Breakfast with The Eagle: Sitting down with Rachel Branch, a community street fighter

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NORTH ADAMS — When Rachel Branch thinks ahead to her birthday this April, when she turns 76, liberation springs to mind. It's the month of Paul Revere's ride, she says, and the "Spirit of `76."

The Revolutionary War lay ahead for colonists. Branch greets each day with her own rebellion.

Many know Branch through her television program "Solutions Rising," now in its sixth year and produced through WilliNet, the Williamstown community TV outlet. Others may recall her political campaigns in Berkshire County — for office (mayor of her hometown of North Adams in 2017, unsuccessful) and for change in general (stopping the Northeast Energy Direct natural gas pipeline, successful).

Today, sexual violence is the problem most in need of a solution, she says, and is increasingly the focus of her activism.

"The solution to rape is men who will support women and put this on the front burner," she said over a table at Brewhaha on Marshall Street. "Rape and domestic violence. If you stopped those problems, do you know how healthy our community would be?"

"And yes, I'm getting very impassioned right now because this is the heart of it," she said.

It is also at the heart of her own experience, as a young woman living in Denver in the early 1970s.

We visited the day before Branch was to tape the first episode of her show's new season. [It is available at willinet.org.] She was looking ahead to events planned by One Billion Rising, an international campaign against the exploitation of women that runs through March 8. She planned to title the new episode "Trigger."

Not the palomino horse in the old Roy Rogers TV show, which she remembers well.

"I will have to be very careful tomorrow doing the show," she said. "Right now, sitting her talking to you, I can feel that brick against my head. I can feel that," she said, referring to an attack she endured. "You don't recover. What you do is learn to live with it and you go on."

"Like a lot of rape victims, you're screaming inside. You're screaming inside. You have to go back to work. You get up and go to work. You just do it. You don't know you're suffering from post-traumatic stress. You don't know. I doubt I will ever totally heal. I cannot go into a stall in a bathroom. If I can't get it open I will freeze."

Of all her many campaigns, Branch's wish now to spur frank discussions of sexual violence may ask the most of her.

"It's not what happens to you it's what you do about it," she said. "I get very tired of people who bitch and moan ... can I swear? ... I say, what are you going to do about it?"

Forty years went by before Branch spoke in front of strangers about rape. It wasn't until 2013, while attending a Four Freedoms Forum at the Norman Rockwell Museum, that Branch shared that she had been assaulted.

The forum addressed gun control. In Colorado, a friend had loaned her a gun for self-protection, she told the crowd. It sat on her nightstand for three days, then she gave it back. She recalls how hard her heart was beating that day at the museum, at the prospect of telling her story.

It may have just been a matter of time before long-buried trauma forced its way out.

"Maybe the hurt and the pain. I think over the years, I got furious inside. It's got to spill out somehow."

We asked: "Are you OK talking about this?"

"You bet," she said. "I used to be out of my element. Now I'm way beyond my element. Because I can't believe what's happened in my life."

The assaults

Branch says she was living and working in Denver, newly divorced, when she collided with a construction barrier while driving alone in the city. Her head hit the windshield. Another driver stopped, but instead of helping her obtain medical care, he took her away from the city in his car and raped her.

Nine months later, while coming into the building where she lived, she says she was abducted by two men and raped in their car, then left beside a road.

"I don't know why I lived," she said.

She didn't report the rapes to the police. She went to see a doctor and recalls being laughed at by someone in the office.

"At the time there were no services and you couldn't go to the police," she said. It remains true today that most rapes are not reported.

"You don't know where to go. You don't know who to go to," she said.

According to Justice Department statistics, 28 percent of rapes that occurred in the United States between 2010 and 2014 were perpetrated by strangers. The odds lined up against Branch. It took her decades to get to the point where she could talk about it.

Today, she has both the will and, thanks to her TV show, the medium.

"I'm going to talk about why women can't come forward," she said.

[A few days later, she shared this thought in an email: "At the time I was attacked, one could not go to the police. There were no counseling services. Victims were considered to blame. But, most importantly, one is having an out-of-body experience just trying to cope, coupled with the dominant need to get clean."]

Branch says a friend urged her not to sit for this interview.

"`Don't put yourself out there'" was the advice, Branch said. And her mother once counseled her to reveal less about what she's been through.

"No mother," she said she replied. "There's nothing anybody can do to me anymore but shoot me. ... I've put myself out there for years and years and years."

"The answer is I'm speaking up, as terrified as I was at the Norman Rockwell Museum that day," she said.

Since then, she's drawn strength from others working against sexual violence, including the playwright Eve Ensler, author of "The Vagina Monologues." They met at a Williams College event. "I stood up and thanked her. Each time I spoke up I got calmer, and as a result of that, to this day, even a month ago, even at a farmers market, women come up and tell me about being raped."

"What happened to me and others affects and permeates every aspect of your life: your marriage or loves, your employment, your safety, your hopes and dreams, your traveling, your constant attention to trying to protect yourself and on and on," she said.

"Am I afraid at times? A little bit," she said. "But to finally be 75 and know who I am. I get joy out of giving a gift. It took a long, long time for women of my age to be free to give their gift. That's why I say I'm beyond myself. I'm very blessed that I am who I am now, and that I can laugh."

Her North Adams

Branch, a 1960 graduate of Drury High School, returned to North Adams in 2000 to care for her mother, re-engaging with the city after a long absence. She'd lived for two years in Libya with her first husband, who served in the Air Force. She'd worked for the Metro Denver Urban Coalition and later as an administrator for the University of Bridgeport School of Law.

Life for Branch had always called for activism. When living in Connecticut, she engaged in grassroots political work and was active in opposing a power plant, testifying three times before lawmakers in Hartford.

"I bristle at things that try to control people," she said. "Don't come to me and try to control me."

Though big parts of her days wrestle with society's unfinished business, her feeling for North Adams is tender, even sentimental. She remembers better times for the city and its people, and her family's own wealth and position at one time, with relatives who managed the former Sprague Electric Co. and local government itself.

In her late 60s, she took on respite care for foster children and remains in touch with some of the children who came through her home. Relationships matter a great deal to her.

"If you have one person in your life, they can change the trajectory of your life," she said. "Anybody who loves you is your family. ... You have to choose your family."

Back when she was growing up, a woman named Ida Compton taught her that it is when you confront your own ignorance that learning begins.

She relished memories of visits with her grandmother, Marian Flood, at the elder woman's home on Church Street.

"I don't know how people find resilience in their lives. But if you have one person in your life, they can change the dynamics," she said.

"My grandmother and I would have these wonderful conversations. I wrote to my grandmother when my first marriage ended. I did not want her to hear in the beauty parlor that I was getting a divorce. She said, `I am not worried about you. You will have many beaus.' Isn't that lovely?"

Her mother died in 2004, in the same hospital where Branch had been born — the former North Adams Regional Hospital. Since it closed, Branch has been a member of the North County Cares Coalition; the group works to improve health care in the region.

She also has served as a fair housing commissioner and with a school board. In the fall of 2016, she testified on a range of issues to the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women.

Branch says she was once pressed by a reporter about her political leanings. She shudders at the memory of it. No, don't put me in the liberal box, she says she told him.

"I'm a community street fighter," Branch said. "I'm using all the stuff that happened to me. I'm not this or that. I'm Rachel. I'm a human being."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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