The Lenny Interview: Amanda Nguyen

Nguyen is making sure rape survivors have rights.

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Afterward, there was the hospital: the waiting room and the forms, endless questions, swabbing, testing, examining. When Amanda Nguyen left, she had a new label ("rape survivor") and a few pamphlets. She could have tipped them into the trash on the way out or simply used them as a makeshift coaster on her desk until water rendered them illegible. Instead, she read them thoroughly and noticed a disturbing fact. Her rape kit would be destroyed in six months unless she filed to extend it; when she tried to extend, she found the process to be nearly impossible. As she fought to protect her own rape kit, Nguyen began to learn about the horrific experiences of other rape survivors navigating the criminal-justice system.

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Her experience led her to create Rise, a civil-rights nonprofit working to implement a Sexual Assault Survivors' Bill of Rights on both federal and state levels; in September it finally passed through Congress, and in October it was signed into law. The bill mandates a standardized procedure so that survivors will be informed of their rights — rights that aren't contingent on pursuing legal action. The legislation also provides access to sexual-assault counselors for every survivor and rape-kit testing that's both faster and fairer.

Other survivors keep Nguyen going in the face of horrible Internet trolls, indifferent politicians, and long days. A self-described "pathological optimist," she works a full-time job with Secretary John Kerry at the State Department, runs Rise before and after work (plus on her lunch break), and also happens to be an astronaut in training. In her extremely limited spare time, she builds model rockets.

We spoke while the bill was still pending Senate approval about Nguyen's seemingly endless journey to protect her rape kit, getting Rise off the ground, why survivors don't want to engage with the criminal-justice system, and, of course, going to outer space.

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Alex Ronan: A lot of rape survivors come forward and say that their experience with the criminal-justice system was more damaging or upsetting for them than being raped. How does that idea resonate with you?

Amanda Nguyen: I 100 percent understand what you just described. There's this pressure on survivors to report and seek out justice through the police and court system. For me, how the criminal-justice system treated me was worse than the rape itself. I was met with a system that was broken not only when it comes to accessing resources and information, but the whole thing felt systematically stacked against the survivor. It took an immense amount of effort, time, resources, and re-traumatization to protect my rights. I even had one of my professors from Harvard helping me, and I remember thinking, Oh my God, if this is what I'm going through, what are other survivors dealing with?

AR: Can you give me some examples of what you went through?

AN: After I was raped, I talked to a legal-advocacy center about the process of criminal investigation and prosecution, and they said that this process is extremely time-consuming and that I needed to be prepared for this to occupy two years of my life. I remember I had to hang up the phone. I just cried, thinking, Are you kidding me? My choice is between justice or my professional career?

At the hospital, they gave me a bunch of pamphlets, and one of the pamphlets said that kits are stored at the Massachusetts police lab for six months and "at the end of six months it will be destroyed unless you file an extension request." There's no information given on how to file that extension request.

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AR: So what did you do?

AN: When I tried to find out information about how to preserve my rape kit, I couldn't find anything. I got a lot of conflicting advice, and after a written request, I was finally able to extend it. But that was only the first extension. I had to do it again, and again, and again. I still have to do it!

There have been situations where I called Police Department A, and they said, "Oh, no, your kit isn't with us, it's with Police Department B." I call Police Department B, and Police Department B says, "Oh, no, your kit isn't with us, it should be with Police Department A."

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On the fourth time I had to extend my kit, I called the state lab technician about extending it and she said she didn't know where it was. I was never notified that the kit was removed. Then she emailed saying that my kit was moved to the Cambridge police, who may or may not follow the six-month destruction rule.

AR: That sounds unbearable. It's confusing to me why the police would facilitate so much evidence being either destroyed or not even tested. Why does that happen?

AN: The thing is, other crimes aren't treated this way. With a murder, for example, that evidence is kept forever. One of the people in Rise is this woman, Mary Bittler, whose daughter was raped and murdered. Because it was a murder case, they processed the evidence and they found out that this murderer had raped before. Two of those young women he'd raped went in for rape kits and the police didn't take them seriously. They didn't notify them of their rights or even process their kits. Had they done this, maybe they would have caught the guy before he killed Melissa, Mary's daughter. Their story really makes it so clear why this issue needs to be worked on right now.

AR: So how did Rise start?

AN: It started with an email. I literally emailed everyone I knew telling them my story and why I wanted to do something. The response was enormous. People were like, "Hey, I'm a lawyer, how can I help?" or "I'm a coder, what can I do?" Within two months of sending that email, with the help of state representatives acting as sponsors, we filed the bill in Massachusetts. Two months after that other states asked us for the bill. Then a month later, we found ourselves in the halls of the United States Congress, where the bill passed unanimously in the Senate.

AR: That's incredible.

AN: And we did it in the most politically hostile Congress in United States history! Everything we're proposing exists somewhere in the United States; it's just not fair that justice depends on geography. We wanted to get this passed, so we made sure that the rights we were suggesting were noncontroversial and supported by key entities in the state, like advocacy groups, survivors, law enforcement, and even innocence groups.

