It has been several years since the general public first learned about the incredible story of rape victim Debbie Morris from the acclaimed film Dead Man Walking starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon. Now in an exclusive interview with 700 Club co-host Terry Meewsen, Debbie reveals her terrifying story and how she learned to forgive her perpetrators and return to the compassionate God who rescued her.
Meeuwsen:: For people who are not familiar with it, who did not see the film that was taken, in part, from your story, share what happened to you on that Friday night that turned into a nightmare.
Morris: (author, Forgiving the Dead Man Walking) Well, what happened to me was my boyfriend and I were sitting in our car one night, drinking milk shakes, and these two men approached the car, and before we realized it was too late--they pulled guns on us, and they forced us to stay in the car and they said they were only after our car and our money, and they were gonna let us go. Well, we very quickly found out that that wasn't the case. They ended up driving us from Louisiana to Alabama, where they tortured Mark and they shot him and they left him out in the woods to die. But he didn't. He lived. And they returned me to Louisiana and they held onto me and raped me repeatedly, and eventually, they let me go, and I was able to testify against him. One man received the death penalty for murdering another girl three days earlier, and he is the person that the movie's based on.
Meeuwsen:: In one of the same parts that you had been in, where they had driven you.
Morris: That's right.
Morris: That's right.
Meeuwsen:: How did you maintain composure? It was really remarkable. You were with them for 30-some hours...
Meeuwsen:: ...and you really were able to keep your presence of mind and to even consider how you would escape in the midst of that. How did you keep your sanity?
Morris: You know, that's--that's just one of those things that I still can't even explain. You know, I started out, I say praying, but actually as a 16-year-old, I was sort of deal-making with God. You know, 'You get me out of this, and I'll do this for You.' But I ended up really losing hope that my prayers were being answered. I vowed to stay calm and also during the rapes, I would say to myself over and over, `This is not the worst thing that can happen. Just stay calm and you can get out of this situation.'And I just really never stopped believing that I would be able to survive and get away.
Meeuwsen:: You also made a concerted effort to remember every detail of what happened. You seemed to believe from beginning to end and maybe that was the thing that kept you going--that one day, you would have an opportunity to tell this story to the officials.
Morris: Right. And that really, I think, helped me stay calm also. I was determined to remember every single detail, and the FBI and the law enforcement people were really amazed at what I could remember. I can't explain that either. My memory was never that good before and it hasn't been that good since, but I think just having all of those little details to focus on kept me from thinking about the impending danger I was in.
Meeuwsen:: How did they finally let you go? You mentioned that there had been a girl that these same men had killed three days before they took you?
Morris: They actually took me to the same location where they had raped and murdered her, and they raped me there, but they didn't murder me. They just ended up deciding to let me go. I think their plan got complicated. I think there are a lot of reasons. I think that, in a way, I was able to humanize myself to Robert Willie, and he ended up, I think, being in conflict about what to do with me. I think he knew that the best thing for him would be to kill me, but he didn't. And there was the involvement of a drug dealer, also, along the way that sort of messed up his plan, too.
Meeuwsen:: Speaking of messed up, this really messed up your life afterwards. You go through so many emotions. I went through them with you as I read the book -- the joy of realizing that they had really let you go and that you were back in your family's home, the fear that followed that, and then the rejection --all of the things that you felt as a result of the humiliation and the degradation of that.
Meeuwsen:: How did you get through those feelings afterwards?
Morris: Well, the reality of being the victim of violence like that at times was almost as bad as being in the situation itself. I think what allowed me to get through the initial weeks and the initial months was the focus on me as sort of being the hero of all of this, the star witness and all of that attention that came with that. That was bad in some ways in my life, but in a lot of ways, it was good. It sort of gave me back the confidence and the self-esteem that I needed to get through that time.
Meeuwsen:: You really had anger with God at that point. A lot of people would. A lot of people would. How did you work through that to the place where--you had made a commitment to God at an earlier time in your life--How did you work your way back to Him?
