The Phyllis Cottle Story
In this podcast, journalist Carol Costello revisits the first big assignment she covered as a 22-year-old, novice reporter: Phyllis Cottles’ brutal attack. Psychologists call them “Triumphant Survivors,” but Phyllis Cottle was more than a survivor, she used this crime to better herself and the world around her.
What is There to Live For?
Phyllis receives a grave medical update, and begins to question her very existence. As she searches for a way out of the darkness, the media looks for her. And at the urging of her boss, Phyllis decides to take the narrative into her own hands.
Editor's Note: Some of the following insights are thanks to an article written by Stuart Warner, a former columnist at the Akron Beacon Journal.
You know, if you believe in God or whatever it is, you think, you hear people say, "Well, everything happens for a reason. We don't know what the reason is." I mean, she could've just stayed in that car and said, "Okay, I'm done." Right? Or whatever. Or there’s probably a dozen times she could have given up.
That’s Mark Williamson, the anchor at TV23 back in the day. We talked a lot about Phyllis’ courage in the newsroom. All of Akron did.
A lot of people I interviewed at the time told me they would rather have died in that car. How, they said, could anyone want to go on with their lives after nearly everything was taken away?
It forced a lot of people – including me – to examine our strength.
Could we have gotten out of that car?
And if we had, what would we do with our lives?
I’m Carol Costello. This is Blind Rage, Episode 9: What is There to Live For?
Six weeks had passed since the attack. Akron police made an arrest thanks, in large part, to Phyllis.
She had cooperated in every way to get a brutal man off the streets. But it wasn’t enough.
Throughout her ordeal - Phyllis had always held out hope her sight would return. Doctors told her there was a chance. By now she should have been, in her words, “getting something, some light, some movement…”
But there was…nothing. Only darkness.
Her last visit to the doctor had sealed her fate. In a voice choked with emotion, the physician told her, “Your optic nerves have paled.”
Phyllis knew what that meant: the knife had severed her optic nerves, the pathways that transmit all visual signals from the eye to brain. The blindness would be permanent. There could be no transplants, nothing that could help recover her sight.
Her family had long been worried. Here’s Phyllis:
I really think that maybe they were concerned about my mental status because they knew the kind of person I was, and for me to lose my sight was probably, at the time, the worst thing that could have happened to me because I was such a visual person, loving photography and just loving to see things, and…
And your gardening.
Yeah, everything. Everything I did was visual.
Phyllis would never again see her father, her children; watch as her bowling ball flew down the alley. She would never see her trophies, her paintings, or the afghan she had knitted to keep her family warm.
She would never read a newspaper or book, or drive her daughters through West Virginia to marvel at the dangerous beauty of Mountain Laurel.
As Phyllis told The Akron Beacon Journal’s Stuart Warner, “I hit the skids. I may not have had much, but I loved what I did. I didn’t want to give it up. The thought of not being able to see my children, my first grandchild…it was too much.”
So one night - Phyllis sat alone in her bedroom. And sobbed. She cried so hard and so long, her tears soaked her hair, her nightgown.
She had led police to her alleged attacker against extraordinary odds.
She had played the courageous, angry survivor, then the stoic victim, who put up a sort of shield so she could tell herself, “This didn’t really hurt me.” But it did hurt.
She was afraid to step into her own backyard.
What did she have to live for? Even before this awful thing happened to her, she had wondered about her life’s path. A dead-end job. She had to live with her dad. And her mom? Her mom had disappeared – they had declared her legally dead.
There was nothing out there for her now. She would just be a burden.
Phyllis got up and groped her way to the bathroom.
Doctors had prescribed her plenty of pain pills and anti-anxiety meds. If she swallowed them all, all the guilt of being a burden, the pain of being forever blind, her loss of independence – would end.
Phyllis’ daughter, Dianne.
She went into the bathroom and she just started crying uncontrollably. Because she was crying she was trembling and she was just so upset, she dropped the pills on the floor and she's like, "Oh great.”
Phyllis had never been religious, so it never occurred to her to pray.
God had not helped her escape her attacker. He sent no angels to rescue her.
Blind Rage had saved her, not God.
Phyllis crawled around on the bathroom floor and felt for the pills that would end her life.
And then she felt something. It touched her shoulder. It was so gentle, it did not startle her. It did not make her feel afraid.
It must be, she thought – it had to be – God.
All of a sudden she felt a very calming touch on her shoulder and she didn't really know who it was and she truly believes it was God who said to her, "Don't do this. You're going to be okay. Just take a deep breath, go back to your chair." He goes, "You're going to have your bad days, just go back to your chair, just relax."
Although she was comforted, Phyllis did not instantly obey that command.
If this really was God she wanted something more from Him.
As she told the Akron Beacon Journal, “I need to know you’re there when I’m down. I need your strength. I need you to open those doors and guide me down the right path.”
