*Warning: Contains sensitive content*
Forty years ago, on September 29, 1978, 15-year old Mary Vincent was picked up while hitchhiking by a man named Lawrence Singleton in Berkeley, California. Mary had run away from her home in Las Vegas a few months before, but after becoming homesick was attempting to hitchhike her way back to her family. When Singleton pulled up in an empty white van with a friendly, grandfatherly smile, Mary—despite being warned by her fellow hitchhikers not to go alone—hopped in.
Upon waking up from a long nap in the passenger seat, she realizes that they had been driving in the complete opposite direction than he told her they were headed. She quickly grabs a surveyor stick from behind her seat and demanded that they turn around. He apologizes, said it was an honest mistake, and turns the car around. A few minutes later, Singleton says he needs to relieve himself and pulls the car over. Mary steps out of the car to get a breath of fresh air, and as she was leaning over to tie her shoe, Singleton sneaks up to her and cracks her over the head with a hammer.
What passed in the following hours is truly the image of nightmares. After Singleton brutally beat and raped the teenager, he cut off both of her hands and threw her down a 30-foot canyon in Stanislaus County, California, thinking she was dead. Miraculously, she survived. The next morning, a couple was driving down a nearby highway and spotted Mary stumbling down the road and contacted the police.
One would think that after experiencing such an unspeakably horrible incident, not to mention enduring the never-ending weeks of the trial that followed, young Mary Vincent’s life would be irreversibly destroyed. And for about two decades, she was. “I didn’t smile for 21 years,” she said during an interview for the docuseries I Survived in 1999.
Now, however, she considers herself a survivor and a victim’s advocate. She frequently speaks publicly about the dangers of hitchhiking in hopes of preventing impressionable teenagers from putting themselves in those sorts of dangerous situations. She is happily married with two sons and lives with her family in Las Vegas. She has taken up drawing and hopes to continue her mission of speaking out in defense of victims.
I first heard this story on an episode of the popular true crime podcast, My Favorite Murder. Karen Kilgariff, one of the hosts of the show, had seen Mary’s episode of I Survived and was struck by her resilience and perseverance in light of such a tragic event. So how did Mary, and other survivors, overcome their trauma to live happy and healthy lives? What is post-traumatic stress disorder, and does it affect different people in different ways?
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is defined as “a trauma and stress related disorder that may develop after exposure to an event or ordeal in which death, severe physical harm or violence occurred or was threatened.” The common symptoms of PTSD are depression, substance abuse, and anxiety disorders, and is often accompanied by frequent bad dreams and flashbacks of the traumatic event. The disorder affects about 8 million American adults and is particularly common amongst war veterans.
Treatment for PTSD often includes psychotherapy and medication, but since PTSD affects different people in different ways, a patient’s treatment must be tailored to their own symptoms and severity. A large part of treatment in each case will be educating trauma survivors and their families about how PTSD can express itself and training the survivor to cope with post-traumatic memories without avoiding them or becoming emotionally numb. For many, like with Mary, the road to a happy and healthy life can be a long one, but her story is proof that there is light at the end of the tunnel.