Unbroken Promise

A young woman raises her voice in the face of despair

Promise was a 6-year-old tomboy when she emigrated from Botswana to St. Louis. She remembers spending much of her first school year up in a tree, hiding from other children. The English she spoke came out with a heavy Setswana accent, and the unstylish little bows her mom put in her Afro puffs made her feel as if she didn't belong. Even harder for a little girl to understand was why other kids had a problem with her white African stepfather: "He can't be your dad," they said. "You're black."

As a teenager, Promise was still trying to fit in. She was a 15-year-old freshman at Brentwood High School in August 1995 when she began dating a 23-year-old "neighborhood guy" she'd seen hanging out on the streets. "He was older, and he was cute," says Promise. "Really, I think we started dating because all the other girls that I knew were dating guys. I wasn't interested in sex."

On the afternoon of Nov. 17, 1995, Promise fell asleep while watching television on her boyfriend's bed and woke up with her hands tied to the bedposts. Before untying her, the man raped her three times. The first two times, he used latex condoms; the third time, he used a lambskin condom, she recalls. Promise doesn't remember how long she was tied to the bed: "All I know is, when he was done and he untied me, my eyes were red from me crying, and I put my clothes on and left. I never went back to his house again."

But Promise would have to confront the man again. Soon after the rape, she was found to have gonorrhea and genital warts. "He said it wasn't him, that I must have had sex with someone else," she says. "I was just thinking, 'Who else would I want to have sex with?' I don't even want sex anymore. I even provided him with pills [for the gonorrhea], and he wouldn't take them." Unable to hide the diagnosis from her mother, Promise lied and said she was having sex, disclosing nothing to her mother about the rape. "I know that I didn't do it, that it's not my fault, that no one deserves this -- I know all that," she says. "But I was the one who was with a 23-year-old. I was the one who went to his house. I was the one who fell asleep on his bed. One of the things was that I was terrified my mother would be, like, 'You did it.'"

Promise left Brentwood High at the end of the school year and transferred to South County Technical High School. For a year-and-a-half, Promise, sexually confused and depressed, masked her pain behind a series of meaningless sexual encounters. "I'm not going to lie to you," she says. "Because of my depression and everything, I had sex with 12 people between '95 and '97. I didn't want to have sex; I didn't care for it. I was doing it more for attention and love."

In May 1997, during the second half of her sophomore year, Promise became violently ill with flulike symptoms. She says, "I was dehydrated, my temperature was high, I couldn't keep anything down and I was losing weight." She was given several tests, but the only one that came up positive was the one for HIV. "I didn't know too much about HIV then -- actually, I didn't know anything," Promise says. "When I found out I was positive, I was thinking, 'Give me my pill, so I can go home.'" She sank into despair as the doctors tried to explain what being HIV-positive meant: "I didn't take it lightly. I was, like, 'I don't want to die.'" She immediately notified her previous sex partners, none of whom had contracted the disease. The only one she couldn't locate was the man she says raped her. Promise suspects it was his use of a lambskin condom, effective only against pregnancy and not HIV, that led to her infection.

Four months later, having used her summer to learn as much as she could about the disease, Promise, now a junior, decided to give a presentation on HIV to her biology class. Many of the students, she remembers, were giggling and saying, "It's a gay disease."

"I showed them a videotape, and they were still laughing and making fun of people who have HIV, so I turned it off and said, 'Look, it can happen. If it happened to me, it can happen to you.'" Her classmates were speechless. Says Susan Gummersbach, Promise's biology teacher, "The jaws just went down. They [the students] said, 'Oh, you're joking.' That was their first reaction. Some kids would no longer talk to her. They were angry; they felt they had been exposed to HIV, which was not true."

With the gossip mill working overtime, everyone knew by the end of the day. High school would never be the same. Throughout the next two years, rumors about her alleged promiscuity spread. Promise was subjected to "people spitting, people cussing me out, people trying to hit me, piss on me."

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