Still Room for Hope

A Survivor's Story of Sexual Assault, Forgiveness, and Freedom


By Alisa Kaplan

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“These were boys we knew, boys we trusted. ‘They wouldn’t do that to you,’ she insisted. I wanted to believe her. But I couldn’t…”

On July 6, 2002, sixteen-year-old Alisa Kaplan woke, sick and disoriented, in the passenger seat of her car. She’d been at a party the night before, but there was a big blank hole where her own memories of the night should have been. So what happened at that party? Why couldn’t she remember anything about the night before?

As the appalling, terrifying details of that night began to surface, it ignited a media frenzy and a storm of controversy with Alisa trapped at the center: A straight-laced, straight-A student, sexually assaulted by three male friends-all caught on videotape.

Her fight for justice pitted her against some of Southern California’s most powerful families, and made her the target of a devastating smear campaign. Despite the evidence, the corruption and humiliation of her first trial resulted in a hung jury, and sent her spiraling into the oblivion of meth addiction.

But on the threshold of her last chance and darkest moment, Alisa discovered: There was still room for hope.

Now she recounts her gripping story of transforming from victim to survivor: How she got a second chance, broke her silence, and found faith and grace in God on her way to rebuilding a stronger, meaningful life.

Courageous and heartbreaking, Alisa’s hope-filled account demonstrates that redemption is always possible, and forgiveness can transform anyone.


Author’s Note

This is my story. I have told it using court documents, media reports, my family’s records, and my own memories and journals. Any inaccuracies are unintentional.

Because of the nature of the story, and to protect the privacy of others, I have changed some of the names and identifying details.

Some readers may find the graphic nature of the material disturbing, and survivors of sexual assault or abuse may find some scenes emotionally triggering. Please take care of yourself.

There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.

—Nelson Mandela


“One week, you hear me? Seven days.”

The cop’s experienced, weary glance took in everything about me: the sunken eyes surrounded by bruise-colored flesh, the filthy T-shirt hanging off my emaciated frame, the infected scabs marring my face, bare arms, and legs.

Still, he was giving me a second chance.

I was nineteen years old and addicted to methamphetamine. My desperate parents had kicked me out of my childhood home, and I was staying with my abusive boyfriend, Russell, in a one-bedroom drug house with ten other people, including three young kids. The cops had come to arrest Russell on an outstanding warrant for stealing cars, and since I was clearly under the influence in a house full of drugs, they were going to take me in, too. But then the cop rifling through my purse found something that gave him pause: a list of the overcrowded drug rehab centers I’d been calling for weeks, begging for a bed.

At the time, I was still a Jane Doe, the anonymous victim at the center of one of the most notorious rape cases in California history—the event that had sent my life off the rails. But just as that cop had no idea of the trauma that had brought me to that meth house (or any inkling that I was the girl he’d heard about everywhere, from CNN to 20/20 to the pages of LA Weekly), neither would he recognize me today: a healthy, powerful woman, joyful in my recovery and confident in God’s love.

That police raid was one of the first moments where I saw a glimmer of hope for my own future, so that is where I chose to begin this story. It was a lesson for me that even in the very darkest moments of our lives, there is always—always—room for hope.


A meth house isn’t where you’d expect to find a former straight-A student, color guard captain, and cross-country star from a solid, loving, intact family. It wasn’t where I expected to find myself, either. But in July 2002, when I was sixteen years old, my life turned upside down.

One night that summer, I was raped. I use the word rape, although my assailants were not convicted of rape; they were convicted of other sexual assault charges. Still, from an emotional and spiritual perspective, rape remains my experience of what occurred, despite what the jury said. And since this book is an account of how I experienced it, rape is what I will be calling what happened that night. Despite video evidence of the assault, the first trial—an experience that was more traumatic for me than the attack was—ended in a hung jury. I fared better during the second trial, but the four years it took to convict my assailants took a terrible toll on me. By the time the trials were over, I was addicted to meth, alienated from my close-knit family, and living on the streets.

Thankfully, my story doesn’t end there.

In the twelve years that have passed since then, I have gotten clean. I have found the work I am supposed to be doing, work that draws on my own experiences to help other victims become survivors. I have found my faith again, faith that is stronger from my journey through the valley of the shadow of darkness. And I learned to forgive not just my friends who abandoned me, the attorneys who defamed me, and those in the media who publicly humiliated me, but also my assailants—and myself.

Although I would never have asked for what happened to me, I cannot deny that in the long, slow process of recovering, I have become the woman I was meant to be.

