Anne Ream had come home from a long day's work the night of Nov. 25, 1990. Then 25, the Chicago native had moved to Washington, D.C., just two months earlier and was settling into her new neighborhood. Staring at an empty refrigerator, she decided to make a quick run to the store, two blocks away. "It was 9 p.m.," she says. "I wondered if I should go out."

It would turn out to be a life-altering trip. Near her building, a man approached her and offered to help with her grocery bags. She declined but, thinking he might live there, let him open the door. Once inside, he put a knife to Ream's throat and forced her into her apartment. For the next several hours he raped her on her living room couch and elsewhere in her home. "When you think you're not going to live, you realize how in love with your life you are, how much you want to do," Ream, 41, recalls, voice cracking. "That was heartbreaking, feeling I might not get to do those things."

In that regard, at least, she was lucky. Not only did she survive, but, unlike the great majority of rape victims—two-thirds of whom never report the crime—she testified against her attacker, who is currently serving a minimum-54-year sentence. First, though, Ream had to endure the ordeal of the trial. "One of the first things I did after my rapist left was straighten the pillows on the couch." If she was so traumatized, the defense suggested, what was she doing straightening pillows? As Ream later learned, her behavior was typical. "Many survivors immediately try to return to normalcy, take a shower or smile and say they're fine when they see a neighbor in the hall."

Ream, of course, was anything but fine. No court of law could lock away her pain and anger as she worked to rebuild her life. For the next two years, "I had a lot of trouble sleeping," she says. "I was very depressed." And scared. "You have nightmares, and you're afraid if someone walks up behind you, even if it's someone you know," she says. Even some distant friends and family couldn't grasp the depth of her trauma. "I was living with three girlfriends at the time, and I'd wake up two or three nights a week screaming," she says. "One of my roommates' friends—a woman—said, 'This happened six months ago; shouldn't she be over this by now?'"

Getting adjusted at work was difficult. "I was off for six weeks," she says. "When I came back, everybody knew me as the girl who was raped," says Ream, who worked in communications. "I felt I had to be twice as smart and work twice as hard. I sometimes felt people were anticipating the breakdown and looking at me as this broken bird."

Ream found support at the Washington, D.C., Rape Crisis Center, where she saw a counselor for two months. She also began sharing her story with survivor and civic groups and speaking to legislators. Reading up on sexual assault, she was bothered by "the absence of names and faces" of victims. "It struck me as protecting our privacy, which is important," says Ream, who again lives in Chicago and has her own business, "but it also rendered us faceless and reinforced a stigma."

Ream wanted to find a way to change that. In 2003 she launched the Voices and Faces Project, which includes a Web site with photos and profiles of rape survivors; a companion book will be out next year. The site has drawn more than 4 million hits. "We're trying to create a space where survivors can come forward safely," Ream says.

So far, more than 500 women and men have done so, and three of them tell their stories to PEOPLE.

KATIE FEIFER, 49
Still healing after 18 years

On Sept. 15, 1988, a housepainter raped Feifer at knifepoint in her Oak Park, Ill., home. He was caught, convicted and served nearly seven years. In 2003 Feifer, by then living in San Diego with her husband and daughter, agreed to testify at a murder trial in which her rapist was the defendant. He was sentenced to death.

He said he left his sweater in my house. I went into the kitchen and I tried to call his boss to check his story. I turned around and he was standing next to me with a knife. He grabbed my ponytail. I screamed and he said, "If you scream again, I'll kill you."

Shock. Panic. A huge adrenaline rush. Numbness. There's nothing in a normal life experience that prepares you for that feeling of being so totally overpowered. It felt like forever but the ordeal lasted 40 minutes. I thought he was going to kill me. We were in front of the mirror and I thought, the last thing I'm going to see is my life ending.

[Today] I have a husband and a 12-year-old daughter and I get a lot of support. My husband's always there if I need to talk. I'm not afraid of sex, but Ric might say there's a certain depth of intimacy I can't get to.

It still freaks me out if someone grabs my ponytail. I still have anniversary reactions. Around Sept. 15, for 24 hours, I get incredibly depressed, like I'm walking around wearing a lead blanket. Then it goes away.

The experience stays with you. You adapt to it. But it doesn't leave you permanently—ever.

KAREN CARROLL, 50
Raped by her husband

In 1994 Carroll's estranged second husband raped her at knifepoint in her house. He pleaded guilty and served just over eight years. Today Carroll, 50, a twice-divorced mother of two sons, is a forensic nurse.

It was a Saturday morning. I opened the bedroom door and he was standing there. In his right hand was a knife and in his left hand two black ropes. My memory of the rape is like I was a spectator. I remember thinking, "Watch everything. He's going to jail but I need evidence."

I was lucky that the detective who showed up at the hospital was compassionate and asked appropriate questions. But I had a horrible rape exam. The doctor didn't even say hello. He walked over to the rape kit and started reading directions. I had been an ER nurse long enough to know that if you don't collect evidence the right way, it might not be used in court. I had to show the doctor how to do my rape kit.

Today I am associate director of the Bronx Sexual Assault Response Team with four nurses on call. When a rape victim goes to the hospital, one of us collects evidence and takes photos. I have the unique perspective of knowing what it feels like on both sides. But I never tell patients I was raped. At the time of the exam, it's not about me. It's about them. I decided to be a nurse when I was 9 and saw Diahann Carroll play one on TV. With the Voices and Faces Project, I'm hoping black women will look and see that rape happens to them too.

LESLEY BARTON, 41
Learning to live without shame

In May 2001 Barton was raped by an acquaintance in Glenview, Ill. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery charges and served two years probation.

I knew him in passing. I was out having a few drinks. My mother had just had a heart attack and my father was ill. He offered me a drink. Afterward, I felt so foggy; then everything started to go. I lost time. Later I remember hearing a door lock behind me and cringing. He grabbed me and pinned me down and started strangling me. You always say after seeing these silly Lifetime movies that I will fight and die before I let a man do that to me. But I wanted to live. The only way he would stop strangling me, I was positive, is if I stopped fighting.

I lost my resolve. I was extremely independent and he took that. Freedom. Independence. Self-esteem. It made me feel I did something wrong. I questioned what I was wearing. I actually wondered if he thought I wanted that kind of sex. [Four years later,] when Anne asked me to write my story, I felt I had been freed from jail. When I wrote it down and read it to myself, I really knew I shouldn't be ashamed. It was the final part of bringing myself back as far as I'd come, of not just surviving but surviving well.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON ANNE REAM AND THE VOICES AND FACES PROJECT, LOG ON TO WWW.VOICESANDFACES.ORG

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  • Contributors:
  • Lauren Comander/Chicago.