What It Feels Like to Learn Your Rapist Is Dead
“There was a part of me that felt he never got a fair shake in life.”
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
In 1986, Maureen O’Boyle was 22 years old living in Macon, Georgia, where she was a news anchor for the local CBS affiliate. On April 3, a man broke into her home and raped and terrorized her for hours. The assailant, an auto mechanic named James Starling, had stalked her for months.
“I had a pillowcase on my head,” O’Boyle, now 55, recalled. “He put these pieces of clothing on me—lingerie, underwear, bathing suits—that didn’t fit me, and photographed me.”
Later, O’Boyle learned from the police that Starling had terrorized other women. The clothing he’d forced her to wear that April night had been stolen from other homes. During a search of his property, she said, police discovered multiple garbage bags of undeveloped 35mm film containing photos of countless women and girls in various stages of undress. Starling was eventually captured, convicted of rape (of her and another woman) and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
O’Boyle, who now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, spent years working through that experience, including seeking out therapy. In 1992, she went public with her story in a PEOPLE magazine interview. “Fear and paranoia are not a part of my daily existence,” she told the magazine at the time. “This person and this crime did not take away my life, my stability, my career. This crime does not own Maureen O’Boyle.”
That’s why when she learned this past March that Starling had died, O’Boyle was caught off guard by her initial reaction: She cried.
“I had this kind of bravado about myself,” O’Boyle said. “I thought, ‘Oh, I’m all healed. I’m fine. I’m a #survivor.’ I spent a good deal of time living what I thought was my truth.”
Discovering Starling was no longer alive helped her realize she had more work to do to heal.
After that horrifying night, O’Boyle went on to build a successful career. She’s the former host of A Current Affair and Extra, and now anchors the evening news for CBS-affiliate WBTV. She even portrayed herself in the movies So I Married An Axe Murderer and Undisputed.
A couple of years ago, though, O’Boyle, a single mother of one, said she started having trouble sleeping at night because of “panicky feelings.” She also began isolating herself more from friends.
Earlier this year, she started seeing a trauma therapist. O’Boyle said she realized she was spending so much time worrying about the worst thing that could possibly happen in any situation that she had little energy for much else. That catastrophic thinking and anxiety, she came to understand through therapy, was a byproduct of her trauma.
When the phone call delivering the news of Starling’s death came, she found herself grappling with even more complex emotions. Starling died of natural causes in March 2018, but O'Boyle wasn’t informed until a year later, when a victim’s advocacy worker with the Georgia Bureau State Board of Pardons and Paroles called.
O’Boyle admitted she felt “abandoned by the system” because they waited so long to inform her of his passing. The prison should have notified her sooner, she said, but “there was a snafu” in the system.
She also initially worried that Starling had killed himself. In 2016, O'Boyle launched a Change.org petition calling for parole officials to keep him in prison after she learned he could be released early. His parole was eventually denied. “What if I’m responsible for this guy never seeing his sister or his mother again?” she had wondered.
“Then I was also angry. This guy has never apologized. No one in his family—they know how to find me—no one has ever said they were sorry for what he did.”
O’Boyle also struggled with feelings of empathy. “It’s hard for people to understand that deep down inside, as horrible as I believe he was, there is a part of me that still feels a pang of compassion from what the detectives told me his childhood was like,” she explained. “There was a part of me that felt he never got a fair shake in life.”
And, eventually, she felt relieved. “It took a while to get there,” O’Boyle said. “It took really having an amazing therapist who just reminded me that I didn’t cause this.”
It’s normal to experience such a range of emotions when a sexual assault survivor learns their attacker has died, said California-based licensed psychotherapist Christine Scott-Hudson. “The impact of sexual trauma lasts long after the life-threat has ended, and it lurks in the subconscious mind,” she explained. Just hearing an attacker’s name can resurface old feelings of shame, blame, and anger. “It is just our brain and body being on high alert at the cue of danger.”
For survivors who were abused by someone they knew, such as a parent or romantic partner, the experience of finding out their abuser has died can feel even more muddled. “It can be very confusing to a survivor with attachment issues, especially if the person who abused them was someone who was supposed to take care of them,” Scott-Hudson said.
Also, Scott-Hudson continued, some survivors may feel a sense of loss, which can be traumatic in and of itself. “Most people aren’t all good or all bad,” she explained. In a survivor’s mind, her perpetrator may represent something more than the assault itself, such as her childhood.
“She may have had an unconscious or conscious wish to make things right with him, to have a conversation with him, to hold him accountable,” Scott-Hudson said. “So when she hears that he’s dead, she doesn’t get to tell him what she thinks. She doesn’t get to have any resolution. It’s another layer of powerlessness. It’s destabilizing.”
It’s not uncommon for survivors to feel triggered at the mere mention of their assailant’s name, let alone hearing about their death. That’s because of the way our brain processes trauma, said Peg Shippert, a Colorado-based licensed professional counselor who specializes in trauma-informed therapy. “When we’re in a traumatic situation, our brains work very differently than they do under normal circumstances or even normal stressful circumstances.”
The most noteworthy difference happens in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for reasoning and decision-making. “All of that is pretty higher level brain functioning, and it’s slow,” Shippert said. “When you’re in a situation that feels like a life or death situation, that all goes offline. You’re operating from a much more primitive part of the brain that fires very quickly because that’s the part of the brain that’s designed to keep you alive in those life-threatening situations.”
As a result, the traumatic experience becomes encoded in sensory memories, such as the sight of certain colors, sounds, and smells. “They become wired into our nervous system, so when we have [later] experiences that remind us of that traumatic experience, our nervous system gets activated,” Shippert said.
It’s part of the reason why O’Boyle has committed in recent months to relearning how to live her life. “Basically, I’m working to rewire my brain and how I respond emotionally to just about everything,” she said. “Once I started dealing with my anxiety disorder, which was caused by the trauma, my life started transforming.”
Aside from attending therapy as often as possible, she also uses meditation and breathing techniques to ground her whenever she feels fear or anxiety rising up again. It wasn’t enough to say she survived that night 33 years ago, she said. “I had to also survive the trauma that was left in its aftermath.”
For O’Boyle, Starling’s death took away some of the fear she lived with—she no longer had to worry that he would get out of prison one day. But it also forced her to acknowledge that the process of dealing with trauma has to be ongoing.
She added: “I am a work in progress. I can say at this point in my life, I am happier than I’ve been in years.”