I’d never thought about writing a book until I started speaking to other survivors. Unfortunately, there are a lot of us. One in every six women in America will experience sexual assault in their lifetimes. It is estimated that a woman is raped every two minutes in this country—and yet, it is still deeply taboo for us to talk about it. Since I have started telling my story, many women have told me that I have inspired them to speak out, too, to tell their families or partners about what happened to them. More than one woman has told me that my story gave her the courage to finally report her assault, many years afterward.

But I quickly learned that victims of sexual assault weren’t the only survivors seeking me out. In fact, many of the people who had the strongest reactions to my story weren’t victims of violence at all. Instead, they were people who’d lost loved ones to a prolonged cancer battle, people who’d gone through difficult divorces, people who’d lost their homes because of financial misfortune or a natural disaster—all kinds of people living through things they didn’t think they could survive.

The specifics of their stories might have been different from mine, but they were all trauma survivors, and they were looking to me as someone who had made it to the other side for the inspiration they needed to get there themselves.

Every one of us will, at some point in our lives, face a challenge that tests us at our very core. All of us will find ourselves at a point where we simply don’t know if we have the strength to go on. Every one of us needs to know how it will feel to put down the burden of guilt and shame, and to begin to take steps toward forgiving the unforgivable. No matter what we’re going through, we need to know that there is an “after”—that it will, with time, be possible to trust again, to experience hope and happiness.

My intention with this book is to bring hope to everyone who has been to the depths of hell and felt, even for a moment, that they can’t find their way back. Because I know that with a little help, we can all rise and answer whatever challenges life delivers us.

No matter what has happened to you, you are not alone. There is a joyful, glorious, meaningful life out there, one that is filled with light and laughter and love, waiting for you to be ready for it.

This is the path I have walked, and it is the story that I want to tell.

Chapter One

They Wouldn’t Do That to You

Around ten a.m. on July 6, 2002, I woke up in the passenger seat of my own stinking hot car, sick as a dog, disoriented, and covered in vomit. The interior of the car was so hot that I could barely breathe. It felt like I was inhaling fire.

A woman was knocking on the passenger-side window. I had never met her before, but I knew who she was: my boyfriend Brian’s mother. I looked around. I was parked around the corner from Brian’s house. He must have driven my car to his neighborhood before leaving for work. I could remember nothing about how I’d gotten there or the night before.

The woman outside knocked again and gestured for me to come out. I stumbled out of the car and followed her into their house. Brian had told her I was sleeping off a hangover, she told me, but she’d grown concerned when the day started getting hot and she saw that the windows of the car were rolled up.

I was startled by a glimpse of my reflection in a window. Vomit matted my long blond hair, and my face was puffy and blotchy, as if I were still drunk. I looked really rough. Now I could see why she looked so concerned. But I was preoccupied by the big blank hole where my own memories of the night before should have been. I had gone to my friend Seth’s beach house to hang out with him and to see Brian. Another guy, Jared, had been there, too. Why couldn’t I remember anything else?

“You drank way too much last night,” Brian’s mom told me, handing me a glass of water.

“I don’t know,” I said, confused, but trying not to be rude. “I only had a little bit of a drink that Jared made me.”

“Did you smoke weed?” she asked me.

I told her I had, but only a single hit.

She nodded, satisfied. “That’s what happened. The combination of the alcohol and weed knocked you out.”

I agreed with her to be polite, but I could barely form words and getting the glass of water to my mouth was almost more than I could manage. That little bit of booze and weed should not have messed me up as badly as I was messed up that morning.

Brian’s mother made me a piece of toast, to “soak up the alcohol,” and told me again that the combination of the drinking and the drugs had done me in. “You just need to sleep it off,” she said again. I didn’t know her well enough to argue, and I was feeling scarily tired and unwell. After another awkward minute, I decided to drive to my best friend’s house so I could get cleaned up before going home.

Adriana and I were inseparable that year. We’d been introduced by my friend Melaney, someone I’d known since junior high. Melaney and I had gone to different high schools, but we’d started hanging out again only a few months earlier. Melaney’s friends from her new school were different from the athletic, academic-minded kids we’d been friends with before. These kids were richer, better looking. Their houses were bigger, and there was much less adult supervision. They drank and smoked pot. One of them was Adriana, and it was through her that I’d met Brian and Seth.

