Bridget Kelly has a story.
Her story is both terrible and amazing.
And even if you think you know what her story is, listening to her tell it makes a story now almost 17 years old sound newly raw. And resonant. And informative. She has something to say beyond the facts of an attack in 2002 that could have killed her. She wants you to know even if what happened still chokes her up, still remains hard to say in front of her supportive parents, still is not something she has come completely to peace with, that she is strong.
She might cry. She will ask her mother, Barb, to stay in the hotel and watch Benjamin, her 18-month-old, instead of coming to St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church for her address scheduled for Wednesday at the lecture series Omaha Town Hall. She did tell her folks not to come hear her talk to Duchesne Academy students on Tuesday.
It’s hard enough telling a hard story without staring at your stricken-faced parents, Barb and Michael Kelly, who has told Bridget’s story in this newspaper. Mike retired last year after a long World-Herald career. They came to Omaha from Cincinnati to support Bridget this week.
So Bridget, whose story has been told in this newspaper and on TV, is doing the telling. When you’ve been in a situation completely outside your control, as she was when she was kidnapped at gunpoint, raped, shot and left for dead in central Texas in 2002, what you can control is what happens after. How you move on. And how you use your story to help others.
On Tuesday, she launched into it at her alma mater, Duchesne. Her husband, Eric Strauss — a former ABC News producer who met Bridget when she was telling the network her story — sat in the front pew of the Duchesne chapel recording Bridget’s story for their sons: Benjamin, back at the hotel with Grandma Kelly; and Joshua, age 4, back in New York, where the family lives. Joshua is with Grammy Strauss.
The boys are too young, of course, for this story. But Bridget will tell them when they’re ready. When she’s ready.
There is nothing like hearing this story in person and from Bridget.
The 330 students and dozens of faculty and staff hardly seemed to breathe as Bridget quickly ran through her bio: Dundee born and raised, St. Cecilia’s, Duchesne, class of 1995, St. Louis University, teaching in Killeen, Texas, before arriving at the dark hours of a June morning in 2002.
How she’d just gotten home from dropping off a friend when she heard a thud at the front door and ran to look. How the door smacked her in the face as a man broke through not one but two deadbolt locks. How she’d rifled through her purse for the only cash she had on her, $40 and how, with a gun thrust in her face, she gave the attacker her keys and climbed into her own car as he drove.
She’d said a Hail Mary out loud. She’d said, almost defiantly and more for herself than his sake: “A lot of people love me.” She’d felt her ATM card drop to the ground of some field he’d taken her to as she dropped her sweat pants.
After he raped her, she stood where he told her, turned around and screamed as the first bullet missed. He shot again and she fell. He got closer — she could hear the grass crunch under his feet and shot again. He started leaving and shot again. She played dead. He drove off. Then, somehow, she forced herself up. And ran for her life.
She described how hard it was to hold her bleeding stomach shut while reaching for the first doorbell and how the woman on the other side of that door was too scared to open it. She described how hard it was to make it to that second door and when she did, the doorbell was easier to reach and the man on the other side of that door took charge. And saved her life.
She described waking up in a hospital room and hearing that her dad, all the way in Omaha, was en route. She described how friends from college rushed to town. How friend Joe kept the cooler in the hospital waiting room filled with fresh ice. Her supporters would need the replenishment: She was hospitalized for two weeks.
Bridget cried some. She wiped her tears some. No one stirred in the chapel.
Then Bridget talked about what happened after: She went back to teaching first grade. Then she went to grad school. Then she married Eric, now managing editor of the ABC News medical unit. Then she became a mom. She talked about talking about rape and how society in 2002 couldn’t really do it and how it’s better now because people are sharing their stories.
She talked about how she’s not sure she’s forgiven her attacker, who was arrested mere hours after the attack and has decades remaining in his prison sentence. But she’s not so angry.
She acknowledged that as awful as her experience was, being attacked in such a violent way by a stranger offered her instant support when others, who are attacked by people they know, have to deal with that kind of betrayal.
She talked about how suffering is hard but no one is alone in it. All of us will face something hard. And we should reach out for help.
She talked about therapy and how she wished she’d gotten some professional help when she was sitting in these pews as a student at Duchesne in the 1990s. She thinks what she’d written off as garden-variety teenage struggles were probably some depression and anxiety, and a professional could have helped sooner.
She advised students not to be afraid to seek out professional help.
She laughed. She smiled. She showed pictures of Eric and Benjamin and Joshua. She said she has learned a lot in her suffering, has found some meaning in it and is hoping that it has made her better able to listen to others and care for others.
But what she most wanted students to know was this part of her story:
“You are stronger,” she said, “than you think you are.”