Phyllis waited for an answer – none came.
“If you heard me,” she said, “and I’m still not sure I believe in you – give me a sign.”
And then it came. The warmth spread though her body - it dried her hair and her nightgown.
She described it this way, “I felt a delicious warmth spread through me like I’ve never felt before.”
She has a mystical experience of the Lord.
Larry Vuillemin, is a prominent attorney in Akron. He would become one of Phyllis’ lawyers – and her confidant.
And I think there are more experiences of that that people have than they're willing to talk about because it's like, "Oh, you're weird." You know how people are with religion and all that stuff…
I admit it - when I first heard of Phyllis’ “mystical experience” I thought, “How beautiful.” But I can’t say I believed it.
That’s why I sought out Larry. I wanted to understand.
Back in the ‘80s, Larry Vuillemin was a star lawyer and city councilman. He was larger-than-life. Aggressive. And the fact that he looked like Tom Selleck didn’t hurt.
Reporters loved to gossip about Larry, but the stories reached fever pitch when Larry collapsed in the courtroom right in the middle of the proceedings.
Phyll, March 20 1984, she's victimized. Larry suffers a stroke in a courtroom on December 13th 1984. So 1984 is a big year for both of us. At the time that I meet with her, we are both in recovery in some kind of way. And I don't want to compare my circumstance to hers, certainly there is no comparison there, but I can say, pretty honestly, that we were both in recovery at the time.
Larry also regretted how he had lived his life. He felt he was selfish, unloving, and a lawyer whose only goal was winning.
As he lay on the floor of that courtroom – dying – he felt a presence just like Phyllis had.
I had a mystical moment myself when I was heaped on the floor, and I just heard the Lord saying, "Be patient, move slowly."
You really heard those words?
I heard those internally. Be patient, move slowly. Get in the moment.
And he obeyed that voice. He got “into the moment,” and then, beyond.
After I had this spiritual awakening, I thought, what do I do with this? I decided I was going to re-enter my profession with a new sense of meaning, purpose, with a new sense of vocation, and with a new sense of what this profession is all about. It's about relationships. It's about service. It's not all about me. It's about them. It's about others realizing the best in themselves.
And I think that Phyll was experiencing God's love in her life. It unleashed a whole lot of love in her, with the gifts that she had been given.
That she didn't know she had.
That she didn't know she had.
As that “delicious warmth” spread through Phyllis, she decided to live. She flushed the pills down the toilet.
And it hit her. The gifts that God had given her.
Courage. Strength. Love.
“I’m not afraid of challenges,” she said. “I want to put Samuel Herring in jail for the rest of his life, then I want to get on with mine.”
As Phyllis searched for a way out of the darkness, the media searched for her.
They found out that she went to my grandmother's house to convalesce. And here they came with their trucks and their TV cameras. And oh my gosh, it was a hot mess.
Reporters called the house constantly. They camped outside 24/7.
They were climbing in the bushes and trying to look in the windows. And I finally, being the sarcastic one and not the one being afraid to voice my opinion, I opened the door and told everybody to please get out of the effing bushes and to go home and she will make a statement when she's ready.
Let’s just say it wasn’t the media’s finest hour…
Bad news sells, we all know that. And I think they just wanted to get a picture of her. We've all done it, going down the highway, we look at an accident. You know, train wrecks we’re on the news. Whatever. And I think that that's what they were after. Unfortunately. I think they kind of went overboard in getting their story, they also wanted the graphic picture.
I’m not going to make excuses. That kind of behavior is clearly wrong. For what it’s worth, I never hid in the bushes or camped out at any house where Phyllis was. I didn’t have the stomach for it. I still don’t.
This is not an ego issue - I’m not saying I’m better than anyone else. I’m not. Approaching someone who’s been traumatized is…complicated.
And I, too, was tested back then.
My boss at WAKR urged me to find Phyllis Cottle. “Call the hospital,” he said. “See if she wants to talk.”
I was horrified. I couldn’t even talk about my own trauma, let alone approach someone who suffered so much worse than I had.
I stuttered around for a bit – and finally said, “I can’t do it. She’s hurt. It just happened.”
I still wonder if I was right to refuse my boss. If my own past was getting in the way of my objective ability to report the news.
Emotional stories are powerful. They draw viewers in. They persuade them to care about an important story that happens miles away. And when viewers care, governments and police are often forced to act.
Sometimes survivors want to talk – need to talk. To share their story. To warn others.
Stuart Warner worked at the Akron Beacon Journal – and went on to become an editor at the Phoenix New Times. He now teaches.
I do try to teach students now what does the story mean? What is it really about? And what does it say about us? And with her story, it was really about... It wasn't about this attack and violence. It was about courage.
Yes. Courage. That does define Phyllis Cottle and her story.
Maybe that’s what she realized about herself when she felt that warm touch on her shoulder.
