Community Papers

Heart of our city: Prince Rupert's Marlene Swift proves she's a survivor

Marlene Swift is a survivor. - Martina Perry photo
Marlene Swift is a survivor.
— image credit: Martina Perry photo

In fear he would return, Marlene Swift crawled to the ditch and hid herself from the road. When she heard the sounds of trucks approaching she tried to wave them down for help; they didn't stop.

Finally a vehicle pulled over. She pleaded, "please drive me to the RCMP, I've been raped".

Despite struggling with significant traumas and years of addiction, Marlene conquered her demons and now uses her past to help others.

"We are all human beings with our own story ... I want to encourage all victims you can rise above the tragedy and face life from a different perspective," she said.

The eldest of five children, Marlene was born on Feb. 29, 1948 and was put under the care of her grandparents.

"Alcohol was predominant in our home, especially in the early years," she remembers.

"I did not look forward to Christmas or any special holiday. I was constantly in fear of consumption of alcohol by adults. It meant I would be subjected to sexual acts by an older person and touched in inappropriate ways," Marlene said, adding this happened from when she was four-years-old to 14.

"There were so many other drinking episodes and violence in the home. That was absolutely frightening."

As a teenager, Marlene had a lot of pent up anger which was intensified when she was told who she thought was her older sister was actually her mother.

"I hated her. I felt betrayed, abandoned and left to face sexual acts that were inflicted on me. I felt she didn't love me enough to raise me herself, that there was something wrong with me as a child," she said.

"Little did I realize she had problems of her own ... she died at 42, due to heart complications after surgery. My biggest regret was I did not call her mom during her living years. I know this broke her heart."

At 16, Marlene had her first taste of alcohol. Around this time she met and married her first of three husbands, giving birth to her daughter when she was 18.

While they tried to keep their marriage intact, the pair eventually separated and divorced. Marlene said it was then her drinking started to spiral out of control.

While living in Vancouver on her 21st birthday, Marlene tried hashish, which eventually led to marijuana and cocaine use.

After returning to Prince Rupert, Marlene and a partner began dealing drugs. While alcohol was always her drug of choice, Marlene says she was also using and had tried everything aside from heroin and magic mushrooms.

"I often wonder just how many lives I was responsible for putting in the grave or how many children's lives were affected by absentee parents," she said.

While she quit dealing, the partying continued when Marlene was hired as a dispatcher for a cab company. Eventually she got her licence and drove a taxi part-time.

Physical violence was something Marlene dealt with in many relationships following her marriage, with one fight leading to Marlene using a knife.

"I was attacked and reacted. I was charged with attempted murder. The case was declared self-defence and I was acquitted," she said, adding she gave birth to her son while in this relationship.

"The children had to endure the alcoholism and witness the ongoing violence in the home."

Marlene remarried in 1983, with someone she knew was addicted to heroin. This intensified her drinking, giving her an excuse to indulge.

That same year, Marlene's life almost ended. On an early November morning, Marlene was driving a taxi when she picked up a young man who wanted to go to Port Edward.

"Suddenly the young man pulled a knife. He looked like the devil himself. I will never forget those piercing eyes. My body began to vibrate as he said 'turn around and go to Terrace. Do as I say or I'll slit your throat'," Marlene recalled.

Marlene drove until she was told to pull off the highway down a side road where she was dragged out of the cab and raped.

"I tried a couple of times to grab the knife. He pierced it to my throat and said 'do as I say and I'll let you live'," she said, adding visions of her family were running through her head.

After sexually assaulting her, the man took off in the cab and left Marlene.

When she arrived at the RCMP detachment, an officer took her statement and brought her to the hospital.

"I felt humiliated and degraded as the doctor and nurses examined me. While in the examining room I overheard someone say, 'oh, it's another indian'," she said.

Once Marlene was released, she immediately picked up alcohol from a bootlegger. Her doctor had also prescribed her pills, and for the next nine-and-a-half months Marlene was a recluse.

"I was frightened to answer the phone or the door. My condition put my family and friends though a living hell as they watched me deteriorate," she said.

The RCMP found the suspect, and after Marlene picked him out of a lineup, he fled the area. It wasn't until September 1984 that the trial took place.

"I did not want to be there," she said. "While waiting to be called into the courtroom, this sweet lady in a Salvation Army uniform came running up the stairs. She hugged me and said, 'you can do this Marlene. You can put a stop to this man so no other woman needs to go through this with him'."

The rapist was charged, and was put in jail for five years. Following the trail, Marlene turned her life around. A few days prior she had called the 12 Step Line in a drunken stupor, with her daughter offering to take her to a 12 Step meeting awhile later; the first of many.

Marlene started regularly attending church and became involved wherever she could.

After three years of sobriety, Marlene ended her marriage with her husband, who continued to drink and use heroin.

"This was the hardest decision of my life because I loved him dearly. He left and moved to Vancouver late spring of '87. He died there in a rooming house in May 1989. My son and I were absolutely devastated," she said.

Her experiences with addiction motivated her to become an addictions counsellor for a Salvation Army program from 1989 until 1996 when funding was cut. In the late '90s she became part of North Coast Victim Services.

Marlene said it was very difficult for her to help with sexual assault cases in the beginning. She recalls the first time she was able to help a sexual assault victim, who asked her to come up to the stand with her and hold her hand the whole time.

"After that particular case, it seemed to get easier as time progressed," she said.

Fifteen years later Marlene is still with victim services, becoming project manager in 2002.

"I enjoy my job and the officers I work with ... we're all doing our part to make Prince Rupert a better place," Marlene said.

"It's more than just a job for me."

She also remains active in her church and volunteers whenever she can. Marlene is also pleased to say she will celebrate 30 years of alcohol and drug abstinence in September, without a relapse.

Marlene said a comment that her son made early in her sobriety gave her the courage to keep going. Returning home from Terrace, her son, who was 13 at the time, reflected on their life in comparison to his stepfather.

"He said 'we are so lucky. We have a roof over our head, a nice bed to sleep in, food in the house'. The next part brought tears to my eyes. He said 'and we have each other and love each other. What else could we ask for?'" Marlene remembers.

"He said his stepdad was living on skid row and didn't know where his next meal was coming from. He said we're rich to compared to people like that."

In 2008, her commitment to sobriety earned her a Courage to Come Back Award from the Coast Mental Health Foundation.

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.