First published in The Record, May 25, 2017
A Westwood woman's long road to recovery after rape
Sandi Higgins wore a tight silver dress that sparkled in the stage light. The actor playing her boyfriend, Howell Mayer, asked if she’d like to tour his New York apartment.
“Shall we start in the bedroom?” Mayer said. “If we start in the bedroom, we may end in the bedroom.”
Mayer bent down for a kiss. Higgins allowed him a tiny peck on the lips, but the rest of her body recoiled. She kept her hands pressed to Mayer’s hips, stiffened her arms, and pushed him away.
“OK, let’s try that again,” said Jerry Pettinati, the director of this production of "Chapter Two," a romantic comedy by Neil Simon. “You guys are about to go to bed together. This has got to be a lot more intimate.”
Higgins took a breath. Her character, Jennie Malone, falls in love with George Schneider, played by Mayer. No one in the theater knew Higgins’ secret: This relationship, simulated onstage at the Little Firehouse Theatre in Oradell, is the closest she's come to a romance in a very long time. No one knew that Higgins sometimes wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, or that standing close to a man makes the hair on her neck bristle with terror.
No one knew this was the first time Higgins had kissed anyone since she was raped eight years ago.
“The kissing is hard for me,” said Higgins, 36, of Westwood. “What terrifies me more than anything else in my life? Having a healthy sexual relationship, I guess. Acting is one of those ways where you practice surrender.”
Refusing to be afraid
Every person who survives a rape responds in a different way. For Higgins, the healing path zags from one extreme to the next. Performing in her first play, as a woman who falls in love, is Higgins’ latest step to recover from the rape, which happened inside a compound belonging to the Hare Krishna religious sect in Mumbai, India, in 2009.
Another big step was to email me and suggest I write this column.
That’s because after she was raped, news of the attack was leaked to the Indian media. Much of the coverage was sensationalized. One TV report featured an animated re-creation of the attack, which incorrectly showed Higgins dressed in a crop top and jeans, her midriff exposed, smiling as she welcomed two unknown men into her room.
In fact, Higgins said, she was drugged. She regained consciousness to find herself naked with a man pinning her down.
“I felt like this man wanted to kill me,” she said.
Now she is trusting a man to kiss her onstage, and trusting another man to write her story. For Higgins these acts feel terrifying. And necessary. She is doing the hard emotional work of reclaiming her power as a healthy person who enjoys the full range of experience, including desire and sex.
And she is sharing her story because rape is a crime that gains power in darkness. Victims can heal, and rapists can be stopped, only by the light of our awareness.
“I don’t want to be afraid forever,” Higgins said. “I’ve been raped. How do I not talk about this?”
A life of searching
Higgins was always a seeker. Originally from Ridgewood, her family moved to Old Tappan when she was in middle school, and she attended Northern Valley Regional High School. She studied film at NYU, dropped out after 9/11, and worked for movie directors including Oliver Stone and Sydney Pollack.
She accompanied an Indian boyfriend to India in 2007, and she fell in love with classical Indian music. Higgins decided to make a documentary about it. She returned to India in 2009, attended concerts and interviewed some of the genre’s top artists.
“I felt like this was meant to happen,” she said. “This [documentary] needs to be done, and I am just the vessel.”
Her interviews brought her to Mumbai, where she spent a night at a friend’s house. She woke up covered in bedbug bites. Her friends were members of the Hare Krishna sect, and lived near a Hare Krishna temple compound, which has a guesthouse where members of the sect and their friends can stay. Higgins moved to a room there, with a balcony overlooking the temple.
“You feel like you’re a princess,” Higgins said. “And you’re safe, you think.”
One night, Higgins ordered tea from room service. She drank the tea, and immediately passed out.
She awoke to the sound of someone screaming. Gradually realized the screaming voice was her own. A man was holding her legs down, but she lashed out with her arms.
“One of us is going to die here,” she thought, “and it’s not going to be me.”
