibited a powerful blunting of her emotions. She was helpless to do most anything. Mary Ward was found to be emotionally overwrought. She could not focus and was re-experiencing the events of the attack on a primitive level. There was no psychotherapy that would mitigate her trauma – only time. She described the smell of his breath and him panting in her ear over and over. The image of the knife he was holding caught the corner of her eye making her too frightened to move or fight. Her thoughts were confuse but suggested no anger in her suffering.
“I will never be able to live after this.” “Why would he want sex with an old lady?” she repeated. “There are plenty of women his age who live around here.” Pleading. Mary Ward in quotes
Mary could not go home. The psychiatric support she received at the hospital did very little to lessen her personal trauma. She remained in bed most of the time and was uninterested in group therapy. She stayed in the psychiatric unit for 3 days before moving in with a member of the church. During these days she was visited by her pastor and friends from her church. Individually, with me, she described deep feelings of shame and humiliation. Her sleep was fragile and she could derive no purpose in going on in life. She blamed herself for the attack and could demonstrate no particular anger toward her attacker. There were strong feelings of panic linked to men she saw in the neighborhood. In southern California there were were triggers everywhere. “There’s not much more you can do to an elderly woman than rape her in her own home. Attacking her and doing what he did, the defendant killed her” said the O.C. District Attorney, who brought the unusual charges of murder against Garcia. For his part, Garcia was remorseful, but lied to police saying that Mary had invited him in to her kitchen. His hubris was smug and disarming. He received 23 years in prison for ostensibly raping Mary Ward resulting in death. Mary was denuded of a sense of purpose and meaning from which there was no return. Even having cancer brought purpose and hope. Members of her church took her to cancer treatments and doctor visits. Mary derived pleasure In the service of others – her extended family. In the aftermath of the rape, she cried daily and seemed to have no will to live as if the light went out and Mary Ward had given up that which illuminates our path. Months after her death the trial was televised locally and nationally. The defense team described the draconian charges with pity for the defendant. The death, they spun, was the result of her cancer. The district attorney would go on to bring to life the zeal Mary brought each day to all she did and had expert witnesses who painted the picture of a victim who suffered from the time of her attack until the day of her death one month later. There was nothing we could have done to help Mary. My testimony was a tiny part of the prosecution. Sadly, it was just the beginning of a complex prosecutorial overreach that the jury did not buy. I have always felt that I failed Mary by not bringing her suffering to life. There was no doubt in my mind that Mary Ward was a vital, full of life, and integrated into her community. Her cancer was but a speed bump and did not worry her. Garcia was sent to prison for over 20 at this point. A google search revealed an obituary of a man a few years older in age but little more. He must be back in the community some where. Perhaps he was rehabilitated, I will never know. The State of California made a stand in charging Mr. Garcia with murder just as Mrs Ward made a stand that night in defense of her purpose in life.