Morris: It was a long process and now I can look back at how God had his hand in that years before these crimes ever took place against me in the ways that He prepared me to be able to survive. And I think, finally, out of desperation, when everything else failed, when alcohol failed and people failed and everything else failed, just in desperation, I turned back to the Lord and was able to see how He had worked in my life all along and really spared my life and delivered me.
Meeuwsen:: You really could see that, even as a reader reading the story, how your parents were divorced at the time, something which had been a tragedy in your own life, but it was the fact that your father lived where he lived away from you that allowed you to know those back roads and the difference from one state to another so that you could remember that for the police.
Morris: Well, and that was part of it and, also, the fact that when I was young, my father was an alcoholic. You know, praise God he's not anymore--or he has dealt with his alcohol problem that affected him so long ago, but I think that being the child in an alcoholic home also gave me the coping skills that I needed to be able to deal with this chaotic situation I was in, the most chaotic situation I would ever be in. I think God used a bad situation to prepare me.
Meeuwsen:: It seemed like over and over again, just as you were ready to put this behind you, something would rise up. Either--either the perpetrator of all of this was brought to trial near you, and then one day, you heard about a nun that you'd never heard of before, who was now writing a book about this very man who had violated you in such an awful way. How did you feel when you heard that?
Morris: I was extremely resentful. You know, I had first heard about Sister Helen Prejean when she was Robert Willie's spiritual adviser before his execution, and I always had conflicting feelings about her. I was glad that she was there with him when he died, but at the same time, I felt resentful because I felt so alone and I had felt so abandoned by God. And I was Catholic as a child and so, again, this was just another symbol of being abandoned by God. So I was extremely resentful for a long time of her.
Meeuwsen:: But eventually, you became friends. What changed your hard attitude toward her?
Morris: Well, I guess, finally, you know, when I got my life right with the Lord again, I realized that if she was doing God's will in her life, that couldn't be bad for me. His will in someone else's life wouldn't be a bad thing for me. And so I called her and we met. We got together. We talked, and she is just one of the most loving, compassionate people I've ever known, and I just quickly realized that she was genuinely doing God's work and doing God's will in her life, and so we had a common ground that was far more important than anything that separated us.
Meeuwsen:: Your book is certainly the story of your ordeal, but over and above all of that, it's the story of the power of forgiveness. There were a lot of people which you had to forgive along the way: Robert Willie, your mother, your resentment, even, towards Sister Helen. How did you get to the place where you recognized that freedom came through forgiveness?
Morris: The realization really was in realizing that I needed forgiveness and I spent a number of years with my back turned to the Lord, and I did a lot of things that I was ashamed of. And when I finally realized my great need for forgiveness was when I realized it was a two-way street. I needed to be willing to forgive to be able to accept God's forgiveness, and so it was really a sort of a selfish thing for me, and as soon as I started that process--and it's a process, it takes a long time sometimes--as soon as I started it, I just started realizing how much it benefit me and how much it seemed to free me and lessen the load I was carrying.
Meeuwsen:: Is that what brought you to the place where you could finally say that you consider yourself a survivor and not a victim?
Morris: I think so, because the freedom in that forgiveness and finally being able to accept all of the blessings that God intends for me to have made me grateful and made me love myself again, like the Lord loved me, and so, yeah, you know, it did finally make me see that I was a survivor. I was feeling good again. I was a survivor.
Meeuwsen:: Rape is a horrifying experience for any woman, but yours was particularly horrifying because of the fear of who these men were. They were escaped convicts. You knew that they'd had a bad record behind them. What advice would you give to someone listening right now who maybe has gone through a rape experience, might not have been the same as yours, Debbie, but certainly devastating?
Morris: I would advise them to do what I didn't do, and that's to just trust in the Lord and don't assume that because you've had a terrible, terrible experience, the Lord's forgotten about you. That's what I did. I thought He had abandoned me. That wasn't true. That was so far from the truth, but it kept me from being able to heal for such a long time, and so I say to people, `Do everything you need to do today to prepare yourself for what could be the worst crisis of your life so your faith is strong.'