The attacker struck her head with something blunt and heavy. Then he fled. Panicked, Higgins called the front desk. When a temple official finally arrived, 45 minutes later, he suggested the attack had been a dream, disregarding the scrapes and bruises all over her body.
Hours later, police officers drove Higgins to a police station, where an officer asked her for a date. Eventually the police drove her to a rural hospital, hours away, with unclean instruments and floors streaked with blood. In such unsanitary conditions, she refused to be tested for rape.
“I was crying hysterically,” she said. “I haven’t cried that deeply, maybe ever.”
Police described her refusal to be tested to journalists, insinuating she had not been raped at all. Determined to identify her attacker, Higgins returned to the temple and demanded to view security camera footage. Monks informed her that all 16 of the temple’s security cameras had failed during the attack.
“There is a scandal here,” Higgins said.
India has a disturbing history of official indifference to rape. Years of protests by rape victims erupted into violent demonstrations in 2012 after a 23-year-old woman was gang-raped by six men on a moving bus in Delhi. Her attackers penetrated her with a metal rod, causing such severe injuries that doctors were forced to remove her intestines.
The woman died 13 days after the attack.
An inquisition by a leading Indian judge blamed the attack, the victim’s death and India’s rape epidemic on the “failure of performance” by government and law enforcement officials at every level. Three months after the attack, the Indian Parliament passed a law increasing penalties for sexual harassment.
The attackers were arrested. On May 5, 2017, India’s supreme court upheld a lower court’s decision sentencing four of the men to death by hanging.
Higgins' ordeal, however, predates all of this. After she was raped, she faced indifference and obstructionism at every turn. She flew home and tried to move on.
“There was still this adrenaline of trying to make my movie,” she said. “This [rape] isn’t going to stop me. I’m stronger than this.”
To hell and back
Back home, Higgins found she needed to talk about the rape, but her family and friends avoided discussing it. Gradually she withdrew. In 2011 she considered suicide.
“I really shut down,” she said.
The road back was circuitous, and it’s not over. In New York City she met a Buddhist lama who seemed to radiate fatherly love. She flew to Colorado to study with him, shaved her head, and changed her name to Utpal Devi, which means Goddess of the Blue Lotus in Sanskrit.
As part of her recovery, she also found the courage to return to India. She traveled back twice, once in 2011 for a meditation retreat and again in 2016 to study yoga.
“I was nervous about things like taking a bus in the middle of the night,” Higgins said. “But I felt like I had guardian angels with me somehow.”
After returning home to Westwood, Higgins auditioned with the Bergen County Players on a lark. She hadn’t read the script beforehand, so she didn’t know until the first rehearsal that it was a romantic comedy in which she must pretend to fall in love. In rehearsal she avoided physical contact required by the script, and her movements seemed awkward.
When she and Mayer, playing her love interest, practiced kissing, Higgins lashed out.
“I had to say, ‘Can you just back off and give me some space?’ ” Higgins said. “That was another moment of healing progression. Even if it’s in the script, I need to be able to say, ‘No, I don’t feel like this right now.’ ”
Pettinati, the director, and her co-stars moved on to other scenes. Privately, they worried the play might fall apart.
“I was not feeling too great about it,” Mayer said. “Then, during the week before we opened, she allowed herself to be more open to the intimacy. And since then it’s been a lot better.”
In the play, Higgins as Jennie Malone marries Mayer's George Schneider after a two-week courtship. After the wedding, George, recently widowed, struggles with intimacy issues and pushes Jennie away.
Higgins, as Jennie, responds with a monologue meant to reassure him, but which evolves into a declaration of her own power.
“I thought that I wasn’t good enough for you. Well, I am. I’m wonderful! I’m nuts about me!” Jennie says. “You want me, then fight for me, because I’m fighting like hell for you.”
The Bergen County Players will give four more performances of "Chapter Two," from June 1 through June 4. Every night, Higgins will hold a man in her arms before an audience of 200 people.
Parts of her mind will revolt in silent terror.
Then she will fight like hell, and kiss him anyway.