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AR: What's an example of something that would be "controversial" in this regard?

AN: Emergency contraception.

AR: So you couldn't put anything about emergency contraception in the bill?

AN: No, and that was really sad.

AR: I wanted to talk about the survivors who choose not to prosecute or engage with the criminal-justice system. As we know, there's a whole swath of people in this country who routinely have their rights violated by the police. The courts can be just as bad, as exemplified by that recent case where a woman who'd been raped was imprisoned because the prosecutors were worried she wouldn't show up to testify. Does this law protect those survivors' rights?

AN: I completely understand why people would be hesitant or distrustful of a system that is rigged against them. Reporting is a very personal decision. All I'm trying to do with this is to make the first step fair. As it stands, survivors are not notified of what their rights are.

One of the most horrible cases that we heard was a survivor going to a hospital and the hospital not knowing that in that state you have the right to be admitted without reporting. That hospital turned this survivor away and said, "No, you have to go to the police and make an official charge first." The survivor was like, "Fine, I want to do that, but evidence is very time sensitive." GHB, the date-rape drug, runs out of your system in eleven hours. By the time this woman reported and was admitted to the ER and got the toxicology test, that toxicology report came back clear because it was delayed. She didn't have any evidence. The criminal-justice system failed her. But just notifying her of her rights would have changed things, both at the hospital and with the police.

AR: I really appreciate that the Survivors' Bill of Rights isn't contingent on whether someone wants to report or not. That feels like such an important aspect to note. It's not mentioned in the bill, but it seems to protect survivors' abilities to change their minds. You may not want to prosecute or pursue justice through the courts, but if down the line you decide you do, at least your evidence isn't in the garbage.

AN: Exactly. And it's worth noting that some of our biggest supporters are those advocating for the wrongly convicted. In Massachusetts, one of our champions was the former executive director of the Innocence Project. This is meant to be fair for everyone, and protecting evidence is a crucial step in that.

AR: What's covered in the Survivors' Bill of Rights seems so simple, but you've mentioned it's been really difficult to get it passed. What's the hardest part?

AN: Getting politicians to care. But I'm a pathological optimist, so I just keep trying. We're trying to get this passed on the federal level, but also in all 50 states. A few weeks ago, I booked a ticket to fly out to Massachusetts because there was a chance that the bill would be voted on in the House of Representatives in the Massachusetts State House.

I was at the airport, and our policy advisers texted me saying, "Sorry, Amanda. The Speaker is not bringing it up for a vote. There are six other bills that are trying to get off of the floor, and yours is not one of them." I literally had to go into the bathroom at the airport and cry because I just thought to myself, Why should I even go? Why would I watch my own civil rights be slaughtered on the floor of the House? I reached out to my team and they said, "Just show up and be present, because if they actually don't vote on it, let them see your face as they walk out on the floor."

For fourteen hours on that Sunday, the Massachusetts Rise team and I went door to door. We ran around the State House talking to everybody who was willing to talk. We walked in like, "Hi, my name is blank, and I want to talk to you about this bill that really means a lot to me. It's about rape survivors, and I am a rape survivor." People would listen. For fourteen hours straight we did that, and at the end the Speaker agreed to bring it up. That bill was passed unanimously through the House.

AR: Wow. I imagine it's really rewarding to do what you're doing, but is there a personal toll for you in getting up every day and having to talk about rape?

AN: When I see these articles and I see my face and I see the word rape right next to it, I still get a jolt inside me. It's not a happy jolt, I can say that. I don't read the comments on anything, but one day when I was having a really hard time, someone on the Rise team found all the comments survivors had written and he printed them all out and he taped them to the walls of my apartment. It filled my entire apartment. He ran out of space, and it went from ceiling to floor. That's why at the end of the day when it gets really tough, I keep going.

AR: It seems like what you're doing as the CEO of Rise is maybe three or four full-time jobs, at least. I was really surprised to learn that you have a whole other job, as deputy White House liaison, and as if that weren't enough, you're also an astronaut in training? That's wild.

AN: I had worked at NASA before joining the State Department. Some of my astronaut mentors really encouraged me to become an astronaut candidate. When I told them I was doing Rise, they were very supportive and said that space would always be there for me. I want to be a mission specialist. So hopefully they don't go to Mars too soon. I also want to discover an exoplanet.

AR: It would be so cool for you to go up to space and see our tiny planet and find the United States and know that you had created something that had impacted the whole country.

AN: I really love that you said that. There's this phenomenon called the overview effect. It's this cognitive shift that many astronauts go through when they see Earth for the first time from space. They describe it as feeling this overwhelming sense of humanity. In space you see that we're all in this together. Astronauts leave the Earth as technicians, but they come back as humanitarians.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Alex Ronan is a writer living in Berlin.

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