Because as she listened to the reporters outside of her mother-in-law’s house, and the constant ringing of the telephone, she realized she had the courage to tame the beast.
She was an office manager, who liked order in her shop. And she’d had enough.
She was not going to have it. She had to rein everybody in. Like, “Okay, I get that you guys have a job, but we need to do this this and this so we can accomplish what we're all out to get. So this is what we're going to do.”
And because she was able to control it, it became very organized. And then at that point, boy, the wheels really started spinning. People got their stories, the police were able to do their thing, and it was amazing to see everybody become organized. Everybody had their detail, everybody had their job. And she was like, “Oh thank goodness.”
Phyllis decided to use the media for her own ends to help put this guy behind bars.
She decided to go public. Full face. Name. Everything.
I wasn't going to talk to the media at all, but it was Jim Hasler, my employer, he said, "I feel you should talk to them." And he said, "Some good might come of it." He says, "I think you really need to talk to them."
Back in the ‘80s, women just didn't talk about their rapes. Yet, here was Phyllis in the paper and on TV. Here’s Phyllis’ granddaughter, Drew:
She was ahead of her time. She was not one to sit back and be quiet.
The reason most women didn't speak up, and still don't speak up often, is because they're ashamed of what happened to them. And they blamed themselves for their attacks.
She was not ashamed at all. She looked at it as she was a woman at her job, hard worker, she was doing nothing to antagonize this guy. He came up and said, "Oh, I see you're closing." And she goes, "Yeah, we're closing for the day." Nice, cordial, never gave him a reason to get angry. And she turned and, that quick, it happened. So, she goes, "I have nothing to be ashamed of. I didn't do anything wrong. He is the one that has the problem." And she had no qualms about telling somebody, “don't be ashamed.”
What in her enabled her to do that, because so many women…
Honestly, I think it's because she has three girls.
Yeah, amen to that.
She had three girls and she needed to let everybody know that, you know what? Speak up!
I watched Phyllis’ interview on a competing station in my own newsroom. Yep, WAKR/TV23 got scooped – because I got scooped.
There was Phyllis. Remember: I was 22, Phyllis was 44. And to me, she looked like a cool mom. Her face was a little swollen, her eyes closed.
Here’s Mark Williamson:
…the first video I saw of her, I thought, "Whoa, that woman just had her..." I mean, everything else that had happened, you focused on her face, because her eyes... I'd never seen anybody that looked like that. But you might've forgotten the other trauma that she went through, I mean, being locked in a car that's set on fire. All that. But when you looked at her face, it was almost distracting, and she spoke with such dignity, it was like, "Wow, this woman just came out of that and she sounds pretty clear. She's not angry. She's not even overly emotional, though I would give her license to be that way."
Phyllis would soon agree to other interviews – several appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal.
One headline screamed, “A Savage Attack, A Chilling Story.”
The article includes this quote: “I couldn’t believe it was happening in broad daylight,” she said. “It was like everybody vanished on the face of the earth. It was just him and me. I decided to fight.”
Phyllis’ granddaughter, Drew.
She was like, "No no no, I'll give you the story, but you're going to tell it my way." And that's just who she was. So then when people realized, well we can get a story, but it's going to be spun this way, that's what helped her in the long run. Because she is spun as the strong woman that she is.
Professionally I walked on eggshells for weeks. I feared I would be fired because I got beat on the biggest story of my young career. I did not – like I said I had a great boss in Larry States.
Personally, I was…gobsmacked. Inspired.
Phyllis helped me realize that I wasn’t to blame for what happened to me in college.
It. Was. Not. My. Fault.
And I wasn’t the only one.
Phyllis told me her dad liked to bring her to Burger Chef after she lost her sight. He didn’t trust her in the kitchen. One day, as they stood in line – a woman walked up to her. Here’s Phyllis:
Dad and I are standing in line and some woman comes up to me and she just kind of reached out and took my hand and she said, "I just wish you all the luck in the world.’ She said, “I know who you are. I just wish you all the luck in the world." And I said, "Thank you."
Anyway, she had been born and raised in Germany and had been raped by German soldiers when she was like 9 years old and had never told anybody. And she said, "I told my son." And then another time dad and I went down there and she came up to me and she gave me a great big hug. She said, "I told my mother."
And I didn't understand it at the time, but then later I realized it was the fact that I was just so vocal, and I was giving women courage. "If she can do it, I can do it."
Phyllis Cottle had become a star. A superhero. And one badass woman.
Next week, Episode 10: THE THREE-RING TRIAL
And I told my mom this. I said, "I know you need us to be there. But I'm going to tell you right now, in all honesty, you don't want me to be there." And she says, "Why?" And I said, "Because I will kill him as sure as he's sitting at the table, and I will go to prison."
And she said - kind of laughed – and she said, "Well then, I think it's best that you stay home."