“If it was Oprah, I would have had to get it,” joked Heather Hiemstra Gemmen ’93 when her phone rang in the middle of a recent interview. Gemmen wasn’t kidding about the television opportunity. Oprah had been calling, and Gemmen had already chatted with Montel and several British talk show hosts. Her story, told with extraordinary frankness in Startling Beauty (Life Journey, 2004), had been featured in newspapers around the country and in the U.K. and had launched Gemmen on a perpetual round of speaking engagements.
But Gemmen’s story is not the kind of narrative for which a woman likes to be celebrated. In 1995, she was raped repeatedly in her own home by a man who terrorized her with a knife and threatened to harm her two sons, who were sleeping in their room nearby.
“Rape,” she wrote in Startling Beauty, “is ugliness at its basest form. Rape destroys innocence and cultivates bitterness. It steals security and extends fear. It kills hope and fosters shame. Rape leaves no room for beauty.”
What followed the actual incident was a nightmare scenario: Gemmen endured the post-rape investigation, isolated in her terror and pain and relying on the prayers of friends to see her through the crisis. And then she found out that she was pregnant from the rape.
“One of the things I always say when I speak is that forgiveness is not a one-time deal. I have to forgive again. That’s what keeps us hanging on to God, because forgiving in our own strength is just too hard.” — Heather Gemmen
She wrote of the moment she found out: “I thought about heartburn. And throwing up. And not fitting in my clothes. All this for a baby I didn’t want.”
Yet Startling Beauty, though it admits of “ugliness,” “destruction,” and “bitterness,” is a story that does leave room for beauty. Gemmen writes with considerable candor about the conflicts in her marriage, the stillbirth of a third son prior to the rape, the wreck of her friendships, her struggle as a Christian with taking an (ultimately ineffective) post-rape abortifacient, and her painful discovery that she — a person committed to racial reconciliation and living in a diverse neighborhood — harbored powerful racist feelings.
“I felt very strongly about being authentic in this book,” Gemmen said. “It wouldn’t help anyone if we acted like we had it all together and did everything right.”
But Gemmen also writes about the restorative power of God’s grace in her life. Her husband, Steve, became her chief support. “He was so amazing through that process. He was so strong even though this was as much an attack on him as it was on me,” she said. Her friends, family and church family also rallied around. And Gemmen was emotionally restored to the degree that both she and Steve eagerly accepted the unexpected baby, Rachael, as a gift from God.
Initially, the Gemmens were concerned that Rachael might be stigmatized because of the circumstances of her conception. “If anything, I think the people who hear her story delight in her all the more,” Gemmen says now. “She knows she’s special, and that’s what matters to her.”
The expansion of the Gemmen family continued even after Rachael’s birth, when Deshawn, the African-American son of a neighbor, became their foster son. After the family’s move to Colorado in 2000, the Gemmens adopted Deshawn. (Rachael is now 9, and the couple’s other two sons are Chad, 14, and Simon, 11.)
“He is one of the most godly, compassionate people I know,” Gemmen said of Deshawn, now 15 years old: “He has faced the situations in his life with so much grace.”
Ten years after the rape, Gemmen also looks back on that period of her life with an equanimity earned through grace. Telling her story was not easy, she admitted: “Writing this story was very painful. There were times I couldn’t even see the computer screen I was crying so hard.”
Yet telling her story was ultimately empowering, she said: “It was powerful for me to realize I was no longer in chapter four of my life. I was no longer in chapter eight of my life. This was behind me. It was encouraging as I was writing to discover that this story was my past. It wasn’t my present or my future.”
And the story is resonating with people around the world. “It’s exciting to see the responses from people after I do interviews. I think people all over the world are hungry for stories of hope,” she said.
Though various media have offered themselves as outlets for Gemmen’s story, those media don’t necessarily grasp the message of reliance on God’s grace, she said. “To every secular outlet that interviewed me, I said, ‘My faith is a part of the story,’ and they say, ‘That’s a really great angle!’”
That message is one she also sometimes struggles to embrace in the new struggles that have come her way. In October of 2004, the Gemmens separated, and their divorce will become final this year. “Now I’m doing okay. A few months ago I was finally able to find hope again. It was an incredibly painful time. I was speaking at that time, and I found myself preaching to myself about believing the promises of God in my life,” Gemmen said.
She was offered still another chance to believe those promises when the detective that originally investigated her rape charge contacted Gemmen in April to say that the man who had violated her had been caught. In fact, he had been arrested for armed robbery of a convenience store a mere three weeks after the rape and had been in prison for the entire time since.
“And now begins the journey of prosecution,” Gemmen said. “One of the things I always say when I speak is that forgiveness is not a one-time deal. I have to forgive again. That’s what keeps us hanging on to God, because forgiving in our own strength is just too hard.”
Despite these vicissitudes, Gemmen is staying busy as a freelance book editor for several publishing companies, the mom of four and the author of more books — one in the works; one, a novel, on her mind. “I don’t think it’s possible to muster up hope on our own,” she said. “We have to rely on the prayers of others and the Holy Spirit to bring that hope because otherwise you can get caught up in all the pain that life brings.”
— Myrna DeVries Anderson is Calvin’s staff writer
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