I have no memory of the drive over to her house. When I think about it now, I realize that it’s a miracle I made it there in one piece. I couldn’t get my bearings. What was wrong with me? Even if I’d gotten completely wasted the night before, it was almost noon; I couldn’t still be drunk. On my way there, I called my mom and told her my girlfriends and I were on our way to Six Flags. As I talked to her, I could hear myself slurring my words. I wasn’t drunk, but my brain was acting like I was.

By the time I got to Adriana’s house, a golf ball–sized lump on my head throbbed painfully. I headed straight for the bathroom. When I pulled down my jeans to pee, my bra fell out. Urinating was so painful and bloody that I called for Adriana from the toilet. I was afraid to wipe myself.

But it was only when I pulled off my shirt to get into the shower and saw the bruises emerging on my neck, shoulders, and back reflected in the mirror that I first thought the word rape.

“I can’t remember anything about last night,” I told Adriana. “I’m pretty sure I had sex with someone without knowing it.” She was having none of it. “You were just really drunk,” she said. People kept saying that—but I knew I’d had only one beer and a single hit of pot before Jared gave me a drink that tasted like pine needles, the last thing I could remember.

“No,” I insisted. “I think something happened.”

These were boys we knew, boys we trusted. “They wouldn’t do that to you,” she insisted.

I wanted to believe her. But I couldn’t escape the growing apprehension that there might have been something in the drink Jared had made for me.

After I got out of the shower, Adriana came in to the bathroom, holding my ringing cell phone. I was shocked to see that the call was from Jared. I took the phone—and here’s what I eventually testified to the jury about what happened next.

“How you feeling?”

“Jared, what happened last night? I can’t remember anything, and I’m really messed up.”

“Why? You sore?” he said, laughing.

His tone sounded light and mocking to me, as if we were sharing a joke, and I felt suddenly sure that whatever had happened at that beach house the night before had been very serious—and very bad.


Growing up, I’d been the good girl with the good grades.

More than anything, I wanted to move to New York to be a journalist. Justin Timberlake aside, I wasn’t all that focused on boys, or even on the ultimate dream of having a family. My fantasies about my future all focused on being successful and respected, a fearless journalist who championed the underdog and shed light on little-understood issues, someone who changed the world.

I was born seven weeks premature, so tiny and sick that the doctors told my parents to say goodbye. But when my father reached into the incubator to touch my hand for the last time, I grabbed onto his finger so hard he thought I’d break it. “I don’t think this little girl is going anywhere just yet,” he told my mom. “She’s a fighter.”

As a little kid, I had always loved to participate—and to win. In fifth grade, I iced my forehead and tricked my mom into letting me go to school with a fever of 103, because I didn’t want to mess up my perfect attendance record. I loved being a Girl Scout and relished the sense of achievement I got from seeing my sash fill with badges, representing all that I’d accomplished and learned, all the challenges I’d met and beaten.

Being a Girl Scout also gave me the opportunity to serve. I volunteered at convalescent homes, cleaned up the local parks, and served as a big sister for the younger scouts, helping to plan their ceremonies and camping trips. I loved feeling useful and helpful.

In junior high school, I got very involved with yearbook, and I spent a couple of weeks every summer refining my skills at yearbook camp. I loved it. Not only were my yearbook responsibilities deadline-oriented, but they allowed me to stretch myself. I loved organizing all the photos and text, writing funny captions, and meticulously laying out each of the pages. My friends Hanna and Mel­aney and I would stay up all night making sure each layout was perfect. Picture the Three Musketeers, only nerdy.

I was also an athlete. In junior high, I joined the color guard and the dance team. I’m a perfectionist and a natural competitor, a trait my teammates loved until the day I was chosen to be captain of the color guard, and then the eye-rolling started: I wouldn’t give them a moment’s rest until they had the routine nailed. In my freshman year of high school, I was on the volleyball and track teams. My sophomore year, I made junior varsity cross-country, which meant training up to ten miles a day.

I loved running. I loved the feeling of running, my mind empty except for the Southern California scenery, my limbs working in perfect synchronicity. Many mornings, my dad would ride his bike alongside me during my long training runs, telling me jokes to keep me going. He and my mom never missed a single one of my races. They’d stand on the sidelines hollering their love and encouragement, often taking a shortcut through the course so they could cheer for me and my friends from multiple spots. When they took me out for burgers and fries afterward, I basked in their support and in their loving pride.

