Trigger warning. This true story describes the living nightmare that can result when rape culture and ageism conspire.
Each aspect of this story, on its own, is awful enough. But as a whole, it is truly horrific. On the night of January 17, an 89-year-old woman living at the Minnesota Edgewood Vista facility in Hermantown, Minn, which offers “independent living, assisted living and memory care,” was in bed watching a movie on TV. The victim says that when the “caretaker,” Scott Merzwski, age 30, came in to give her medication, she invited him to sit on the bed and watch the movie. He started to undress, which the victim overtly protested, by pointing to a framed picture of her husband and saying, “It’s not right, this wouldn’t be right.” But Merzwski raped her. According to the police report, the woman “said that she hadn’t had sex for 8 years and she felt like it hurt because she was essentially a virgin again and that she had never planned on having sex again.”
This is not one of those cases that rape deniers and men’s rights associations dismiss as “he said/she said.” Merzwski confessed to the crime. The day after the rape, he admitted not only to “having intercourse” with the woman but also to giving her narcotics beforehand to render her “mentally incapacitated,” according to court documents. The woman notified her daughter of the rape the next day, and the day after that, the police investigation began.
But the assault was only the beginning of a series of violations that this older woman would face. The facility moved her, against her will, to a psychiatric ward at St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth, where for three days she was kept in a “dark and cold“ room, according to nurse examiner Theresa Flesvig. Flesvig testified that when she examined the woman upon her release, she discovered a laceration that was the “biggest tear” she had seen in her six years on the job.
But Edgewood Vista would continue its attempts to cast doubt on the crime and discredit its survivor. According to Flesvig, Marilyn Moore, the clinical services director, asked, “Did she tell you that this was consensual? Did she tell you that she flirts with this boy mercilessly?” Mary Salisbury, a sexual assault advocate, has said that Moore told her that the 89-year “flirt” was “making it up.” Understandably, Flesvig says that she was “just shocked that somebody was so blatantly putting the blame on this woman.”
Sadly the story demonstrates not only the brutality of rape culture but also ageism–and the way the two conspire. Since 2011, Minnesota’s Department of Health has been notified about six allegations of sexual abuse at state-licensed nursing homes for the elderly. But that number is surely lower than the number of incidents that actually occurred as rapes are typically under-reported, and elderly survivors’ claims are more often dismissed as unreliable. According to Jude Foster, program director at Program to Aid Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA) in Duluth, “People who suffer from dementia are prime targets because there is always a credibility issue….Did they make this up? Are they just confused?” Iris Freeman, director of the Vulnerable Adult Justice Project at William Mitchell College of Law explains that “there is a misconception that if you have any memory loss at all then all you say must be suspect. This is a reminder that it’s extremely important to take allegations of rape at face value, to start from the point of view that they may be true.”
But will this reminder fall on deaf ears? This is a case of impunity in the face of impunity. Though Merzwski was convicted and sentenced to to a whopping 53-month prison sentence (under the same criminal “justice” system that incarcerates people for non-violent crimes for life with no parole), the facility so far is in the clear. Merzwski as an individual was responsible, the state’s Department of Health determined, but not Edgewood Vista, which had supposedly acted responsibly, since they had policies in place to prevent abuse and had trained the rapist employee in abuse prevention. The company that owns the facility maintains that ”the safety of our residents is of the utmost importance.” If you think their lack of punishment is absurd, you’re not the only one. Roberta Opheim, the State Ombudsman for Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities said, “The question has to be asked: Why wasn’t the facility held accountable?”
The survivor, who now lives in an apartment in the Twin Cities, has brought a lawsuit against Merzwski, Edgewood Vista, and two administrators. Her lawyer, who specializes in cases of nursing home neglect and abuse, summed up the story best: “This is horrendous….A vulnerable woman is strong enough to come forward and tell people she’s raped, and then she’s responded to with disbelief and locked up.” Perhaps as remarkable as the complicity of the institution and the state is the woman’s perseverance. “I don’t have the adjectives that would best portray…this woman’s courage,” Freeman said. ”There was a resilience and a fierceness in her that allowed her to be superhuman.”
But you shouldn’t have superhuman strength to report a rape or seek out justice.
Katie Halper is a blogger, comedian and film-maker.