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Just weeks after a stranger kidnapped and assaulted her two summers ago, Tamara Brooks began her junior year in high school. But the young woman could barely keep it together. Previously an outgoing straight-A student, she stopped hanging out at night with friends and started flunking classes. "I couldn't concentrate. I was having flashbacks and nightmares," she recalls. "But the whole time I had a smile on my face. I didn't want anyone to pity me or think of me as a victim. I didn't want anything to be wrong with me."

But given what she'd been through, that proved impossible. Kidnapped on Aug. 1, 2002, by drunken ex-con Roy Ratliff from a quiet promontory overlooking the Mojave, Brooks, then 16, and Jacque Marris, 17—who had never seen each other before—teamed up to stab and punch their captor and even briefly locked him out of the car in which they had been held prisoner for 12 hours. In the end, they huddled together as Kern County sheriff's deputies killed him. "Why did these two girls survive?" asks Tamara's mother, Sharon Brooks. "Grit, determination, luck. The Amber Alert, no question. They had a guardian angel in there somewhere."

Her daughter faced the aftermath of the attack with equal grit. "That first year was really hard," says Tamara, now 18 and a freshman at UCLA. "I was not going to let Ratliff get the best of me. But I would go home from school so exhausted and sad." In the days after the kidnapping she and Jacque appeared on the cover of PEOPLE, went on the Today show and met President Bush to promote Amber Alert, the system that had signaled law enforcement and the media about their abduction. Though the pair refused most media requests, Tamara says she lost friends who were jealous of the attention she received. Worse, strangers would ask intimate details about the attack. Soon she no longer felt safe at school and stopped running track, a sport at which she had excelled. "For months she didn't want to be touched," says her older sister Robin, "so there were no hugs for a long time."

Concerned about the behavioral changes in Tamara, a high school history teacher to whom she was close recommended a therapist, Dr. Glenn Davis. Tamara reluctantly agreed—then broke their first three appointments. After the third time, Davis called Tamara's mother, Sharon, and said he wouldn't schedule another appointment if Tamara didn't show up for the next one. "I dragged her," says Sharon, 55, an art teacher who had struggled to raise four children as a single mother after her divorce in the mid-'90s. Diagnosing Tamara with post-traumatic stress syndrome, Davis began seeing her weekly for almost two years. "We worked on not letting her fears overwhelm her," says Davis, with whom Tamara still checks in occasionally. "She had to regain her sense of safety."

She had finally found an outlet for the fears she kept bottled inside and credits therapy and her family with saving her. "If I was feeling down or not wanting to go to school [my brother] Marcus would do these goofy dances and crack me up," Tamara says. "Robin was so understanding. She was there for me."

Tamara admits to becoming more cautious. She transferred to a high school with fewer fights and began carrying pepper spray with her at all times. And when friends went to the desert last year to hang out and gaze at the stars, Tamara split early. "It made me too nervous," she says. "That SOB took that away from me."

But ultimately, her kidnapper couldn't steal her spirit. Her grades picked up by the end of her junior year, and she began dating again. She says the young man she went out with her senior year, a Marine, ended up breaking her heart, but "I've moved on. There are a ton of cute guys at UCLA." A year ago Tamara, who plans to major in psychology, began sharing her story on behalf of Amber Alert and has since become a sought-after speaker. She has also set up a Web site to tell about her experience, and though she and Jacque have different lives, she says, "I couldn't have made it without her. I love her." (See box.) The efforts have given her a new confidence. "A whole new life started for me after the kidnapping," Tamara says. "You're the same person, but everything is different. Life is beautiful, and I would like to share that."

Bob Meadows. Maureen Harrington in Lancaster, Calif.

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  • Maureen Harrington.