In addition to all of my extracurriculars, I excelled at school. If there was a bonus problem on a test, I did it. If there was an essay I could write for extra credit, I wrote it. When I was ten, my dad told me he’d buy me the car of my dreams for my sixteenth birthday if I got straight A’s all the way through elementary and middle and high school. He figured it was a bet he’d never have to pay, but he didn’t factor my stubbornness into the equation—a little surprising, considering that he’s the one I got it from. But, like me, he’s a man of his word, and on my sixteenth birthday, after six years of great grades my parents sent me on a scavenger hunt that ended behind the wheel of a cobalt-blue Mustang convertible.

That car was a game changer. Not only was I the only one of my friends with a car, but it was a really awesome car. And it wasn’t only my old friends from color guard and Girl Scouts who wanted rides, but the popular kids that Adriana and Melaney were starting to spend their weekends with. They were richer, better dressed, and better looking, but my Mustang was cool enough to catch their attention.

This was a big deal to me. I’d always had a lot of friends. I liked to know everybody. I didn’t hang out exclusively with the kids from yearbook or the volleyball team. Instead, I’d walk through the lunchroom, stopping for a chat with a buddy at every single table.

But having a lot of friends didn’t exactly mean that I was popular. Everybody may have liked me, but being in charge of the yearbook doesn’t make you Queen Bee. In elementary school, I’d worn glasses, and I’d been a little chubby. I spent most of my time trailing after my older brother and his friends, so you’d probably have called my wardrobe tomboyish, if you were being charitable. (I favored long, baggy T-shirts with cute sayings on them.) All of this meant that while I had lots of friends who were boys, they weren’t exactly knocking down the door to date me—not that my parents would have agreed to let me date before I was sixteen.

By junior high, the fashion sense I inherited from my mom, the ultimate girly girl, had started to kick in. (You’ll never see my mom in sloppy sweats and flip-flops. She’ll put a cute top and little heels on, even if she’s just running out to get a quart of milk.) Suddenly I wasn’t leaving the house unless I was wearing a coordinated outfit and had my mascara and lip gloss on.

By the time I got to high school, the seven to ten miles I ran every day to train for cross-country and track had taken care of whatever extra puppy fat I was carrying. And I had that cobalt Mustang. It didn’t take long before I was finding myself invited to parties, the kind where there were no parents but lots of booze. The kinds of boys I had never dreamed would ever pay attention to me were showing off in front of me, teasing me, flirting, asking for my number.

The kids who hung out on Prep Hill were at the absolute top of the pecking order. And they wanted me.

I was completely besotted with my newfound social status and prepared to do anything I had to in order to fit in. I craved attention, and, like many sixteen-year-olds, I wasn’t particularly good at differentiating between the good and the bad kinds of attention. Because I’d spent so much time wrapped up in geeky pursuits like yearbook, I was probably a little naïve, too.

It was precisely because I’d always been such a good kid that my parents felt okay about giving me a lot of freedom. I’d never gotten into serious trouble. The worst thing I’d ever tried to do was to sneak backstage at an NSYNC concert. By nature, my parents are careful, even to the point of being a little overprotective, and they checked up on me regularly. But until that summer between sophomore and junior years, I was always where I’d told them I’d be—usually practicing dance moves with my friends in their bedrooms, hanging out and listening to music in our backyard, or watching movies in the den. So they had no reason not to trust me.

Their own history had quite a bit to do with it, too. My dad had been popular in high school. He’d done his share of partying, and he knew how compelling it could be to hang out with the cool kids. My mom, on the other hand, had been a complete nerd, right up until her senior year. She didn’t drink, and she’d never done an illegal drug in her life. She’d gone from ugly duckling to swan in her senior year, but in her heart she still had the practical, sensible attitude of that ugly duckling. So she was completely unprepared for the transformation I went through.

What surprises me now is how quickly my life changed sophomore year. I got the Mustang in January. At the time, I didn’t drink, but that soon changed. I didn’t smoke pot, either, until the most gorgeous guy I’d ever seen in my life passed me a joint. At the very first unchaperoned house party I attended, two things happened: I got drunk for the first time, and I lost my virginity. I was growing up on overdrive, and I quickly gained a reputation as a party girl.

During the spring of my sophomore year, I met a cocky, wealthy skateboarder called Seth, who introduced me to his friend Brian. Brian was great-looking and known for his gentleness and for being a good guy. I was smitten. We started seeing each other more often, and Brian became my first real boyfriend.

That summer, our family received a terrible shock. My beloved grandpa died, suddenly and without warning. We were in the car on our way to see him when we got the call. He was scheduled to leave that morning for a house he’d bought in Oregon, where he could relax and fish his days away, and we were headed over to send him off with a big celebratory brunch. Then my dad’s cell phone rang: “He’s not moving.” In the time it took us to finish the drive to their house, it was official. My grandpa was dead.

I took it hard. The two of us had always been deeply connected. He had loved to announce loudly in public that I was his favorite granddaughter. Then he’d throw me a wink: We both knew that I was the only female grandkid. Now, Phil Kaplan was not an easy man. He’d grown up in Brooklyn, the son of Austrian Jews who had fled to North America, so poor that when he was a baby, he slept in a dresser drawer. He’d worked hard to pull himself out of poverty and to make a life for himself, and you don’t do that without being smart and tough. So my grandpa didn’t have a lot of patience for weakness or stupidity, or a lot of tact when he was confronting it, but he had a giant soft spot for one person, and that was me. The night he died, I went out with my friends and got drunk.

Two weeks after his death, it was the Fourth of July. A group of my best girlfriends and I went out to Seth’s dad’s beach house. It was the craziest party I’d ever been to, with lots of pot and alcohol. Brian was there, and he introduced me to a new guy, Jared, a friend of Seth’s. I disliked him immediately. When he looked at me, the hackles rose on the back of my neck.

The next night, Seth, Brian, and Jared invited me and my girlfriends to come back to the beach house for another party. At first I said no, because Adriana had been grounded and couldn’t go. I didn’t want to stay home, but I’d already told my parents I was staying at Adriana’s, and her mom wouldn’t let me sleep over. I had nowhere else to go.

Right from the beginning, I had a bad feeling about heading out there. After I’d said I’d go, I got so sick to my stomach that I threw up at work. (I now believe this was God warning me not to go.) But, despite my misgivings, I decided to drive out to the beach house by myself.

It would prove to be the worst decision I’d ever made.


I want to be very clear here: There’s absolutely no excuse for sexual misconduct. If I have my way, everyone who reads this book will have a conversation with the young men in their lives to help them to understand the clear boundaries between right and wrong, the power of the bystander, and the importance of clear, sober, enthusiastic consent before any sexual contact takes place.

That’s what I’d encourage you to tell your sons, and it’s what I’ll tell mine, if I ever have them.

That’s what I’ll tell my daughters, too, if I ever have them. But I won’t stop there.

In an ideal world, nobody would have to guarantee our safety, but we don’t live in an ideal world. In fact, sexual assault and abuse happen all the time. Every year in America, there are more than two hundred thousand sexual assaults, which translates roughly to one every two minutes. Of those, 44 percent of victims are—as I was—under the age of eighteen. And these numbers are highly conservative. According to a 2013 report by the National Research Council, there is increasing reason to suspect that cases of rape and sexual assault are dramatically undercounted.

The only way we will stop rape is if men stop raping. But I believe there are things that women can do to minimize the risks we take. I only wish I’d realized that at sixteen. I should not have gone out to that beach house by myself. Period, end of story. Should I have been able to without worrying that I would be raped? Of course. But it was not safe. I did it because my boyfriend was there and because I thought the other boys there were my friends.

Obviously, I thought wrong.


The morning I woke up in my car outside Brian’s house, I took a long shower at Adriana’s, hoping it would clear my head, but I was still sick as a dog when I got out. I couldn’t seem to get my brain straight. The lump on my head had become truly alarming and had grown to the size of an egg, and no amount of Tylenol would make it stop pulsing with pain. I fell into Adriana’s bed and passed out for another three hours. This was no ordinary hangover; I could barely open my eyes, and I couldn’t remember anything. Later, those symptoms would lead me to believe that I might have been drugged. But at the time, I had no idea what was wrong with me.

When I awoke, Adriana’s mom was there—and she was furious.

She was almost a second mom to me, and I found myself squirming under her scrutiny. She had a million questions: Why was I there? Why was I sleeping in the middle of the afternoon? What had happened to my head? Even without matted vomit in my hair, I still looked incredibly rough. Adriana’s mom accused me of partying all night and then using her home to get cleaned up before going home. “This isn’t a hotel,” she informed me, in no uncertain terms.

It was like I’d woken up in a Twilight Zone


On Sale
Apr 7, 2015
Page Count
304 pages

Alisa Kaplan

About the Author

ALISA KAPLAN is a state-certified sexual assault victim advocate and crisis intervention counselor and volunteers at a rape crisis center in Los Angeles County. She also works for a religious organization and is attending college to obtain her degree in psychology. She still lives in San Bernardino County, California where she was born and raised.

Learn more about this author